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‘The beauty of audio is it’s everywhere’: VDC Trading CEO Niall Holden on the cable business

From a £5,000 loan to international exports, VDC Trading CEO Niall Holden chats with Erica Basnicki about the ins and outs of the cable business and how the company has grown to become one of the industry’s key players over the past 30 years...

Niall Holden’s office is something of an anomaly at VDC (Van Damme Cable) Trading headquarters. Gorgeous coloured prints of Jimi Hendrix and a beautifully restored and fully functioning Wurlitzer jukebox dominate. There are guitars, amplifiers, and classic car memorabilia; every inch excitedly screams rock n roll. Beyond the CEO’s door the tone is muted a touch – this is a warehouse after all – but it’s certainly not dull; a few more prints, another jukebox. Perhaps serving as a reminder that VDC Trading is in the business of making the thread that binds rock’n’roll together. A business Holden started in October 1987…

Last year was your 30th anniversary; was it a good year for VDC?

Yes, we had a strong year. I think we had a bit of a wobble in 2016 but we overcame it. It wasn’t life threatening, just growing and changing pains. Those years come and go, and 2016 was one of them. Last year was great, and 2018 is shaping up to be better with much to look forward to.

We recently had a management meeting; all 12 of us met down the road in a a conference room at the St Pancras Renaissance and we were there from 6:30pm until 11:30pm. I needed to see what the first quarter looked like, whether we could tick a few boxes and see that we’ve progressed. It was a great meeting full of positives, much achieved. It’s always nice to look back and see how far you’ve come.

Any significant changes since 2016?

We have some new staff who have made a great impact on the business. For example, there’s Tony (Maraia) who’s the new financial director who’s been here about two years and he’s really got hold of things. He’s like the accountant in a Mafia film; he knows where all the money is and where all the bodies are buried and the focus ends up on him to spill the beans (laughs). We’ve nothing like that going on here! Of course, it’s far more important to get the cashflow right…it’s the lifeline of the business.

We also spent the last 12 months ramping up our stock holding. Most of our customers depend on us having available stock with little or no lead time so it’s critical to carry the stock. This can be a gamble, as effectively what this means is that your cash is tied up in stock and not sitting in your bank account. Consequently you have to move it and hope you’re not left with ‘yesterday’s’ technology sitting in your warehouse. It can be quite a tough remit aiming for 100% all the time, but that’s what sets you apart.

And I imagine that helps with last-minute requests…

People buy all the d&b speakers, XTA amps, Digico boards, Shure mics to put their rigs together then remember, Oh shit, we need some cables. So it can be 11th hour and the end of the budget stuff, but that’s what we’re geared up for.

This is going back a few years now but Delta Sound did the London 2012 Olympics. Two days before the Olympics opening ceremony with Coldplay, they needed 2,500 microphone cables. We did it, but they did not just come off the shelf; we had to make them – all bespoke. This was on a Monday and they had to have them latest Wednesday evening, but we did it – a bit like a Saville Row tailor meets Domino’s Pizza.

Is it because cable lacks a certain glamour that it gets overlooked?

I think that’s right, but the good thing about cable is that the sexy bits are what it gets plugged into, like lovely old guitars and amps. We provide kit for great tours and world-famous artists but it doesn’t have to be at that level to be good business. The beauty of audio, video and data cable is it’s everywhere – from Coldplay tours to supermarkets, most equipment just doesn’t work without it.

We debated this at VDC and calculate that in a year we do between three and four million cable terminations and the pleasing thing is it just hardly ever comes back from a pissed off customer. Our manufactured kit goes out the door and it just works.

How do you ensure 100% all the time?

If something comes back and there’s a problem with our procedure or goods, it’s simple – we just change it. Our methods and products are constantly evolving, but it’s only cable and connectors for goodness sake. This isn’t the Tesla factory in California, it’s not that level of technology… but it can be. When we’re dealing with people like Digico, it’s fairly exacting standards. Their desks go on tour with our Cat6A cable and they’re running it 75 yards to the stage; it simply can’t go wrong. There are much cheaper brands than Van Damme, but I don’t want to go to that grubby bun fight end of the trench. Personally, I would hate to come to work and make apologies for the quality of what we sell, or blame the customer for not handling the cable properly. It drives me mad in my personal life when I’m buying something and the quality just isn’t there.

In the B2B space they don’t suffer failure whereas in B2C it’s more tolerated. But if you’re dealing with the FOH engineer for Muse, or Foo Fighters, or Radiohead they don’t want to suffer rubbish as it reflects badly on them, so we have to maintain this 100% reliability.

What does that look like on the floor?

The way people are trained, no one goes live on wiring cables until they’ve been here for weeks if not months, and it’s scrutinised and tested very carefully. Most of the guys upstairs have been here for years and years. Colin (Huntley, product manager) has been here for 13 years, Paul (Marchesi, general manager) has been here 20 years and these guys know what they’re doing. They know how things work and how things get treated when they’re out on the road and so everything is put together with exacting standards.

You also have to keep up with new technology…

There is always new kit coming out with different connectivity on the back; we have to keep up with the trends and technology and make sure that we can terminate in the correct way. A couple of years ago we were Class A COCA (Certified opticalCON Assembly) approved by Neutrik; we sent some guys to Liechtenstein who were trained on how to terminate fibre. We put the fibre room in upstairs, which cost a good chunk of money, and developed a fibre range of cable called Van Damme Tourlight, In the last couple of years this has massively taken off. It’s not just the big tours but the Olympics, Cheltenham, football, Twickenham…any big live event, you’ll find it there. We’ve also just put out TourCat Cat 6/6A cable; it’s a very flexible cable, tactile, handles like a microphone cable and coils well. It’s a very popular cable.

What sectors are particularly strong for you at the moment?

We’re doing a lot in the education space. The University of York reset the bar some years ago; they invested heavily in new music and film facilities. They did it to such a level compared to a lot of other universities it was a no-brainer to choose that uni for someone who wanted to study using state-of-the-art gear. The knock on effect was that other universities had to up their game and make the investment or not attract the students. So as a result of that, many of the universities have followed suit and upgraded.

Van Damme has a pretty strong name in the educational side of things now, so we tend to get spec’d a lot by the architects. The other week we got the same tender from six different installers as Van Damme was specified. It feels gratifying when you’re doing something right. I also don’t think all universities by any stretch of the imagination have been done.

Any other particular verticals to note?

We did the new Derren Brown ride at Thorpe Park (Ghost Train: Rise of the Demon). The ride uses VR headsets, but whoever initially installed it didn’t use the right quality cable, and the kids were coming in and ripping the leads out so they were failing all the time. So we leapt in, underpants on the outside, rewired it and they loved us for it as the failures were very expensive for them. Also, we recently we did a lot of work for Edmondson’s (the electrical contractor) for Shrek’s Adventure! London on the South Bank.

What’s next for VDC?

Going forward for us, exports are a much bigger target. We’re growing more and more; we’ve got a strong foothold in America, and also in China. Middle East is also very strong. Certainly the Far East are very fascinated about how we do things here. They want to learn about our methods of carrying cables, or rigging up systems.

I’ve only started to focus on exports in the last few years. People have approached us because they found Van Damme and they want to use it. The thing I feel quite proud about is that we’re well established in the UK. You have a lot of opinions in this industry; lots of different ways of doing things. It’s a funny industry, and it’s got some great characters, but it makes it a very tough market to penetrate and become established in. I’m proud we’ve done that in the UK.