[00:00:04] ES: Hello and welcome back to Happy Porch Radio. In this season, season 5, we are discussing all things digital in the circular economy. Today, Barry and I are joined by Tom Harper. Tom is the Managing Director of Unusual Rigging, a company that has been recognised two years in a row by the World Economic Forum and their reward scheme, ‘The Circulars.’
Unusual Rigging provide technical solutions to the live production and entertainment industry and they are continuing their transition towards a fully circular business model, evolving beyond a rental system towards a circular system that is effective at closing material loops. We had a quite a personal conversation with Tom in this episode, about his journey towards the position in which he finds himself today. I found it really inspiring all the hard work that he's put into this.
[00:00:56] BO: Yeah, I agree. I feel there's almost three different chunks to this conversation. There's Tom's, as you say, very inspiring journey in his discovery of the passion for sustainability and for circular economy and the hard work that he put in to do one of the first Ellen MacArthur Foundation MBAs in circular economy. Then applying that to the business, Unusual. Then we talk about the journey of going through the difficult challenge of putting together the software and the business change and processes to make that circular vision start to become real.
Then at the end, we touch on how the absolutely extreme changes to the live events industry that the pandemic in 2020 this year has made, and a little bit about Tom's thinking about how to try and pull the positives as much as you can out of that and look forward.
[00:01:45] ES: Yeah. I think that was a really inspiring thread throughout — the way that Tom motivates himself and finds those positives in everything. And centres in whatever he does, this idea of the importance of the circular economy in terms of, not only the environmental health of our planet, which is obviously such an important part of it. But also, towards the end of our discussion, how he talked about his employees in the way that he values their input and how we can build a better future, not just environmentally, but socially. And include all these things in the way we're building back.
[00:02:22] BO: Absolutely. There's a whole other podcast season in that conversation, so maybe one time, we can explore that with Tom. I really hope that everybody listening found this as inspiring and enjoyable conversation as I did. Without any further ado, let's meet Tom.
[00:02:44] TH: Hello. My name is Tom Harper. I’m the Managing Director of Unusual Rigging Limited. Unusual is a company that's been going since the early 80s. Around 1983 it started. Its strap line is that it provides technical solutions to the entertainment industry. It started primarily working in theatre, producing rigging and engineering solutions for previously unconsidered opportunities. There was a great move in the early 80s with the likes of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron MackIntosh, who were pushing the boundaries on what could be imagined previously in theatre productions. Unusual was there to make the unimaginable, suddenly commonplace.
In that time, it grew and strengthened its capability. And it now provides engineering solutions for the Olympic games, amongst other big sporting spectaculars. And generally, any art-based public-funded, or private-funded projects across the UK and indeed, internationally.
[00:03:43] BO: Awesome. Welcome to Happy Porch Radio.
[00:03:45] TH: Thank you. Yeah, I’m excited to be here.
[00:03:47] BO: Yeah, I’m really pleased and really delighted that you've joined us. There's so many different things I’d like to talk about. We'll start in a minute and maybe talk a little bit about the process, or the journey of introducing some circular concepts to Unusual. Then obviously, in the context of the craziness of 2020, we can talk a little bit about how you've seen that and how you're approaching the future based on things that are happening at the moment in the industry. Let's go back to the start. I guess, your own motivation or your own interests in circularity and in sustainability, interesting if you just share a little bit of that for context.
[00:04:23] TH: Yeah, okay. Well, sustainability, my interest came about actually, when I was an actor and I was at the RSC. I happened to pick up a book called The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight by an author called Thom Hartmann. The first paragraph of that book on chapter one, I just couldn't believe what I was reading. I thought, why the hell is this not mainstream news? He pointed out that every single day, at least a 137 species of plant and animal are being made extinct. Then he went on to talk about peak oil and climate change and the interrelationship between social inequality and energy usage, etc.
I genuinely thought, “What is going on? Why isn't this on 10:00 news tonight, every single night until we do something about it?” Then I got thinking a lot about my own personal career choices and I ended up stepping a little bit away from the old acting world and moving in towards working at a community level. By which point, I was working in Norfolk, in Norwich, where I met my wife as an actor. I joined the Transition Town Network. I don't know if you're familiar with that.
