CEO interview: Dale Parmenter, drp
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Bloody-mindedness and a passion for problem-solving inspired Dale Parmenter to launch his own business. Forty years later, Frank Tennyson catches up with the entrepreneur
When Dale Parmenter left school over 40 years ago with the goal of running his own business, little did he know that today he would find himself at the helm of one of the country’s biggest communications agencies.
CEO of Hartlebury-based firm drp – which boasts clients such as Jaguar Land Rover, Triumph Motorcycles, Nationwide, the NHS, Worcester Bosh and many, many more – Dale can reflect on an incredible journey.
“Back in 1980 I had a passion for film and communication and I could see an opportunity to take something and make it real for businesses, in terms of corporate films.”
“The initial challenge was that video was incredibly new. Everyone was still using film and the costs were horrendous. However, Sony and others were bringing out new equipment, which was making it more affordable, more transportable and easier to use. I was there for that crossover point, so it was an exciting time.”
“What I recognised was that there was a market below the very top corporates (like the BPs and the Shells of this world who could afford those expensive films) who we could target.”
Initially working from a small outbuilding at his parents’ home, Dale cites his “sheer bloody-mindedness” and passion for problem-solving as a huge part of getting drp off the ground.
He explains: “In those early days it was rather Heath Robinsonish – the amount of power, the amount of light we needed just to go into a factory and take a shot of something was incredible. And it was a very slow process and the quality was pretty awful too.
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“Our first client Brintons Carpets were local. They had an exhibition coming up, were quite progressive and wanted to take a look at this new-fangled thing called video for their stand. I convinced them by saying, ‘Ok, give me £25 and I’ll come and spend a day with you to make a pilot.’ So that’s what I did, and it got signed off.
“That ability to think on our feet and to make things happen is part of our culture to this day.”
After those humble beginnings, the drp team comprises of over 235 specialists across locations in Worcestershire, London, Windsor and Leeds. It’s a truly multi-channel agency with departments covering video, digital, events, exhibitions, print, social media, to name but a few.
“We offer a fully-integrated service coming from a culture of people who can just make it happen,” says Dale.
“The multi-channel thing started back in the 80s when a client said to me he wished we could put on his conference, not just do the filming. And I thought to myself, why not? So, we did it.”
“It’s about the integration and of course some incredibly skilled people who can make the best results for the client.”
Making things happen and getting the best results for the clients is best encapsulated in drp’s mantra, ‘Anything’s Possible.’ This runs through everything Dale and his team say and do.
“That’s been the mantra since our beginnings and it’s still the same to this day. We have a culture where we can make anything possible,” says Dale.
“We find solutions where others won’t. We have a range of ages here. The oldest person is 68 and the youngest is about 16/17 but it doesn’t matter what it says on their birth certificate, they are all quite similar in their outlook.
“What we would prefer is to have someone with the right attitude who we can grow, train and develop.”
On drp’s website there is an engaging short film where employees outline drp’s philosophy on career progression. Individuals are encouraged to progress within teams, and even move into an entirely different discipline within the organisation if their skill set, and more importantly, attitude, is up to the mark. Is drp as fluid and flexible as claimed?
“Absolutely,” Dale adds. “People can move between departments and we believe in career progression and growing individuals. We identify people who have reached the top of where they can go in their department but because of their enthusiasm and work ethic, we try and see where they might be able to flourish in another place in the business.
“For example, we’ve just moved a team member from our warehouse to become a social media executive. We found out he was really into social media, loved doing it, and had reached his level in the warehouse.
“That helps us keep good people because no-one gets stuck. We have a staff retention of 93% and look at our company’s board – they all started working here as work experience guys. One was 14, now he’s 45!”
But drp’s journey hasn’t been without a few bumps in the road. In fact, the terrible events of 9/11 almost derailed the company for good. At that time, drp was working for airlines and the likes of Thomas Cook. The disaster in New York wiped out 60 per cent of the firm’s business overnight.
Dale was faced with a very real dilemma of whether to shut drp down or find another way.
“At that time, we were a typical small company, probably with 20-25 of us, turning over maybe £1-1.5 m.
“After 9/11, the financial director at the time recommended that we should go into receivership but the bloody mindedness that sits behind ‘Anything’s Possible’ said no.
“I got the team together and laid it on the line. I told them we’ve got no money, it’s going to be an incredibly tough couple of years, we’ll solve this, but some people are going to have to leave.
“And then one of the guys said why don’t we all take a paycut? And that’s what we all did. In fact, we left two junior members of the team out of that paycut but they came to me afterwards and said, ‘No we want a paycut too’.
“That day I learned a lot about teamwork, team bonding, motivation and morale. It was us against everyone else to make the changes happen.”
The next year saw drp transform into a much “more professional” outfit, focusing on cashflow and its most valuable commodity – people. Within a year the team were all repaid the shortfall in their wages.
So as a comms professional for over four decades, Dale has seen the change from film to video, from traditional communication channels to those fired by technology. Is the growth of digital the biggest transformation he has seen during his time at drp?
“Six years ago, we probably had six digital people. Today we have almost 60 people in that area,” he says.
“Yes, technology has changed the industry, but what I say to clients and our own people is not to get too excited about it. All that has changed are really the tools of the job. The basics in terms of communication and engagement are exactly the same. Whether you are using an app or a flip chart – it’s identical.
“We just have much more freedom to do things because of the advance in technology but you have to ensure you don’t lose the message along the way.”
Clearly drp is in a good place. Business is booming and on its four and a half-acre site in Hartlebury, there are plans to build a new digital design centre and a team well-being area, including roof garden and BBQ.
With the company fighting fit, what still gets Dale out of bed in the morning?
“It’s definitely working with the team and the clients,” he says. “If I had to come in every day and perhaps do the normal CEO thing and just push paper around my desk it would drive me mad.
“So, I still get involved at client events, I still enjoy a beer with the junior teams here. Also seeing them grow, and getting to know who has come into the business, really developed, and now running their own teams.
“We are getting bigger and bigger – one of the biggest agencies in the country – but I’m desperate to keep that family feel, which is hard work.
“We don’t necessarily want or need to be the biggest in the industry, our aim is to simply be the best. The company of choice.”