Success is a moveable feast

Chris Arnot reports on a Dutch firm that has learnt to make the most of corporate hospitality
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The Independent Online
Oh to be in England now that spring is here and a summer of sporting consumption stretches ahead. Pimm's by the river at Henley. Canapes under the canopies at Wimbledon. Champagne flowing as freely as petrol at Silverstone. Anecdotes and business cards will be exchanged, and occasionally drinkers and diners will emerge to blink at the sunlight and watch some sport.

The Dutch company, De Boer Structures, missed out on the corporate hospitality boom of the 1980s. It opened its UK division 10 years ago, at the height of the Lawson boom, and expected to reap the rewards of placing its imposing pavilions at the service of a seemingly bottomless market. But by the time the Dutch had worked out the niceties of dealing with quaintly ruthless English institutions like Wimbledon, the recession was under way and entertainment budgets were feeling the squeeze.

As that grip has gradually begun to loosen, De Boer feels better placed to cash in. If you can't beat 'em, buy 'em would seem to be its philosophy. It went out and bought the experience, the contacts and the name of Sporting Structures, formerly Hayes, in west London, which supplied the hospitality facilities for the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. Sporting's track record proved invaluable to De Boer when it sought the contract for the forthcoming Olympics in Atlanta.

Clinching that deal has given the UK division some clout closer to home. The Silverstone Grand Prix has provided pounds 300,000 worth of business. In September the company will also be supplying the largest temporary exhibition in the world. The Farnborough Air Show's 70,000 square metres of business halls and corporate entertainment venues will be encased in De Boer structures. "Structures", mind you. Not tents or even marquees. "We don't have poles in the middle and frilly knickers on the top," grins David Walley, the UK managing director. "These have aluminium frames and rigid sides, and we can cover more floor space than the NEC, Earls Court and Wembley Conference Centre put together."

The sales pitch is what you might expect from a man who was brought in five years ago, when he was 28, to re-target the company for the British market. It was an admission by the parent company that a formula successful in the Netherlands could not easily be transplanted across the North Sea.

In 1986 UK turnover was just pounds 80,000. Today it is around pounds 8m and much of that growth has come in the last two or three years. A decision to move the head office to Banbury in Oxfordshire is seen by the managing director as crucial. Building workers moving around sites all over Britain need to be at the centre of the motorway network, not stuck in Suffolk as they were until recently. "I think the chairman liked it there because it was flat and it reminded him of Holland," says Mr Walley.

Having found the right position geographically, he set out to secure the company a more profitable place in the market. Corporate hospitality was in the doldrums, so he went looking for business among companies that wanted exhibition or conference spaces.

"It really took off because we could offer them more space and flexibility than they were getting at the NEC, G-Mex or Olympia. They weren't dependent on conference hall electricians and caterers."

Such has been its success that the UK division has more than doubled its full-time staff in 12 months, from 35 to 80.

Mr Walley's management style is a reaction to the sergeant-majorish barks he endured as a corporal in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. "If you come down heavy with the guys on site, they resent it," he says. "You have to earn their respect by your actions. As long as you are consistent and they know how far they can go, there is no problem."

He adds proudly: "The first six foremen we employed are still with us." Their goodwill was doubtless enhanced by allowing them to keep the Land Rovers they use on site as company cars for their personal use at weekends.

Mr Walley also believes in keeping his employees fully involved in company decisions. Office staff gather for a meeting with him on Fridays to discuss the past five days and plan for the week ahead, and site foremen are invited in for coffee and cakes every third Saturday morning.

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