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‘Britannia Row was always the standard-setter’: Inside the global audio rental service Britannia Row

Phil Ward meets the team now driving Britannia Row for an exclusive look at its next phase of global operation

Brit Row management team – L-R: Mike Lowe, Nicola Amoroso, Christina Bosch, Lez Dwight, and Bryan Grant.

You know you’re at the heart of a truly global community if just a small cross-section of senior management is comprised of two Kiwis, a Sable and an Italian. Why, it must get quite rowdy during the Rugby World Cup. But for Mike Lowe, who hails from Merseyside, there would be no Brits at all in the very top positions, and if you then add in the American influence following the company’s acquisition by Clair Global, Britannia Row is effectively the ANZAC-meets-NATO of rental and installation.

The complex dynamics of the Clair legacy just got simpler. Lancaster Online, the Lancaster County news source based in Pennsylvania, reports that “the Clair audio businesses, divided into separate companies 12 years ago, are being reunited in ownership and location”, meaning that Clair Global, Clair Solutions and Clair Brothers are together again. It doesn’t change the ownership of Britannia Row, acquired by Clair Global in 2017, but it does add to the potential resources available for wider contract and installation work in which Clair Solutions is a specialist.

Careful with those acts, Eugene

And if it’s legacy you’re after, that’s what the current thinking is all about. Like a monarchy, but with less ermine, succession in business is a big and sensitive thing that needs careful preparation to avoid Civil War. Unlike monarchy, thankfully, you don’t have to wait for a state funeral to welcome the newcomers and, while the new team can bed in nicely, the Old Guard can hang around for a bit like The House of Lords: wise, experienced, making sure the Commons doesn’t louse up the legislation.

Lez Dwight, for example, is now sales director. Dwight was previously mixing shows in London’s West End, and had trained in electronics, so when Bryan Grant offered him a position at Britannia Row in 2010 it was an opportunity to blend his understanding of audio, technology and the live platform in the service of Brit Row’s ever-expanding roster of accounts. Naturally, these have been growing from the core touring bands and artists into venues, locations and all kinds of businesses seeking top-drawer sound reinforcement.

Prior to the acquisition by Clair Global, Grant and Lowe had already started laying plans for a new generation of management that could occupy senior roles, Dwight among them. Clair honoured all of these commitment following the sale, so by 2018 he had joined the board of directors along with managing director Nicola Amoruso and financial director Christina Bosch.“People like Bryan and Mike pioneered this industry,” comments Dwight. “There was no audio rental in Europe in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, and it was the same in the US when Clair started in the late ‘60s. Often with the acquisition of a company the top-level people move on and a new broom sweeps everything away, but it doesn’t really work like that in our business. Clair did the smart thing, I think, and recognised that the Britannia Row brand is valuable and needs to be protected.”

Clair’s domination of the US market and beyond had been a constant fixture of international touring, but now the balance of power has altered. Crucially, it’s a shift that suits both parties. “Getting to know them as a family and a business has revealed how similar they are to us,” continues Dwight, “and although they are the biggest it’s still family-run and there is a humility and a passion at the heart of it. I do feel it’s a different relationship to the kind of consolidation typical of the venture capitalist deals. It’s a close-knit group of people.”

The amount of stock available is now huge, as Britannia Row services not only its own accounts but also supports many of Clair’s. These now include venues as well as production companies, says Dwight. “Venue business models are changing,” he says. “Theatres and small concert spaces are looking at contract rental rather than purchasing outright, because the costs of owning are going up. Fortunately we have a reputation for multi-band shows and events, and that transfers to venues who look to us for their solutions. It’s budget-driven, but the standard of equipment and its maintenance are paramount. Even 300-800 capacity venues have proper riders now, with the top brands on them.”

Stadium business is booming too, of course, another field where Britannia Row’s particular reputation for deploying L-Acoustics inventory goes before it. The roots are deep in production touring, and the loyalty strong among professionals who move around an increasingly fluid market. Elsewhere, some of the relationships with specific acts are of 30 years standing or more, and these are the clients who will be especially reassured as they travel to the States and beyond secure in the knowledge that Brit Row’s presence is now as much a home gig as away.

“In the last two years we’ve done arena tours in North and South America for acts like Def Leppard and Mumford & Sons,” adds Dwight, “which simply wouldn’t have been available to our business before. We’ve also taken over the global account for Foo Fighters, as a result of the changes. It’s managed from here but we can use Clair’s warehousing and infrastructure.”

Money, it’s a gas

Managing director, Nicola Amoruso, was a system tech in Italy, and came to the UK for adventure and English evening classes before joining Brit Row as warehouse manager. “It wasn’t just about SMAART Live, or L-Acoustics, or Meyer Sound, you had to learn English,” he recalls of his formative years in Rome, Milan and Bologna. “And Britannia Row was always the standard-setter. It was in the warehouse that I ‘graduated’ from one show at a time, as a freelancer, to preparing multiple events simultaneously. It was a new way to do things – and it was the English way to do things.”

Originally from Zimbabwe, financial director Christina Bosch received a useful grounding in handling this kind of wildlife by growing up on her parents’ safari camp, and today she’s part of a new generation of accounting professional charged with safeguarding endangered species of rock and roll entrepreneur while allowing them to survive in their natural habitat.

“There’s a lot of collaboration with Clair as the whole finance model is changing,” she says, “and it’s a learning curve for both sides. Decisions are more global, and therefore complex – who buys exactly what, where and how, for example – but one thing that hasn’t changed, and something that I’ve never seen anywhere else, is the extraordinary passion inside each company for what they do. We have apprentices in the warehouse who came to this country specifically to work at Britannia Row. I didn’t realise what a big deal it was when I first got the job, but I do now! It’s a privilege.”

Where once it was traffic on the Caledonian Road that exercised the purse strings at Britannia Row, or perhaps the sales of a Pink Floyd album, now it stretches to such exotica as trade relations between the US and China, or between the UK and Europe. But everybody has to do it, and at least Shaun Clair – business development, Clair Global and the grandson of co-founder Gene Clair – is full of confidence and absolutely certain about what Britannia Row brings to the Pennsylvania party.

“It’s the people,” Shaun Clair states, “the leadership. As we move into our third generation we are truly blessed to be working with Bryan, Mike, Nico, Lez and Christina, as well as the amazing teams around them – not just what they do for Britannia Row, but the contribution they make to the whole company globally. We are very much a team-based business, all of us working together to set goals and direction. It’s less about the equipment these days. Everybody has warehousing, everybody has gear. It’s all about the talent, and Britannia Row’s leadership is exceptional.

“We want the people on our team to have opportunities, and you create those opportunities through growth. The world is flat for our clients, and wherever they go in the world we want to be able to provide them with the best service possible. Having players inside those markets helps us to achieve that, because we are not a company that runs off somewhere, hangs up a shingle and tries to have a group of Americans run a depot. We’d rather find people in those territories who share our culture.”

As an actual family, Clair is clearly handing from one generation to another quite literally. Britannia Row, meanwhile, is doing something similar as a great big metaphor – and, without the geographical ties that blood families have, is able to scout the globe for the most fit-for-purpose DNA.“We’re like a microcosm of London, in all its diversity,” points out Bryan Grant. And scouting the globe is what top rental companies do with the gear nowadays, too, so a worldwide frame of mind has to run right through the bush telegraph. Act of Succession: tick. My Lords, all rise.