Mike Rusbridge steps down from the helm at Reed Exhibitions in December. CN meets the man who built a billion-pound events empire
Reed Exhibitions executive chairman Mike Rusbridge has travelled many miles since he leaving his native Teeside. It is a career journey that has criss-crossed the globe in the line of sealing deals, launching big events and building a US$1.5bn (£950m) empire.
As he looks back on a 36-year career in the events business, it is clear there is still an epilogue to follow once he steps down from the Reed chair in the new year.
The 60-year-old says he still has as much of a love affair with this business as he did when he joined.
The first events company he joined all those years ago was Clapp and Poliak Europe. Rusbridge remembers he was brought in by Richard Copley-Smith, to launch the Design Engineering Show, but says he never expected to end up in the events industry.
Fresh out of the University of Manchester, with a qualification in geography, he had signed-up for a graduate programme at a transport company.
It was in 1978 that he answered Copley-Smith’s ad. “I’d never heard of exhibitions,” Rusbridge admits. “We were in Acton Lane, between a dodgy cake company, an undertakers and a car wash at the back. And that was the start.”
The business took off, attracting the attention of US-based publisher Cahners Exhibitions, which was part-owned by Reed.
When the publisher acquired Clapp and Poliak in 1982, a 26-year-old Rusbridge was tasked with merging the two companies’ UK operations.
A knack for bringing staff together helped overcome the challenges of trying to combine two “diametrically opposite” businesses.
“If you’re buying anything, or merging anything, it’s a cultural thing,” Rusbridge explains. “I bought a snooker table, put teams from the different companies together and created a competition. That did wonders.”
Meanwhile, across the pond, progress in the US was “a case study in how to screw up an acquisition,” Rusbridge adds. “It was an absolute shambles.”
By the time he arrived in the US to repair the damage, fewer than five of Clapp and Poliak’s original 100 staff remained.
“It was just a big culture clash. One tried to enforce their will on another and, of course, it doesn’t work. People voted with their feet and left.”
Three years further on and Rusbridge returned to the UK to build up the European side of the business into the Reed Exhibitions of today.
He speaks fondly as he describes the early days of “racing with [competitors] Blenheim across Europe to hoover up whatever we could as quickly as possible”.
“We won some, lost some,” he says.
Then came the news that United Business Media was selling off its exhibition subsidiary, Miller Freeman Europe. Rusbridge seized the opportunity to buy his closest competitor and create the world’s largest event organiser.
“It was a big strategic move. Buying the European business rounded us out nicely.”
If there was one regret, it was not acquiring the group’s Asia portfolio. “I wish I’d bought it all then,” he says.
The company spends £47-64m on acquiring trade shows annually, but shutting shows down is also part of Rusbridge’s remit and he admits he can be equally ruthless at either end of the scale.
Events, he says, are real time marketing. “We’ve had to be very flexible and adaptive to saying there are occasions where markets move, technology changes.”
Rusbridge’s way is to work with his show teams to pull apart and tune up approximatelyw 50 shows annually. He says he is always scanning for events that will “refresh the portfolio”.
When asked if there are any countries the business should be in, but isn’t, the answer is simple: “No”.
The company’s portfolio now includes more than 500 events in 43 countries. “We’re in markets which account for 75% of the world’s GDP,” Rusbridge points out. “We’re in all the markets we need to be in.”
Rusbridge says a lot of the growth was due to doing 20 years ago what a lot of people are doing now. “We were just there doing it earlier than most”.
If early years at Reed were focused on acquisitions and launches, the company’s next challenge is to become a relationship broker outside the show floor. “That is where I see the next phase of growth for Reed,” says Rusbridge. “We need to be the company that is proactively putting buyers and sellers together.”
Rusbridge likens the shifting role to the difference between serving a table of guests and having a seat at the table.
A big investment has been made in technology and online platforms, introduced to help visitors plan event visits, optimise time on the show floor and follow-up afterwards.
