Another tough day at Stage Electrics.
"We got this job to supply the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, and we thought, we should savour this moment – approximately a £4 million development of the Stratford theatres – we won’t see a job like this again. Then our installation sales manager flops through the door and says, ‘I've got this project with the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, £3.7 million…’"
With orders like that, you’d think the Bristol-HQ’d company would be happy with the status quo. Not the case, continues Adam Blaxill, head of marketing: the outfit still has work to do in establishing itself as a true pro-audio player.
“Traditionally we were a lighting company,” he explains. “People are surprised when they find out we can do other things. But since 1979, it's been an organic process, whereby you get asked, you do the lights, so can you do the sound? And so it has grown and grown… staging, curtains, rigging, the lot.” This is a rarity in the UK certainly, where audio hire is audio hire, lighting hire is lighting hire, and never the twain…
“A lot of the audio industry ask, Stage who? They aren't aware of our audio business, it gets lost in all of the other things we do.” This explains the appointment of Jamie Gosney, business development manager (BDM) for audio, to spearhead a profile-raising initiative. “We want people to say, ah, Stage Electrics are a specialist in audio too. At the same time, it's something we've always been doing…”
Stage Electrics has nine offices around the UK, employing some 220 staff in total. Its last reported turnover was £29 million (€35.6 million). The title picture shows, outside the sprawling Bristol headquarters, (L-R) Adrian Searle, head of hire & technical, Adam Blaxill, head of marketing and strategic buying and Jamie Gosney, business development manager for audio.
“We have about 20 BDMs on the road – our farthest north BDM is in Glasgow, to the south it’s Cornwall; basically we cover the country," says Blaxill. "We have a whole pot of people in London, of course.”
The company is split into a number of departments. (As Blaxill later puts it: “We can design it, we can build it, we can sell it, install it, hire it… and we can fix it later.”)
The installation division works from the education sector (“a sizeable market in the UK, so we are doing a lot of total audio, video and lighting solutions”) through to arts centres and opera houses. In fact, there’s an ongoing project with Glyndebourne Opera House, a major upgrade to the main house including the supply of a K-array PA and DiGiCo console.
Blaxill demonstrates his mind for numbers: “Our smallest project at any time will be worth £5,000; we have around 25 projects on the go at any one time, and nine project managers pricing and planning those; we'll be doing 150 unique projects during the year; and we installed 238,000 items last year. The time on site can range from one day, to jobs such as the RSC where our staff make the site their home for two years.”
Twenty-five concurrent projects sounds ambitious in these uncertain economic times. Can this really be sustained?
“We're finding that the pro market is getting stronger,” says Blaxill. “We're being asked to tender for more and more projects – there's been no let-up.”
An in-house CAD team ensures plans for every job are drawn up for signing off by the customer. Stage Electrics has its own installation crew, working alongside any one of seven vetted outside subcontractors; then there’s the transport department, a carpentry workshop “that can build lecterns at short notice”, and a team of field service engineers.
Brands carried by the sales division include Audio-Technica, DiGiCo, K-array, RCF, Roland RSG, Sennheiser, Shure, Tascam, and Yamaha. “We are the largest installer of K-array in the UK,” chips in Gosney. Bose and EM Acoustics are recent additions to the portfolio.
“EM Acoustics is a good synergy for us,” remarks Blaxill. “They are a young company who are passionate about audio but don't yet have an awful lot of experience in installation. We want to work with someone who is enthusiastic but we have the install know-how. We've already got a number of specifiers wanting their gear."
In the sales department, Blaxill says the strategy has been, increasingly, to appoint product champions for brands. The view is that it’s better to have one point of contact with new lines such as this year’s arrival, EM Acoustics, rather than 20 BDMs on the road plaguing EM’s Surrey office. That point of contact is Jamie Gosney. “This way, our relationship with the manufacturer gets stronger and stronger,” Blaxill adds.
SE’s aim is to offer, to whatever market, a complete service. “People want that,” chips in Gosney. “If they have one invoice from one company where the different disciplines talk to each other, they get a much better solution. I've seen installs that have gone so wrong because multiple suppliers are treading on each other's toes.”
“The fact that we have a hire department,” adds Blaxill, “means the moment something goes wrong in an installation – and life is like that – black speakers are shipped instead of white, for instance – the hire department can cover the error until it is resolved.” SE Hire carries £13 million of inventory, while the company annually turns over £400,000 audio dry hire business alone. “We can offer everything from video LED curtains to line arrays and digital consoles. A lot of companies would say, ‘Blimey, £400k in just audio dry hire, that's a considerable part of our income!’ – and yet it's not something we sing about.”
And don’t forget the live events team, which is mainly involved in broadcast work, corporate functions, and large-scale one-offs, with the occasional festival job. The London Olympics announcement in Trafalgar Square in 2005, that was SE. Sidmouth and Towersey Folk Festivals are regular gigs, while the company has also been supplying three out of four main venues at the Edinburgh Festival for the past 25 years as well.
So begins the real push for serious pro-audio recognition. The dry hire inventory has swollen appropriately. “We’re continually investing in pro audio,” offers head of technical and hire, Adrian Searle. “We've recently added more L-Acoustics, Sennheiser and Shure kit. A big chunk of the dry hire is a radio mic system going out to a small hirer.”
A final word from Blaxill: “People are surprised how large the sales inventory is too, with over £1.8 million worth of gear actually on the shelves, ready to go out – tonight. Combined with the hire and installation offering we really are able to offer customers a complete solution.”