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Ofer Lapid profile

Fri, 06 Jun 2014 12:41

Ofer Lapid

Ofer Lapid, founder and managing director of the Gearhouse Group, has an interesting story to tell and a wealth of knowledge to share. From Joffa, Israel to the military to Johnny Clegg to contributing immensely to the South African technical production services industry, he is both an enigma to those who have only heard his name and a serious force to contend with to those who know him. Pro Systems caught up with him at the Johannesburg offices of the Gearhouse Group to talk with him about the past, the present and the future.

You came from Israel to work and live in South Africa in the early 80s, what made you choose South Africa and what was your impression of the local production services at that time?

Lapid: Actually, I did not specifically choose South Africa; it was a combination of circumstances that made things turn out the way they did. I was working on a world tour of Israeli bands playing to Jewish communities around the world and South Africa was the last stop on the tour. Allan Geen from Sound Hire, a company operating in Pritchard Street, saw the show and said: “Nice lighting mate! I have a band that arriving in three weeks’ time, do you want to stick around and do the lighting for it?” I had no plans so I stuck around and the rest is history. Once I started working in South Africa though, I understood very quickly that I had knowledge in regard to the touring industry that others here did not.

What was that?

Lapid: Well, I had knew things about working with rigging, sound and lighting that had not yet filtered through to South Africa. I realised that I had knowledge to share with the local industry; how to do quicker setups, faster strikes and how to work with touring grade rigs; that kind of thing.

How has the industry changed since those days and what do you think was the catalyst for these changes?

Lapid: The demolishing of apartheid opened doors across all industries, including ours. South Africans started believing in their own country again, international artists started trading with us and promoters started doing business. They started bringing in International music acts as well as corporate events. People started investing in local shows and the rental companies started acquiring equipment to meet international riders. In fact, it was the international production managers demanding a certain technical standard that really brought about change. People were blown away by what they saw on international shows and the local industry started copying those standards and acquiring the technology. It’s not as though the industry suddenly became passionate in 1991 or 1994; the passion developed as a result of the international artists and productions that came here.

Your background is in lighting and being ‘hands on’ was what you loved. How did you end up running a group of companies instead?

Lapid: I come from a lighting background but in a small country like Israel, you need to learn all disciplines, so I had a good all-round foundation. It doesn’t really matter what discipline you’re working in; the crew starts the show and finishes the show so everyone needs to work together to get the job done. Besides I like to poke my nose into other disciplines to learn whatever I can about them. In short, I have had exposure to all, but I will never be an AV technician.

I also never wanted to be a businessman but I realised that if I wanted to see changes in the industry, I was going to have to find an investor and make them happen myself. And that is exactly what I did.

In 1991, I found a partner who was willing to invest and with that investment we developed from a small company into three lucrative companies: Lighting Unlimited, Stage Design and Woza Power, over the next five years.

When Gearhouse PLC bought all three companies in 1996, I stayed on to work for Gearhouse and I was really glad I made that transaction because Gearhouse taught me how to run a company properly. It taught me how to balance the technical aspect with the human side. It was not only about the revenue, it was about the knowledge we brought into the country. Gearhouse PLC eventually went belly up so I bought the company back and kept the Gearhouse name.

What is your take on the technical production services industry now and where do you feel it is headed?

Lapid: There is less of an influence from the international production managers. Nowadays it is more of an internal urge, it is passionate people wanting to be better and wanting to compete that is driving the industry forward.

Technology is moving forward too fast for a simple guy like me to predict where we are going. AV and LX are converging more and more to improve the visual look of shows. Sound is using software to check the acoustic properties of venues and work out the best arrangement for the line array far ahead of load in. Everything can be prepared in advance which is helping the industry develop even further. Structures development is a bit slower, only because they have not yet managed to invent a skyhook.

How do South African rental companies shape up against international service providers?

Lapid: I believe we compare very well, bearing in mind that every show here is a once-off whereas in Europe once a show is prepped it will usually travel for a while. Here you need to set the whole installation up for just one or two shows. Until recently we had to quickly shift stages between cities but last weekend we had three full, outdoor stages up at the same time. That was a first for Gearhouse and both production managers for Eminem and Santana congratulated us on our delivery, so we continue to make progress all the time.

South African suppliers are also attending more and more trade shows which are helping us to keep developing despite reduced event budgets, thanks to the depreciating rand.

How can our industry players contribute to the growth of the industry? What are the issues and how do we improve upon the current state of affairs?

Lapid: We are ‘sticks and stones’ fighters in a very young industry. I would love to see the Technical Production Services Association (TPSA) playing a greater role in the development of our industry. Companies need to try to drop the barriers of the past and work together to make large and serious investments into the new generation. I would like to see more investment from all the local players in terms of teaching young technicians fundamental skills like marking out floor plans, fault finding, calculation of load bearing capabilities, etc.

Gearhouse is contributing to the development of the local industry by running courses in technical production services through our own Kentse Mpahlwa Gearhouse Academy. There are one and two year courses which teach entry level skills to technicians around the country, but we only take on a small percentage of graduates ourselves each year, so we believe that we are raising the standard of the industry overall by creating a new generation of technicians who can deliver to very high standards.

Unfortunately, there are also still companies who are pulling the industry backwards because of lack of knowledge, lack of experience, cutting corners to make more profit and in the process opening the industry up to health and safety risks.

Are these issues the same for all technical suppliers or do they differ depending on what business sectors you are servicing?

Lapid: I think the challenges are common across all sectors. We might be servicing 5 people in a room or 50 000 in a stadium, depending on the day, with bigger or smaller problems but it comes down to the one single challenge which is always to develop and to continue to raise the standard every time.

How do you think your approach has impacted your company and/or the industry at large?

Lapid: Historically, the South African situation pushed us [Gearhouse] towards taking a multi-disciplined approach. Some South African companies have specialised in a single discipline but the majority are multi-disciplined. Which way is better, only God knows! Gearhouse is a fantastic company and whether it’s a measure of my success, I don’t know, but I am very proud of it because it’s mine.

I increase the level of delivery constantly. This industry is like a soccer game. A very fast one. The moment you take your eye off the ball your chance has gone. So our success is about having the best equipment and having the best crew – always.

I like to think that Gearhouse offers a career instead of a job and my policy is to give my people fishing rods, rather than fish, as the saying goes. So people must not join Gearhouse and expect things to be given to them on a silver platter. I am offering a platform for people to succeed, if they want to. I can give you the opportunity but it’s up to you to make something of it. Nobody ever handed me anything, I fought for what I have and I believe that I am a better person because of it. If there is a legacy I would like Gearhouse to leave in the industry, it is to have bred the next wave of people to carry our industry forward with passion, enthusiasm and integrity across the whole of Africa. We are already taking our first steps onto the rest of the continent, so watch this space.