Games glory boy going for gold

Games glory boy going for gold

Helping to stage one of most spectacular Olympic Games in living memory, Mark Johnson has become a shining beacon of entrepreneurial success. Andrew Mernin caught up with him as his company, Stage One, prepares to enter its latest year of growth

In the world of sport focus is now shifting towards Brazil as it prepares to host the World Cup next year and the Olympic Games in 2016. However, many of the images associated with last year’s glorious Games in London still burn bright in the memory.

Whether it be Usain Bolt burning up the tracks, Mo Farah winning gold in both the 5,000 and 10,000 metres, or Bradley Wiggins and Chris Hoy cementing their positions as Britain’s most decorated cyclists, last year’s games will be remembered for a host of unforgettable moments. Burning brightest of all may be the lighting of the Olympic cauldron itself during an opening ceremony that instantly silenced detractors and whet the nation’s appetite for a fortnight of awe-inspiring competition.

However, what few perhaps outside Yorkshire will know is that this icon of summer 2013 was in fact built by a band of pioneering engineers and mechanics on a remote business park in Tockwith, near York.

Following its involvement in the Games, the company – Stage One - is now preparing for the most successful year in its history after securing contracts for the forthcoming winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, with its turnover already jumping from £12m to £20m this year.

So it’s safe to say that, for chief executive Mark Johnson, last year’s lighting of the Olympic cauldron represented the ultimate squeaky bum moment.

“It was pretty nerve wracking,” Mark says. “I had seen it lit in a test event but it had been kept wrapped up in rehearsals. None of the athletes had seen it and it had only three or four tests before the big reveal.”

Mark has come a long way since his first entrepreneurial foray into fabrication as a fully apprenticed, mechanical engineer in Leeds 28 years ago. That business, formed out of the ashes of redundancy, was followed by a creative career twist when he joined forces with old school friend Jim Tinsley, who was then working as chief technician at Leeds Playhouse.

The pair then decided to go it alone under the banner of Hangar Services, purchasing the plant equipment they needed and moving into their current premises in Tockwith.

Mark says: “We were doing staging, set engineering, small automation jobs and scenery building for things like the touring version of Tosca, Carmen and other big name performances. Then we started to move into the corporate events world after starting work with a client called Stage One. ”

It was following the company’s merger in 1998 with Stage One that it began to realise the potential of large scale fabrication and automation in public events. Although the company had already begun to work overseas on larger scale projects, it was the contract for the 2004 Olympics in Athens that really made people sit up and take notice.

Mark says: “We had worked across the globe previously on many projects, the General Motors Roadshow and other car launches being a particular example. However, Athens 2004 was on a completely different scale for us. The organisers decided that they wanted a much more creative approach to the opening ceremony than in previous years. This included bringing a massive 17 metre sculptural head out of a lake, which then split into 18 parts.”

It is Stage One’s ability to adapt to their client’s unique specifications that has helped shape its success over recent years, with no problem too big or obscure.

“In the corporate world projects are more run of the mill, but every show’s got something unique,” Mark says. “For example we are handling parts of the set for the upcoming Sports Personality of the Year Award, which we have done for a number of years.

However, they want a completely different set this year. You’re always having to reinvent  the wheel.”

In terms of a unique and challenging build and delivery, there are few that beat the London 2012 Olympic cauldron for sheer scale and theatre. Following Stage One’s impressive work in Athens and also the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where it created the London bus used in the handover ceremony, it was chosen to bring to life Thomas Heatherwick’s artistic design for the 2012 cauldron.

The design represented an entirely new approach to what could be achieved with an Olympic cauldron, with 4,780 individual components, including 204 copper petals each attached to fully automated stems. It was a design that represented a unique challenge for Stage One. Mark says: “There were a large number of mechanical tiers within the cauldron, with lots of moving parts. It’s quite a simple design but it’s held within a very compact piece of machinery. It’s a bit like in an old typewriter where all the keys come together. Put it this way, we spent a lot of time getting the timing and automation sequences right.”

The cauldron wasn’t the only element of the Olympic vision that the company was able to stamp its mark on. Additional creations included the Olympic Rings on Tower Bridge, the Beach Volley Ball court at Horse Guards Parade and water wheels and beam engines during the Victorian industrial revolution segments of the opening ceremony. The company even helped 32 Mary Poppinses fly across the Olympic Stadium using ‘cablenet’ technology - an aerial system involving cables which enabled creative ideas like manufactured rainclouds to be realised during the ceremony. “The cablenet together with the flying and automation of things is one of our biggest innovations,” Mark says. “Flying the 32 Mary Poppins performers used a similar piece of engineering to that used in the 2004 Olympics and saw us win a Queen’s Award for Industry for continuous innovation in cablenet and engineering technology.”

So, how do you follow up playing such a major part in the greatest show on earth? Well Mark and his team are certainly giving it their best shot, with a pipeline of contracts that includes top secret work for next year’s Winter Olympics in Russia and closer to home, a major project at the Trinity Shopping Centre in Leeds. The ability to handle a huge variety of projects, from the small scale to the extremely large, has seen the company grow its turnover from £10m two years ago to a projected £20m this year, with additional growth expected in 2014.

Greater demands from contractors for bigger and more outlandish public displays, combined with huge advancements in modern technology, has allowed Stage One to sustain its growth over recent years, with the company almost unrecognisable from the one formed in the 1998 merger. However, it is a constant strive for innovation that has always been at the heart of the business.

Mark says: “We’ve got a basic core traditional skills layer at the top and as much machinery and modern production technologies as possible in support. Our designers have become much more sophisticated in what they can draw. The further we push the boundaries of technology, the further the designers are able to push theirs. The more complicated things become, the harder it is for other companies to catch us up.”

The firm is now looking as far ahead as 2022 and to the World Cup in Qatar as it grows its reputation in new markets. It currently employs almost 100 staff, with six of those based at its offices in Australia and others at its bases in Russia and Qatar. “Our Qatar office has two people who are working on sets and scenery,” Mark says. “We’ve worked out there for the last 10 years, which includes our work for the 2006 Doha Asian Games, and we have used this base to tender for local engineering and infrastructure projects. We’re targeting the whole Gulf region, although not Dubai as we have to admit that we may have left it a little late to join that market. We’re aiming for a slow build in that region so that we’re in place for future contracts like the 2022 World Cup.”

With the company currently investing heavily in research and development, including the introduction of its own R&D centre, it looks well placed to succeed in its lofty ambitions.

The company has already identified 3D printing as a key growth area and is actively working with other firms to see how it can be integrated into its current business model.

“3D printing has huge potential for the company,” Mark says. “We are already working with some of the 3D print suppliers and have ambitions to use it in our architecture. Normally things like complex sculptures or pieces of architecture would have to be hand crafted or carved if it’s at full scale. If you’ve got a complex 3D curve going in multiple directions, we can print that rather than make a mould, which speeds up the process and allows us to find innovative solutions for a variety of problems.”

Finding solutions for problems is the mantra of Stage One and one that has helped it to remain competitive as others have entered what is a niche, yet constantly growing market.

“We’re a problem solving business,” Mark says. “If someone comes up with a problem, whether it’s a build or automation one, we’ll try to find a solution to fit the bill. Obviously, we can’t build a space shuttle and send it into orbit, but we could build you a stunningly accurate replica and make it appear to take off  and land. It’s all about innovation.”