From crafting a wooden dinghy at school to contract managing prestigious exhibition stands for global aerospace and auto manufacturers, Chris’s passion for excellence spans five decades. And it hasn’t stopped yet.
Chris, you retired in 2018, so how come you’re back in the CDI World UK offices?
I was in the potting shed preparing all my summer plants when the phone rang: “Can you come over and help?” I said yes pretty quickly. [CDI World are currently recruiting] I’m not sure how long I’m here for but it feels like I’ve never been away. You never stop learning and we’re working on a fascinating project, all to do with merging virtual and physical movie-type sets to create a new kind of user experience. It’s top secret so I’m zipping my lips now.
Take us back to the beginning. How did you get started in the events business?
In 1969, towards the end of my time at school, my Grandad asked me what I wanted to do after exams. I told him I enjoyed woodwork and he suggested applying for a joiner apprenticeship with Clements Exhibitions (CDI World’s progenitor company). I went along for the interview and soon had the distinction of being the very last person to be hired by Mr. Clements before he retired.
What did he like about you?
I’m 6ft 4ins. He looked hard at me and said, “You can paint ceilings, it’ll save me having to buy steps.” That was my initial qualification – height!
Did the company work for any big names at the time?
Austin Motor Company was the biggest (later the Rover Group), Clements used to build the stands for their annual, premier London Motor Shows. Phostrogen (Plant Food Company) was another. There were many. Working on these stands was my introduction to the exhibition halls of London – which I thought were wonderful. When I finished my apprenticeship in 1972, I was promoted to Charge Hand and the rest, as they say, is history!
But London wasn’t the only place where the exhibition industry was booming?
That’s right. In 1976 when the Queen opened the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham, it was like a whole new future for exhibitions. There were twenty interconnected halls with two million square feet of floor space. Fairly rapidly, stands got bigger and more elaborate, budgets ballooned and exhibiting companies started to become more and more ambitious.
How did this affect the company?
Well, previously we employed about thirty people building bespoke stands. The vast space the NEC offered created a big demand for standardised shell scheme stands – modular booths that ringed the halls. Virtually overnight, we went from building small numbers of one-offs to large-scale production. The company grew massively, becoming a large employer. By the 1980s I was a General Foreman supervising fifteen to twenty carpenters.
Carpenters can be characters. Did they ever give you any trouble?
No – they are great lads. Mind you, I used to tell them, if you’re going to give me an excuse it better be a good one because I’ve heard most of them!
And as well as the shell scheme units you were still working on bespoke stands?
Oh yes. I worked on the Farnborough and Paris airshows, building stands for British Aerospace and Lockheed. And of course the big motor shows, which were starting to become increasingly sophisticated
In what way?
Back in the early days, British auto shows were pretty basic. You put the vehicle on a plinth, or possibly a turntable if it was fancy, put in a kiosk for the brochures and that was about it. But that soon changed. Exhibition designers love to integrate the latest technical elements. So, as things went on, we had more complex turntables to build and engineer, more complex lighting and AV elements to install. By the mid 1980s, they’d almost reached a point where the show stands were the stars rather than the cars. It was more about designers trying to outdo each other.
Your next career move was to become a Contracts Manager?
I’d been a General Foreman for quite a few years and enjoyed it, but always had an eye towards the management side. So when they asked me to put down my hammer and saw and pick up a laptop, I happily accepted. I love the process of managing a project, pricing it up, buying the materials, getting the working drawings made, managing the carpenters, booking transport and hotels, and so on. There were quite a few sleepless nights. Looking back, I often think, “Did I really do all that?”
Having so much hands-on experience must have helped.
Our management team like to promote people who have walked the walk. And with the tight deadlines we often faced and the strenuous client demands, I don’t think I could’ve survived in that job without my foreman background. By the time I became a Contracts Manager, I knew how to avoid the ‘drains as I’d already fallen down most of them!
What did you find most rewarding about the role?
Well the first thing, of course, is always to make sure the job’s done well and makes a profit. But I enjoy working with clients and appreciate when they express confidence in the company and in me. We used to do a lot of work with British Telecom. Within that one company, we probably had eighty or ninety different clients going to different exhibitions at various times and one client would recommend me to another. It’s always rewarding when people keep coming back.
We love to hear about the hobbies and interests that keep our team members engaged. What floats your boat these days?
Well, motor racing always gets my heart racing. As does my BMW Z4. I’d say they both qualify as abiding passions. When I was a youngster, my father and I were quite close and motorsport was a big passion of his. He’d take me along to the Silverstone Circuit in Northamptonshire or the TT races on the Isle of Man. So many great memories. It became a family pastime – piling in the van and hitting the races. I’ve passed it on to my own kids as well.
We understand you’re into keeping fit too.
It’s another passion to be sure. When you turn sixty-five, the doctors step up the testing and really start chasing you about your health. So I’m walking and cycling all the time. Yeah. I’m one of those blokes in lycra! Reading is also big for me – I do enjoy my Kindle. Most of all I’m a people person. I like to see how people are doing, you know? How everything’s going.
Final question. If CDI World offered to support a personal, ‘passion project’ of yours, what would it be and why?
You’ve saved the toughest till last! Okay – try this. There comes a point in life when you realise “Hey, I’ve done my bit now and it’s time for me to encourage the next generation.” So I’d like to see younger children, especially those who might be labelled as ‘dis’ – disadvantaged, disabled, dyslexic and so on. I’d like to see them get the proper attention and training that really develops their passions and abilities. Something that teases out or catalyses their latent skills and talents.
You obviously feel strongly about this.
I do. Youngsters today, the next generation, my grandchildren, have a massive range of talents and potentials that might not develop fully because their education is so target led. We shouldn’t write youngsters off just because they’re not achieving their targets. No one’s unique capabilities should ever be wasted and a Skills Centre dedicated to the development of future generations is what I’d like to get involved with. That would be brilliant.
Indeed it would. Many thanks for chatting with us, Chris.
Thank you. I’ve enjoyed it.
CDI World are actively recruiting for a number of roles including Project Managers and Carpenters in both the UK and the USA. Take a look at our careers page to find out more and to apply.