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 Growing audio business spreading its wings overseas

 

 It is a challenge to find a time slot long enough to speak to Marius Marais about his business. The owner of a bustling sound-management firm specialising in live shows has just returned from Namibia where he set up the sound equipment for a corporate classical music event in the desert.

Before that he was in Moscow for an event, and before that in Ghana, to which he finds himself returning frequently. “Nowadays I'm out of the country three, four months of the year,” says Marais, 47, who started his Centurion-based business, called Audio Logic, exactly ten years ago.

On the one hand Audio Logic's growing international client base is tremendously exciting. It is an acknowledgement of the top quality sound management that Marais and his small team of nine staff members manage to maintain.

International managers who come to South Africa for events such as the Joy of Jazz, a regular client of Audio Logic, are invariably impressed and surprised by the quality of the live sound they find here, says Marais. Coupled with this is the growing reputation of South Africans who work in the sound industry overseas.

South African sound workers are hard working and multi-skilled, able and willing to work with various aspects of stage sound, whereas the norm overseas is that one worker does his or her specialised bit of the operation, such as the microphones, and then sits idle on stand-by for the rest of the event.

“The result is that a team of eight South Africans are able to set up the sound for an event that would normally require a team of forty in New York,” says Marais. “The guys there simply can't believe what we can do.”

On the other hand Audio Logic's increasing international focus is also to a certain extent a sign of hardship in the local industry. Live events tend to be on the luxury side of consumer and corporate spending, and South Africa's recession and downgrade to junk status has had an immediate effect on the industry. In the last few months, no fewer than eight events-management firms have closed down around him, and he has had regular events suddenly cancelled.

So far, however, Marais is fortunate that his biggest challenge remains controlling the seemingly unstoppable growth of his business without spreading himself too thin.

Marais' expertise is based on no less than 27 years in the industry, driven by a combined passion for technology and the stage. At school in Centurion where he grew up, he had built his own speakers, and the theatre bug bit him during a show in Pretoria which he attended with his parents.

During his apprenticeship as an aeronautical instrument technician in the Air Force, he volunteered as a backstage hand at the State Theatre. This turned into a full-time job after the Air Force started scaling down in the 90s, and Marais was set on a career in sound and stage.

At a succession of jobs at several companies, he gained experience in the theatre, with orchestras, corporate events, television and live outdoor shows and festivals.

By that time he held a 20% ownership stake in a sound-management company in the early 2000s, he had won several industry awards and was working flat-out on one event after another. Increasingly, he found that what he put in and got out of the business arrangement was simply not worth it, and in 2007 he decided to step out on his own.

He refused to poach the clients from his previous company, but his reputation in the industry was strong enough to keep him and his single worker busy from the start. It was still scary, however, as he had no guaranteed contracts.

He kept things simple by working from his garage at first, and hired all the equipment that he needed for events. It also helped that an international sound-technology brand that wanted to break into the South African market offered him the use of a sound-mixer for a year.

Soon his calendar started filling up, and equipment-renting bills of up to R1.5m started passing over his desk. It was time to start buying his own equipment, but the difficulty was persuading a banker that one speaker could really be worth R180 000. “When he hears 'speaker' the banker thinks about his home-theatre system,” says Marais.

He needed R5million's worth of equipment, but the bank was only willing to finance half of it. A friend suggested that he approach Business Partners Limited (BUSINESS/PARTNERS), who agreed to extend the other half of the finance.

It was a long process with lots of due diligence investigation, says Marais of his interaction with BUSINESS/PARTNERS, but their service was unparalleled. "I have referred so many people to BUSINESS/PARTNERS since then,” he says.

Having his own equipment bought on finance has made the cash-flow management in his business a lot trickier, especially since the local industry has become much more seasonal. Marais also finds that clients who were previously prompt in paying now tend to wait as long as 60 days.

Marais has realised that he needs to step back from the day-to-day projects, and take on a more managerial role, although he is still very hands-on and often jumps in to help unload a truck. “You've got to lead by example,” he says.

But what makes Marais ready for the next phase of his business's growth is also what makes him proudest. He has been giving intensive training to his staff – an eclectic mix of talented workers who include a classical musician and a sound engineer. Today he is able to delegate the sound management for the Idols contract to two of his staff members whereas he previously did the project himself.

With their high level of skill and South African work ethic, Marais and his team are ready to take on the world.

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