Ross Reyburn meets Andrew Thomas, managing director of AT Communications, a man whose company always presents the right image.
The marvellous little Cornish sailing resort of St Mawes and the somewhat less visually inspirational acres of the Lichfield Road Industrial Estate just outside Tamworth have no obvious connection. But they are both an integral part of the life of contrasts enjoyed by Birmingham-born company director Andrew Thomas.
We are talking about a genuine long distance commuter. During the week Andrew has been masterminding the £1.1 million move by AT Communications (ATC), his firm of audio visual equipment and presentation specialists, to a new headquarters on the industrial estate.
Then the weekend finds him 265 miles away in Cornwall with his wife Fiona and children Christopher, aged 13, and Rachel, 11, in the family’s modern house in the seaside village in the picturesque Roseland Peninsula.
"We used to holiday there – my parents always used to go down to Cornwall and we gradually worked our way down to St Mawes," he recalls. "It’s a lovely place. We originally bought a second home down there one spring day in April, we were out sailing and I thought this is what I want for my children. They have a great life down there."
As the journey is mostly motorway, he negotiates the trip in four hours and during the week, he stays in a Birmingham city centre apartment in Sheepcote Street.
"I leave just gone eight on Monday morning from St Mawes and I don’t catch any traffic on the way up. I leave work about three o’clock on a Thursday afternoon to get back to Cornwall for the weekend."
His weekends in the winter include playing football for the Gerrans village side he also manages and indulging in his other passion sailing his 35ft fibre glass yacht with his family.
"It takes a bit of getting used to, but it works well when I go back down to Cornwall – I’m away from it all," says Andrew, who recently acquired his day skipper’s licence. "For the first 10 years I was running my own firm, I was working 24/7 being on call all the time.
"I would get calls at two in the morning – if we had a show on and a projector broke down, then I’d have to get there straightaway."
The firm has spent £950,000 buying and £110,000 refurbishing the unit on the industrial estate on the outskirts of the Staffordshire town, conveniently placed just a few miles from the M42 motorway.
The new premises for the company’s 18 staff are more than double the size of the firm’s previous home – 15,500 sq ft compared to 7,000 sq ft – in Boldmere, near Sutton Park.
Inside the large warehouse you can find a large array of projectors, video screens, video players, moving lights and audio equipment including a £50,000 state-of-the-art projector.
"It has made a big difference. The first week we moved in we were doing an event for Volvo trucks," says Andrew. "It meant four or five Volvo people could come along and run through a video without being squeezed into a room.
"We are able to hang projectors on the trusses coming out of the ceiling in the warehouse and project a nice big image for them on a 60ft screen so they could see what they were getting when they go on site."
ATC, which is the only company outside London offering the latest MiTrix and MiStrip technology for presentations, also hires out equipment as well as staging presentations showing films that often used as television advertisements.
Presentations contracts can vary hugely in size.
"We have just done a job for Land Rover at Gaydon in Warwickshire for the UK launch of the new Discovery that was about £130,000," he says. "They had a production company producing the film and we handled the technical side of the presentation.
"Then the other night we had a £3,000 contract for an awards evening for Midlands Weekly Media at Ricoh Arena in Coventry."
The son of a metallurgist, Andrew was born in Rubery in 1963 and left school at 16 with just a couple of "O" level passes.
"I was a bit of a punk in the Punk Rock era," he recalls. "We used to go to concerts at the Odeon in New Street and the old Bingley Hall exhibition centre to see groups like the Sex Pistols and the Clash – the Jam were my favourite group."
In an era of high unemployment and a depressing economic downturn in the West Midlands, he had no clear idea of where his future lay. But he didn’t have to go far for his first job as he managed to be taken on as a junior technician working for Midland Audio Visual in Rubery in 1979 through a JobCentre vacancy.
"I worked for MAV for about two-and-half years and I loved it," he recalls. "I remember when I first went to the Metropole Hotel at the NEC – for somebody used to living in Rubery, it was big posh place.
"We did work at Rover and Cadburys and went all over the country. I was just a junior technician setting up sound equipment and projectors, but you got the experience on site doing the shows."
In 1982, Andrew had acquired enough expertise to land a job with the Birmingham audio visual company Samuelsons Sight & Sound. One of his major jobs with Samuelsons – a three-and-half-month nationwide tour with West Midland comedian Jasper Carrott – could have ended Andrew's career.
