AI PROFILE Brum's royals

Jan Teo, chief executive, Birmingham Royal Ballet

Birmingham, says Jan Teo, is a cultural hotspot that is about to get scorching, with a newly created arts development agency, Culture Central, founded with 14 of the city’s institutions. “It would be crazy if Birmingham didn’t lift itself” she says. “It’s absolutely the ‘second city’, and if you deconstruct the arts offer and look across the sector breakdown of the level of quality venues and the performances happening in those spaces, Birmingham and the wider region is absolutely the second city. It’s not that we want to punch above our weight, punching our weight is plenty”.

She speaks as the head of one of the major arts companies in the country which set itself in Birmingham 25 years ago and developed its national and international persona under the artistic leader-ship first of Peter Wright and, for the last 21 years, of David Bintley.

If her language smacks of the corporate boardroom, it’s no accident: a year ago she made the leap across the supposed divide between commerce and culture, leaving her role as chief operating officer for Deutsche Bank’s European service centres to succeed Chris Barron as CEO at BRB.

But that divide, she says, is not as deeply cut as it seems. She might have been an artist if her Manchester school hadn’t talked her out of A level art in favour of more UCCA-appreciated subjects, but at Cambridge she studied classical history under Mary Beard and Andrew Wallis-Hadrill – “as good as it gets”. From there, she says, it was personal: “I was always bossy, wanting to be able to step up and take responsibility. I hadn’t specialised in being a musician or an artist, I was an all rounder, but I knew I loved leading people. I didn’t want to be in commerce, I wanted to manage people”.

And she did, at Legal and General, Barclays Bank, RAC Motoring Services, Lex Transfleet and the Fraikin Group, joining Deutsche Bank in 2009 with a mission to open the bank’s new Birmingham branch. The bank, as it happens, has the world’s largest private art-on-paper collection in the world and a distinguished record of arts sponsorship, and Teo (who helped organise the long-standing Deutsche Bank Creative Enterprise Awards) flung herself into the cultural underlay of the city, supporting the Ikon Gallery next door, becoming a director of the Birmingham Museums Trust and then chair of its finance committee, and in 2013 going on to the board of BRB and its general purposes committee a year later.

“Our education system forces us to be pigeon holed incredibly early” she says. “I started out as general manager, unheard of these days, but actually that is what I am, in the breadth and depth of scope of the roles l’ve held.”

So it was not a long step to take on BRB, finding the cultural sector less confining than commerce where the financial crisis has made the jobs market more risk averse, a wide choice of talent meaning appointers need not look beyond precise qualifications. “Just because I might have had a commercial career doesn’t mean I’m a robot” she says. “I have an aesthetic heart”.

She took on BRB in the hardest time for arts funding in decades, something she could take in her stride. “I think having been through a financial crisis while working for an investment bank, being able to do more with less, meant that the arts funding situation was not daunting” she says, and having been on the BRB board she knew the company wasn’t in bad financial shape either – “compared to lots of arts organisations I would consider us to be in an incredibly good place. That’s not to say I’m complacent, not in the slightest, but there are massive opportunities as well.

“If arts organisations are under funding pressure and want to think they can stay static, closing their ears and eyes to what’s going on in the world around them, then I think it’s going to be difficult for them.”

Birmingham Royal Ballet is part of the Royal Ballet family, along with the RB and the Royal Ballet School, with the Royal Ballet governors guardians of their respective royal charters. They collaborate and know each other well – the RB’s director, Kevin O’Hare had his dancing career at BRB, and Bintley, a Royal Ballet School graduate, was the RB’s resi- dent choreographer before moving to Birmingham.

BRB sprang from Sadler’s Wells Ballet, founded in 1946, and later became Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet when it moved to Covent Garden. In 1990, under Sir Peter Wright, it moved to the Birmingham Hip- podrome and changed its name. Wright retired in 1995.

Free from the confines of the Royal Opera House, under Bintley BRB has developed its own brand of mixed contemporary ballet and the classics. Not without chutzpah, its mission statement says the company will “work hard to earn the respect of the people of Birmingham and its peers for taking creative risks and using its position as Britain’s most creative and versatile touring classical ballet company to inspire and delight audiences with work that is relevant, exciting and technically excellent”.

It lives up to such confidence, but with the indispensible help of the Arts Council, Teo believes. It runs at a cost of £15m a year, just short of £8m coming from ACE. There is a diminishing grant from Birmingham City Council which is likely to be nothing by 2020, and the rest comes from fundraising and box office.

“It’s my role to play devil’s advocate in my own organisation” Teo says. “We don’t want to lose what we are famous for but there’s loads we should be doing if we are going to engage a future new audience. I want to change the perception that you can only do one thing, and I think BRB has been very brave in stepping up to the challenge of the financial crisis and got really good at raising money.”

She is referring to what she regards as the last great legacy of her predecessor, Barron, who in 2013 launched the Campaign for the Fu- ture to raise £15m by 2017 to give the company a sustainable leeway. It reached its target a year early, and has already made its impact. “An  organisation that can do that from a standing start is an organisation that can certainly turn its hand to other things” Teo says.

The Campaign for the Future funded last year’s £2.7m refurbish- ment of its studios and dressing rooms in its premises that back on to the Hippodrome. The appeal also consolidated BRB’s place as a West Midlands company, and Teo has quickly created a network of co-op- eration with other cultural leaders in the city, many of whom happen to be women. In particular she has sealed a working friendship with the CEO of the Hippodrome, Fiona Allan, who took up her post at exactly the same time as Teo: their senior management teams now regularly share meetings.

The new season opens on October 1 with Bintley’s lavish new full-length narrative ballet The Tempest, co-pro- duced with Houston Ballet and with a host of charitable funders but made possible by the Campaign for the Fu- ture, with music commissioned from Sally Beamish. The Nutcracker – cre- ated for BRB’s first season at the Hip- podrome and revived last year as a thank you to Birmingham 25 years after moving there – comes back as a tribute to Wright, opening in No- vember on his 90th birthday. At the end of the season will come a brand new short piece by the BRB’s own Ruth Brill, Arcadia, her first com- missioned piece to a new score by John Harle. The company will tour to The Lowry, Salford; Sadler’s Wells in London; the Sunderland Empire; and Theatre Royal Plymouth.

“I have to think of our bottom line, not just financial, but artis- tic, and the social bottom line – the ‘trust’ bottom line everybody talks about - which are not mutually ex- clusive” Teo says. “The trick is going to find those sweet spots where we can fulfill all of the things we need to be both in terms of a large funded organisation, and also one that com- mercially needs to make its own luck as well as being able to deliver a very true and focussed artistic pro- gramme.”


1970 Born, Marylebone, London
1989 New Hall College, Cambridge University
1992 Graduate traineeship
1994 General manager, International Currency Exchange
1998 Operations manager, investment administration, Legal and General

2000  Product group manager, Barclays

2001  Head of customer operations, RAC

2004 Service director, Lex Transfleet
2006 Business transformation director, Fraikin
2009 Chief operating officer, business services europe, Deutsche Bank

2012 Board director, Birmingham Museums Trust

2014  Board member, Birmingham Royal Ballet

2015  Chief executive, Birmingham Royal Ballet

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