Friday, 5 March 2021
Meet Andrea Gray, the MD of PPL PRS who's breaking the mould
Music licensing company PPL PRS has become one of the fastest-growing employers in Leicester since arriving in the city four years ago. At the helm is Andrea Gray, who talks to Dan Robinson about her journey from leaving school at 17 to managing director, changing attitudes to giving women senior roles in business and trying to build the best place to work in the city.
The average CEO of a FTSE 100 company is aged 55, male, white and university-educated – most likely at Oxford or Cambridge – according to the recruiter Robert Half. Often they have multiple degrees and many have either the letters MBA or PhD at the end of their names.
Andrea Gray might not be in this cohort – although there’s every chance she might be one day, given the vast leadership experience she has built over the past three decades – but it’s striking that she doesn’t fit the typical profile of a British CEO or MD.
For a start, she left school aged 17 and has no major qualifications. And while the opportunity to go back into study could be tempting, it clearly hasn’t held her back, having been appointed as managing director of PPL PRS – the Leicester-based organisation that issues TheMusicLicence, which enables businesses to legally play music for employees and customers – 16 months ago to oversee its continued rapid growth.
“I wouldn’t necessarily advocate leaving school to get a job rather than the education route,” she says. “Some people do really well in the education environment and others don’t. Some learn better on the job.
“It’s horses for courses. I have some friends who are career students and that’s great, but for me that was never going to work.
“At various times in my career, I’ve considered whether to go back and study, but I don’t think qualifications would particularly add much to who I am.”
Andrea Gray's rise from leaving education at 17 to MD of PPL PRS
Right place, right time – and occasionally the opposite – is Andrea’s explanation for her journey to managing director of PPL PRS.
“There was no plan,” she explains. “I left school as soon as I could, much to my father’s dissatisfaction, but my parents insisted on me getting a job.”
Her first position was as an accounts clerk but she did a number of jobs in the formative years of her career, including as a bookkeeper, driving instructor and pharmacy dispenser, without being fully engaged with any.
In her early 20s, Andrea decided on a different route and took up a temporary job at American Express in 1992, based in her hometown of Brighton.
“I was due to be there for just a few months in credit control but ended up there for eight years,” she says.
Starting off on the phones, she climbed the ranks, first to team leader and eventually as head of service performance, managing caller traffic into contact centres.
She’d found her passion in leading large operations and being surrounded by people, while enjoying the busy and dynamic contact centre environments.
Looking back, Andrea recognises she became a leader from a young age – having managed her first team in her early 20s and then headed up multiple teams by her early 30s.
“It’s probably more difficult now to take the route I did without the qualifications, but not impossible,” she says.
“Fewer people went to university when I was young, that’s for sure, because we all wanted to earn money to go to the pub!”
Afraid of becoming “institutionalised”, Andrea relocated to Swansea to head up telecoms firm NTL’s fault centre, before further moves around the country over the next 15 years to work in cross-sector leadership roles, including at BNP Paribas subsidiary FTS Ltd and Nuffield Health.
In 2014, she took a phone call about her “dream role” to work as operations director for insurance company Hastings Direct, setting up its third UK contact centre in Leicester.
“In my industry, when you’re leading large operational centres, most roles are about going in and improving things – making it more efficient and changing the culture,” she says.
“But while I was at Nuffield Health, I was asked about joining a new start-up operation where I’d go in and develop the office space, recruit people and grow it.
“The initial plan was to go from zero to 250 people within 18 months. I was very interested because start-ups just don’t happen in UK contact centres – they usually go overseas.”
Andrea joined in 2015 and ended up growing the centre to more than 1,200 people based in St George’s Way, while adding bases on the south coast and in South Africa that took headcount under her watch to more than 2,000 people.
When it reached the point that the role needed splitting up due to the swelling numbers, PPL PRS offered an enticing proposition.
