Sometimes, cultural references provide the best guide to our past, allowing us to place a number into personal context. Forty years ago, in 1974, Rubik released his infuriating and ingenious Cube, Volkswagon rolled out the first Golf and Ronald McDonald brought his burgers to Britain. Tiger Feet by Mud was the year’s top-selling single, and The Towering Inferno led the disaster movie charts.
In other nostalgic news, Birmingham’s NEC was still being built, and Manchester Central was a disused railway station. It was also the year that Joe Manby Limited (JML) was formed in Harrogate by husband and wife team Joe and Val. At the time the company had two clients, one of which – The Harrogate International Toy Fair – remains a loyal customer to this day.
In 2014, JML is one of the UK’s most respected independent event service providers, with a portfolio of 75 events nationwide, a worldwide customer base, and a full time staff of 34. Run by brothers Richard and Andrew Manby, JML was also shortlisted in the Exhibition News Awards in the Best Supplier to Organisers category.
“The last 40 years have seen many changes for Joe Manby Limited and the events industry,” said Richard.
“Four decades ago our designers worked at drawing boards creating floorplans and designs which today are created using the latest software and are available online.”
Andrew points to the development of venues outside of London as one of the key drivers for his father to establish the business, and the desire for local firms to benefit from the burgeoning industry in Harrogate.
“Nationally, the event industry was London based with a few notable exceptions,” he said. “Harrogate had been hosting events from the late 40s, but had only really started to develop its exhibition portfolio with the completion of three exhibition halls – Halls A, B, and C as we know them today – from 1959 to 1971.
“Those events coming to the town were using London-based suppliers and the council was keen to encourage the regional economy and see local suppliers service this trade.”
Through his previous business interests Joe had gleaned some experience of the exhibition industry, working with the Harrogate International Toy Fair and the Harrogate Gift Fair. It was with this limited experience, coupled with his own enthusiasm and confidence in the business’s potential, that saw the launch of Joe Manby Limited on 1 June 1974.
Initially the working world of JML was centred on Harrogate, but from that base the company quickly grew and by 1976 was regularly working at Earls Court, Olympia London and The NEC. In order to develop the business nationally JML had to subscribe to the regulations and working practices that then governed all aspects of exhibition life – notably the Working Rule Agreement as negotiated by the National Joint Council for the Exhibition Industry (NJCEI).
“From the beginning we have always desired to play a leading role in our industry,” said Andrew, “and in turn both Joe and myself were employer representatives on NJCEI – firstly as council members and then as presidents of the British Exhibition Contractors’ Association [BECA].”
Through those early year JML grew its stock and built a reputation for providing traditional shell scheme and bespoke standfitting construction. In line with the rest of the industry, the company was soon purchasing and developing a range of system products, providing not only modular shell schemes but also stand interior packages for both organisers and exhibitors. In 1976, JML started its own graphic division and in 1992 purchased the operational arm of Topham Bros to develop in-house electrical services.
“On reflection, we realise just how much our day to day working life has changed in 40 years,” said Andrew. “Necessity has undoubtedly made us leaner and more efficient. It is hard to imagine life now without mobile phones, email, text and the internet. Everything is more immediate and we have to be ever more contactable but, managed correctly, this can only improve the way we service our customers.
“We will also be required to be ever more creative and flexible when facing the new challenges ahead. How we meet these challenges will be reflected in the ongoing success of the business.”However, technological developments are a level playing field for every player in the industry, and greater challenges perhaps face the long-term future of Joe Manby.
Firstly, there is the fact that many of the company’s potential customers are more concerned with cost than quality, and Richard is adamant that other event service companies don’t offer the same quality of products or levels of service.
“We recognise that some organisers view shell scheme, electrics, and carpet in the same way they view products in a supermarket,” said Richard.
“That effectively it is all one and the same, so it is simply how cheaply it can be purchased! While we are all cost conscious these days, this thinking has undoubtedly had an impact on both maintenance and future investment. A visit to any number of shows immediately highlights just how tired some of the fixtures and fittings on display have become.”
Secondly, and perhaps more controversial, is the seismic shift in the UK supplier landscape, with US giants GES and Freeman swallowing up smaller operators. Many in the industry have expressed fears about the long-term effects of this near duopoly and the impact on pricing and, of course, quality.
“At this time we’re not too sure we’ve seen the full impact that these two companies may have on our industry,” said Andrew. “The first year of Freeman’s tenure seems to have focused on (no doubt essential) restructuring and relocation. Whether GES and Freeman end up beating each other over the head, and who will be injured in the fall-out, only time will tell!
“As always, rumour abounds as to where all this may ultimately lead, but the unarguable fact is that our industry needs a vibrant, capable service sector, which is able to offer all our organiser and exhibitor clients a real choice from the broadest range of both product and services.
If in the end customer choice favours the ‘big two’ to the exclusion of all others, then that will be the industry that such decisions deserve. Frankly, we fail to see how a choice of only two, or possibly in the end just one main provider, best serves the event industry in the longer term.”
Richard Manby agrees, saying that the success of the company has been built on “good old-fashioned customer service – we pride ourselves on being highly professional and delivering a quality, reliable and personal service.”
Many organisers clearly agree, with events for this year including work for Centaur, Ocean Media Group and Reed across the UK. The Trade Union Congress and the Conservative Party Conference are both established events in the company’s busy autumn season.
There are also long-term partnerships – The Conservative Party (2014 at ICC Birmingham), Chartered Institute of Public Financiers & Accountants (2014 at Novotel London West) and Brityrex International for ECI International Limited (2014 at EventCity Manchester) have all been unbroken clients since 1985. This is not unusual at JML.
“We now know that our five longest client events have totalled in excess of 150 years continuous involvement,” said Andrew.
“Despite the passage of time, the traditional principles on which Joe based his business philosophy are still very much at the heart of everything we do today. The understanding that you are only ever as good as your last job and that your reputation along with your staff are your prize asset, are as true today as they were 40 years ago.”
This was first published in the June issue of EN. Any comments? Email Annie Byrne