Phil Ward talks to Britannia Row co-founder Bryan Grant about handing the company over to Clair Global
“The time to quit is before you wish you had,” wrote the author Kimberly K Jones, and although nobody at Britannia Row is quitting anything, it’s a handover designed to prevent any regrets.
That’s according to Bryan Grant, who after 40 years at the helm of one of the UK’s most successful rental companies – in partnership with colleague Mike Lowe – Brit Row “finds its partner” with Clair Global
">shaped a deal with Clair Global that relinquishes his ownership. That’s Clair Global – not Sun Capital Portfolio Ball-Crushers, or similar. It’s an important distinction.
It does extend Clair Global’s globe, especially in the UK. Clair UK, Concert Sound as was, has been physically incorporated into Britannia Row’s HQ in Twickenham, south-west London, as part of a process that consolidates without compromise.
“They moved in on 1st February while we still had the strategic alliance in place; we hadn’t completed the sale at that point,” Grant says. “But apart from that everything stays as it is: Audio Rent Switzerland is still Audio Rent Switzerland; we remain Britannia Row; JPJ Audio in Australia, bought by Clair Global the year before last, remains JPJ Audio.
“What I find exciting about the whole thing is that it’s not like one main hub with satellite operations spinning around it. That’s the way it has been done elsewhere, but the situation with Clair is different and a lot more positive. JPJ is the major company in Australia; we’re one of the major companies in Europe; and obviously they are the major company in the States. We have our own markets and our own reputations, and Clair does not have to build a name in those territories. It’s already there.
“What we’re able to offer our customers is a consistency of backup and infrastructure, as well as our core service. It’s not like you’re going to get to Sydney and find everything’s a bit stretched and frustrating. It’s all fine, wherever you go.”
It’s the first time Grant has had a boss in 40 years, and he has no problem with that. “It came across in our very first discussions with Clair Global what a great organisation it is,” he continues. “They really care about what they do, they’re not beholden to a bunch of venture capitalists and they’re in control of their own destiny. It’s a well-resourced, family situation.
“The real motive, in all honesty, is that we’re getting old! In one sense it’s an exit strategy, because we didn’t need to do this deal. We have been conscious of the fact that most companies of our type, however big they are, tend to be owner-operators. So you have a reasonably strong-willed owner who runs the company in a kind of pyramid: one governor with an ever widening team of ciphers beneath him, and that’s the end of it.
“We recognised quite some ago that there’s no real future in that, especially if we wanted the company to be worth something. It’s got to be worth more than me and Mike. For the last seven years or more we’ve been identifying people within and without the industry who could run the company without us. We wouldn’t want the thing to just stop the day after we weren’t around any more. And I think we’ve achieved that.”
Grant resists the ‘smash-and-grab’ business style that loves a CEO and, potentially, erodes the trust so essential in the rental sector. “I say to the guys who work for us: if you’re only doing this for the money, stop doing it. There have to be easier ways of making a living! It’s long days, it’s hard work and you’ll only get grumpy… But as long as you keep enjoying it, keep doing it. I’ll stop when I stop being entertained by it.
“I was at the One Love concert in Manchester – an old bloke who was lucky enough to get paid while seeing this extraordinary event and contribute in my own small way.”
Indeed. Just thirteen days after the bomb attack on Manchester Arena, UK in May, a hastily convened benefit concert for victims and their families took place at Manchester's Old Trafford Cricket Ground. It was christened ‘One Love’ and, as well as bringing together the community of the largest city in Northern England, it revealed the intrinsically cooperative spirit of the pro audio industry alongside a powerful vindication of the deal between Clair Global and Britannia Row.
While Clair Global was responsible for the tour – by pop sweetheart Ariana Grande – that was so cruelly devastated by the attack, its gear was stranded for almost a week inside the Manchester Arena as forensic examinations took place. With the idea of a concert mooted quickly, it was Britannia Row that installed RF gear, microphones, IEMs and two DiGiCo SD7 consoles at Wembley Arena, 200 miles south of Manchester in London, so that emergency rehearsals could begin.
Britannia Row also augmented Clair’s Cohesion CO-12 system used on the tour, even though simultaneous tours by Phil Collins, Robbie Williams and Depeche Mode had just begun to stretch resources to the limit. “It was a really good indication of what we can do, the collaboration we have,” Grant adds.
How did an antipodean colonial build a mini British institution? “I am British,” Grant protests with a smile, “except when it comes to the rugby! I became a British citizen and I have a British passport. I even went to an official welcoming ceremony with the Mayor of Fulham. And I got a postcard from David Blunkett…
“Joking aside, I do like to think that Britannia Row is an international company. We do stuff all round the planet. We happen to be based here in the UK, but that’s all. We had established a company in America as early as 1976, which ran into the ‘80s. We tried again in the mid-‘90s with Firehouse in upstate New York, and although it didn’t work out, it shows our global ambitions.
“We were under-resourced, not in terms of money but in terms of infrastructure: firstly, finding the people to run those operations and, secondly, competing in those domestic markets. That’s the hardest part – especially in America, where they circle the wagons pretty quickly. You have to buy something that is already established in that market, which is precisely what Clair has done with us – and JPJ, and Audio Rent. They’ve even had to buy a market leader in Nashville; it’s that competitive.”
Perhaps, in a parallel universe where Clair Global was the size of Britannia Row and vice versa, it might have been the other way around.
“Clair has the advantage of being into their third generation,” explains Grant, “and of being extremely well resourced within the biggest territory in the world. So yes, it’s an exit but we didn’t need to do it to save the company. We’re making money. We have very good infrastructure. But the world is consolidating, and our strange little business of plumbing audio is doing the same thing. It’s growing up. Some do it by surrounding themselves in vast amounts of venture capital, but what I like about Clair is that they’re still in it for the original reason: for the audio. The grandchildren – Shaun and Matt Clair – are very passionate about it, as is Troy. They haven’t lost sight of the business they’re in.”
So no regrets, but will he miss that business? “Miss it? I’m not saying I’m going to stop in a couple of years or something. The truth is I don’t know. People ask me – noting that I’m in my late sixties – when I’m going to retire, but that doesn’t mean anything to me. To me, retiring means stopping doing something you didn’t really want to do in the first place. For your whole life! That’s not what happened to me. I’m so lucky: I ran away to join the circus. And stayed…”