The world’s barometer: interview with Regus CEO Mark Dixon

With a presence in 100 countries, Regus is a barometer of the global economy: rising demand for the firm’s flexible workspace indicates increased economic activity; a Regus slowdown can spell wider trouble afoot.

Right now, bookings are on the up. Full-year revenues at the FTSE 250 business are expected to hit £1.5bn. Viewed through the Regus looking glass, the world economy is recovering.

More interesting still is the profile of that growth, and the data underpinning it. Regus has just opened new centres in Nepal and Cambodia; Bangladesh is imminent. Recent Regus research reveals that receptiveness to flexible working is much higher in emerging nations such as China, Mexico and Brazil than in mature economies such as the UK and Japan. Unshackled by traditional business models, these dynamic, entrepreneurial economies may be finding an edge in the post-crisis economy,

None of this surprises Regus founder and CEO Mark Dixon. “The problem with the UK, for example, is that it’s still very establishment,” he says, fittingly speaking from an airport departure lounge. “I can’t believe people still ask you where your office is.” He admires American attitudes to business, where entrepreneurs are unafraid to have a go, where everyone is tech-savvy, and where even large corporations espouse virtual working.

Dixon has led the crusade for flexible working for 25 years. Noticing how travelling businesspeople in Brussels had to work in cafes and hotels because they didn’t have access to a decent office, the young entrepreneur decided to start creating temporary workspaces to meet that growing need. In the pre-internet era, when smartphones were a distant pipedream, this required real vision.

Looking back, Dixon admits “we were probably ten years ahead of our time.” While he always believed in his vision of a hyper-flexible world, the technology “didn’t come through as quickly as we thought”. Being the pioneer in its market, Regus took some big blows, including “hitting the wall” (Dixon’s words) after the 2000 IPO and a Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing in the US in 2003.

Having interviewed Dixon on several occasions over the past 15 years, I’m struck by his equanimity: he never got too high, nor too low. In 1999, I sat with him at a grand dinner where, in front of the cream of Britain’s business community, he accepted the “Entrepreneur of the Year” title from Ernst & Young; a few months later, he had to pull the group’s much-anticipated flotation. In triumph and in tragedy, he maintained the same unpretentious nature and dogged certainty that the future was flexible. And, of course, he was right all along.

Already in Downton Abbey’s league as a global success story, Regus’s fire still burns brightly. Its “Businessworld” range, where members can drop in for as little as ten minutes, takes temporary workspace to a new level. While Regus has long appealed to small companies, which value the lower, flexible overheads, big businesses are increasingly turning to Regus as they dismantle their legacy, office-based infrastructure and liberate employees to work from wherever suits them best. Toshiba, for example, has 2,000 individual Regus subscriptions.

The latest innovation is Regus’s “Community Centres”. With more and more micro and rural businesses being established in villages and towns, Dixon reckons these centres (currently running in the Netherlands) will offer better facilities than the local pub or café, help to professionalise these early-stage firms and be a major driver of growth for Regus.

Despite Regus’s reassuring numbers, Dixon is cautious about the wider global economy. “Confidence is improving, but growth is fragile, jumpy,” he says. Activity is still to pick up significantly. “The view seems to be that things will get better; at least we’re not staring into the abyss.”

He believes that five years of recession has brought some benefits. “Recession has become the new normality. It’s put an end to the era of waste and extravagance,” he says.

Best of all, Britain has finally got the message about entrepreneurship. “The fear of having a go seems to have gone. More new businesses are being established than ever before,” says Dixon.  And no doubt, many will base themselves in a Regus office…

This interview was written for, and published in, LDC’s Reflections magazine in December 2013. Pretty version with pictures etc here.