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SSE Audio founder John Penn talks new company structure

SSE founder John Penn tells Daniel Gumble about the company’s transition from SSE Audio Group to Solotech UK Group and what the future holds for him in his reduced role

Father and son: Alex and John Penn

On January 1, 2020, SSE Audio, Wigwam, Capital Sound and BCS Audio became the Solotech UK Group as part of a major organisational restructure. The new operation is being run under the joint leadership of managing directors Alex Penn and Spencer Beard.

Alex Penn, SSE Audio’s former sales director and son of company founder John, is heading up the sales and systems integration (sales and installations) operations of Solotech UK Group, while Spencer Beard, formerly managing director of Manchester-based Wigwam, is leading the live productions (hire) operations. The move sees both Penn and Beard become part of Solotech’s global senior management team.

After 43 years leading the pro audio powerhouse, founder John Penn remains within the new Solotech UK structure as strategic advisor. Here, he takes us inside the new structure, tells us what it means for business and how he plans to spend his time now that he’s stepping back from the day-to-day running of the company…

The new structure became effective on January 1, 2020. What’s going to change with regard to the way the business operates?

In many respects the short answer is very little. This is not a sudden about-turn, in fact it’s a transition that has been in process for some time already. The new structure just formalises the process and does some tidying up in terms of management and reporting. One of the weaknesses that we identified with several of the businesses we bought over the years was a lack of succession planning, which led to us acquiring them.

About 10 years ago we started planning for this and increased the responsibilities of Spencer and Alex, and then over time increased the role of others we identified as key to the long term success of the business. Bear in mind we had no idea if we would ever find a suitable business partner to sell to, so the strategy was to devolve the day-to-day running to enable myself and Heather to reduce our roles over time.

In terms of moving forwards, the key thing is that now the company has strong business-focused leadership for each of the two distinct business strands – sales and hire. There will of course continue to be cross-pollination between the two sides, but each has its own management team and structure optimised for the different business needs. Fundamentally, our core values remain unchanged at the heart of everything we do, and we want to continue to make working in the company, whatever you do, at whatever level, a good place to be that is both challenging and rewarding.

What does the new structure mean for existing employees of the brands that make up SSE Audio Group?

The new structure is repeated for each discipline at each location. This makes it clearer for staff and clients to know who to talk to at different branches. It also makes it easier for staff to see where they fit within the group, and of course to see what opportunities there are for their personal development.

A number of additional appointments have been made as part of the new structure. What will these bring to the business?

Wherever possible we have filled new roles by promoting existing staff who have shown they are ready to move up a notch. We have always encouraged staff who showed aptitude to move up – don’t forget that Spencer joined as a warehouse junior 25 years ago, and when Alex joined as a full-time employee after his student days it was to restart the sales business, following the sudden and premature death of Richard Willis, its sole member. This process has followed that course.

We have also hired a number of key additional people this year, mostly to extend our skill set and fill knowledge gaps in response to our continuing rapid growth which keeps placing new demands on the business. These are roles that include IT, research and development, project management, technical specialists and so on. We now employ over 200 full-time staff.

What are the biggest areas of opportunity for Solotech UK as we enter a new decade?

More than I can say here. We have grown over the past 15 years by diversifying into areas where we could bring our existing skills to complementary markets, refining the specific skill set needed for that new area of the business and then casting around for the next move – for example buying Tarsin, a London-based installation business working in live venues. That in turn meant diversifying into nightclubs, then up-market restaurants, developing the Houses of Worship with Wigwam, then spreading into larger format venues and in-turn sports facilities, PAVA via ETA and so on. Solotech are video specialists and over time they can help us develop in that area for both installations and live productions.

And what do you see as the biggest challenges?

Well first and foremost, we have to see what happens if and when Brexit takes place, and in what format. There has been lots of talk about touring problems, but we are better equipped than most to deal with those, having operated a pretty extensive and efficient Carnet Service for over 20 years. However, we need to also consider the impact of exchange rate differences, import tariffs, shipping delays, etc. on the key brands that we represent and re-sell. This isn’t going to make life any simpler and the costs will ultimately be borne by the customers, which will also possibly squeeze budgets. There are a lot of unknowns, but I don’t expect any quick solutions.

Are there any new markets you will be looking to break into in the new year?

As I said above, it’s logical for us to move into video sooner or later. The rest is all about which opportunities present themselves to us. But you can be sure that if we see something where we can utilise our existing skills and knowledge, and that makes commercial sense, then we will give it serious attention.

Alex Penn and Spencer Beard will be running the show as joint leaders. Does this mean you will be taking a step away from the business?

As I said before, it was always planned for me to be able to reduce my role. I’m 65 this week and age is starting to creep up on me. I’ve always said “don’t buy a dog and bark yourself ”! It would be wrong for me to get in Alex and Spencer’s way. They will, I’m sure, have new ideas about how they want to do things and develop the business, and they certainly won’t want me meddling and causing confusion. As the year progresses, myself and Heather will be reducing our role in the administration of the business and letting them take over.

As I reduce the amount of time I devote to work, I want to spend my time using my extensive relationships and knowledge to help bring new opportunities to them and doing the stuff I enjoy the most, on a project by project basis.

What will you be doing with this extra time on your hands?

It sounds cliché, but I want more time for our friends and family. Most of our friends are also now retired and always asking us to join them on some activity or other, so now we will be able to say yes. We also now have four fantastic grandchildren and I can’t tell you how much fun it is doing all the grandparent stuff. We are going skiing for a week in January, and in mid-February have a three and a half week trip with some friends to Laos, Cambodia and Thailand, which includes a few days sailing on a 40′ Catamaran with Tony Oates (originally Mr Fusion UK and who now runs Fusion Far East – not sure if today’s readers will recognise his name but he was a cornerstone of pro audio here for 30 years).

Through our work, we have made lasting friendships with people all over the world, and we’ll enjoy spending time with them when it’s not biz related at last. We also have a little villa in the Algarve – this September was the first time we had ever stayed there for more than seven consecutive nights. So, I don’t think I’m going to be short of things to do – in any case Heather will always find me things she wants doing anyway.