Yeah. I joined the Transition Town Network in Norwich and we started to develop little community resilience programs. That developed where I started collaborating with the University of East Anglia and a scientist called Dr. Alex Haxeltine, who was a climate scientist. He would basically provide the raw data and then I would try and translate that into art and drama-based workshops to play in schools. That ran for a few years. But then funding was cut and I took another turn and joined the family business, which my stepfather had started back in 1983, Unusual Rigging — on the provisory that I could bring in some sustainability methodology into the working practices.
At the same time as that, I thought, I’ve not really ever worked properly in business. So I’ve got to give myself a sense of the right kudos and status. I embarked on an MBA with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation via the University of Bradford, called the Circular Economy MBA. And that was run by an amazing guy who's, in my mind, like the Luke Skywalker of the circular economy. Working with Ken Webster who, I hope he doesn't hear this, I would have imagined was like the Yoda of the circular economy. Ken Webster, who's now — was with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
Yeah, I was just utterly blown away by it. It was really inspiring to be learning about business, but through the lens of living systems. Your average business MBA modules, you don't spend a module studying soil and understanding the interconnectedness of life through the soil. It's like a living language and it really inspired me and I thought, “Well, I’m in such a good position here to take this theory and see if I can apply it practically within my actual business.”
Yeah, I got to work on that and it just happened that the MD and the management team at Unusual Rigging were very keen to develop a new asset tracking software system, because they were fed up of — I can't use the language, because it was rather blue. The MD would say, “Where the f*** is all my stuff. I just need some software that's going to tell me where it is, what project it's on and when it's coming back,” because it was fairly messy.
There was plenty of software out there, but we collaborated with the team based up in Aberdeen, with the provider that we would try and embed a little bit of the circular economy principles within the software. So that we could do things a little bit more effective, predictive maintenance, checking maintenance, checking when things were remanufactured and refurbished, looking at offering discounts on refurbished elements to clients.
I got fully immersed in that. It was about three and a half years and it was utter hell. I wish I’d never started. By the end of it, we had something that we were quite pleased with, but it did take a long time.
[00:08:34] BO: I’d like to explore that journey a little bit. Being in the software industry myself, I’m interested in that journey and the motivations. Before talking about that, one of the reasons I really wanted to speak to you, Tom, was that, I guess, the story you've just shared about that varied background and all the different things and then that really strong motivation that's become a bit of a theme with the sustainability stuff there. I think that's really powerful. And it's really interesting to hear you describe the MacArthur Foundation MBA. And so I’d like to maybe just talk a little bit more about that just quickly — so to get a feel for, as you say, a whole module talking about soil. The traditional image of an MBA is a very different thing.
[00:09:14] TH: Yeah, okay. Well yes, I was expecting it to be very dry. There were elements. It was brand-new. I was one of the very first pioneer MBA students for this small cohort of about 100 of us back in 2014. I suppose we were possibly guinea pigs. What they did was when they structured the MBA, they had elements of a traditional MBA from 20th century managerial science, if you like. Then on top of that, they had these seven particular modules which were brand-new, all about the circular economy, but looking at it from different lenses. Looking at it from the more holistic lens initially, about the idea of systems thinking and the evolution of mechanistic, cartesian thinking in the sciences and the arts, towards a more holistic, more systems thinking cybernetics journey.
It was really striking, because the modules — when we had to just study the circular economy versus the modules of general business practice. For example, like at balance, the key principles of a circular economy against business accounting. One being the new module, the second one, business accounting being a fairly dry, very useful, but quite old-style structured module. It made it feel like the circular economy modules were like a living language and that the other ones were like a dead language that really needed innovation and inspiration to bring them back to life and to make them relevant.
And actually, what's really interesting is that's now happening. For example, where you would study normally in business accounting and all about the standard line of depreciation, and the whole idea of how businesses have to depreciate their assets. Well, that doesn't make sense from a circular economy context, because the whole purpose of the circular economy is that things don't waste. You don't waste anything. You design out waste. So what happens to the standard line of depreciation?
