With 12 years and over 3,000 exhibition projects under his belt for clients, Lee Ali tells BQ about his inspiration for his business, Expo Stars, and his global ambitions for the future.
What is it the company does?
Expo Stars is a global exhibition engagement company that helps businesses make every trade show and live marketing event a memorable brand experience that generates results, including increased exposure and return on investment.
Describe your role in no more than 100 words
I lead the Expo Stars team from our Manchester office. Together we work on between 30 and 40 events a month all around the world in the pharma, tech, aviation, energy, automotive and other business sectors.
Our approach to doing business, from the very beginning, has been very simple and honest. We take time to understand each of our clients' business and exhibiting objectives first, and using this information create a compelling attendee engagement strategy, tailor training to their team’s needs, and allocate professional staff to their project to elevate their exhibition results to the next level.
Give us a brief timeline of your career so far – where did you start, how did you move on?
I’ve always worked in sales and my first job was selling luxury holiday travel. Over the years, I’ve studied a lot around sales psychology, effective marketing strategies and human behaviour, which I find fascinating and helped me develop my career.
In August 2007 I visited the AdTech Exhibition at Navy Pier, Chicago. It was the first and only time that I can remember being proactively approached and engaged by an exhibitor in my previous 10 years of visiting trade show exhibitions across the globe. Within two minutes, not only had a professional lead generator caught my attention with a smile, but had me qualified as a potential client by asking the right questions and learning about my challenges with marketing software.
Having experienced how effective trade show engagement should be done, I was inspired to start Expo Stars in December 2007.
Starting as a one-man operation from my bedroom in Manchester, I set out to help companies attending exhibitions to generate more sales leads through hiring proactive promotion staff, initially focusing on exhibitions in London, with a small team of promotion staff and presenters.
As of now, we have managed over 3,000 projects, in more than 100 cities across 53 countries and built up a worldwide network of over 2,500 professional promotion staff. I believe our sustained success – despite the recession, banking crises, politician turmoil and Brexit – is down to our passion for proactive engagement, the quality of our people, and our drive to deliver results for clients.
What do you believe makes a great leader?
To me, a great leader is someone who has the ability to build a strong, effective team and develop them constantly. They should also have a vision for their organisation and adapt quickly if things don’t go to plan – after all, issues always crop up, but it’s how you deal with them that will make or break you. Likewise, pre-emptive thinking is essential, with strong contingency plans in place.
Great leaders should also have good ethical and moral values and lead by example, so not expect other people to do what they wouldn’t do themselves.
Good communication skills are key – they need to get their vision and ideas across clearly and motivate others to buy into them.
What has been your biggest challenge in your current position?
I’m so involved in the day-to-day running of the business that the biggest challenge I have found is building a structure so that the business can run without me. I previously struggled with delegating and letting go of certain tasks, but working with and developing my team means that I can fully trust them to do the right thing if I am not there.
We’ve also spent the last five years developing a bespoke system that can help to automate and manage some of our internal processes but without compromising the personal service we offer to our clients. I’m excited to start using this for our clients very soon.
How do you alleviate the stress that comes with your job?
Exhibitions are fantastic opportunities for businesses, but they can be stressful. Deadlines are tight, hours are long, suppliers might let you down, or staff could fall ill. But I need to be fully present, focused yet relaxed, and not grumpy or fatigued.
I’m a big believer in mindfulness and I’m a certified reiki practitioner. I keep calm by preparing as much as possible in advance, pre-empting any issues that I think may arise, so I feel more in control.
I practice gratitude by listing three things I am grateful for each day. Because the brain responds favourably to gratitude it can help you relax. I also take time out for breathing exercises and meditation - even just five minutes can help. I always make sure I get an early night too. Often events have plenty of opportunities for socialising once the exhibition hall closes for the day – but if it’s another busy day tomorrow, I don’t overdo it.
When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I’ve always been intrigued by the world of sales. In fact, my earliest memory of choosing a career is looking at the job section in the local paper when I was 15 or 16. I was impressed by the perks of the job – the salaries, cars and commission that they were offering sales staff – and I thought I would love to earn that kind of money for just talking to people. I started my sales career at 20, and have been involved in sales, marketing and business development ever since.
Any pet hates in the workplace? What do you do about them?
Too much unnecessary digital communication is my bug bear. Obviously, we live in a digital world and it’s an essential part of doing business now, but I don’t like it when people send emails or talk by messenger services like Skype or WhatsApp when they are sat opposite each other. At Expo Stars we encourage face-to-face interactions internally to ensure that there is a good atmosphere and clear communication.
Where do you see the company in five years’ time?
My vision is that by 2025 we will have some local offices worldwide in the US, Europe and Asia, so that we can localise the service. Additionally, I’m keen for us to branch out into event management and education. I would love to be able to run our own trade show exhibitions by 2025.
What advice would you give to an aspiring business leader?
There are four things: Be passionate about what you do, become an expert in your field, build a great team around you who you trust implicitly and, finally, there are a great deal of free resources and mentors available to you as a startup, so make the most of them.
What do you wish someone had told you when you started out?
Keep a very close eye on your cashflow. In the early days, there were days that we were down to our last few pounds because we weren’t strict on chasing our clients up for payment. Ensure that your payment terms are fair and don’t be afraid of following up if you haven’t been paid on time.
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