I have an abiding memory of Nigel Cooper. We were both on duty at a glitzy award ceremony where Jeremy Vine was MCing in jocular fashion. Nigel was up before me. He strode onto the stage and fixed the BBC journo with a familiar determined stare. After a silence that seemed interminable, but was really a matter of seconds, Vine cracked first.
“Are we having a Harold Pinter moment?” he asked.
It illustrates two aspects of Cooper’s character which he does not try to hide – he doesn’t suffer fools and he prefers the non-nonsense attitude rather than this industry’s often flowery approach.
He grew up in Clitheroe, a small Lancashire market town, and graduated in politics from Lancaster University – where his friends called him Cooperman.
He says: “My first job was in the office equipment sector in the 1980s. I remember the day the first word processors were unveiled. Electronic daisywheel typewriters linked to floppy disk CPUs and archaic five-inch black screen monitors – yours for a mere £4,000. How times have changed.”
As the roller coaster eighties gave way to the more challenging nineties, Cooper embarked on a career in sales with Capital Incentives – which is now part of Edenred.
Cooper makes no claims to any particular talent and is at pains to emphasise he is not an event specialist.
He says: “I’m a normal bloke. I base everything I do on whether or not it feels right. It is incredibly effective. If you’re doing what feels right rather than what ‘the book’ prescribes it is easier to explain to others what you want. If it makes sense to you and me then hopefully we’re both right.”
Fast forward another 10 years, and Cooper joined Milton Keynes based agency P&MM, helping to grow the business over the next 15 years, making seven acquisitions and floating the company on the AIM London stock exchange as Motivcom plc.
In November last year, Cooper completed the £2.9m acquisition of venue-finding, event production and event management company Zibrant from its parent Motivcom. The 160-strong event and production agency works with over 100 companies, organisations and associations delivering three core services; venue sourcing, management and live event production.
Cooper acquired 100% of the share capital of Zibrant through a management buy out.
The purchase came in the wake of the firm’s parent company, Motivcom, having agreed a £41m offer by Sodexo to acquire its incentive and loyalty brands.
The purchase of Zibrant’s share capital was undertaken by Cooper’s own company Zebra Ltd.
Zibrant had undergone a period of significant investment in its overall IT infrastructure and had streamlined its business to reflect clear product offerings, from procurement and compliance of policies to the creative live event sector.
A company statement made it clear that the offices and personnel in Derby, Milton Keynes, Faversham and Godalming remained unaffected by the buyout.
At the time, Cooper said: “We have a great opportunity and I am thrilled at the prospect of what we can achieve. The recent investment and developments have already resulted in a leaner, fitter, more dynamic and more focussed business with strong levels of new business wins. We will continue to develop and invest in our products and service infrastructure and further develop our presence in the meetings and events sector”.
Fay Sharpe, managing director at Zibrant, enjoys a profile every bit as prominent as Cooper’s. She says the chemistry works.
“It’s like a marriage. We respect each other. We have a good relationship where we can talk things through – and then I get my way! That’s a joke, but I am the sort of person who will challenge things and Nigel is able to recognise that. That said, I probably bring a softer side to the business. I am reflective and he is analytical.
“I think the fact that I am still here at the business tells you a lot. We both have the good of the business at heart.”
Rick Stainton, managing director at agency Smyle, learned from Cooper at Milton Keynes based event agency P&MM.
He said: “He was my first boss when I was at P&MM and I watched how he operated and learned a lot.
“He was very focused and very ambitious. He gave me the opportunity to lead the live creative B2B events and he supported me in that role showing patience and leadership.
“He believes in setting staff up to succeed not to fail. He doesn’t sit in an ivory tower. At P&MM he was always visible around the office.
“These are attitudes I’ve taken with me when managing staff at Smyle.”
Cooper recently turned 52, an age when many in his position might be thinking about heading for the beach or the garden lounger. Cooper travels up and down the M1 between Zibrant’s offices in Derby, Milton Keynes, Godalming and Faversham.
What’s so special about Zibrant?
“People. I work with a great team, many of whom have been with me for at least seven years and some for more than 15. It is the people that make Zibrant so special and inspire me to want to be successful with them.
“There is a lot of talent and experience in the company and my role is really to give them the tools to do their jobs. There isn’t much I can teach an event manager with 10 years operational experience or a venues expert who can reel off the room capacities of the largest 50 hotels in Europe – they are the experts not me.
“The senior team know more and do more than I possibly could and in Fay Sharpe, Helen McCabe, Hannah Wilkinson, Alex James, Adam Morris, John Harrison and Mark Rose, the management team have more than 100 years of event creation and delivery experience. The business as a whole can boast over 1,000 years of event knowledge.
“It’s a cliché to say we are on a journey, and it also suggests there is possibly an end point.
“I don’t have any fixed ambitions about size or targets for success, I am much more interested in people feeling good about what they are doing and enjoying working at Zibrant. We are already a successful business and that’s down to the people who work here not me, so my role is more as the team coach rather than centre forward.”
All work and no play, he says, is not a recipe he recommends.
He insists the team knows how to have fun and also how to make a difference. This year Zibrant staff are supporting six charities and their teams will take part in more than 20 events, ranging from 10km runs for the British Heart Foundation to bake sales for Children in Need.
He says: “We have a conference at the start of each year, where we identify the business strategy, the highs and lows, the investment strategy, financial position and charity activity we want to support. The after-party can be a bit wild, but I’m sure that doesn’t surprise anyone. We follow this up with a cascade meeting every four months in each office where we give updates on what’s happening and the progress we are making. Open and effective communication is vital if we want to be successful. It may sound really simple, but if you let people know what you would like them to do there is a very good chance they will do it and you will have a business pulling in the same direction. Leave them guessing and the chances are they will develop their own strategies and while they won’t be wrong, they will probably not be going in the same direction.”
“Work isn’t supposed to be easy – that’s the definition of work – but it helps if you make it simple and enjoyable.”
How long does he want to stay in the head coach role at Zibrant?
“The team will tell me when to go, but just remember Sir Alex Ferguson was in his 70s. Arsène Wenger and Roy Hodgson are in both in their late 60s so don’t write me off just yet.”