Small is smart, even for the big event

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The Independent Online

Most young businesses find it hard to resist the idea that bigger is better. Not Acclaim. About 18 months ago the Surrey-based events company was doing so well, its workforce had grown to 14. Not large by most standards but it was big enough to make its founders and joint managing directors, Simon Hambley and Andrew Browning, start to worry that the business was becoming unwieldy. "I think that once you get to about 20 people, you start to get more management layers. You tend to lose the one-to-one with staff. This means it's very difficult to keep the ethos going," says Mr Hambley.

Most young businesses find it hard to resist the idea that bigger is better. Not Acclaim. About 18 months ago the Surrey-based events company was doing so well, its workforce had grown to 14. Not large by most standards but it was big enough to make its founders and joint managing directors, Simon Hambley and Andrew Browning, start to worry that the business was becoming unwieldy. "I think that once you get to about 20 people, you start to get more management layers. You tend to lose the one-to-one with staff. This means it's very difficult to keep the ethos going," says Mr Hambley.

Their solution was to have a core team of 10 and use associates to help on individual projects. The advantage of this approach is that it ensures the firm has a flow of fresh ideas and copes with slack periods. The events market is highly seasonal: often frenetic between October and March but generally quiet in summer.

Acclaim, based in an alleyway in Thames Ditton, likes to say that it can design everything from an invitation to a touring exhibition. But its stock in trade is corporate events and awards ceremonies. Among recent projects was a reward for an international firm's 600 highest-performing sales people, which involved a trip to Monte Carlo and a cruise. In January, Acclaim will organise a conference in Marrakesh for the European arm of a US computer firm.

The increased use of teams and of team-building exercises by firms is a big source of business for Acclaim, whichwas set up as a "complete supplier", designing team-building exercises as well as organising venues. In fact, Acclaim is almost constantly busy due to this expanding market and also to personal recommendations from many satisfied clients along the M4 corridor.

Acclaim's success is in no doubt partly attributable to the founders' backgrounds. Mr Browning, who is 37, had extensive experience of event and production management before he teamed up with his partner. Mr Hambley, now 30, trained in theatre set design, construction and stage management. They met while working at AVE Presentations. They were enjoying their jobs but felt the only way to achieve their business vision was to set up on their own. They began Acclaim eight years ago.

The two stress that event management is not always plain sailing. Companies will often commit late, and no matter how much notice the Acclaim team is given, there are always concerns about getting everything ready on time.

"You have to be resourceful. We have to employ doers," says Mr Browning, adding that Acclaim's account managers, in particular, "are people who can pull it out of the bag".

With so much pressure, Mr Hambley admits it can sometimes be difficult to come up with fresh ideas. But by keeping a lid on growth, the company avoids becoming a "factory" with a set way of doing things. Much of its work is repeat business for organisations such as Microsoft, Pepsico, Sun Microsystems and Nortel Networks. But rather than continually adapting projects, the company likes to "start with a fresh piece of paper". It is also now looking to be a pioneer in remote conferencing and in use of the internet.

"Our strength, and consequently our way of winning over our larger competitors, is the quality of the people and the supportive relationships in the company," says Mr Hambley.

The company has a term for its linked departments dealing with video and film, technical support, and logistics - "deep teams". They are "determined not to sacrifice or risk diluting commitment by bringing in too many people". This cautious approach extends to their financial arrangements. Turnover is now about £4m, but all their expansion has been funded from retained profits rather than bank borrowings. As a result, says Mr Browning, they can "sleep at night".

This might sound very risk-averse, but the pair clearly have plenty of entrepreneurial spirit. "Acclaim was born out of our frustration with the status quo," says Mr Browning.

But the founders have not forgotten how to enjoy themselves; and they take care to deal with the health and work/ life balance issues linked to their anti-social hours. "We try to get together with barbecues and have a good family life," says Mr Browning. One more benefit of staying small.

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