Family businesses

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The event industry is a playing field for family-run businesses. But are we making the industry an attractive proposition for future generations?

At primary school I told my teacher I wanted to own a restaurant. By the time I reached secondary school I wanted to be a nursery nurse. Months later I came to my senses, and opted for a career in journalism. Yet if I had followed in my parents’ footsteps, I’d be immersed in chemistry. Quite frankly, I’d rather cut off my left arm and never write again then join the scientific realm.

Whilst at university, I had the misfortune to work with my brother in a local pub– not only was he my elder brother but he was also my superior behind the bar. Let’s just say our relationship was tested at times.

Working alongside family, and even joining the family business, is not a decision to be taken lightly. There are quite literally hundreds of event and exhibition business out there, which are now run by second and even third generation family members. But why do they do it? Is it because they love the industry or is there pressure to join the business and to keep the firm going?

Statistics reveal that family firms account for 65 per cent of the total 4.5 million private sector enterprises in the UK economy. Family firms account for over 40 per cent of private sector employment, providing jobs to 9.5 million people – a figure that equates to one job in three. And also, family businesses are a breeding ground for entrepreneurial talent and start-ups, suggests the Institute of Family Business.

Last month (Stand Out June), Alan Jenkins, managing director of Exhibit, argued that the exhibition industry is guilty of committing slow suicide and questioned whether we are killing the UK exhibition industry? If we are, the opportunities for future generations are not bright. In fact, are we showcasing industry as an exciting enough proposition?

Fighting force

Mark and Dany Fremantle, directors of Oasis Events, are the proud parents of twins and are already grooming them for a life in tents. Explains Dany: “We have twin boys who I hope will be learning the ropes from an early age – they won’t need to be doing paper rounds, we are always looking for help in the holidays. It is valuable for young people to have access to real business experience during their school years, something that is hard to achieve unless you are involved in a family business. I would hope that one if not both of the boys will take over the company when the time is right. They will no doubt grow up to see the benefits – and the hardships – of owning and running a business and will make their own minds up!”

Oasis was set up in 1996 by Biny Gregory, who bought her first Bedouin tent at a souk in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and imported it to the UK. The following year, Biny and her daughters ran their first Bedouin Café at the Campus Festival in Devon. After a year of growing success with the tents a client asked Biny to line a venue at Farmington Quarry in Gloucestershire. A bespoke lining was created to imitate a Bedouin tent interior… and so the interior lining arm of the business began. In 2004 Biny’s daughter Dany and her husband Mark came from Jack Morton Worldwide and IBM respectively to set up a branch of Oasis for London and the South East and to address the increasing demand for Oasis during the winter in addition to the traditional summer work. In 2008, the two branches of Oasis were merged under Mark and Dany’s leadership and Oasis Events was born.

Mark admits to wanting to be a helicopter pilot and architect when he was younger, and Dany: “I grew up in an entrepreneurial environment so couldn’t resist that life myself. Being a teenager in the early 90’s I was at risk of wanting to become a Spice Girl, so I have had a lucky escape!”

For Dany, joining the family business was a natural option: “I didn’t stay on in the family firm, it was more a case of working and building up my experience with a good event management company that I could then take to the family business. Having seen my mother build the business from scratch and helping her whenever I could in the early days and then deciding to set up our own branch, it soon became the most practical option to join forces and run the whole operation from one base. Now, I am developing relationships with large production companies and event organisers to expand our reach taking advantage of my experience in major event planning and production.”

Back in the day

As I chat to a whole host of family-run companies, it appears that most have learned their trade from a young age, seeing the industry with fresh, googley eyes from two-foot off the ground.

Lynn Felton, former director of BECA, is the newly-appointed operations and logistics manager of The Good Digestion Show, a new event from Dandelion Clock Exhibitions. Felton is a font of knowledge, having been present as a child in the exhibition halls of all the major UK venues.

In the late 60s and early 70s, the exhibition industry was very unionised. Working practices meant that contractors could only work Saturday mornings, and quite often Felton would find herself on the show floor on the first Saturday of the month having lunch with her dad, a union man, and brother. And at a time organisers and contractors had the luxury of a two-week build.

Naturally, health and safety implications were not what they are today, but as she explains: “It was normal to see children running round and because the contractors knew children were there they looked out for you, and that’s how it was.”

She continues: “Events and exhibitions take over your life 24/7. If you have a family business and if you have a close family, events take over your family 24/7. What you don’t realise is that from an early age you take in so much information, you are not aware of just how much you know, and then you talk to someone and all this knowledge comes from nowhere.”

Today’s industry however is a very different from that seen 20 years ago, as the 90s saw the likes of EMAP and CMP offering “silly money” for family-run shows. Thankfully, Mack Brooks continues with Stephen Brooks at the helm, the London Model Engineering Exhibition is run by Meridienne Exhibitions and the father and daughter team of Chris Deith and Avril Spence, whilst the 42nd Great Dorset Steam Fair is now run by Martin Oliver, son of the event’s founding father Michael Oliver.

The events industry has very much been aware of its growing status since 2006 when a YouGov survey revealed six per cent of women cited event organiser as a dream job. And there’s no denying the popularity of the field with over 50 universities offering degrees in event and exhibition management.

On June 1, 1974, Joe Manby left the building firm and joinery business he worked for and created Jo Manby Ltd to service the joinery requirements of the then Harrogate Gift Fair and Harrogate Toy Fair. Joe’s son, Richard Manby joined the business soon after it was founded and Andrew Manby, Joe’s eldest son joined in 1979, helping to transform it into the successful company it is today, offering a range of event services, including: traditional/modular shell schemes; stand designs/floorplan layouts; electrical installation; graphics studio; floor coverings, floral and furniture hire.

Explained Andrew: “During 1974 and 1979, the company grew a lot. I graduated in 1975 with a degree in geography and environmental studies and taught for four years. I worked in the business as a student and knew the company background but in 79, we had a conversation that saw me give up teaching and join the company on a full-time basis. I joined as an assistant event manager and ran shows with Richard doing the same too.”

Both Richard and Andrew have two children each but none have shown any interest in joining the empire and neither wanted to force them to join the company.

Continued Andrew: “Richard and I have no plans to retire and when we do the business will probably be sold or we’ll arrange some sort of management buyout. Some of our management have been here for over 20 years and you would have to be careful if you were to introduce a family member and fast track them to the managing director’s seat.”

Andrew concurred that as an industry we don’t market ourselves as best we should. Long and unsociable hours are an issue yet the majority of people who sacrifice their time, adore the industry once they are in it. Yet, we are not as attractive as we should be, people usually end up working in events by default, there is no automatic route into the sector and recruiting young people into middle management is a challenging issue for business in general, he added.

JML now has an annual portfolio containing over 60 events in 25 UK venues and it has just seen off stiff competition to win a three-year all services contract for the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) conference, which runs from 2011 to 2013.

Peter Crook, managing director of Show Site Services suggested that the industry offers no incentives are offered to encourage employees to upskill and train. Crook is joined on-site, literally, by his two sons – Anthony and Andrew. All three are trained plumbers, as is his grandson who lands a hand during the busy summer periods when it is installing water supplies and drainage at Hampton Court Flower Show and Tatton Park.

According to Crook, the events industry should be considered to be one big happy family: “You turn up on-site and you see people that have worked together for years, a team but just like a family. You bump into the same faces and if there’s a problem you all help each other out. Unfortunately, you occasionally come across people who are only interested in doing their own job and not helping.”

Now that’s not very helpful, is it bruv!