I’ve yet to have this conversation with our auditors, because I know it would really freak them out. I do think it's a really, really valuable consideration. Actually, what's really interesting is recently, just Googling, I found on Google Scholar that there are a few articles coming out about that very thing, about the fact that if we start shifting our focus away from this idea of planned obsolescence and making money out of churning through volumes of units. And we look instead at reparation, remanufacture, refurbishment. Then it means that the assets that you do have in circulation become more of a service than they do a sold product.
It means that you're actually saving resources and you're doing something even better. You're also expending more energy on labour, which is a renewable source, than you are on virgin, raw materials that need to be constantly extracted to make the next washing machine, or the next car, or the next this, or the next that. It's an interesting interrelationship between how the circular economy is now in a very gentle and a very inspiring way to me, adjusting the old language of economics and business accounting.
[00:12:19] ES: Yeah, that idea of where we assign value and how we work with that in terms of economics is really interesting. And really big questions there that you've just brought about how we can think about this whole system very differently and how we can maybe go on to learn more about it. But also, to teach more about it in the years to come and things that I would like to come back to later.
Just before we get into that, I love your story about how you went from one industry to another, which seems when you — you just said it nonchalantly, but it sounds like a leap. Like that was a big step to take going from that acting creative space into business. And not just of any business, but this really innovative space within an existing field. Did you feel at the time that there was a clear path? I mean, maybe that's a silly question, because that maybe obviously wasn't, but I think — I mean, did you feel that it was possible? Or was there a sense of just really seeing where you were going and feeling it out along the way?
[00:13:23] TH: That's a really good question. I was completely paranoid when I started working in a proper business. I mean, I’d had a bit of a transition, which I engaged in by creating my own business called Community Solutions East, myself and Dr. Alex Haxeltine, and another colleague. We decided to set this business up as a small, limited-by-guarantee community type business. I had a bit of a fast-track into trying to understand the basics of doing this.
But fundamentally, you're right. I mean, I’ve been an actor since the age of 19. I’d gone and had a great time filming in glamorous places and then being with reputable theatre companies. Then when my children came along, it was a toss-up between being a werewolf for three months in Romania with a three-week-old baby at home, or being out of work for nine months, thinking, “How the heck are we going to pay the mortgage?” That was a bit of a driver as well. That just fell in as well, obviously, as an external pressure.
Alongside a more philosophical and more anxiety-rising reaction to climate change and the impact of human activity on our home, on the planet. I would sit in meetings at Unusual Rigging at the beginning and I would just feel I was a complete imposter, utterly paranoid, secretly murmuring to myself in the middle of a meeting, “That's fine. I’ll just phone my agent. I’ll see if there's any radio work and I’ll just dovetail straight back into that. It'll be alright.”
Then as things progressed, I realised actually, it's not that complicated. Most decisions, whether it's in your family life, or in business, they have to be led by common sense. If you have a space, a bit of clarity of mind to just think common sense are clear and luckily, you're surrounded by other common sense thinkers, which I definitely was at Unusual, then just feel your way and don't be afraid to sound stupid if you don't understand something.
There were lots of moments of me sounding stupid, but it was a real baptism of fire as well, because I had been an actor for nearly 14 years. Then suddenly, here I was, the MD is saying to me, “Right. I want you to be responsible for implementing this new software system, so that we know where the hell our stuff is whenever it goes out.” And we're talking about 11 kilometres worth of aluminium truss, 4,000 electric chain hoists, over 72,000 shackles and items of rigging.
It's a lot of stuff that had to be traced. And you had to identify well, how are we going to categorise it? Are we going to go for the high-end capital assets first and then work our way down? Does every item count? What do we think about? And I’d been proactive in saying, “Right. I want to do a masters in business. I want to do it with a slant on the circular economy, because it aligns with my values around sustainability and creating a world that we can actually thrive in, as opposed to continue to just exploit and extract and deplete.”
It was really hard work. I was working from 8:00 in the morning until 6 at night. Coming home, I’d moved my family, my wife was pretty sad to leave her community in Norwich. We left all of our Transition Town friends behind. I had young kids. We’d settle then, Ruth, my wife and I, we would settle the kids and then I’d get to work again at 8:00 in the evening and work until 10:30 at night doing this MBA. And that went on for six years and I became an insomniac. Yeah, it paid off. It paid off.
