Pic: Heather & John Penn; Yan Stile & Spencer Beard
This article, written by Paul Watson, was first published in FOH Online
19 October 2010
In 1975, two penniless students living "the original hippie counter-culture lifestyle" began working with blind ambition from a garage in Nottingham, England, begging, borrowing and stealing, determined to bring their dreams of creating an audio business to fruition.
Thirty-five years on, John and Heather Penn's creation - now SSE Audio Group - has developed into one of the most successful professional audio service providers in the U.K., catering for PA rentals, pro audio sales and audio installation; and after their 2008 merger with the U.K. rental company Canegreen, run by Yan Stile and Pete Edmonds, the future looks even brighter.
In 1982, when Heather Penn fell pregnant, former SSE client Chris Beale was brought in to look after the hire side of the business, which, according to John Penn, now MD of SSE, allowed the company to grow steadily and led to a strategic relocation.
"There was no passing trade whatsoever in Nottingham, so we moved to Birmingham next to Light and Sound Design (LSD)," says Penn. "LSD was really trying to break the mould; it was going places and borrowing money through venture capital, which was unheard of in those days. We rented space from them and, by association, it gave us a real boost straight away, which enabled us to have the confidence to invest in more systems, and led to the purchase of the Electro-Voice MT4."
The 1990s saw a significant upturn in business. SSE was building a serious client base, including AC/DC, Simply Red, Metallica and UB40, to name but a few. With big business, however, comes a bigger workload.
"AC/DC would be out for a year - UB40 would be the same, so it was a high volume of work," explains Penn, "and we were really motoring along - that was as much as we could cope with, and we were having to sub-hire a lot, so we were still under-resourced and underfinanced. To overcome the shortfall, we invested in NEXO's Alpha system, which we were keenly involved in the development of; it was another great step forward."
Rather than buckle under financial pressure, Penn's attitude was to "take the bull by the horns" and look to expand further; so in 2002, SSE found a way to buy its own headquarters.
"We stretched ourselves massively in doing so, because the site included a large office building at the front - and we invested in a NEXO GEO T system around the same time," reveals Penn. "It was quite a stretch, but we had some money in a pension fund which we used to buy the office building, refurbish it and rent it out. This enabled SSE to buy this [main warehouse], which was also refurbished to give us exactly what we needed. Finally, it meant we got to own some bricks and mortar, which made the bank happy. It was the best thing we ever did."
Two years later, after 23 years as hire director, Chris Beale left to pursue other interests. Although this was a time of great change for SSE, once again, it didn't stop the ongoing drive for success. Within weeks of his departure, SSE did a deal with L-Acoustics and bought its first V-DOSC system, which was a 180-degree turn for the company.
Meanwhile, Yan Stile, co-founder of Canegreen, had built up a successful business in North London, though by his own admission, not located in the ideal part of the capital. "By 2007, we had accumulated four units - all knocked together in Tottenham. It was freehold, and it had always been in the back of my mind that we might never be able to get rid of the premises," says Stile, "because, A, it's a shithole; B, it's a shithole, and C, it's a bloody shithole. But we made it work, and, actually, adding on as units became available was a great way to expand without needing to relocate."
The idea of a merger between SSE and Canegreen had been on the cards since 1998 due to a good relationship between Penn and Stile. However, it took a stroke of good luck and impeccable timing for it to finally happen.
"That year , we also got approached by the fabulous Tottenham Hotspur Football Club, who posed as a T-shirt manufacturer and asked if we had any units we wanted to sell. I said, "Yeah, we've got these four units," and they took them there and then without even looking at them," says Stile. "It was a bit like when Disney was buying up Florida. We knew they weren't a T-shirt manufacturer; and of course we got a very good price."
Shortly after, Stile visited Penn socially at SSE's HQ and was extremely impressed, which got him to thinking that collaboration made complete sense; Penn reveals that the timing couldn't have been better.
"Yan had two options with the forthcoming sale of his premises: buy somewhere else and do it all again, or put a deal together with us," Penn says. "And all the time, we've been having this conversation, saying consolidation is the way forward in the industry. So we both saw the opportunity to join forces."
Canegreen completed its merger with SSE in August 2008. Over the next 12 months, there was a gradual integration of facilities and resources, with Canegreen finally departing Tottenham in June 2009. Within 18 months after the merger, Canegreen's turnover increased by 50 percent. Today, the enlarged entity employs over 60 people.
A Large Inventory
The inventory in the large facility includes an ample stock of consoles, the vast majority of which are digital: DiGiCo D5s (3), SD8s (2) and SD7s (2); Yamaha PM5Ds (10), LS9 32s (26) and M7CLs (6); Avid Venue D-Shows with the stretch (4), Profiles with Mix Racks (2) and Profiles with separate stage boxes (8), SC48s (2); Midas PRO6s (3), Heritage 3000s (5), XL3s (3), XL4s (4) and an XL8; and Soundcraft Vi6s (6) and Vi1s (2).
Wireless demand is also very high. SSE stocks Sennheiser G2 beltpacks (77), G3s (28), G2 dual transmitters (53) and G3 dual transmitters (32); Shure UR1 beltpacks (48) and 23 of the new Shure dual receivers. Radio mics include Shure Beta 58s (36) and Beta 87s (12). SSE also continues to sub-hire a lot of wireless gear due to their huge festival presence. In addition, there are over 2,000 microphones in rental stock.
Unsurprisingly, SSE also has PA equipment in abundance and has just bought a load more L-Acoustics K1. It now owns more than any other rental company in the U.K. - more than 72 boxes in total; and that doesn't come cheap, as Penn explains.
