Eclecticism Marks Royal Albert Hall Head

Sunday morning, Chris Cotton served coffee and pastries to a live accompaniment of Mozart and Liszt. At noon, it was a jazz brunch.

In the evening, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra played hits from Led Zeppelin and Queen. Monday, it's Croatian pop, and on Tuesday, Iranian rock. But if the variety of music that Cotton puts on is vast, so is his venue. As the new chief executive of the Royal Albert Hall, he has to fill the 5,000-seat London auditorium almost every day of the year.

And while Proms season approaches, it is not just music coming up. The hall hosts tennis tournaments, and the Institute of Directors holds its conference there next week – but only after the venue has been turned into a cinema to screen "The Two Towers" as part of a Lord of the Rings trilogy, with a live score.

"I've always loved music and theatre," says the man behind this ever-changing programme. "There's something magical about live performance." Cotton, a large-framed man with combed-back silver hair, claims to have no favourites, but admits: "I'm learning to enjoy some things I did not think I would. I'm an aged rocker."

At 60, he is younger than many of the rock stars who regard a gig at the ornate Victorian hall as the climax of their international tours, but the surprise may be that the man responsible for so much entertainment is an architect. He was responsible for the first building in Canary Wharf, as well as the original Liffe (NYX) futures market.

After school – Malvern College, in Worcestershire – Cotton was set on a career in stage management or theatre design. "I was going to the Royal Court but my father died and my uncle said, 'You can't do that: they're odd people in the theatre'." So he trained as an architect and joined a practice specialising in bank buildings. "We worked for over 100 international banks. It was a great period for them starting in London," he says. Cotton was Morgan Stanley's (MS) architect when the firm came to London, taking a floor of the City's Commercial Union building – and when the US bank moved to Canary Wharf. He provided CSFB (CS) with its Docklands offices too.

It was being an architect that turned Cotton into a businessman. He became a partner of the Whinney Mackay-Lewis practice at the age of 32, and floated it on the Unlisted Securities Market. He learned about takeovers, too, when the firm was bought in 1991. After that he started his own firm, designing Buddhist temples for India and Travelodges for Bracknell. "I wanted to be able to concentrate on something special, and not just try to instantly build a large commercial practice," he says. "I wanted to build quality buildings and not have the baggage of employing a lot of people I do not need."

He called his new practice Aros – the Gaelic word for habitat. Cotton's mother was Scottish and he inherited the island off Mull that his father, who was in the Royal Navy, bought in 1946. Cotton keeps a boat there and returns six or eight times a year. "It's my haven from the mad world of London," he says. "I go as often as possible."

But Aros was sold too when Cotton had the chance to become the Royal Albert Hall's director of building and operations. It was a venue he knew well. Not only had he learned on Mull that much of the granite for the Albert Memorial overlooking the hall came from the island, he had produced measured drawings of the building as a student. "We had to do a significant building and I chose the Albert Hall," he says. The drawings may even still be tucked away in his Clapham home.

Putting Liffe into the historic Royal Exchange taught Cotton the problems of listed buildings, but the Kensington venue is of a different order, he says. "This place is pulsing every single day of the year, not just in the evenings. That is a lot of wear and tear. We've got ancient services and Victorian heating systems. We need to provide better facilities for artists and audiences."

Sometimes it pulses, literally. Cotton's office is tucked behind the hall's grand organ and throbs when bass notes are played.

The budget includes £2m a year for maintenance and as much again for associated costs. That has to come from the hall's £16m turnover – a mix of fees for hiring out the venue, a cut of box-office sales plus sponsorship and hospitality. The main hall hosts 360 events a year and the cafés put on another 100.

Cotton claims to have been unaffected by the recession: "We have some of the highest quality artists in the world coming to play here, and we do not have long runs of the same show. Even in recessionary times, people want to celebrate". Nevertheless, average attendances slipped from 84 to 78 per cent in 2009, and the audiences were below the previous year's 1.2 million.

He has the same problems as many other businesses, including a pension-fund deficit to fill, but the hall is actually a charity charged with promoting the arts and sciences, and he reports to trustees rather than shareholders. "I'm constantly meeting people who do not realise we are a charity and get no public funding. I do not think people realise how much benefit we provide," says Cotton. But he insists that status does not compromise the way the hall is run. "We need to be a commercial organisation to provide that public benefit. We have competition and we have to operate in a commercial way to end up with a surplus that we can use to maintain this building."

There are reserves of around £12m, but Cotton warns: "We do not intend raiding them without ensuring we can fill them again." The last major improvement programme cost £70m, with Lottery money providing £40m; Cotton now has plans to improve backstage facilities – for choruses as well as stars – and needs to find new funding.

Ralph Bernard, the former head of Classic FM, was appointed chief executive of what is officially called the Corporation of the Hall of Arts and Sciences last year. Cotton was recovering from cancer treatment and did not seek promotion. "I did not think I would be strong enough or well enough," he explains. But when Bernard unexpectedly resigned, he stepped into the top role. "I've had rigorous medical tests and I'm extremely fit," he says.

Bernard quit because he thought the job was more general manager than chief executive. Cotton says he does not care what the job is called. "What you have to be able to do is roll up your sleeves. You have to be hands-on. You have to motivate a lot of people and be prepared to work really hard. This is a very hard-working environment. We have as many people working at night as by day. It's stressful."

But the reward is more than the £180,000 pay. "I get a kick every single day going into that arena," he confesses. "We are in the memories business and the emotions business."

Bio: Chris Cotton

Born: 27 January 1950

Educated: Malvern College and the Architectural Association

Employment: 1974-1991 Architectural firm Whinney Mackay-Lewis

1991-2005 Aros, his own architectural practice

2005: Royal Albert Hall, Building & Operations Director

2010: Royal Albert Hall, chief executive

Family: Wife, Mel, and a stepson and daughter

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