[00:16:47] ES: Wow, that is a lot. That is a lot to take on. I admire you for it. I think in terms of that professional transition, it's really tough. That puts a lot of people off, because there's a lot of work to be done. I feel like the way that you approached it in terms of — “This is something I’m passionate about and I really want to do it, but I don't really feel I have the grounding, or the skill set maybe,” or whatever it was, “So I’m going to just learn and I’m going to learn by doing and I’m going to learn by studying.” That's so admirable. I think it's a great path to take, and has obviously worked out for you.
[00:17:23] TH: Well, if I had known then what I eventually knew, I don't think I’d have ever done it. I think it was stupidity, if I’m honest. It was just sheer ignorance and stupidity. I just thought — you're right, actually. Having passion for something really drives you. It only took to read a few really good books about the climate crisis to make me think, “Well, how can I play my part, however small that is? What can I do?”
Then I just was very, very lucky researching and finding out that there was this MBA suddenly, that the Ellen MacArthur Foundation had developed in collaboration with Bradford University through Professor Peter Hopkinson, primarily, and Ken Webster. Those guys were really the pioneers who said, “Right. Let's do this.”
Peter Hopkinson had been working at Bradford for many years. In his own words, would say that he was very tired of the lack of inspiration within the sustainability narrative. A narrative that effectively says, we know we do bad. Let's just do less bad by being more sustainable, which effectively equates as — “Let's do bad, but let's do less of it.” Whereas, the circular economy comes along and says, “No, let's do good. Let's realize that we have got infinite creativity and infinite imagination on a finite planet, and that we can realign ourselves to do good, so that economically, we're regenerative by design and we design our waste.” It's just incredibly inspiring, their topics, the way they constructed them; the manual, the lectures, everything. It was really good.
[00:19:02] ES: Yeah. I was going to ask you about that actually, in terms of that sense of not just doing less of what is destructive, but doing more of what is regenerative and taking that idea from what you were learning and while you were studying and actually implementing it in business. And implementing it within the technology that you were building and the whole system, the infrastructure that came about.
You said that actually, you were brought on specifically by the MD of the company to focus on sustainability. Did you feel you were in a place where any innovation goes? Was it a very open environment in that sense?
[00:19:48] TH: It was to an extent. Any decision making had to be predicated on — “How does this add value to the business? How can you prove that it's going to add value to the business and what's the return time?” When I arrived, I noticed that Unusual didn't have a sustainability policy. It just didn't exist. I wrote one based on some of the workings I’ve done at the University of East Anglia. I just put a very straightforward sustainability policy together, then I discovered the circular economy MBA. I like the idea of focusing on a few principles from within the framework, like product as a service, running on renewables, resource recovery, stuff like that. I thought, well, Unusual is lucky, actually, because we operate within, if you think of the circular economy, butterfly diagram developed by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
You've got these two different spheres. You've got the technosphere and you've got the biosphere. Unusual is lucky, because really, it operates within the technosphere, which is an area of circulation of technical resources and technical nutrients that can, with effective management and tracing and tracking, can actually just be recirculated continuously. I was lucky, there was an opportunity for open innovation. With that said, I mean, I’d say, “Look, we need to get ourselves off fossil fuels. We should be generating our own energy. We'd get a return on investment on that within 12 years for the initial outlay.”
But It took me two years to convince the MD. Eventually, I wrote him a very, very — this was three meetings — I eventually wrote him a really personal letter and I said, “Look, your grandchildren, my children are at stake. Their futures could be at stake here. We have to show, we have to demonstrate leadership to our industry. We have to recognise, this is a threat now, not some nebulous threat into the future. We have to be good ancestors to down the line. We have to do the right thing.” So he gave the go ahead and we ended up getting 392 solar panels installed on one of the main warehouses, which now generates about 60% of our energy. That was a great leap forward in terms of our new commitment, which is to be carbon positive, to be net positive by 2025.
[00:22:06] BO: Which is another evidence, as Emily said, that's inspiring, of the passion, of the purpose driving you through there, because it might have been if you didn't feel so strongly, it would be easier to just say, “Oh, this is too hard. Let me just do the software, do the work, rather than really have the circular economy mission.”
