Me And My Partner

Charles Falzon, 43, and William Harris, 44, the president and chief executive of Gullane Entertainment, worked as associates before becoming partners in 1996. This year £28m of production projects, including a new Thomas the Tank Engine TV series, are planned.

Charles Falzon, 43, and William Harris, 44, the president and chief executive of Gullane Entertainment, worked as associates before becoming partners in 1996. This year £28m of production projects, including a new Thomas the Tank Engine TV series, are planned.

Charles Falzon:Our relationship goes back to the early 1990s, when I had already been in the entertainment business for 10 years and with a few colleagues had set up Catalyst as an international entertainment producer and distributor. As part of that I spent quite a bit of time in the UK, working closely with Thames Television. Britt Allcroft and William approached me with a view to becoming Thomas the Tank Engine's partner in North America. Together we co-produced 65 episodes of a series called Shining Time Station for PBS television in the US.

William was very much on the other side of the table but we seemed to have a common agenda; we didn't have to arm-wrestle too much. Britt had bought the rights to Thomas the Tank Engine from the Revd Wilbert Awdry in the late 1970s and was leading the Thomas agenda, and we were both there to help make that happen.

As the 1990s proceeded, the company grew into a bigger organisation and went public, and Britt herself has moved into more of a creative role. She remains a significant shareholder and the creative cornerstone of the group, but she now runs her own production company in Los Angeles. The board asked William and I to lead the effort of repositioning the group, so we became partners.

We realised that the combination of talent and our track record allowed us to do more for the organisation than was currently happening. Neither of us thinks parochially, which is crucial for a global business like this. We also share an approach to problem solving and are both extremely optimistic, so it was a great fit.

William has a strong corporate, business and financial background, whereas I have more of a marketing, business development and sales background. He is focused on logical problem solving. I tend to be more expressive, more outward with my enthusiasms. I'm based in Toronto and William is in Southampton and if we don't meet at least once a month it does get difficult. We talk on the phone every day, and often have "video coffees" using a video-conferencing call. When I came to the company, it wasn't a start-up situation but I came as an entrepreneur because that was my background. While I'm an employee and I have a corporate position, I'm also a shareholder, and look at it as a venture I'm helping to build for our partners.

Creating value is paramount and that has been the challenge for William and I, to take these incredible assets, reposition them and to acquire new ones such as Art Attack, through our acquisition of Media Merchants. We now have a really diversified portfolio, with four or five household names.

We have never been in the business of "selling toys". We're in the business of extending the entertainment experience at home. I have kids, and so does William, and I love the fact that we're involved in a company that our children can be kind of proud of.

Working together but being so far apart geographically, we really have to be in sync with our decisions. There's space to disagree because we allow each other to come from different points of view, but we almost always come out with a consensus. We are always talking about growth; how are we going to move on, what are we going to deliver? We talk about our medium-range plans for development, our short-range plans for sales.

I am an opportunity seeker and a builder for the group, and what I admire about William is his clarity. He will clearly assess that opportunity and say: "Hold on, does this make sense?" It's the most comforting thing in the relationship. You need to have a constant awareness of your strategy, and he does that for me. In turn, I think that he likes my enthusiasm and the fact that I can position stuff so that our assets and strengths are clear to everyone.

William Harris: I got to know Britt Allcroft when I was working for Price Waterhouse in South-ampton as a chartered accountant, and I joined the company in 1986 when it was still pretty small. Britt had met Wilbert Awdry while filming down at the Bluebell Railway in Sussex, and although she had not really known the books from her childhood, she realised from talking to him that they would make marvellous television stories. She then set about acquiring a licence for the TV, video and merchandising rights and finding the people to help her make a series.

I joined Britt because it was a great company and I felt there was huge potential. Television was really starting to open up in the UK and around the world and it seemed a golden opportunity. Britt has a wonderfully creative mind and I already knew Thomas from my youth and loved the stories. I felt the company was going places and I could make a real contribution to something that was still in its infancy.

We wanted to take Thomas to America in the late 1980s but we were faced with the choice of either selling the series to a broadcaster who would lump together our five-minute programmes into half-hour slots, or creating a half-hour show around Thomas. We did the latter, co-producing the shows in New York. The new series, Shining Time Station, started to gather some momentum but we needed more shows to gain presence. New York wasn't the cheapest place to produce, so we started to look around for partners to help make more of the series. That was how I first met Charles, who had been working in production and distribution in Toronto.

He is very striking, and back then he had this mop of black curly hair and a black moustache, and was incredibly enthusiastic. I remember the first time we met: we had missed a plane and were late for the meeting, but he was still very keen to do a deal.

He's a great dealmaker and the greatest salesman I know. I'm more of a numbers man and if I go and try to sell something I have to plan it very carefully and think about what I'm going to say in a formulaic way, whereas Charles will walk into a meeting apparently with absolutely no preparation, and will instantly pitch a project brilliantly in a way I couldn't do, even with several hours of work. I'd like to think I've learned from him but it's a natural talent.

In the early to mid 1990s we produced two full Thomas series in Toronto and ended up taking a stake in Catalyst. We didn't work together closely until after the flotation of The Britt Allcroft Company, when Charles came onto the board as our commercial director.

Britt never felt entirely comfortable within the constraints of a public company and the arrangement we now have with her means that she can devote her time to creative issues. In 1986 you didn't see character merchandising around in the way you do now. Most characters in the US were driven from Saturday morning TV, but with channels such as Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network, now there are children's programmes on TV all the time.

The market was growing and we realised that to keep pace we had to expand beyond Thomas. In 1994 we started thinking about how to take the company to the next level, but it wasn't until a year after the flotation, when Charles and I were there shoulder to shoulder, that we really started to make progress.

By the summer of 1999 Charles and I, together with the rest of the board, decided that we needed to take a leap to expand the size of the company, either through buying properties, merging with a similar-sized company or getting taken over and filling a niche within a larger company. We talked to HIT Entertainment, but after discussions we concluded that there wasn't sufficient value for our shareholders, so we terminated the talks. Instead we chose to grow organically and through acquisition. Our biggest challenge is just how quickly the world in which we operate is changing.

The geographical distance between Charles and myself is one of the strengths of our partnership. We have become interchangeable, but it's something you can only maintain if communication is good and you trust each other. We do debate things but we are both pretty flexible. That's the key to the success of our partnership; that we're prepared to adapt.

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