Visionary firm Universal AV Services helping in learning curve

Nick Fitzpatrick (left) joined company founder Carl Harris (right) in 1993

The video wall, one of the company’s products

Universal’s base in the former St Anne’s House school and St Anne’s RC Church in Guy Street

First published in News Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Photograph of the Author by , Business Reporter

Remember overhead projectors and acetates?

They were a fixture in classrooms and the boardroom back in the 1980s and 1990s and an integral part of the cutting-edge equipment supplied by a new Bradford audio-visual business nearly 25 years ago.

Like the technology it provides, that company has come a long way since 1990 when what became Universal AV Services Ltd started as a two-man band during a previous economic recession.

Now Universal – the name was taken from a range of Australian tripods, the supply of which was the firm’s first big contract – is a £13 million turnover operation employing 85 staff based in a converted school and adjacent church in Bradford and regional offices in Lancashire, the Midlands, Wales and the North East.

And its operations are much more than selling AV kit. The award-winning business also offers a spectrum of technical expertise for the installation of increasingly sophisticated systems for businesses, education and the public sector, including the NHS.

But in those dark days of 1990 it nearly came to a premature end.

Managing director Carl Harris, who jointly launched the business with a co-director, said the duo contemplated giving up after the first year.

Carl said: “We’d secured a franchise to sell some Australian tripods and thought we could make our fortunes from that. But we realised very early on that was not the case. We were working all hours, six or seven days a week, in a very tough climate and not making any money.

“Although we had plans to sell the tripods in Europe and were looking at appointing distributors, it became clear that the products did not live up to the brand’s reputation.

“At the end of the first year we seriously considered packing it in and getting jobs again.”

The business partners had been directors of Eriks visual communications division in Brighouse – part of the then well-known retail chain – and had planned a management buyout of the business but the deal did not materialise.

“When we started the recession was expected to be a short, sharp shock, but lasted for several years. We quickly learned to be mean and keep costs down in order to survive, which was a good lesson in business. Once we decided to soldier on we also decided to go back to what we knew and sell a wider range of audio-visual kit. Since then we’ve looked and taken opportunities to grow the business,” Carl recalled.

Universal started in a 1,000 sq ft unit on Canal Road, which was where Nick Fitzpatrick, now sales director, joined in 1993. Carl’s brother-in-law Jon Eden came on board in 1996 after his original business partner left amicably to pursue other interests.

Nick had previous sales experience and has developed Universal’s sales operation and team, while Jon’s keen interest in rock and roll made him familiar with the requirements of staging events – and he now runs the events side of the business.

Today’s business is split 50-50 between equipment sales and installation and the events side, which is crucial to the successful staging of a wide range of events from new car launches to company AGMs.

Education has always been a key market for Universal and the firm is a key supplier to the Yorkshire Purchasing Organisation and supplies nearly 40 per cent of AV installations at Yorkshire and North East universities through the North Eastern Universities Purchasing Consortium.

In the education field, technology and audio-visual systems are transforming the learning process, including increasing student involvement and engagement and providing teachers and lecturers with new ways of teaching more effectively.

At the University of Bradford, Universal AV has provided and installed equipment, which enables students to work in small pods, while the lecturer can command the whole room from a central point as well as working with individual workstations.

Universal also played a key role in the modernisation and refurbishment of the university’s great hall where degree ceremonies and other events are staged. It worked in partnership with the university and building contractors At Leeds University, the firm is working with US-based Sonic Foundry Inc, on a £2 million programme to install a multimedia management system designed to create a video reference library of lectures. The new system will capture more than 50,000 hours of lectures using audio-visual systems from Universal.

The company has also benefited itself from the know-how of the Bradford School of Management through two Knowledge Transfer Partnership programmes. These enabled Carl and his team to take a fresh look at the business and sharpen up its processes and marketing Carl said: “Having started during a recession, we again found ourselves in recessionary conditions during the most recent downturn. The KTP with the university enables us to reassess our business processes, develop better ways of working and better ways of moving forward in difficult and challenging times.

“It’s easy to believe you’re doing your best, and recognising the need for change is a significant step for a business. It enabled us to restructure the business process, our goals and aims, and opened our eyes to other opportunities. The streamlined processes have ensured that the sales and installations business is profitable all the way through.”

Universal also appointed a marketing manager, developed a new website, including case studies of key contracts to showcase its expertise and generally upgraded its promotional activities.

“We realised how important good marketing is – not just advertising and the website but how the phone is answered and customers are handled. The changes helped to improve our organisation and efficiency – which is the thing that drives profit.

“If the processes enable you to look after customers better, then that benefits the bottom line,” added Carl.

On the commercial side, Universal has worked for many major corporates, including Asda and BMW. From car launches in Brazil – one of which involved suspending a sports car over a swimming pool – to more mundane company meetings and presentations, the expertise of its events team is invaluable.

At the London Olympics in 2012, Universal worked for BT in staging a pre-games event in Hyde Park which was broadcast on giant screens.

Universal usually works to a brief provided by the main events contractor, which usually involves working within strict budgets. More than just the hire of equipment, the events business calls for a high degree of technical know-how and creativity.

Carl said: “Everyone is trying to do something different, trying to come up with interesting ideas. We work with events agencies on a brief, usually to tight budgets and a strict timetable. There is no room for error.”

A couple of years ago, Universal’s expertise enabled the medieval underground North Gate at Durham Castle to be viewed by the public. The company installed an AV system in the Salvation Army-owned shop which is situated where the castle wall and North Gate once stood.

The display enables visitors to see remains of the walls, some dating back to the medieval period, which run under existing streets and can still be seen around the Peninsula in the grounds of the colleges of Durham University and Cathedral.

“A key to our success has been employing the right people. We have a great team here who have been essential to our success over the years. We also believe in being close to our customers which enables us to be on the spot if an emergency arises.

“That’s why we have maintained a network of regional offices and it is something that is appreciated by clients and helps us win business.

“Although the technology we are dealing with has changed dramatically over the past 24 years, our vision and belief has not. We endeavour to treat our customers in the correct way and deliver what we promise. Through a flexible approach, we aim to deliver on time and on budget, which is why our clients keep coming back,” said Carl.

Universal’s base in the former St Anne’s House school and St Anne’s RC Church has expanded to around 14,000 sq ft. While not yet bursting at the seams, the much-altered and refurbished building may not prove large enough in the long term – so another move could be on the cards.

In the meantime, Carl and his colleagues are looking at ways of celebrating the firm’s approaching 25th anniversary next year.

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