Febuary 2012 Issue 150
Four decades of supplying lighting equipment and services to various areas of the entertainment industry has made white light a success on a global scale. Tpi’s Zoe Mutter talked to Managing Director Bryan Raven about the company’s theatrical roots and how it has diversified into a multitude of areas to keep up with an ever evolving sector.
As lighting equipment supplier White Light celebrates 40 years in business, it’s clear the company is on to a winning formula. Priding itself on maintaining good relationships with customers is part of the reason behind its long list of achievements and clients, explained Managing Director, Bryan Raven. “We believe that taking a long-term view on the future of the business has been a significant factor in the success of the company, as this has led to customer loyalty. Obviously you also have to listen to your customers and supply the equipment and service that they want - not the equipment and service that you want to supply,” he said.
With an endless list of projects under White Light’s belt, picking out some highlights from the company’s history wasn’t easy for Raven, who has been a member of the team for 25 years. Winning the $5 million contract to supply lighting for the House of the Dancing Water show in Macau stands out as a one of many recent success stories, having taken the company into another area of activity and, according to Raven, proving that the same attention to detail and customer service ethic that is applied to all of White Light’s projects can be successful on a larger scale.
Added Raven: “Miss Saigon running for over 10 years in the West End before touring deserves a mention as it was one of the early ‘mega musicals’ and an early user of moving lights and scrollers. White Light supplied touring productions of the show until it closed. More recently, the arena tour of Eddie Izzard’s Stripped was a great show to be involved in as we proved to both ourselves and our customers that we can successfully provide a high profile arena tour.”
Launched in 1971, when the concept of lighting hire was relatively new and only a couple of similar firms existed, the business was aiming at a market that was not very well serviced from the start. John Simpson founded White Light, along with lighting designers Rory Dempster and Andy Philips, whilst he was working at the Royal Court Theatre. It wasn’t long before it became a full-time job for the trio when the company moved into the premises at Filmer Road, Fulham, in 1977.
From this point on, it was continuous growth for White Light, with the business occupying five warehouses in Fulham by the time it moved to Wimbledon in 2001. Until 2006, the company also had a smaller base near Halifax, West Yorkshire. “The facilities in Wimbledon were initially 45,000 sq ft, but including mezzanine floors we are up to 80,000 sq ft of warehouse space. Whilst we have a number of remote workers including a team of business development managers ‘on the road’, all of the equipment for both hire and sales is stored and dispatched from the SW19 operation,” explained Raven.
For the first 20 years, the majority of White Light’s work came from theatre and theatrical lighting designers, supplying productions of all sizes and budgets. The transfer of The Rocky Horror Show from the Royal Court Theatre to the Kings Road Theatre was the first of a long list of legendary productions supplied by the company; from Les Misérables through to the We Will Rock You tour. By the early ‘80s, White Light was one of the main suppliers to the West End, and its kit had been used on two thirds of the West End by the end of the ‘80s. Said Raven: “This is something we have continued to do ever since. As the company has grown, it has also diversified into other areas with a lot of this coming from existing customers also moving into other areas including corporate presentations, concert touring and architectural lighting.”
The Board of Directors at the company are a long established team with over 150 years of experience from White Light and the abundance of specialist knowledge needed to cater for such a variety of projects. Working alongside over 130 full-time staff and a team of up to 60 regular sub contractors, they offer a complete lighting service comprising sales and distribution, hire, projects and installations and production. Alongside Managing Director, Raven, Dave Isherwood runs the hire side and Peter Threadgold looks after sales. Heading up projects at the firm is Simon Needle, whilst Chris Nicholls runs the day-to-day operations. The team is backed up by Richard Wilson as Business Development Director, Paul Millington as Finance Director and John Simpson as Chairman.