I’d like to dig a little bit more into that. You said earlier, the process of going from, “Okay, here's the problem, we need to be tracking your assets better, we need to know where stuff is.” You described as a three-year process to put together something that actually allowed you to do that in a more real-world implementation of some of those circular economy principles, in terms of, as you mentioned, with manufacturing and rethinking some of the business models and so on. I’d be interested in a quick summary of three years of hard work.
[00:22:52] TH: Okay. Well, that's really simple. Okay, so what we did was, like I mentioned before, I mean, I think the most computer literacy I had when I started the company was that I could just about open a Word document and type on it. I made everything look like a story, or a script, as opposed to a business report. That took a while.
The initial immersion into Aspire, which is the name of the software that we use, came about through I inherited the responsibility for the relationship with the software developers, because they had promised this thing and they said, “Yep. We'll do this in sprint one, sprint two. By sprint three, we'll have all of your crew on the system and you'll be able to book and trace projects, blah, blah, blah.” But I was completely in over my head and I just had the head of IT at the time, a lovely guy called Dan, who was really not interested, actually. He would do things, like make sure that the crystal reporting templates for some of our documentation looked correct and were rebranded, on point with our branding. But other than that, it was me to do the donkey work.
I decided to break it down. I took the high-end capital assets. We have electric chain hoists, which, new, cost about 1,700 pounds. And we have about 4,000 of those from an excellent supplier in Germany. They were designed over many years by ourselves in discussion with this company, so that we could actually develop something that really served the theatre industry. Quiet stealth-like, effective, quite quick at lifting and moving scenery and equipment about in theatres, but each one is expensive.
So the first thing, it was a real dive into the deep water. I just thought, “Okay, well let's just invest in a load of RFID tags and embed these tags on every single item and give every single item a serial number.” So that we eventually developed what was the equivalent of a passport for each item of equipment. So every single one of our electric chain hoists has its own material passport. It tells you when it was manufactured, what its serial number is, the photograph of it, even, when it was last used. And every time it goes, it's immutable that the information is immutably embedded within its life cycle, if you like. So you see how many cycles it's done, how many jobs it's been on, who last inspected it, who last remanufactured it, or when it had a component part swapped out.
It's a really, really granular detail, but it took a long time to do that. I was literally, because I didn't know how to use Excel properly, I was literally taking a pen and paper, sitting down for hours and writing down by hand. You can imagine the opportunity for human error, writing down by hand the key details, the serial number, the dimensions, the load-bearing capacity, the hook data, stuff like that. I was writing it all down by hand. It was nuts.
Then somebody, I think it was a guy in IT, Dan, he suddenly said, “You know, we could set up a spreadsheet that just we could get these RFID readers to start working sooner and then we could Bluetooth them to our tablets. And then you could just bleep and put all of the information in that way, then you know there wouldn't be any errors.” That was about a year and a half down the line. I’ve got somewhere in a folder, reams and reams of smudged, dirty paperwork with drawn out boxes. I mean, it's really embarrassing, actually. I can't believe I’m telling you this. Of doing it in a very simplistic way.
And lots of literal tears going, “Oh, my God. This is going to take ages. This doesn't make sense.” To eventually going live, because we also had to train the workforce to use it. You had two different groups of users. You had the operational users and then you had the mobilization team. The operations users would have to be the ones that deal with the virtual information and say, “Right. We've got Charlie and the Chocolate Factory loadout from the Drew Lane Theatre and a loading of Shrek. We need these people on this date. We need this equipment and these requisitions. Go.” And they would have to type all of that information out. Of course, that information had to be in the system embedded already in the first place. It was a real chicken and the egg.
It felt a little bit like jumping, because we were using another software system at the time, which wasn't very good. But it felt a little bit like we were jumping from one train to another, whilst they were full speed ahead, 500 miles an hour down to parallel tracks.
[00:27:28] BO: Yeah, that's really interesting. In the software development, a lot of what you said there is you were going through that painful process in what is probably the ‘right thing’ to be doing and you broke it down. You identified the priority of what you were going to do and you just started doing it and taking it step by step, piece by piece. Even if it felt really painful to go through, there is no — that's reality. That's I guess, the beauty of it.
Having got through that initial process and when did you start to actually see some of those results? I mean, both results in terms of the original goal of tracking assets, but also results in terms of seeing — you being able to see some of the circular economy principles become real.
