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Hawthorn, tel: 020 8955 6900, Head Office: Crown Business Park, Old Dalby, Leicestershire, LE14 3NQ
Martin Hawthorn puts the spotlight on his stage equipment company Hawthorn as he tells V&E about its humble beginnings, his extravagant dinner parties and big changes ahead.
A love of theatre has taken Martin Hawthorn on an adventurous journey with his eponymous business Hawthorn, the largest independent stage equipment company in the UK, over the past 25 years.
Having started out of his own home, using his double garage and a lock-up as storage space, he has built the company to a £9m turnover business with 100 full-time staff and a massive 145,000sq ft warehouse in a rural corner of the Midlands.
If there’s an event to be held, Hawthorn is likely to provide all the support you need. ‘Our main work is what we call wet hire,’ he explains. ‘This is the design, hire and installation of specialist lighting, sound, video and associated equipment for live events, ranging from conferences and exhibitions to parties and large-scale weddings.’
Every year, the firm works on 300-500 large-scale events, in the UK and abroad. ‘But if you take all the small events that just go in a sprinter van, you are looking at 2,000 events a year,’ says Hawthorn.
He has built up the business organically and comes across as a somewhat natural entrepreneur with instinctive ambition; in fact he initially followed what he calls a ‘sensible’ career path with BT when he left school. However, he was repeatedly drawn back to theatre work, first taking on jobs in his spare time and later working full-time with events production company Furse. A few years down the line, frustrated that he was not able to make the most of the opportunities coming his way, he decided to strike out on his own. And his timing was perfect. ‘I struck an idea that really took off. You could say there was a gap in the market but in a way the market didn’t really exist,’ he says.
Though the business is doing very well in a challenging financial climate, he says the market has changed since the recession. ‘Financial services organisations in particular couldn’t really be
seen to spend money unnecessarily during the recession, so they have downscaled their events,’ he says. But most companies recognise the importance of hosting events. ‘You still need people to get
together; it may be immeasurable in financial gain but it helps people to bond and realise that certain people in other departments don’t have two heads,’ he laughs.
The huge collection of equipment – Hawthorn reckons that it represents around £20m investment over the years, of that £1.6m alone in the last year – means that as well as having equipment in the warehouse, the business has permanently installed equipment in venues across the UK including Battersea Park Events Arena. ‘It means that you can easily and quickly set up for any event and it is environmentally friendly as you don’t have to truck equipment around,’ he says.
There is no such thing as an average event. ‘The ideal job for Hawthorn would be to work on a daytime conference with an awards ceremony in the evening in a tent requiring catering, general house lighting, car park lighting, full lighting and sound and then you’d tag an exhibition on the side of it,’ says Hawthorn. ‘That would absolutely use all of our areas of expertise.’
Indeed, this expertise goes way beyond sound and lighting – a team of seamstresses, for example, have had their fair share of challenging jobs. ‘A client who had rented Versailles for a very important dinner was unsure of the exact table layout and they didn’t want guests to have overlapping table cloths. So at three days’ notice, we produced a gold silk table cloth that was 60 metres long and 2.8 metres wide in one piece, pre-ironed on a roll delivered to the venue,’ he says.
Over the past 25 years, he has catered for everything, from small-scale company conferences to a large and luxurious £5m wedding. ‘That was one of the biggest contracts we have had and it was at very short notice – it used all of our resources for light and sound, rigging and staging. It took five articulated lorries, loaded with equipment across a whole range of disciplines.’ Remarkably, on the same night the business provided technical support for the Moonwalk breast cancer charity event in London’s Hyde Park, serving 20,000 people.
Supporting charities is something Hawthorn is clearly enthusiastic about. ‘It allows us to put something back into the community but it also gives young staff the opportunity to cut their teeth. We like helping charities where we can and it builds up the confidence of staff,’ he says.
The penchant for the large-scale and theatrical doesn’t stop at work – Hawthorn is known to host huge dinner parties and reward staff with events. ‘I am lucky to have a large home, so I can invite people round – we recently had a barbecue for 120 members of staff and we also held a cake-baking competition for employees,’ he says. ‘For my 50th birthday party, I arranged a 70s themed disco, which started with tea and cake for 40 guests in the afternoon, then we had 90 in the evening, 30 people stayed over and the next day we had 40 for breakfast and 80 for a jazz brunch.’ It’s fair to say the man knows how to throw a party.
Remarkably, perhaps, for a privately held company that has been going for as long as Hawthorn, there has never been a board of directors. This is about to change through the acquisition of Anagram, an events company that’s been trading for 13 years. ‘For the first time, I won’t own 100%. I’ll have shareholders to appease and will need to justify my decisions but I think that will provide focus and direction. I am looking forward to being part of a bigger group and sharing resources with another company,’ he says. ‘Peter Harding and Neil McGann [Anagram’s founders] have a skilled team and an impressive portfolio of clients. Working with them will be both a challenge and a pleasure, I’m sure.’
Most people in business will agree with Hawthorn when he says that the biggest challenge is to hire and keep dedicated staff. ‘The staff come up with the ideas and deliver the events. Our clients like to see the same staff every year; instead of freelancers they never recognise,’ he says. Whether it’s the fabulous parties or just having a great place to work, staff seem to be very happy. His first secretary has just celebrated 20 years in the business and his general manager has been there 14 years.
So, for now, the focus is solely on integrating Anagram into the business. ‘Beyond that, it is about re-building after the recession and continued investment in infrastructure, allowing a bit of time for people to develop their skills and expand into new areas,’ he says.
With business running smoothly, presumably once the financial tide turns, things will just get better and better? ‘You can’t let complacency take over and the need to invest in people, systems and equipment continues on an ongoing basis. But it’s true, there is a momentum of projects, both exciting and run of the mill. The run-of-the-mill jobs are important for staff because they give them breathing space to train younger staff,’ explains Hawthorn. ‘You should remember, it isn’t all about high-profile £5m weddings or mega concerts for 20,000 in Hyde Park. An event for 60 people is equally important to the people who organise it.’
This article first appeared in Square Meal Venues & Events, Autumn 2012.