It may have its roots in theatre productions, but White Light’s range of projects extend far further. Last year, hire of lighting to the West End accounted for only 9% of the company’s turnover, whereas music based events made up 4%, with 12% of turnover coming from corporate events. “But we are always known for theatre and we also find ourselves talking about it to clients as most of them are more interested, on a personal level, about whether we are supplying Matilda or Ladykillers than whether we are supplying a conference for one of the financial institutions in the city,” explained Raven.
“Most of our diversification into other areas has happened when lighting designers we know through our traditional work take on projects in other areas such as music or architectural. We have found after many years of diversifying, that the skills and services we offer transfer pretty well across other areas as long as the equipment required is the same.”
As well as moving into different sectors of the industry, White Light has supplied kit to locations all over the world and established a strong client base in multiple territories. Whilst inside the M25 and the UK will always remain the company’s core areas of activity, Raven admits the industry is now a global one and the main reason White Light has developed such strong relationships with people internationally. He explained: “One of the reasons for this is that, whilst the UK is no longer a manufacturing base for the world, we still lead in terms of technical expertise and creativity. So many successful live events are created by people based in the UK and delivered by British technicians and as a supplier that these technicians and designers trust, we are often invited to get involved in these worldwide projects.”
White Light prides itself on the range of products it can offer its valued customers, with one of the most comprehensive lighting stocks in the industry that represents 150 manufacturers and 30 thousand product lines. Catering for all scale of projects, the company can provide a single sheet of colour filter right up to a complete lighting rig. On the sales side of the business, the iPix range has proven to be a hit since the company took over the distribution of the range in 2010. “They are in high demand from lighting designers,” explained Raven. “This is probably because iPix puts so much effort into building products that lighting designers want. The Robert Juliat range of followspots is also world class and continues to prove incredibly popular.”
Although moving lights remain the largest part of any hire contract in terms of value, one of the other growth areas over the last few years in White Light’s hire division has been the demand for LED fixtures. “We have built up a huge range of different manufacturers’ products over the years as every designer has different preferences,” added Raven.
Continuing its strong links with manufacturers, towards the end of 2011, the company announced it had been appointed as authorised service centre for Philips Vari-Lite, offering support and service for all of the brand’s automated lighting fixtures for Vari-Lite owners across the UK and Europe.
But it’s not just the creations of others that feature in White Light’s lighting stock; the company also creates products for lighting designers when required, with two of the team’s favourite inventions being the VSFX optical effect system, which was a development on the traditional Patt 252 effect that the company developed in the early ‘90s, and the snow machines it created for the original production of Billy Elliot. “Having established both products, we felt that we should concentrate on what we are good at - supplying lighting kit and leave manufacturing to the experts, so we handed the products over to our friends at City Theatrical and both products are enjoying a new lease of life!” said Raven.
KEEPING UP WITH THE TIMES
The technology and the business of the sector have both developed extensively since White Light was founded. “The technology available now is more reliable than ever before and is fast moving so you need to keep up with the latest developments,” says Raven. “The commercial side of the industry has also grown up and we are a proper industry now and most of the companies in our industry are well run SMEs, rather than people operating out of a garage as a glorified hobby.”
In such a fast-paced sector, keeping up with the technology is vital and something White Light has succeeded in throughout its 40-year history. Looking after the customer relationship by re-investing as much as possible back into the business in terms of new equipment for hire and stock for sales has been an integral part of this process, along with spreading the work between different markets so as not to become too reliant on a single marketplace. “The overall theme on all of these strategies is that we are here for the long term. This is helped by the fact that the directors of the company are also the owners, so we have no external ‘masters’ to keep happy,” explained Raven.
In 2011, for the first time since White Light was founded, sales turnover was greater than the hire turnover at the company. Looking forward, the team at White Light HQ anticipates that 2012 will be yet another interesting year, with an increased demand in some areas - especially the corporate clients - while other sectors such as theatre are expected to be quieter. Concluded Raven: “We are trying to get a message to clients that they need to get confirmation of requirements as soon as possible as we want to be able to help everyone we can - whether they are a new customer or a long standing client - but there is a finite amount of equipment available and sadly only 24 hours in a day.”