I’ve just spent the past weekend in Rioja in Northern Spain enjoying some of my favourite things; drinking wine, fine food, cycling and lounging around in the sun. I even managed to sneak in watching a bit of another love; rugby (thanks to my Sky Go app!).
The trip was a fantastic gift from WL in recognition of 30 years service (okay, it was technically last year but it took us a year to find a spare weekend). Whilst I was out in Rioja, it seemed like the ideal opportunity to reflect on 30+ years at the same company in a world when the average length of service for many is measured in months not years! *
As part of my role as MD, I host what we call a ‘Cultural Induction’ where I spend time with a group of new joiners and explain some of the history as well as the culture of the company including our Core Values and vision. Apart from the chance to meet the new staff (we have nearly 250 so remembering everyone’s names is now a challenge!), my favourite bit is the questions at the end. The ones that always seem to crop up are “what’s your fondest memory of White Light?” and ‘which project are you the most proud of?’. When you’ve been here as long as I have, this requires you to rack your brains somewhat!
If I’m being honest, I generally give a different answer each time. On the theatre side, we have been involved in iconic shows such as Les Misérables and Miss Saigon many times and because I know them (and their history), I naturally feel a level of attachment. Equally shows I have been personally involved with that have ‘flopped’ such as Grand Hotel and City of Angels also hold a special memory for me (probably rose tinted!). Unsurprisingly the Rocky Horror Show also features highly on my list for so many reasons.
Other significant projects that always come up include The House of Dancing Water in Macau, our first multi-million overseas project, closely followed by the multiple installations at Universal Studios in Singapore. Both of these marked a significant change in the company’s portfolio.
Whilst I am still involved in the theatre side of the business, over the years my role as MD has become more remote from the day-to-day activity; especially as the company has expanded into numerous areas such as theme parks, venue services, corporate events, live music and broadcast.
However, for me, the Rugby World Cup in 2015 will always be a significant milestone as we worked on several projects based around the event. It featured our first large audio project (where we weren’t supplying the lighting) and we also supplied the full technical service to the Fan Zone in the stadium, along with lighting the studios for the ITV Sport broadcast team. But, most significantly, I was drafted in as last-minute pitch side crew for all the Twickenham games which involved ten minutes work just before kick off. As rugby fan, that was pretty much it for me – I was in heaven!
But when I reflect on the past 30 years, it’s not the projects that just come to mind. In fact, it’s nearly almost always the people. Whether it’s current colleagues, ex-colleagues, customers, freelancers, suppliers or even competitors, generally it’s the people I meet that make the job so enjoyable. I remember once a non-industry friend of mine gatecrashed a meeting I was having with clients in a wine bar in New York. After they left, he asked if they were friends or customers (he was confused as we didn’t talk about any specific contracts but rather chatted industry gossip and reminisced). When I replied they were a bit of both, I distinctly remember him saying: “No wonder you are the only person I know who enjoys their job – the rest of us hate ours”(he worked in the City at the time). Come to think of it, in 30 years, there have only been two or three people that I have met who I would quite happily never speak to again (and that’s out of the thousands I have met).
To try and name all of the amazing people I’ve met over the last 30 years would be just too hard but there are some who have been around for all that time and deserve a mention; namely John Simpson (he was shrewd enough to tempt me away from Theatre Projects in 1987). I hear myself speak sometimes and realise I sound like John did all those years ago. I am proud to have had him as my mentor for so long. John is closely followed by some of the longstanding members of the WL team; Andy Cullen and fellow directors Dave Isherwood and Richard Wilson We have all forgotten (or tried to forget) the more hair-raising exploits of the Fulham days of WL but we all had a lot of fun in those more relaxed times.
Since moving to Wimbledon, WL has become a different company: much more serious, much more professional and much, much bigger. That said, I would like to think we have hung onto as many of the old ‘family business values’ we had in those early days. After all, fun is still an important part of the job.
There are nearly 250 of us now and we are nearly no longer an SME. I wonder if John thought that would ever happen back in the very early days in Chelsea with Rory Dempster and Andy Phillips (both of whom both led me astray and helped put me right in my early days when I first joined). We now have a fantastic leadership team including relative newcomers like Simon Needle and Chris Nicholls (they have only managed ten years so far!). More recently we have been joined by Fiona Wood and Andy Hook who feel like they have been part of the family for years yet both only joined in 2015. Since then, we’ve had more experienced hands join with people like Pete Feeney coming on board and bringing years of experience from other organisations; something which is really important when the MD has been at the same company for three decades…
It is not just the senior and experienced people that make a difference. At the start of their careers, we have been employing apprentices since 2010 with over 80% of them staying with us on completion of their apprenticeships I had the pleasure to spend some time with two of the most recent intake at this month’s ITEAC conference and the positive feedback I received was so well deserved – they really are a credit to the company. I truly believe that apprenticeships play a key part in the future of both WL and the industry at large and I am proud of the role WL has played in their development.
With that in mind, following a lovely weekend in Rioja where I’ve been able to reflect on the past 30 years whilst sampling many of the local wines, it seems appropriate to raise a glass and say: Cheers to everyone at White Light and thanks for making my time here so enjoyable. Here’s to the next 10/20/30** years.
*the average length of service at WL is 5 years which I think is pretty good
**delete as applicable