[00:28:14] TH: The first one, the tracking assets was brilliant actually, because we have a team of in-house riggers. These are guys that are really specialised at rigging and engineering any crazy, quirky scenario. It turned out that there's an item of equipment called a span set. It's also known as a round sling. It's like a steel wire, round sling covered in a fabric, a very hardy, robust type of dark fabric. And they're really useful, because you can wrap them around pieces of truss and you can hang things of up to 2, 3 ton off them, with shackles, etc.
Once we put all of our span sets into the system, literally bleeped them in one by one, there was a team of about three people doing it, you could see the inventory building up against that category. So we had the motor shop category. We did that first. Got all of the hoists, the electric chain hoists on there. Then the rigging, warehouse rigging category. When jobs went out and then when they were supposed to return within their return date, we designed the system so it would spit out a late returns report. It would say, “Right, all of this stuff went out, but only 20% of it has come back.”
Then we got quite strict about it and that — we decided to have a hierarchy of enquiry. The first person we would ask would be the project rigger. “Okay, you were responsible for this equipment on this show. Do you know what's happened to it? Was it all loaded onto the truck when you did the loadout?” And then if they said, “Yes, absolutely. It was.” Then you would check with the truck company and you say — well, they would say, “Well, we came from the venue straight to your warehouses.” Then you would check with the client. That was the last protocol, because you don't want to upset your client. But anyway, about 80% of the stuff that seemed to never return, it turned out, I won't use any names, it turned out one rigger decided to keep a load of span sets in his garage for a home project. He had about 20, or 30 span set round slings in his garage.
It was brilliant, because suddenly, that behaviour just stopped, because everybody caught wind very quickly, “Oh, wow. This new system really works and it tells the guys in the yard and in the offices straight away on return of the equipment, whether or not things are missing.” And if they are missing, they don't just go, “Oh, dude. That’s missing.” They actually chase it up, so where's it gone? You were last responsible for it. That was good.
That, from an asset tracking point of view, is brilliant. From a circular economy point of view — what it also did, it helps us to provide absolute clarity on when things were certified and when things were last inspected. We then were able to expand through asset tracking and working with the same software developers on a new piece of software that's called Kinetic, so that we could do an inspection maintenance and servicing of our clients’ equipment as well, that was not owned by us.
The circularity there is that we were beginning to provide a product as a service, as opposed to just providing a product and then that's it. We were able to provide a service on top of that, which was continuous inspections, which brings in revenue as well for us. We're able to inspect long-term items stuck up in say, the Palladium Theatre in London. A report would be generated that says, “These inspections are now due.” You'd be able to go and refurbish equipment that looked a bit tired or old, but you could tell its cycle was still in good condition. It still had — its life cycle analysis, it still had plenty of cycles to go through. With a bit of clever refurbishment and swapping out of component parts that break down first, you could extend its life cycle by even more.
Then there was another element as well that came a little bit later, which was that we decided to categorise something called ‘Resource Recovery.’ We would be taking out equipment from old theatres, recovering it and normally, that would have just gone straight into the metal skip to be recycled. Which anybody that understands the circular economy, recognises recycling is actually not part of the circular economy. It's still waste. It's waste of energy. It's the loop of last resort. Instead of it going into the metal skip this equipment, we were able to either upcycle it, or refurbish it, and make sure that it was reused again on the following show. But at a discounted price, because it had already been made once, but sold twice, so you could take 20% off the normal value, on which obviously, the client would be pleased with.
[00:32:40] BO: Yeah, absolutely. That to me I think is — that must have felt like, I guess, the start of the vindication of all the previous hard work and you're starting to see going back to our conversations about purpose and the reason for doing this. There's a direct correlation there between reduction in waste, reduction in all these other things and the business benefit and it starts to move towards that positive. As you said, instead of doing less bad, let's identify ways to move through less bad, to doing good.
[00:33:11] TH: Yes, that's right. Absolutely. I mean, when people come onboard with the concept, I had lots of meetings with design, and I did it because I was still in the back of my mind, paranoid. Thinking, “I’m just an actor. I don't know anything about anything really.” I didn't want to have big, grand meetings. I went to speak to people one-on-one and I would say that that's key for anybody in any organisation anywhere. That's really key to any change initiative to take hold.
