Big interview: Drpgroup CEO, Dale Parmenter

I remember Ruby Wax trying hard to get her head round the drpgroup name (pronounced with her visceral New York tones) when doling out industry gongs a couple of years back.

The Worcester-based company has forced many others to sit up and take notice since it repositioned in 2005 as a one-stop shop for multi-channel communications services. Now the turnover is in excess of £16m and there are over 100 staff.

Drpgroup CEO and Eventia Chairman Dale Parmenter says he always wanted his own business, right from the age of 12.

“I tried different things and at 14 dug up my parent’s garden (while they were out) and planted vegetables, which I sold at the road side. That plan was flawed because of the time it took to make any money.”
His next move was on the dancefloor and, at 15, the young Parmenter took on a mobile disco. “Clearly, I couldn’t drive so I had to employ a driver, but I carried on with that for around six years.”

Another early passion was messing around with electronics and at 16 he represented his school at a local science fair.

The fact that none of his inventions actually worked was not as important as the realisation he could “blag my way through the competition”.

On leaving school, Parmenter joined an NHS video unit, helping to produce training films and supporting medical conferences. When that door closed, three years later, he set up the drpgroup.

The first client was a local Worcestershire traditional carpet maker: Brinton’s Carpets.

“They had always used 35mm slides for presentations. I was proposing they use video, new at the time,” says Parmenter who shot a film in the company’s mill. The board liked it and took it to an exhibition.

Parmenter admits his team was small and inexperienced back in the early 80s, but began to take on bigger projects, including using Elstree studios for a live event.

“We turned up the day before with all the kit and the gatekeeper pointed to a large box and said: ‘There’s your studio’.

“The day became very stressful, as I realised we had been totally unrealistic with the schedule and understanding of how to manage such a venue.

“The client didn’t get a chance to rehearse and the control tower only had space for the client’s head of comms and me controlling lighting, sound, video and calling the show.

“When the caterers plugged in the tea urn, the only socket they could find was the one running control…you get the picture.

“I learnt several lessons: get the best people and remain in control. We did keep that client for many years, however.”

Parmenter is clearly an entrepreneur, but insists the most important element in business is people.
By 2001 drpgroup had grown to 25 team members racing around the globe delivering a range of communications solutions. Parmenter again: “We were a small business passionate about what we did, but didn’t really focus on the cash or formalities of business.

When the atrocities of 9/11 happened, drpgroup’s world changed at a stroke.

“We lost 60 per cent of our business overnight; Thomas Cook were our biggest client, along with several airlines.

“It was a tough time for the events industry. By 2 January 2002 we had run out of money and owed loads.
“It was D-Day, the business wasn’t strong enough to survive and receivership seemed the only way out. I got the team together and laid it on the line we had choices: close, carry on but loose half the team, or take a big pay cut for an unknown period. Unanimously everyone agreed to take the pay cut.

“It was then that I realised the power of the team. The dynamics changed instantly and instead of morale dropping it shot through the roof, we were in survival mode.”

New products were developed and new customers gained and by Christmas 2002 the company had paid back all lost wages.

Parmenter and his business partner Richard Hingley knew things had to change and came up with plans for a big relaunch and in June 2005 drpgroup entertained a thousand clients and suppliers and their families at a fun day and evening gala dinner. A new logo and the ‘anything’s possible’ culture were launched.

“We also invested in PR, joined Eventia and IVCA, entered awards, started sponsoring events and opened our first office in London. It was time to put our head above the parapet,” he says.

Within 12 months all debts were paid off and the company was back in profit.

“When the recession hit in 2008 we were in a completely different situation to 2001, having invested so much,” notes Parmenter.

He admits he is not patient. “I like to get on with it. I’m not a fan of long meetings; my attention span is short. I find rules and restrictions imposed on the business, either from authorities, suppliers or even clients, frustrating.”

Parmenter recounts one client telling him after a pitch: “The reason we took you on was not because of your credentials, the other companies were bigger and established, we took you on because you’re lucky”.

“In the early days it was like they were all willing me on to succeed, in return I had to make sure I didn’t let them down. Now I’m the senior person and owe it to the up and coming to offer my advice and support.”
Drpgroup’s mission statement advocates putting his team before the customer. A novel approach.

“Putting your people first is the only way a company can fully succeed and get the potential from those people,” he reasons.

“If we put them first and involve them in the decision-making process and communicate openly, they in turn will look after customers, quality, profit, shareholders, etc.

“I find organisations are scared to do it, however. If we look at organisations like Sainsbury’s and Virgin, even though they are huge, the principles are the same and they’re successful because of all their people.
“Look at other businesses that struggle or which are no longer with us and you will find somewhere in that organisation would be a communication issue.”

Parmenter has also firmly nailed his green colours to the sustainability mast by joining forces with EcoEvents on the Sustainability Action for Venues and Events (SAVE) campaign to offer a cost-effective route map for achieving sustainable event practices.

“There was a lot of talk and tick boxing about sustainability, but not a lot of doing. SAVE is about real tangible actions, all be it small ones that make a big difference.

“For me CSR is integral with an organisations’ success and should be linked directly with the communication strategy and encompass every element of an organisation.”

Parmenter now chairs industry association Eventia and says: “Government, business, and the general public don’t get our industry, we have no clear voice, we’re fragmented and yet offer a wide range of services, create wealth, change lives and entertain. We add £40bn of income to the UK economy, so we need to look at the way we’re represented and work closer together as one industry.”

He has set himself two main areas to focus on during his term of office: ROI and CSR.

“ROI from the point of proving to our clients the effectiveness of what we do, so we can be seen to create real value. And with CSR investment in our communities, we must bring new people into the sector; they are the lifeblood that would allow people like me to retire. I was lucky, people invested time and effort in me and now it’s payback time.”

“I want Eventia to be seen as the go-to place for education, best practice and information. Eventia needs to grow its standing to create a compelling reason why organisations should get involved. The work we are doing around things like TOMs with the IR is an example where we’re changing things for the better.”

The recent Eventia merger with IVCA is, according to Parmenter, about offering greater value for money for members and definitely not a cost-cutting exercise.

He is optimistic and believes “good times are returning, although clients are more likely to ask for evidence around return on investment”.

“I’ve been around a long time and experienced several recessions, these things come in waves, the secret is to try and ride the top of the wave for as long as possible,” is Parmenter’s final word of advice.

This was first published in the December issue of CN. Any comments? Email conferencenews@mashmedia.net

Paul Colston

Author

Paul Colston

Managing Editor, Conference News & Conference & Meetings World.

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