Paul Brown – MHI founder – on why every city needs a backyard
International in name and international by practice – we caught up with Paul Brown – founder and MD of MHI to talk Heathrow, Bristol and going global.
Can you tell readers about your background?
“I came to Bristol after university and following a couple of jobs, I set up a mailing house; and from there direct mail and magazine distribution morphed into a global business.
“By 1996 we’d become a specialist in international mail. We work for UK publishers and top advertising agencies in the South West and across the UK, but a large bulk of what we do is exporting materials – whether that is magazines, direct mail, sampling programmes or e-commerce.”
Have you seen a swing back to people using direct mail?
“Firewalls and spam filters can block emails; and often as a business owner you open your phone and you delete the ones that aren’t from your clients. So does the marketing message still get across?
“If direct mail is targeted, relevant and the right data has been applied it can have a big impact. There is also a swing back because paper is recycled. Every email sits on a server and it costs energy to power that server. The carbon capture of paper is less than an email, and with advancements in technology, it is becoming more cost effective and sustainable.
“Don’t get me wrong, electronic transfer has revolutionised our industry, but printed has a place. If the offer is valid and interesting they will read it.”
MHI now employs over 80 people and is well-established – what has been your biggest challenge?
“I would say changing markets; but we have constantly invested in technology and people to ensure that we have stayed ahead of the curve. But you can never predict what the client or climate is going to want next, and you have to be adaptable and listening out for it.
“Currency fluctuation has also been an issue, and most businesses will tell you they like stability. For us to be able to borrow money and invest in technology at a sustainable borrowing rate, has had a real impact on this business.”
You have become part of the campaign supporting the Heathrow expansion – why?
“I am passionate about business in the South West and about creating jobs here; because most of our competitors base themselves near Heathrow.
“This airport has the infrastructure to deal with cargo, and airports are not just about going on holiday. Heathrow best serves our region and the midlands in this respect and that’s why I became involved with the initiative.
“It’s a contentious issue, and some people say we shouldn’t fly as much material as we do. But if you want the UK to be relevant in the international e-commerce market, people want it now. If we want to grow and create jobs in Bristol you need a conduit to deliver the products you are selling to the people buying them.
“We need to be the best we can be, because the next competitor isn’t Gatwick, it is Schiphol or other airports around the world.
“Where will we be if British exports have to go through the channel tunnel but can’t get to Schiphol? If we say we want to expand runways in Central Europe, then how do British exporters get their products around the world? And then why shouldn’t businesses go and set up outside of the UK and re-locate to Schiphol?”
Do you think it will go ahead?
“I sincerely hope so and it will be a very selfish political decision made by politicians who have constituencies – and a lot of property wealth underneath the flight path – if it doesn’t. I have got involved in this campaign because I am passionate about it – I am not being paid to do this; and it is a shame that a couple of people have suggested this is the case.”
How has being in this region served you?
“Bristol is a fantastic city but it’s not just about people who write apps and software. Those are vital to the intellectual offering – and we have two great universities here and a very intelligent, cosmopolitan culture.
“But we also have very hardworking people in more industrial roles and we shouldn’t forget that; because if all Bristol is about is the Temple Quarter Enterprise Zone and white-collar jobs, it is not taking into account the whole of Bristol.
“Businesses are symbiotic and reliant on everybody going together in the same direction. The challenge we have is that all the focus is about creating the next five thousand white-collar jobs – and we want this – but let’s not forget the high-quality industrial jobs.”
What is the solution?
“Well, a shift in focus to create both types of jobs. Industrial workers shouldn’t be banished to Emerson’s Green and Avonmouth – they should be able to cycle and walk to work from St Annes or Brislington.
“Without them, the city won’t function. We need a backyard – every city needs a backyard – and the feeder road area is Bristol’s version. If we turn this into flats and coffee shops where do the people who live in Lawrence Hill go to work?”
What was here on this site before MHI?
“This was a derelict building. We took a disused factory and office stock and invested blood, sweat, tears and cash to make this a pleasant and safe business.
“This was a no-go area, but now it’s thriving. And it’s about businesses like ours not accepting that it has to be that way.”
You travel all over the world – what is your favourite place?
“I love Boston (USA) and Hong Kong. Hong Kong is a place you go to see what might happen next. Despite the long flight, I always come back with more ideas than I left with.”