I’d spend a bit of time with the head of design and just say, “Look, we've got this idea that we want to be more sustainable. We want to be more circular.” Then you basically, give them a basic understanding of the framework of the circular economy and say, “Look. How can we look at designing things differently, so that we can make more modular design, instead of just bespoke one-off things? Why don't we design things that can be used again and again and again? Also, why don't we put a little RFID sticker on them, so that we can track them from the point at which they're originally fabricated?” If it's a bracket, for example, for a particular show, so that we know how many times it's been used, for how long it's been used, when it needs to be recertified and when it might need to be slightly refurbished.
The design team came onboard quite quickly with that. They really enjoyed recognising that we were saving money for the client and we weren't wasting loads of resources ourselves, which was inefficient, having to buy loads of metal work to suddenly refabricate a whole load of new head blocks, or shives, which are basically the wheel components within the guts of a theatre that still why rope runs down to lift scenery. Yeah, it just became more holistic, more systems thinking in its approach strategy.
[00:34:51] ES: It's interesting, Tom. I was thinking before this conversation that it wouldn't necessarily be the wildest thing in the world to think, “Well, why is it that this can't be done just in an analogue sense? Why can't you just reuse things? Why can't we just make it simple and does the technology give so much benefit here? If you're just renting out equipment and renting it out several times, surely, that's the reuse right there.”
I had to have a bit of a laugh to myself when you were telling your story about starting from that very analogue position and literally writing things out by hand and the technology built from there, from that position of — “This is what we're doing already, and so we're just going to digitise things and that's going to help. And all the examples you've given of how the technology makes those things so much easier, the tracking of assets and the automatization of knowing when things need to be checked. And what that means for reuse and for the customer and for you as a company. I think that's just a really key point that maybe, it would be possible without all the technology, but how much easier it is is quite astounding.
[00:36:01] TH: Absolutely. That's absolutely true. Because actually, what it showed was that in many ways, we were quite circular already. We just didn't know it and we didn't have the capacity to demonstrate it effectively. It was the digitization of an analogue approach. Interestingly, the MD at the time, he always used to say, “There is no point trying to do anything digitally, or digitizing, or being fancy with computers, unless it makes sense on paper. There's just no point and a waste of time.” That was a lesson in common sense again for me.
He was absolutely right. It was almost as if what the circular economy did was it was supporting what Unusual Rigging had been trying to do for years anyway, which was that you could easily just say it was a hire company that was good at managing its, or not so good at managing its assets in a relatively circular way. What the digitization of the process allowed was a really effective management of assets that demonstrated the value and adhering to the principles of the circular economy.
[00:37:08] BO: Tom, what I’d like to do is shift topics slightly and talk a little bit about this year and the impact of the pandemic. Then more importantly, how you're seeing all of the stuff we've talked about, adding in the impact of this year and what's next for you and for Unusual.
[00:37:26] TH: Well firstly, this year has had a massive effect on us as a company, like many others globally. But especially within live entertainment. It's been horrendous. We've seen our income drop from a 100% down to probably 15%, 20% if we're lucky. So that's been very challenging. We're lucky in that we have had a few capital projects ongoing that have allowed us to sustain the hit for the first, however many months it's been so far since March, when it really all stopped for us. We've had all of the theatre shows that we provide equipment for, all of those weekly rentals have gone from a 100% a week down to 25%, if not zero, in terms of return.
Unfortunately, we've had to look at making some redundancies, which has been really upsetting to have to restructure in that way. We've been very determined to ensure that everybody remains on 100% of their salary since March, which has been the case. Everybody's been on 100%. But from next month, we recognise that we're probably going to have to cut to 20% and move people on to a four-day working week.
Actually, within that is an opportunity because for a long time, I’ve been wanting to explore a four-day working week within our industry. Because it was always considered utterly impossible. And actually, it's one of the industries which is accused of really burning out the freelance community, because people just work crazy hours to keep the show on the road. So I think we have an obligation and a responsibility to take advantage of this difficult time and to say, “Right, let's see if we can do maybe some shared shifts, or some shared work, so that people can keep their jobs.” We will get to keep our jobs, but we just reduce down and we run on a rotor in some instances.
