As Showlite celebrates its 25th birthday, founder Paul Wicks looks back on the company’s history and reflects on the industry.
As Paul Wicks, founder of Showlite, takes a break from his busy schedule to meet with EN over coffee, we find him in a contemplative mood.
“I’m never happier than when I’m onsite at a build-up,” he says. “I still get the same buzz walking round a busy venue and watching shows come together.”
The reason for this introspection is that Showlite is celebrating 25 years in business, growing from a lighting specialist into a thriving full-service provider.
Wicks himself has been in the industry even longer, first hearing about the alluring world of exhibitions from a chance decision to pick up a hitchhiker in the wilds of Hampshire.
“I was driving in the middle of nowhere,” laughs Wicks. “I don’t know to this day what he was doing there but I picked Phil up and we started talking. He was involved in a very small way in the contracting side of the industry. We became good friends and through his association I moved into the industry.”
With a background as an electrician, it was a natural fit for Wicks to get involved in the electrical side. He started small; working on roadshows and doings bits and pieces for a local company before working in venues like Earl’s Court, Olympia and the NEC.
“The work felt easy at the time,” he recalls. “We were enjoying our work, there were always lots of people and build ups were very slow. You would have a week or even two on some of the bigger shows. It was the polar opposite of what happens today: ‘Get in, get it done, get it out’ and onto the next.”
Wicks founded Showlite in March 1992, with the intention of focusing on customer service and providing a high quality product for a fair price.
“I wanted to be the best at what we could do in our field,” he tells EN. “And we quickly built a nice reputation.”
The years that followed told a story of controlled growth, with Showlite amassing a loyal customer base, most of whom are still working with the company to this day. Then, in 2008, the global recession hit.
“That was a really tricky time, the end of 2008 especially,” recalls Wicks. “For a period it felt as if every call was a show being reduced in size, not happening at all, or being postponed. It was definitely a worrying time – the whole industry felt it – but nobody at Showlite lost their job. We tightened our belts, did a bit of good housekeeping and I think we were better for it.”
Wicks himself ran the business remotely for a time, moving to France with his wife and five children in 2003.
“I lived in France for ten years,” he says. “I remember my wife just said, ‘why we don’t try it for a year and see if it works?’ That was it really; we loaded up the car, filled some lorries with furniture and off we went.
“It was fantastic; a real adventure! The house was a beautiful old stone farmhouse, nothing grand but a peaceful and relaxing hideaway, everything that my work life was not. For the first summer we lived on BBQs and did the house up slowly. It was a real love affair.
“I practically lived on a plane; coming back to the UK twice a week. But as I was used to sitting in a car for 55,000 miles a year, it was really only a small adjustment. In France I rediscovered my wife, my children and my life-work balance.”
After returning from France, Wicks decided to make a big change to Showlite, offering existing clients additional services such as carpet and shell scheme. Showlite was slowly but surely becoming a full-service supplier. And this was matched by growth in the team.
“We started to put together a team of people, one which I believe is second to none in the industry,” says Wicks. “They brought with them experience and knowledge, and most importantly they all bought into the Showlite ethos and it has worked. Showlite, with the new team in place, has seen a 300 per cent increase in business over the last 24 months.
“Showlite is not a family company but it is a service-driven company. We are not embarrassed to make a profit, but be assured we will do the job properly. Our materials are good, the product’s good and the staff from first point of contact are second to none. We also have a strong health and safety ethos, and have just launched a new internal certification scheme which accredits all our contractors and sub-contractors – an industry first I believe?”
People are at the heart of the business, and Wicks is proud of Showlite’s new #Hero campaign, which focuses on the unsung heroes who work behind the scenes to ensure that show after show is pulled off without a hitch.
“I really enjoy my working life, and I love this industry,” he reflects. “People walk past somewhere like Olympia and don’t realise it represents a multi-million pound industry, with thousands of people employed and shows happening daily.
When it comes to looking ahead to the next 25 years, Wicks is optimistic for the future of Showlite.
“I’m at a stage right now where I feel that the team are in the right place, doing great work,” he concludes “Now it’s just a question of carrying on that standard and introducing the next generation of industry professionals.”