"I thought he was brilliant," recalls Andrew, who like the comedian is an avid Birmingham City supporter. "He was pretty much at the height of his popularity.
"The introduction to the show was a pre-recorded film of Jasper Carrott in the changing room getting ready for the show. Then he would do a travelogue of each town he was in backed by location shots. If he was in Northampton, you would see photographs of the shoe trade and he'd take the mickey out of industry.
"I remember the first show, I got the slides got out of sequence – Jasper wasn’t too impressed and I was almost thrown off the show. He was a nice guy though. I remember after the tour he took everyone out for a big meal in Shirley – I remember Bev Bevan and a couple of other members of the Electric Light Orchestra coming along."
"We lived out of hotels – we were away from home all the time, but I didn’t mind when I was I was young. When I started we used to get treated like kings – we used to stop in five-star hotels and the clients used to really respect the crew. It was a new industry in those days – these days they tend to put crews in different hotels."
In 1987, Andrew ended his happy association with Samuelsons when he went freelance, originally operating from his home in Douglas Road, Sutton Coldfield, where he stored his audio visual equipment in the garage.
"The first year I went freelance I think I earned about £30,000 – about £10,000 more than I was getting with Samuelsons. Those were the good old days. There was big money in the events industry."
In 1991, Andrew formed his own company opening using his initials in the name. AT Communications was based first at his home and then in premises in Union Drive and finally Gate Lane in Boldmere before moving to Tamworth.
His portfolio of events and clients has ranged from the Good Food Show at the National Exhibition Centre, Boots, the Salvation Army, the MOBO Awards to a long list of car companies including MG Rover Jaguar, Volvo, Peugeot and Land Rover.
A small, neatly-dressed figure, Andrew Thomas is quietly spoken and talks with a calm assurance about the highs and lows of a career that has seen him working with household names such as the late comedian Bob Monkhouse, impressionist Mike Yarwood and former England rugby captain Will Carling.
Oddball recollections form his early days in the industry with Samuelsons include the time the American evangelist Billy Graham offered prayers for the Birmingham audio visual company.
"We were covering one of his meetings when the projector went down," says Andrew. "He got them praying for the projector to work. The problem was solved – it was just a dodgy lead or an operator fault."
Less plausible were the instructions given to a crew on an audio visual presentation held at RAF Cottesmore in Rutland.
"We were told don’t use mobile phones or you will set off the ejector seats in the planes!"
ATC has enjoyed a five-year association with the annual dinners held by the Red Arrows, who had television presenter Carol Vorderman hosting their most recent black tie event for current team members, past pilots and supporters last October.
ATC handles the AV presentations at the dinners showing the celebrated RAF display team – which has staged more than 4,000 displays in 53 countries – in action.
"I think it is very skilled doing a live event – you only get one chance to get it right," he adds.
"The most difficult aspect is being calm and collected and not panicking. You have to press the right buttons when the managing director walks onto the stage. If you get it wrong, you are in for it big time.
"In the early days, you put tape in and they would get chewed up on a regular basis. If you had a big bank of 35 projectors with carousels and one of those slides got out of sequence, it was a nightmare.
"It is all computerised now. The equipment is very stable these days for film shows – it's usually operator error if something goes wrong."
He continues: "If a car company has spent half a million pounds on a flash video film shot in Monte Carlo and people have come from all over the world to watch the presentation, if you don’t get it right they’ll want compensation."
The gold rush days in the AV industry Andrew remembers in his youth have gone.
"Today it is still quite a lively industry, but there is a lot more competition," he points out. "Company people are a more hands-on than they used to be.
"Sometimes this is a problem. The trouble is with everybody having a power point on their PCs, people think they can design a show. There is nothing worse than seeing a powerpoint presentation at a conference done by an amateur.
"The budgets aren’t there as they used to be. Once the accountants started understanding the business, they started asking the questions. I don’t think this is a good thing – companies need to spend more money on events.
"You can’t beat staging an event and meeting people face-to-face to show your product – it gives the whole company a buzz."
Back in the 1980s, little did the lad from Rubery know he would be embarking on a career that would take him to some of the most exotic locations in Europe staying in top-class hotels.
Now as a successful managing director, he no longer spends most of working his life on the move and his hours on the road are mainly restricted to commuting back and forth from his home in Cornwall for weekends – a world away from the world of work.