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Views from the top: The flightcase maker (Keith Sykes)

He runs multi-million dollar flight case company, 5 Star

From building light-boxes and speakers in his DJ days to running a flight case company that has designed boxes to house a GP2 racing car

Who are you?

My name is Keith Sykes.

What do you do and how long have you been doing it?

I’m the managing director of 5 Star Cases Limited. I’ve been MD since 2008, after purchasing the company from Jim Willis, but I’ve been a director since 1998 and joined 5 Star in June 1991. So this is my quarter century at the company! Previously, I owned a small flight case business in Ipswich, which merged with 5 Star, and well, the rest is history.

Why do you do it?

In my early DJ’ing days, which began whilst I was still at school, I started building light-boxes, speakers and suchlike for the mobile disco. An all-too familiar story when it comes to many of my colleagues in the lighting and sound industry! I seemed to acquire a bit of flare for building these boxes, which gradually turned into something resembling a flight case. My DJ’ing friends started to ask me to build products for them and I suppose that’s where the seed was planted. Whilst 5 Star has a dedicated design team, to this day I still enjoy designing cases and associated products and probably always will.

What’s the highest profile event 5Star have supplied the cases?

This is actually quite difficult to answer. When we supply cases to many of the leading tour companies around Europe, we don’t always get to find out which particular event or project they are destined for. And 5 Star doesn’t just service the lighting and sound industry, but a wide range of other sectors too, such as telecommunications, engineering, exhibitions, medical, scientific and more recently motorsport.

When was your biggest period in terms of demand?

I suppose it has to be 2015-2016 period where our turnover exceeded £4.8m.

What is the “issue” that never seems to go away?

Weight (cases, not mine!) This has been an issue with most flight case companies around the world and still continues to be a headache. Oh, I’ll add another one as well ­– short lead-times!

What’s the biggest challenge coming up?

If this was being published in a couple of months, I could mention something that’s really exciting and will definitely be a challenge. But until then, the challenge is to remain at the forefront of case design and manufacture. At the end of the day, they’re boxes, but with a bit of flare you can add so much more to a case.

What’s your most popular case?

One of the most popular is the ‘Arena’ range of general-purpose road trunks. We introduced these many years ago, after success with the ‘Eurotrucker’ road trunk. But not all lighting and sound companies are the same. Many of them do smaller events, which means smaller vans and smaller budgets! The ‘Arena’ range is pretty much a lighter and less expensive version of the ‘Eurotrucker’. Same dimensions, give or take a few millimetres and available in three flavours, the 1200, 900 and 600.

What’s the key to a decent case? Good locks? Good hinges?

The main hardware is a key point of any flight case, as is the overall construction. 5 Star only use quality hardware, which of course costs more but the durability is important. We use traditional methods as a rule, for the case construction. We have done this for years, and there’s no immediate rush to change. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!

What’s the biggest case you’ve had to make and for what?

I suppose it has to be a set of six cases to each house a complete GP2 racing car. Although it was quite a few years ago now, it was a challenge to say the least. But for the more standard project we produced over one hundred cases to house the Panasonic 103” plasma screen (the largest in the world at the time) for a midlands-based rental company, and whilst it was not the size of a racing car, they were pretty substantial cases. In recent years, the newer LED screens have increased in size but decreased in weight, so the cases that house them are very different.

Your biggest order for one job?

Well, I’m going to answer this in a different way. Whilst we frequently produce orders for well over 200 cases, the quantity isn’t really relevant. At 5 Star, we prefer to build long-term relationships with our customers. Take for instance DiGiCo, we first made contact with them back in 2007 and let’s imagine they ordered 300 console cases from us, at that time. They didn’t, but in the almost ten years since then, we have produced thousands of console cases for DiGiCo. Again, it’s all about relationships!

When they fail, why is it? Beer? Fire? Run over by a tour bus?

Yes… all three! Seriously though, from time to time even the best made cases fail, for whatever reason. The important thing to remember is how to address the situation. We do pride ourselves on our service and when something has gone wrong, we’ll do our best to solve it, quickly. Let’s then worry about whose fault it is!

This is #4 of 10 ‘views from the top’ appearing in PSNLive2016, PSNEurope’s 11th annual analysis of the European live sound industry.