PEOPLE

22 May 2024

WHY AM I STILL DOING THIS?

by Julius Grafton

Chris Kennedy’s hard landing

Chris rose to international prominence when he won the tender to supply live sound for the 2000 Sydney Olympics. His company, Norwest Productions went on to become one of the largest technical production houses in the region, with more than 200 staff. Then the pandemic hit, leading him back to the future.

We met for lunch recently at The Rabbit Bar in the Arthouse Hotel, in downtown Sydney on a hot Summer’s day. I turned on the recorder…

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Julius Grafton: What was NW Group’s position at the start of COVID, Chris?

Chris Kennedy: Perilous. A lot of employees and expensive offices. We had enough to pay people for six weeks, and I thought it could all fall in a heap. At that time my business – NW Marine – was installing equipment on cruise ships – I haven’t been near one since. So I thought I’d set up a boutique sound and lighting company which became NM Live, which was Norwest Marine. So I bought my first set of L-Acoustics gear from NW Group.

JG: But why? No income?

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CK: No income from NW Group and I didn’t see it surviving. My glorious retirement was to have been the sale of my shares in that company, but then on March 2020 during COVID, the private equity owners valued their shares down to nothing… which I figured was what I was going to get. I started NW Productions in 1993, and in 2000 I was doing the Olympics, so I figured I’d just do it all again! Then JobKeeper came in, and now NW Group is going gangbusters, and one day I’ll get a return when I sell my shares!

Graeme Whitehouse with Chris Kennedy in their NW Group days

JG: How old are you now?

CK: 77 next January! That’s the new 57.

JG: I worked on shows with you last year, and I remember you were running around like a man possessed, and I was trying to keep up with you!

CK: You should see what I did on the weekend – 19 hours on Saturday in 42 degrees, followed by 13 on Sunday. I was certainly hot!

JG: How do you cope in that heat? How about the crew?

CK: I think of myself as a 45-year-old. The crew were wilting. On the way home Alice and Kyle – they were asleep 10 minutes after we left. I was the only man standing. I don’t feel any different to the way I felt when I was 27.

JG: What do you attribute that to?

CK: Genes, and my two PT (personal trainer) sessions every week.

JG: When did you meet your wife Sarah?

CK: At the Olympics in 2000, we’ve been together ever since.

Chris Kennedy with wife Sarah Kennedy

JG: Let’s talk about A1 Audio, which was before Norwwest Productions.

CK: Started in 1987 with your ex-partner, Lindsay Hall. You became his ex-partner and I became his next partner. It did what it did until 1993, until I set up Norwest Productions.

JG: You started as a musician?

CK: Since I was 14, I was in ‘proper’ jobs until I was 27, working in finance and real estate. I went out on my own and met the credit squeeze of the 1970s and had to trade my way out of trouble over three years. Drove a cab for six months, 12 hours a shift, but then reasoned I could do four band gigs and earn the same money. I set up an agency called Oz Management in 1974 – that’s what I did until my mid-life crisis at 40 when I joined forces with your ex-partner, Lindsay, and started A1 Audio.

JG: How did A1 end?

CK: Lindsay didn’t want to be in that kind of business as I was growing it – he preferred to take his PA and go do gigs with JPY and Jon English. So I just started a new business.

JG: What was the pathway from Norwest Productions to the Olympics?

CK: I grew it into a premier mid-level company with half a dozen people. I saw the Olympics as too big, too hard, and planned to do a lot of lucrative side events – all the low-hanging fruit basically. I opened the mail one morning to find a letter from the Production Manager saying the audio director (Australian legend, the late Bruce Jackson) was going to do a PA shootout at the new Stadium.

JG: Everybody was there!

CK: I called him up to say we wouldn’t be there, but my sales instinct led me to ask him how many firms would be at the shootout. He said, “Only four: PRG, Clair Brothers, JANDS… and you” I was a bit shocked. Plus, I owned the box they wanted – I had 16 EAW KF860s; they needed 48.

JG: Why did you have the KF860s at the time?

CK: Because Graeme Stevenson (long time EAW distributor) was a great salesman! I had eight and did a demo for Cold Chisel. Wardie and Rod Willis came out and I told them if they hired us for the tour, I’d buy the other eight. So they did. But we didn’t want to do the rest of the Olympics sound – the fibre optics and the huge consoles. Then the phone rang and it was Larry, working for PRG wanting to talk about joining forces. As I saw it, I’d just supply 16 boxes and get two tickets to the opening! I’d paid eight or nine grand for each of my boxes and didn’t want to buy more. My hire proposal was for $2,750 per box. Then PRG offered to sell me the boxes. I said: “You don’t want to sell them for the price I’ll pay!” He said, “How much?” I said, “two grand a box,” and he said: “DONE!”

JG: Why?

CK: Turned out they were in financial trouble. The event was getting closer and they started ghosting me! I finally got onto them and the guy said: “We’re too busy, we can’t help you!” So I went to a guy I know in Texas… and bought them for two grand a box!

JG: How did the timeline work?

CK: The shootout was a year earlier, and more people had talked their way in. PRG said we really needed to also put forward the new v-Dosc line array as an alternative so we wouldn’t get wedged out. They shipped four out and we did both. The killer was, Bruce preferred the v-Dosc by a mile and we did the testing. Bruce went to get Ric Burch (Director of Ceremonies) and he said, “What are the options?” Bruce said it was v-Dosc first, EAW second. Ric said: “But we can’t stack four on the ground, they’re too tall” and the v-Dosc system engineer said, “No, actually it must be six!” That was it.

Sydney-Olympics

JG: Were you shocked, or exhilarated? From the fringes of the concert business to number one!

CK: We weren’t number one. Staging Connections had more staff. JANDS (now JPJ owned by Clair Bros) had more scale.

JG: You. How many kids?

CK: Three with Suzy: Amy is 51, Chloe 49 and Mike’s 42. My wife Suzy died in October 1999 the week I got the Olympics contract. My second wife Sarah had two kids from her failed marriage, April and Elliot, who are my kids now really. And we had Will together, who’s 20.

JG: Elliot was helping you the other week unloading the L-Acoustics system from the truck into your rural shed. You have a stage truck now as well…

CK: Amazingly, I fell off the back of the gear truck and hit the ground horizontally and was knocked out, only to wake with nothing other than bleeding from a gash in the back of my head, which incidentally cracked the tarmac. Not a problem since!

JG: What a great life, Chris!

CK: I’m SO lucky!

Chris had the lamb souvlaki skewer and I had an overdone pork roast. Modest beer was consumed.


About this series and Author

Julius left live production work for good on Australia Day. At the tender age of 66 he ran out of enthusiasm as he started to live a Groundhog Day of live sound gigs. Now he does lunch with people who’ve outlasted him in this series.

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