"We spent £1m last year and over £500,000 this year on K1 alone; bundles of it," he says. "We also have bundles of V-DOSC, dV-DOSC, ARCS and KIVA - the baby ones; then there's all the NEXO GEO T with CD18 subs of course; and we recently sold off the L-Acoustics SB218s and upgraded them with the SB28s."
Stile has had a good working relationship with Meyer Sound since 1983 and says that, since the merger, SSE hasn't stopped investing in its gear.
"Post-merger, we decided that Canegreen would focus its attention on Meyer and sell off the other brands we had. We now have loads more MILO, MICA, Meyer wedges - it continues; there's always going to be customers that want Meyer - the purists, you know?" he says. "We have all their arrays and, of course, tons of M'elodie; we also still have some MSL3s and MSL4s - the MSL3 is still a very useful tool because of its wide dispersion pattern."
There is also a large quantity of both standard and specialist outboard in the warehouse.
Keeping Tabs On It All
When touring both the office environment and the warehouse, it became clear that SSE is a very well-oiled ship. Much of this, according to Penn and Stile, is down to "the SSE way of thinking," which stems from its advanced computer system, ensuring maximum efficiency at all times.
"We have software that we have written over a 15 year period; it does everything from invoicing, costing, stock control - everything is driven by it and everyone's kind of a slave to it," explains Penn. "Because we have such a moveable feast of gear here, it's important to keep tabs on it; everything has a tag number, and it's all logged in the system, so we know, for example, what might need fixing or replacing and where everything is at all times."
Stile adds that the computer system is the main reason he is able to work from home so easily, as it enables him to raise quotes, invoices, job orders and check availability remotely.
When broaching the subject of financial targets, Penn is adamant that it isn't wise to set any of great magnitude because of the volatility of the industry, using the Icelandic volcano's ash cloud as a recent example. He also relays the more "seat of the pants" story of how, in December 1995, after a good year, SSE suddenly realized it had no work at all booked in for 1996, and at the very last minute (perhaps down to divine intervention), they just managed to clinch the AC/DC tour, which, luckily, spanned the entire year.
"Budgets are something we don't do either," says Penn. "Nobody gets paid commission and nobody is on an individual bonus, because if you do that, people start working for themselves and not the company. We think that's wrong, because everybody should have a share in the profits. It's a team effort - every part of the sale is only as good as its weakest link."
Moving Beyond Festivals...
SSE is involved in pretty much every major festival in the U.K. - an impressive statistic for sure - but in the eyes of Penn and Stile, it's a frustrating label to uphold, because they see the company as having far more to offer, especially on the touring side of things.
"We've got a huge resource and skill set, and we're now winning American friends, which is great," explains Penn. "It's been a slow process since we bought the V-DOSC, but now we're building relationships with a lot of engineers, and we weren't doing that enough before."
Stile adds his own take on steering the company forwards. "We are seen as the experts in the festival rental market, and the glove often fits, but what we would like is to spread it through the year with more touring. Companies like PRG and Clair Brothers are massive across the globe and I think there's going to be more consolidation.
"The American bands see us at all the festivals and know us as the festival company. It's a bit of a poisoned chalice, because our job is to keep to the noise limits and to give the band the best possible experience, but what they want isn't necessarily what the promoter might want you to do - ‘The PA bay isn't in the place it was on the drawing' - that kind of nonsense - and half the time it's pissing down with rain, the wind's blowing in all directions, and everything becomes a compromise.
"In a touring environment, you don't get any of these issues, and you don't have to make the same degree of compromises, and you can iron out the details in rehearsals and warm-up shows," Stile continues. "Canegreen's rental history has been honed from years of touring work rather than festival work, so the integration of the two sides clearly works well."
Although that's the bigger picture - which both Stile and Penn hope to achieve in the not so distant future - some of the responses they've had at festivals have been remarkably positive, in his opinion, due particularly to the fact that the K1 system, as Stile puts it, "just walks on water."
Stile notes that "the K1's first outing was at Download Festival last year. All of the engineers were coming out front and saying how amazing it sounded. They quickly realized that if the gig didn't sound any good, it would be them to blame. That kind of thing is a huge mindset for us, because we know if that's the case, we're already winning."
Although headquartered in the middle of England, SSE also retains a London presence where much of its sales department is based. Penn says the sales company turned over almost as much as the rental company last year. In fact, the standalone success of the London operation has necessitated relocation during September 2010 to a much larger home base in London's NW10 area.
There is also a major French contingent in the group called Melpomen, which has offices in Nantes and Paris. Melpomen provides the PA equipment for a number of European events including the Solidays Festival (France's equivalent to Glastonbury), which takes place annually in Paris. Melpomen is also a major sound installer. Combined, the equipment and skills of the operations in France and the U.K. allow for full European support for all SSE-based accounts.
This July, after several months of tendering process, Melpomen won the contract for the design and installation of a new PA system for the Stade de France, the country's flagship sporting venue, located in the Parisian suburb of Saint-Denis.
The Manufacturing Side
What goes on backstage is equally impressive at SSE. In the fabrication department, a fully-integrated and meticulous system is in place, with an array of machinery that includes two CNC routers, a laminator, a spray shop, a welding shop and a finishing department - you name it, they seem to have it covered.
That equipment is used in SSE's production of everything from cabinets to dollies, cases and racks. As well as this, all of the wood waste is recycled and used to heat the warehouse in the winter, which as well as being very green, saves a lot of money on skip costs.
Training days are also regularly held onsite; Soundcraft's Vi1 was the latest console to be demonstrated.
It was always the intention of Penn and Stile that the coming together of the two companies would give the customer an even bigger choice from just one supplier operating from multi European bases. Coupled with the "no fuss/nothing's too much trouble" ethos that seeps through the veins of the new SSE Group, it's clear that they're well on the way to fulfilling their teenage dreams.
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