Sound & Stage sits down with COO Simon Ransom to find out more about what's been happening lately at the ever-expanding eclipse Group...
S&S: In the 13 years since eclipse Staging Services was set up, the company has been growing at a rapid rate. Tell us how the business has evolved and expanded and why these decisions were made…
The company had to expand initially out of necessity rather than a conscious decision to do so. It found itself in a market that was crying out for more choice at the top end, and that was a position that Mark Brown, the owner, was interested in filling. The early expansion was entirely organic with equipment being purchased very much on an 'as needed' basis, which led to a very quick growth in inventory that then, in turn, required the increase in manpower to deliver the projects. When I joined the team in 2010, initially as a consultant, then as the CSO and now as the COO, the company was at a crucial point in its growth curve, the decision being to either continue along as a large 'garage business' or to take the plunge and structure for serious growth. Mark and I put together a five-year business plan which included creation and implementation of process and procedures as well as a corporate governance structure that would enable the company, and subsequently the group, to grow on solid financial, procedural and structural foundations. Eclipse Staging Services continues to be the flagship member of the group and, under the leadership of general manager Martin Lubach, who took over the reins in 2014, has led the group from the front regarding the implementation of the processes, structures and procedures that have ensured that our rapid growth has been sustainable. These processes and procedures also contributed to help us win the MEEA employer of the year award for both 2015 and 2016.
I am happy to say that with the great team that has been built up over the last few years, the five-year plan was achieved roughly one year early. And, having quadrupled in size in that time, the future of the group continues to look strong.
S&S: How about your own background — what led you to be in the industry and position you hold today?
My career started out in 'real theatre' and then Las Vegas-style review shows in Sun City, South Africa. After a five-year stint in the UK, I spent some time working for Jean Michel Jarre as his technical producer for a European tour, which is where I met my wife, and then in 1994 I came out to Dubai to work for the original Gearhouse office. When the Gearhouse Group started to show some cracks, I decided to return to France where I worked at Disneyland Paris in their special events division. However, after more than five years in Dubai, France was not as exciting as I expected it to be and, through a few good breaks, I ended up back here in 2001 working for Microsoft running all of their events throughout the GCC and surrounding countries. The following years included being part of the building of the Al Sahra Desert Resort, which include a 2,000-seat amphitheatre venue with in-house show, as well as some of the region’s most iconic events such as the launch of Atlantis The Palm resort, where I was technical producer for Kerzner International (one of the owners), and also the mega event that was the inauguration of the King Abdullah University for Science and Technology (KAUST) in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where I was working for Filmmaster Events as technical director. My relationship with Mark Brown goes back to the late 1990s when I employed Mark and Laser Grafix UK to provide lasers for an event in Dubai. We hit it off then and have stayed in contact over the years. As eclipse Staging Services grew, I also used the company as a supplier for many of the events that I was involved in and was keeping an eye on its growth from afar as such. Mark approached me to give him some consultancy time in 2010, which then turned into a full-time position the following year. The rest, as they say, is history!
S&S: Are you noticing any particular industry trends or new areas within the regional industry where eclipse’s services are required?
The UAE and wider GCC markets are very much trend driven in my opinion, and this provides both opportunities and challenges to us as a supplier. Particularly in the UAE, clients are often looking for that 'latest gimmick' whether it be robotics, automation, or drone pixel mapping as a few examples, and investment in some of these technologies can be significant with a very short potential lifespan. With this being the case, we are cautious in our outlook when it comes to trends but are of course willing to look at anything that can give us a suitable return on investment.
LED screens are a good example. If we had invested significantly over the last few years, we would now invariably be sitting with large amounts of stock that we would have to consider as negative equity on the balance sheet, in that the purchase costs for new products of the same or better quality have dropped so much over the last year. Saying that, the trend towards LED over projection as the technology has improved and the costs have come down, is evident. We have seen a flood of LED screens coming into this market as the purchase costs have dropped, which then has also made it harder to rent older screens at the rates that we should be renting them for. If this trend continues we are invariably going to be competing in a market segment that will be under immense pricing pressure and one where the uninformed customer is not necessarily going to appreciate the differences between suppliers, especially when it comes to HSE, quality, and professionalism. The cost of the equipment is definitely not the only thing to be considered when choosing suppliers, as we all know.
