From The Archive – August 1994
Catriona Forcer talks to Mr. Equipment in Sydney.
After 25 years in the lighting industry, Rob Nichols remains a very gentle and modest businessman. He began his career at Reg and Judy Bartram’s company ‘Stage Spot’ which, at that time in the late sixties, was the Australian NSW agent for Strand.
“I began by doing the Friday afternoon deliveries,” laughed Rob. “We had about thirty lights and a couple of followspots in hire – Patten 23’s, 123’s, couple of 223’s, couple of 93’s, couple of 243’s and a couple of 293’s.”
You get the impression that Rob can remember the entire lighting itinerary from every single warehouse he has worked in.
At this time Rob was also gaining experience working at The Doncaster which used to be a large theatre restaurant in Sydney. Eventually Strand bought out Stage Spot and Rob was offered a permanent job.
He stayed with Strand as their Hire Manager up until they closed down their operations in Australia in 1992. In fact Rob was the only employee to stay with Strand from the beginning to the end.
“Strand encourage young people in the hire department knowing they were never going to keep them for ever,” said Rob. “They hoped they would leap into the industry and chuck work back at them which they often did.
“We had Phil Cullen when he was Mac Enterprises Lightshows, Colin Baldwin when he was a sixteen year old running Vibe Lighting and someone called Julius Grafton with a company called Zapco.”
Fortunately Rob didn’t mention any outstanding bills concerning Strand (Steady Cat… Ed.)
“Strand actually pulled out of Australia a few years ago when there was a credit squeeze worldwide,” explained Rob. “They decided to sell the company to an Australian consortium but we were still Rank Strand Electronics.
“When the credit got better Rank bought it back again but then it went wrong again and they pulled out forever more. Hope they die with their secret! (Joke).”
“I was always very loyal to Strand but I must admit they gave us six months notice and asked us to stay on if we could. We knew what was happening and they were very good about it. It wasn’t a stab in the back in the dark. They were a good mob to work for and all the bosses were great.”
“I think the only other person who has been in this industry as long as myself is Bob Fletcher at Channel 7, he’s the dinosaur of television.”
Whilst at Strand, Rob got to work at a variety of places including the Australian Opera and the Elizabethan Theatre at Newtown, always rising in the morning for another day at Strand.
After his departure from Strand, Rob worked as a freelancer for companies such as Rosco and Starlite until he was offered a job by Chameleon in Sydney.
“I had done a couple of days freelancing for them first,” said Rob. “When I arrived I thought it was going to be all rock’n’roll and I wasn’t going to like it.
“Fortunately it wasn’t. The occasional band comes through but most of the work is theatre biased. I’ve never liked rock’n’roll, it’s never been my thing. At Strand we didn’t have the equipment for it and the management weren’t interested in it.
“We didn’t do many trade shows or business theatre either because the management were always too slow to make a decision. Here if you need something, and the client are going to pay, then we buy it.
“At Strand it would take six months of letters and by then the job would be gone. You couldn’t get an instant decision from management because if it meant spending dollars they had to get approval from London.
Basically they didn’t like spending money outside of the Rank group. I don’t go out to any of the jobs but stay in the office doing the dry hire bookings. Tony Davies and the boys look after the productions whilst Roger Barratt looks after the professional theatre.”
“At Strand we only hired out Strand products but here we hire out everything. Whatever’s best to do the job – we buy. We have CCT, Selecon, Strand, Jands, Dynalite and Coemar de Sisti.
“The hire business today is getting stronger and better despite the last recession. I think the hire departments grew stronger because no one was buying anything.
“With all the different products on the market today you have to be very wary where you put your investment. We stick with Clay Paky moving lights which have been very reliable although not the cheapest. Sometimes dollars are important and sometimes it’s more which product will be better.
“We recently bought some Strand Preludes because they are still the best 650w profile around. Hurt me a bit to put money into Strand, l’m still a bit cut up at times (Joke)!”
Rob certainly seems at home at Chameleon, which has a family air to it, and at least twelve people hold keys to the premises. Staff know what is to be done and are free to do their work when they please.
“If work’s not fun then don’t do it,” stated Rob. ”It’s been better than I thought it would be here. I didn’t know if I was doing the right thing, perhaps I was too old to go back into another company. It s turned out I’m hiring to 90% of the people that used to go to Strand anyway so I know most of them.”
Another good thing about Chameleon is that dogs are allowed and Rob is now on his third Basset hound. Rob obviously has a great love for these dogs although unfortunately they only live about eight years and consequently he already has Basset number four’s name chosen.
Rob lives in the Blue Mountains, occasionally staying the night at a friend’s house in Sydney. After Strand, Rob sold his city house half, intending to retire to the mountains where he already had a weekend retreat. He is currently plagued by the sort of dramas that occur when a new house is nearing completion.
Rob Nichols always had a great way of dealing with people. I learned the concept of customer service from him when he alone ran the Strand Electric hire department in Sydney.
Back then I worked part time to support my business, and I got to meet interesting people who came through. I already new the guys Rob mentions in the interview, and the things that went down between Mr. Baldwin and Mr. Cullen & myself in those days would make a really good story another time.
The good thing about Strand Hire under Rob, was it was neutral territory!
One day we unpacked 24 new Patt 763 profile spots, futuristic looking things they were too, the next day Rob hired four to Sherbet, who destroyed them on one of their pioneering Far North Queensland road tours.
They also broke an axle on the Bedford 4 tonne renta-truck from Sydney Truck Rentals.
I knew about bands, so Rob was my intro to theatre. I discovered a different culture, where the lights were rigged to A PLAN, and the crew all had funny names. Who ever heard of a bloke called Hilda? Or Nell?
I owe Rob a lot.
This story first appeared in Connections Magazine, August 1994 p.16.
Connections Magazine – August 1994
LIGHTING | AUDIO | VIDEO | STAGING | INTEGRATION
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