The not-for-profit organisation is a joint venture between PPL – which distributes royalties on behalf of performers and record companies – and PRS for Music, a society of songwriters, composers and music publishers.
Its focus is to manage the licensing element of their operations and make things more straightforward for the two organisations’ customers, who previously had to obtain separate licences from both societies.
PPL PRS had grown from a single employee at its launch in April 2017 to about 250 by the time Andrea was approached.
She was familiar with the company after hosting directors at the Hastings office on behalf of Leicester’s inward investment team while they searched for a site in the city.
“I had followed its journey and was interested in its plans,” she recalls. “It came at a point in my career where I was ready to do something different and gave me the opportunity to run the whole business rather than just the operational side.”
How PPL PRS works with businesses to educate them about TheMusicLicence
Armed with 30 years’ experience working in and leading contact centres, Andrea’s CV was praised by PPL CEO Peter Leathem for “establishing and growing first-class customer service operations” when she was appointed managing director in November 2019.
The company has a contact centre that liaises with businesses to educate them about TheMusicLicence, which allows them to legally play music in public through radio, TV, digital services or live performances in accordance with The Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1998.
Businesses that play music are licensed according to legislated tariffs, which vary depending on their sector. PPL PRS licenses companies in line with these tariffs and collect royalties on behalf of PPL and PRS for Music, which then distribute fees back to their members to ensure they are paid fairly for their work.
The idea had been to continue expanding the company throughout 2020 but the pandemic has paused any more ambitious plans.
Andrea explains: “A large proportion of the businesses we work with are in the hospitality industry so the revenue we expected is nowhere near what we thought it would be because many of them haven’t been trading.
“While we expected a reasonable growth trajectory, it’s not going to be there and is unlikely to be through 2021 either.
“What we have to do is just be really focused on how we deliver as much as possible, in the most cost-effective way, because this is essentially musicians’ salary, particularly at grassroots level.”
Some of the education involves highlighting studies that show how customers may be more likely to spend money as a result of feeling positive due to music – therefore making it a possible revenue generator rather than the misconception of a taxed activity.
One study with Caffe Nero showed how music could relax customers and encourage them to stay in its cafés for longer, while PPL PRS research found 93% of businesses surveyed use music to lift the mood and create a welcoming atmosphere.
“We don’t think about it much and often put the radio on in the background, but music is a massive part of our everyday life,” says Andrea, whose company has committed to not charging businesses affected by the pandemic, along with offering flexible payment options.
“It can be a bit of a tough sell for some businesses and we have to work to tell a better story, but for others it’s very easy. We’ve done a lot more work recently with soe logistics companies because they recognise how important it is to have music playing in their fulfilment centres.”
PPL PRS furloughed 80% of its staff during the summer lockdown as a result of business closures elsewhere. But having to work through a backlog from July onwards, it hired another 50 people as part of its initial growth plans, taking headcount to 260.
Andrea says there’s a diverse range of roles in the business, beginning with entry-level customer service positions that she believes will compare well with similar jobs elsewhere in the region.
Recruitment is fairly easy, she believes, due to the city’s two universities that was part of Leicester’s attraction for the organisation in the first place.
Career development paths are also open to employees, with plans to recruit internally for many future senior roles, while it’s in the process of introducing leadership management apprenticeships – offering school leavers a similar path to the top of businesses that Andrea experienced by learning on the job. PPL PRS joined the Chamber as a strategic partner last autumn to solidify its reputation as a regional employer of choice.
Looking ahead to the future, she adds: “It’s about restarting everything. We’ve had to mothball some really exciting plans we had for developing people internally in 2020, but my vision remains that we should be absolutely the best place to work in Leicester.
“I still want to make that happen and, while it might be a slow start to the year, we really believe we can deliver some great things – 2021 is going to be our year.”
Diversity is about ideas, not numbers
Andrea pauses to contemplate how being a woman has shaped her career. While certainly aware of the challenges faced by many of her female peers in reaching the summit of their professions, she doesn’t believe it has held her back – just like the lack of higher qualifications hasn’t.
