Interview: Richard Pegler

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It wasn’t an idle boast when Richard Pegler said that he is in an elite group. Few have managed to work in the venue, supplier and organiser sides of the exhibition business, a notable accolade in his career history. In all, the Freeman UK managing director has 22 years’ experience in both exhibitions and live events. So when you include sitting on the boards of Blenheim now UBM, Melville now GES, SO Group now Freeman, The NEC, and setting up his own event management company Event Connexions, you can see that Pegler has definitely been there and bought the T-shirt. Now he has the role of Freeman UK managing director. Little did I know that when Pegler asked to meet in the Landmark hotel in Marylebone that it was the place where he had sealed the deal there to join SO Group. “I had many meetings with David Walley, the last of which was at that table over there. (At which point Pegler pointed over the stairwell beyond where a lady was playing a harp for guests – it’s that kind of hotel.) But he admits that it was a tough decision to take on the role. “I had reservations about the job,” he said. “But by April 2013, when Freeman UK came in, I thought it was the best decision I had ever made.” Pegler acknowledges that the SO Group operation initially was dangerously lop-sided. “The business had gone from a pyramid to an upside-down pyramid. There were too many chiefs. For example, we had four heads of transport. The businesses inside SO Group had not been fully integrated. It was structured wrongly. It reflected the industry of about 20 years ago.” SO Group had a difficult birth. Back in February 2011 Opex Group and Early Action Group (EAG) merged to create a unified event and exhibition services company for the UK and global market. The newly-combined group encompassed Opex, Stanco, ExpoSystems, Excel Invision and Early Action Group. Under the new arrangement, former EAG chief Steve Barratt became CEO, working alongside Opex chief operating officer, Paul Slaney. In May 2011, the business rebranded to SO Group. Group chief executive Steve Barratt said it wanted to take on a new name with “elasticity” that could encompass the existing companies along with any future acquisitions. Underneath the top tier brand, the company has also created a host of new sub-divisions using the “SO” prefix including SO Wired, SO Simple and SO Hire. At the start of 2012, SO Group launched a dedicated division targeting events outside of typical exhibitions. Last August, SO Group claimed to have created one of the largest integrated, live event providers in Europe with the acquisition of 360 Creative Event Services. In October, perhaps the first seeds of company disquiet were sown with the departure of president Steve Barratt. By March 2013, the company was in administration. But with Freeman coming in to take over the company later that month, a new dawn beckons for the firm. “We are now able to make long-term decisions rather than being driven by short-term needs,” he said. “Freeman enabled us to do the restructuring in an environment of sustainability.” Pegler believes that the firm is on a sound foundation for business growth. “We are family-owned, third generation. The business is 40 per cent owned by the employees. Our aim is to integrate that here. “We are very different to a shareholder-led, plc business. By definition, we are different. I don’t have to report to shareholders.” In the early 2000s, Pegler worked for Melville, now rebranded as GES. Back then it was a very different business, and it would be unfair to compare like-for-like with his work with Freeman and GES. However it did mark a key turning point in his career working as a contractor following his organiser work with Melville. “It was a big eye-opener, going from an organiser to a supplier,” he said. “It was going from a high to a low-margin business. It took a lot of adjusting. But we weren’t making any traction with our global strategy. It was a lot harder to deliver and land than it looked.” Ultimately Pegler attributed his departure to his role taking on more managerial duties. “I enjoy strategy and integration challenges, building rather than managing,” he said. But what really troubled Pegler was that he felt he was moving away from his true passion of building projects. “I was the manager sat on the bench, still with my boots on,” he said. “I wanted to get into the midfield and make a difference.” He then set up Event Connexions, based around niche events. Pegler then acquired Energy Efficiency and Solutions with the help of business partner Simon Burton. The show at Olympia was a great success and was sold to UBM. After stints with The NEC and Mayridge, he joined SO Group. Pegler is keen to praise the work of GES but stress that the new structure implemented by Freeman will positively differentiate the company’s work. “I think GES work in a narrower way. We have AV and outdoor.” Headquartered in Dallas, with 70 offices in North America, Freeman produces more than 4,300 trade shows annually, including 135 of the 250 largest in the US and 11,000 other events worldwide. It had a revenue of US$1.6bn in 2012. Freeman is also Microsoft’s stand partner at its own corporate events and trade shows. “Freeman will never be up for sale, and it has always been based around employee integrity.”In summing up his career, Pegler notes that he has covered almost every angle of the industry. “I’m an elite group, having worked as an organiser, supplier and for a venue.” There are few in the industry who can give such an overview of its intricate dealings.   This was first published in the July issue of EN. Any comments? Email exhibtionews@mashmedia.net
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