Another trend that we see in the market is the growth in size and number of single discipline suppliers. While this could be considered a potential threat to our 'one stop shop' approach at first glance, as long as each of our disciplines can stand alone on the same or a higher level as the single discipline suppliers we do not see this as a concern. Our objective is to be considered one of the best in each and every domain that we work in, be it a department within eclipse Staging Services or one of our specialist suppliers such as Laser FX or Stage FX. Each and every person within the group strives to provide the highest level of service possible in whatever task they are performing.
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S&S: Tell us more about the launch of eclipse Venue Services back in 2014 – why do you think there was a demand for this and how did you cater to it?
The decision to setup EVS was driven by the coming together of multiple factors; the fact that several venue customers approached us looking for a quality in-house supplier able to satisfy their customers’ standards for events, coupled with an approach we received from some senior management in the field looking to work with eclipse. The coming together of these two factors made EVS a relatively easy decision for us to make — the demand came from the venues (the future customers), and the opportunity came from the availability of some key players in the market.
While EVS is, in reality, an equipment rental company with many similar assets as ESS, the business model is entirely different from a traditional rental company and — without the coming together of the two factors — we would not necessarily have taken the opportunity and invested as we have. That said, the launch of EVS has allowed us to spread our risk and protect the interests of the group as a whole as, due to their different business models, EVS and ESS rely on differing revenue streams.
The decision was, in hindsight, a good one. With eight contracted venues and several under discussion, the future looks good for EVS. We continue to see significant growth opportunity in the segment over the years leading up to and beyond the 2020 Expo, and as ever, Mark and I continue to look for new opportunities in the AV sector.
S&S: As a ‘full service’ supplier, do you think this has an advantage over renting each element from individual suppliers?
While we definitely consider ourselves to be a 'full service' supplier if that is what our client wants, by driving each of the individual eclipse Group companies, as well as every single department within the larger organisations, we are confident that they can then stand on their own feet as specialist single discipline supplier too. The direct benefits to customers taking numerous disciplines from the group are multiple with financial and co-ordination benefits being high on the list. When we have multiple disciplines on a project, there are invariably cost savings to be made through the combining of transport, logistics and possibly labour, all of which can be passed onto the client.
Coordination between disciplines is of course improved if the key players are all sitting in the same building with improvements on pre-production saving both time and energy for the client at the end of the day. There are of course 'common' disciplines such as primary and secondary power distribution that can be optimised when we are providing more than one discipline to a project. We can, and do, provide power as a standalone service to many projects so with this — as with lighting, audio, video, rigging, lasers and special FX — we look to provide a quality service, at the right price, and with all associated HSE and other support services to our clients.
S&S: What about the ongoing issue of health and safety - obviously eclipse are making strides to push for a regulated and safe industry, but how can this be encouraged among your peers in the sector?
Unfortunately, I believe that while some key players in the market take HSE very seriously, there are still many that do not, and that is why accidents still happen. We took the step several years ago to employ a fully-qualified NEBOSH certified HSE manager to oversee our projects and operations on a day-to-day basis and, in fact, due to our growth we are about to employ our second dedicated HSE person to the team. I feel that the only way that HSE is going to be taken as seriously as it should be by all parties is through legislation and this, by its nature, is invariably going to create challenges in the early stages of implementation. I expect that government will soon publish — and hopefully enforce — HSE guidelines for events and this will, in my opinion, help clients to see the differences between companies that take HSE seriously and those that do not. We at eclipse have been preparing for this over the past few years and are confident that we will be able to meet and exceed any requirements as they are introduced.