For many who grew up or worked in the late seventies and eighties, it was a bleak time. The front pages of newspapers were filled with stories about unemployment, protest, industrial action and the miners’ strike, while many of the British public young and old, were becoming increasingly discontent with their lot.
The establishment was failing young people; anarchy and the feeling of anti-authoritarianism spread and with it, came the birth and rapid rise of punk culture.
For CloserStill’s CEO Andy Center (pictured), the punk scene and ideologies were to have a big effect on his life and his work ethos today.
“I was 15 when my older brother introduced me to punk music and the Sex Pistols,” says Center. “I went to my first punk gig at 16 where I got spat on – a shocking experience, but it didn’t put me off. In fact, I then went and followed the Clash on tour and lived the life that went with it until I ran out of money. I naturally had an affinity to punk values, and although it is a cliché, like a lot of people, music changed my life.”Fleet Street
Running out of money meant finding work for the young Center, and after working on building sites and being a waiter, a stint of being a journalist took him down a career path that led Center to where he is today. “Like most people in our business, I got into this industry by accident. I didn’t like the Fleet Street scene of journalists where a number of them were little more than liberty takers, so I tried my hand at being a copywriter for Reed and got promoted at the age of 26, to marketing director.”
This early promotion was to be a career defining moment, as he was spotted by Richard Copley-Smith of Independent Exhibitions and given a job and share in the business. “He is a brilliant and inspirational guy,” continues Center. “I really didn’t have everything that he needed to give me the job that he did, but he gave me a chance and it changed my life.”
A mixture of being given the opportunity to cut his teeth in the exhibitions trade at an early age by Copley-Smith and Center’s clear ideals have clearly played a key role in defining CloserStill’s DNA, with the CEO, along with co-founders Phil Nelson and Michael Westcott, taking the refreshing option of looking to the job centre to employ young people with the view to give them the opportunity in the business to play a key role and make a difference quickly. “It’s a myth that young people of today don’t want to work,” says Center.
“They just want a chance and we are committed to giving them that opportunity. In turn, we have a fiercely committed team who feel like they are winning. That opportunity given to me by Copley-Smith has influenced me in everything I do since.” Recession Proof
When the recession hit the UK in 2008, few people made the decision to start up a company. Even fewer were successful. But one of those success stories is Closerstill. Taking its name from the Joy Division albums Closer and Still, the company started up in 2009 on an old plot of land that was previously used for pig farming. Here, the co-founders along with chairman Phil Soar worked on a recession-proof business strategy.
“I imagine most people would have advised against starting a business in a recession,” muses Center. “But it actually gave us a massive advantage, because it meant there wasn’t as much competition as there usually is. Secondly, it meant that asset prices were low as the economy was depressed and thirdly, we knew going into the business we were creating, that we had to find markets that would remain strong even when the rest of the economy was weak.”
This concise business plan saw CloserStill’s founders target the health sector - the biggest single sector of economic activity in the country and in most of the West, and the technology sector, which was rapidly developing due to the mobile and tablet revolution. “We were surprised by the lack of competition in the health sector market. Primary care alone is worth £68bn, and with the mobile revolution about to really move up the gears, the technology sector looked recession proof.”
CloserStill’s non-conformist strategy of providing free content at their shows has led to considerable debate, but for Center and the CloserStill co-founders, the disruptive strategy has more than paid off. Heavily influenced by the consumer’s expectation of having high quality information available to them for free over the Internet, CloserStill made the then bold move of moving that expectation into the conference and exhibition market. According to Center, flipping the business model on its head was a defining factor in getting a competitive sharp edge against their competitors.
“One of the great advantages of the exhibition business is that if you do something that works you get full value for it as the competition is often slow to react. The essence of events is that we are introducing buyers to sellers. We are not transplanting brains or building jet engines. If you try harder, care more and are five per cent smarter than the other guys, then you win more than you will lose.”
Center continues: “We looked very carefully at professional and business events and found that either the content was weak or it was too expensive which meant that not many people could take advantage of attending a paid for conference. We decided we would flip the model by massively multiplying the content and make it either free or at a massive discount to the competition. The net result of this is, we get a much bigger and higher quality audience for a tradeshow, which is great for the exhibitor. This gave us a definable and competitive advantage, which is very difficult to counter attack.”
When questioned about the quality of free content and education provided by speakers at shows, the CEO was quick to counter. “If you look at a competing technology event, they’ll have a few dozen seminars presented by a few dozen of their exhibitors, which are basically thinly disguised sales presentations,” says Center. “At our very first Cloud event he had Werner Vogels the vice president of Amazon speaking. We have people who you would normally pay to see and because of that, instead of being in a room talking in front of 80-100 people, these speakers are standing in front of 500-plus people and they love it. If you get the content right, the commerce follows. It’s just common sense to me. Give people more reasons to be there for longer and guess what, they will be.”
Reports of an imminent sale of CloserStill have surfaced in the national media as well as in Exhibition News. While asserting that no deal was on the table, Center is honest enough to admit, that when the price is right, a deal will be made.
“We are a private equity business. It is no secret that at some point we will be seeking an exit so they can realise their investment. We are a very attractive proposition who has very successfully expanded internationally, which has naturally drawn attention of some potential buyers. At some point, there will be an offer on the table big enough that we will accept. But we are not at that point yet.”
When that time comes the charismatic Center is open to what the future will hold for himself and the co-founders. “Will I remain here? It would depend who the buyer is and what they want,” says Center.
“They’d take the team and the assets but if they already have a senior management team and didn’t require me, Phil Nelson and Mike Westcott to be here then we will be open minded. All we care about is finding a new owner who will be great for the business and look after the brilliant staff that we’ve got here."
The full article can be found in the February issue of EN. Any comments? Email Jamie Wallis