The investment has centred on developing enterprise architecture that will share insights across the business, Rusbridge says.
He is clearly a believer in the corporate way and in having common approaches across his teams. He talks of inculcating a series of successful behaviours in his managers, with inspirational phrases posted on every wall.
He says his managers need to be able to lever big data to the full and play their role in evolving shows from what Rusbridge describes as the ‘random meeting model’.
“We can see why person A needs to meet person B. They may not realise it, but we do.”
Data mining, Rusbridge says, is allowing the organiser to predict exhibitor behaviour, including whether a client is considering abandoning an event. “We can head them off at the pass,” he observes.
It is not easy for a self-confessed workaholic to step down and Rusbridge says the decision to retire from Reed wasn’t easy.
“My wife has made it very clear – whatever I do, it ain’t going to be at home,” he jokes.
A lifestyle that has involved travelling 170 days a year has taken Rusbridge to numerous destinations, yet rarely has he had time for reflection on the destinations’ sights and charms.
Last year, when he spent a week in Sydney with his wife, the realisation dawned that in 20 years of visiting, he had never stayed more than two nights in the harbour city.
“I might have been a lot of places, but I haven’t seen a lot of places,” he says.
The tributes have already started, although the master has not yet left the Richmond building.
“Mike has been the undisputed master of the universe of the exhibition world for over 20 years,” says Montgomery chairman Sandy Angus. “His achievement in building and keeping Reed as the largest exhibition group in the world is without parallel – and he has remained a proper and delightful human being in the process.”
Tim Etchells, managing director at Single Market Events, has known Rusbridge for 25 years.
“He is a shining example of how someone can work up from sales to chief executive of one of the world’s largest event companies,” Etchells says, although he doesn’t buy Rusbridge’s retirement line.
“He’ll be back. It’s just a question of watch this space.”
Rusbridge says the next stage in Reed’s business growth is for other people to develop, but believes he he will leave the building blocks in place and the strategy there. “It’s in good shape.”
Now, he says, “I’m interested in getting my brain around other challenges”.Although he admits he will keep his finger in the events pie. “This industry is in my blood.”
Those challenges are likely to range from projects with venture capitalists and non-executive director roles to investment opportunities and mentorships.
And valedictory views on the state of the industry?
Rusbridge laments that many don’t see the events industry as a career path. Another avenue Rusbridge is keen to explore is helping the UK’s MICE industry attract more headline business events.
He will surely have takers for his experience, which has included four years as a member of an advisory committee to Singapore’s tourism authorities, as well as to various venues around the world.
Rusbridge believes cities such as Singapore, Vienna and Cannes have all developed integrated strategies to win MICE business – something, he believes, the UK is lacking.
“You actually have a greater concentration of world-class organisers in the UK, more than anywhere else in the world,” he notes. “But how many of us are running anything other than a very small proportion of those events in the UK?
“There are certain cities that are now recognised by some of the events they host. It’s almost their statement of their identity, it becomes that powerful.”
He is loath to pick a favourite of all his shows and events, but clearly has an affection for the success of those he has run in Cannes, mostly in the property and media sectors, including MIPIM and MIPCOM.
They all seem like his children and he does not choose favourites.
“There was a time when I had either run, launched, or acquired every show in the portfolio. I can’t boast that any longer, but I personally sign off every deal we make.”
Of course, Rusbridge is known primarily as an exhibition man, but under his watch the giant ibtm meetings show portfolio was built and he says of the conference aspect of his shows: “Conferences are integral part of many of our events worldwide. They can be a conduit to education and knowledge. Equally many industry associations use our shows to hold their own annual conferences alongside, thereby being part of the trade show community at the same time as their own events.”
In January, Reed Exhibitions president of the Americas, Chet Burchett, will slide into the chairman’s chair and be the man signing off the big deals, having taken on the global chief executive role earlier this year.
We may have to look elsewhere, but you will surely feel the Rusbridge event effect at a venue near you soon.