“I don’t know if it means I’ve been lucky, but I don’t honestly think any experience I’ve had has been different to what it would have been if I was male,” she says.
“It’s helped that I’ve worked in organisations where people have been positive about having a very diverse leadership team.
“At Hastings, the CEO Toby van der Meer very much understood he needed to surround himself with diverse people.”
The insurance industry has been an interesting yardstick for gender diversity, given that it’s a traditionally male-heavy environment – board chairmanship remains the preserve of men, who hold 100% of positions – but it’s improving, with the Association of British Insurers reporting that women on executive teams increased from 22% to 27% in the year to February 2019.
Hastings was ahead of the curve, with 36% of its boardroom positions occupied by women the same year.
Andrea believes this is because it had an “entrepreneurial” culture and this forward-thinking approach is something she has adopted at PPL PRS.
“It comes back to taking a broader view,” she says. “It’s not just about gender, sexuality, race or religion – none of it matters.
“What I’m trying to do at PPL PRS is really push that diversity because the variety of ideas you get from different cultures and ages is just tremendous.
“The worst mistake any leader can do is think they’ve got all the best ideas, because actually my ideas aren’t at all what would make the business work – as I’m at least twice the age of most of my people for a start.
“At PPL PRS, we’re fairly well balanced and, if anything, we have more women in senior positions than men.”
PPL PRS office mural reflects dynamic workplace culture
Stretching across wall space for 30 metres at three-and-a-half metres high, the “United for Music” mural that decorates the PPL PRS office in Leicester is believed to be the city’s longest art installation.
It was designed by artist Andy Goodridge in 2017 to commemorate a century of music, from the formation of PRS for Music in 1914 – illustrated by the First World War marching song Pack Up Your Troubles – until the present day, bringing music icons like The Beatles and Elvis Presley together with cultural highlights such as the Hacienda scene and birth of the iPod through art.
The project was commissioned the same year that PRS for Music joined forces with PPL to establish PPL PRS, and is now part of the package for attracting talent to its vibrant Mercury Place office.
Before the pandemic, Andrea says the office – located five minutes from the railway station – played a key role in adopting a modern culture for a company whose workforce has an average age of 32.
“A lot of our people are musically-orientated and some play in bands, so music is a big part of our offices,” she says.
“The mural is a key part of that because it makes the office an interesting place to work.”
How Andrea Gray changed her mind on Leicester perception
Andrea admits to having held a negative view about Leicester before moving there – but couldn’t have got her preconceptions about the city more wrong.
She says that when the opportunity first came up to move to Hastings Direct, her employer directly before PPL PRS, she had no interest in relocating to the East Midlands.
“I said to the recruiter ‘thanks but take me out of the process now because I really don’t want to live in Leicester’,” she recalls.
“I’d never been to Leicester, but my perception was it wasn’t a city I wanted to live in because I thought it was fairly run-down and not very inclusive.
“I had no affinity with it and thought I’d seen similar cities in Swansea and Bradford so forget it.”
The head-hunter eventually persuaded a reluctant Andrea to visit the city to get a feel of the place and she found herself admiring the high street mix of big brands like John Lewis alongside independents – while a champagne bar in St Martin’s Square caught her eye too.
Impressed, she took the job and, after moving to her second job in PPL PRS as well as buying a house in the area, doesn’t envisage moving again.
“I love it here,” says Andrea, who was named the Businesswoman of the Year at the Niche Business Awards in January. “I’ve become a huge advocate of Leicester because it’s a small, friendly city that has some stunning architecture and is surrounded by beautiful countryside.
“I’d never lived somewhere with such a strong sense of community, particularly from a business perspective, while it’s very diverse and inclusive despite my preconceptions.”
This story features in the March edition of Business Network, which has a special enterprising women theme. To read the magazine, click here.Back