And for people that work in the office, they're going to come in and just do a four-day working week, because we will have to put in a phased return to work. And another agenda as well is that we are no longer going to recognise a badge of honour based on hours in the office. It's actually going to be based on outcomes of productivity. Because we recognise that for a lot of people, it's actually been healthier to be able to work from home when they can. This old 20th century approach of “Everybody needs to be in the office and that's there and you need to clock in and clock out” — not that we do that at Unusual.
I think there's an opportunity to really investigate that, especially when you look at some of the philosophy behind the 9 to 5 in the first place. Apparently, it was configured in such a way, because it was — the old captains of industry 250 years ago said, “This is when we need our workers in, because this is during daylight, so we'll be able to see whether people are nicking things.” But actually, in a modern 21st century world, why not have people do their tasks and jobs where reasonably practical in hours that suit them better, or from the comfort of wherever they feel most comfortable. That might be the office. But for others, it might be a beach in the Bahamas, or I don't know, something more ecologically friendly than that, perhaps.
[00:40:39] ES: It sounds lovely though. Sign me up.
[00:40:42] TH: Yeah. I would go and miss not to mention this. I’ve been affected personally by the last six months, where my stepfather sadly passed away from cancer. He managed to do that just before the coronavirus really hit. At the time he said to me, he said, “I really feel I’m leaving you in the lurch here. I’m stepping out when things are getting really bad.” It was very challenging to lose him, to lose his leadership, which was very distinct over the last 40 years for the company. Then to go headlong into this crazy coronavirus-adjusted world.
I really see it as an opportunity and I really see that the coronavirus really is just like Jeremy Lent had said, that coronavirus really is just that small rehearsal wave before the really big wave comes along, which is going to be the multiple impacts of climate change, which we're seeing already and how do we adjust to that.
[00:41:38] BO: Yeah. Well, thanks for sharing all of that. As you say, that's a fairly full-on intense year. I’d like what you said there at the end about in adversity, without in any way, reducing the difficulty of that adversity, but doing what you can to focus on the opportunity, which sounds like what you're saying.
[00:41:56] TH: Absolutely. And seeing that for the people, because everybody matters, seeing for the people that are still standing in the elements of the industry that are still standing, this is like a phoenix out of the flames moment. It really is. We get to not just pay lip service to the things that we've been trying to put in place around the circular economy, but to really take the downtime to re-write and redesign everything. Actually, it's not as complicated and as complex as it might sound. It's a matter of just taking the quiet time and saying, “Right. Okay. Let's look at our fleet. We have everybody in our company, riggers and production team, they all have a car. Why don't we change it, so that we can apply a salary sacrifice scheme? That way, we can move quicker towards electrifying the old fleet. And it's more cost-effective for the company and it's more cost-effective for the employee as well.” It's driving us to make big decisions quicker, if you like, which is a good thing.
[00:42:54] BO: Yeah. And another case of inspiration in what you're sharing with us there, so thank you so much for all that. I’d love to explore all of what you're sharing there and to go into that in more detail. Maybe what we should do, Tom, is in a year and 18 months, when we're over into the next stage of whatever's coming next, I’d like to have you back on the show and explore, in retrospect, what's happened since then. And hopefully as you say, talk a little bit about the phoenix inside of the flames and some of the next stage of those circular economy. Positive moves that you're talking about now, as well as the team and cultural human stuff that you mentioned.
[00:43:28] TH: I’d love to. Yeah, that would be great. I’d be very keen to do that.
[00:43:31] BO: Awesome. Thank you. Just finally, for anybody listening who wants to find out more about the work you're doing and more about Unusual, where should they go?
[00:43:38] TH: Well, if they go to www.unusual.co.uk, they can find out all about the company and info at unusual.co.uk. I’m on that email structure. So send an email through if you've got any more — any specific questions.
[00:43:55] BO: Awesome. Thank you so much. Really appreciate your time today. Really enjoyed that conversation.
[00:43:59] TH: Thank you. Likewise. Thanks a lot. Cheers.
[00:44:02] ES: Thank you, Tom, for sharing your story with us. It was great.
[00:44:04] TH: Thanks a lot.
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