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June 25, 2013 4:18 pm
This month Sir Howard Panter received a knighthood in the Queen’s birthday honours for his services to theatre. His wife, Rosemary Squire, co-chief executive and co-founder of the Ambassador Theatre Group, which owns and runs theatres in London’s West End, the regions and one on Broadway, got nothing.
Is she miffed? “Yes. It would be nice [to be a dame].” However, her let’s-get-on-with-the-show manner prevails: she says that, unlike her husband, she has no need for the external affirmation, although she does have an OBE for services to theatre. “The only prize he’s ever won before is the Dyslexia Action award. I did well at school, university.” She looks at her husband, sitting next to her in their boardroom, which has photographs of stars from past productions including Damian Lewis and Keira Knightley (The Misanthrope) and Kristin Scott Thomas (Three Sisters). “How many times did you take A-level maths – four times, five times? A lot. And for somebody who is so commercial . . . ”
Her husband interrupts: “I’m only mildly dyslexic.”
Ms Squire disagrees: “Ask him his postcode.”
He concedes defeat: he keeps a note of his home address in his pocket in case he needs to cite it at the bank.
Of the two, Sir Howard tends to back down, deferring to his wife. She is pragmatic, forthright and energetic, as befits her role as the head of the business operations, while he takes charge of the creative side. Both deplore depictions of themselves as “luvvies”. Neither of them seems to display theatrical affectations, unless you count clear enunciation and an ability to project their voices, which both have in spades.
Over the past two decades they have built one of the largest theatre groups in Britain, owning and operating 39 venues across the country, including renowned West End venues such as the Lyceum. In May they acquired a Broadway theatre, Foxwoods – which currently houses Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark – and have ambitions for expanding to the Asia-Pacific region. The group produces, or co-produces, productions ranging from Macbeth, starring Bafta-winning James McAvoy to Legally Blonde, the musical, to pantomimes headlining the likes of David Hasselhoff, star of television’s Baywatch. They also run an online ticketing operation, ATG Tickets. Amid cuts to arts organisations’ subsidies, the commercial operator last year saw sales of £108.8m, up from £92.4m the year before, and operating profit of £15m (£8.3m in 2011).
With more than 400,000 seats a week to fill, they insist that the content must be “the best” and appeal to a diverse population. Each production and venue is a cost centre. “You’re having to think all the time ‘will this be a good piece of theatre?’ At the same time, ‘can we make this into a profitable piece of theatre?’, and ‘is this something that we can export around the world?’,” says Sir Howard.
There is no gain to the brand from offsetting one creative but loss-making play against a money-spinning musical. Yet economies of scale mean they can afford to take risks or invest money in developing new shows, such as Ghost, the musical.
“In regional theatres you can have an absolutely storming fantastic year in Manchester, but the next year it isn’t, but then Bristol is, so one is up, one is down and the portfolio effect means it’s not life and death,” says Sir Howard.
While the productions drive the business, they are just one part of it. ATG Tickets provides ticketing services for all the UK theatres that ATG manages, as well as managing ticketing and ecommerce for venues, artists and events across the UK. Retail and merchandise are crucial to the portfolio and they have spent millions compiling data on 6m households, which means they can focus their marketing efforts, rather than buy expensive television and print advertising. “[We know] what kinds of plays you like, [and] if you like white wine in advance,” says Sir Howard.
A theatrical company is like many other entertainment or media businesses, say Sir Howard Panter and Rosemary Squire.
Content fuels the business, says Ms Squire. Success depends on having economies of scale or subsidies.
Although ATG does not receive public funding, the couple worry about the impact of cuts in support for arts organisations. “If you’re an independent producer and if you’re a single theatre, it’s so hard,” says Ms Squire. “How do you cope with failures? You can’t do that if you’re just a single venue.”
Both their first jobs were in subsidised theatre and they fear that reduced funding will affect the flow of new talent, especially in regional theatre. They have started to look into new partnerships and funding arrangements to help regional theatre develop new productions that would have been done in-house.
They have set up an office in Sydney to spearhead plans for the Asia-Pacific region, headed by Tim McFarlane, formerly of the Really Useful Group, the production company owned by impresario and composer Lord Lloyd Webber. China is a dream rather than a tangible plan at present. “It’s going to take a long time to build up the marketplace,” says Ms Squire.
Such global ambitions are some distance from their origins. They met in 1979 at Queen’s Theatre in London where Ms Squire was working in the box office and he was producing And A Nightingale Sang. In 1986, while on maternity leave with her second child, Ms Squire was made redundant.
“Howard called me and said, ‘They’re crazy’.” He made her general manager of his production company. It was the start of their professional relationship, which turned personal after the two split with their respective partners. They were married in 1994 and have a daughter.
As independent producers, they dreamed of buying a theatre to stage their productions. In 1992, with the help of friends Peter Beckwith, the property entrepreneur, and Sir Eddie Kulukundis, the Greek shipping scion and philanthropist, they bought the Duke of York’s Theatre for £3.05m. Many of the original investors have remained shareholders.
In 2009, they bought Live Nation’s 16 theatres for £90m, with the majority of funding coming from Exponent private equity fund. They say the investors, who are the biggest shareholders, have been sympathetic to their creative ambitions.
“They see if you’ve got good content, you sell more beer and you sell more tickets and you sell more merchandise,” says Ms Squire. But she dislikes the very male tone to the social events. Her requests that they decamp to Venice to view art instead of drinking and tackling black ski runs have fallen flat.
The pair deny rumours that Exponent is planning to sell its stake imminently but acknowledge that it will inevitably do so at some point.
Do external investors poke their noses into the state of their marriage?
“On a human level, investors would be concerned [if we divorced],” says Sir Howard. “Fortunately, it’s not on the horizon as far as I know.” He laughs before looking at his wife for reassurance. “Nobody is irreplaceable,” she replies.
How do they manage the distinction between private and work lives?
“Badly,” says Sir Howard. His wife agrees: “Ask our kids . . . they say it’s horrible when work doesn’t get left at the front door. They do not like it and it’s very difficult.”
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