CEO Interview: Mark Shears, ABC Inflatables
- Credit: © Thousand Word Media
From rock and pop royalty to fashion designers, the TV and film industry and international airlines, ABC Inflatables boasts some of the best-known clients in the world. Tanya Gledhill is blown away
They say pigs can’t fly: they lie.
For the past 22 years, Mark Shears and his fellow director Kevin Byass have been making inflatable pigs - and just about everything else you can think of - soar over the landscape.
ABC Inflatables’ illustrious client list boasts everyone from rock royalty to international airlines, renowned fashion designers, TV and film industry moguls and global tech companies.
The pig in question was commissioned by Pink Floyd and their record label, EMI. But Mark’s not in the least bit starry.
Enthusiastic, witty, warm and with an energy that’s utterly infectious, he talks at a million miles an hour about a back catalogue of projects most companies can only dream of.
Mark, who lives in Shipston-on-Stour in Warwickshire, and Kevin, who hails from nearby Ilmington, launched their inflatable empire in the mid-90s.
Mark had previously worked in a family business in Leamington Spa which specialised in hi-fis, TV and audio-visual equipment.
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But it wasn’t until he saw an advert in a local newspaper and landed a job as General Manager of an inflatables company that his career really took off.
When the owner wanted to retire, Mark thought about buying the business, but the deal fell through. And so Mark and Kevin branched out on their own.
They set up ABC Inflatables in the April of 1996 in an empty warehouse over the border in Banbury with one landline and one answerphone, both perched on a windowsill.
“They had to be, because we had no furniture,” says Mark, now in his mid-60s. “We started with absolutely nothing, not a single customer.”
In the August of that year, the phone rang for the first time.
“Kevin picked it up,” says Mark. “He put his hand over the receiver and asked me, ‘do we do latex balloons?’.
“Well of course I said yes. We didn’t do latex balloons - we didn’t actually do anything at that point. But I said yes anyway, because they were our first customer and I knew we couldn’t turn it down.
“The person on the end of the phone said they needed 5,000 of them. The client turned out to be IBM.”
Mark - who by this point had managed to buy a photocopier and fax machine to add to his landline and answerphone - ploughed £25,000 into Yellow Pages advertising.
He advertised in every edition, bar the Isle of Wight and outer Hebrides, and by Christmas, the phone had rung again.
“It turned out to be our first really big job,” Mark remembers. “It was for a blimp, a giant airship that companies use to advertise at events.
“I asked the man on the end of the phone what his colour scheme was, and he said it was orange, and that his company was just a start-up, and could we bring the blimp out to him at an event he was at. It was a guerrilla advertising thing.”
A few weeks later, Mark found himself in Monte Carlo, at the Monaco Grand Prix, flying the orange EasyJet blimp from the penthouse apartment of one Sir Stelios Haji-ionnou.
It’s fair to say ABC Inflatables didn’t look back.
“We started to get a reputation for doing events,” says Mark. “And then we started to get enquiries from the rock and pop industry. And the rest, as they say, is history.”
In 1976, way before ABC Inflatables’ time, Pink Floyd commissioned a 40ft helium pig to fly over Battersea Power Station to promote their new album Animals.
Algie caused quite a stir. Not only did he fly, he escaped from its moorings on one of Battersea’s southern chimneys, rising to 30,000ft straight into the path of passenger aircraft landing at Heathrow.
All flights were grounded, the police were called and the the RAF scrambled to corral the pig, which eventually crash-landed in Kent.
“Although the original pig still existed, it was an a pretty sorry state,” says Mark. “It was leaky and had been repaired with 4in-wide carpet tape. So when we inflated it to test it in the workshop, it basically exploded.
“Kevin rang EMI to break the bad news, and they were amazingly good about it and asked us to make a replica, which we did using the original pig to make templates.”
This time it was in 2011 to promote the re-release of the band’s 14 studio albums, but unlike its predecessor, Mark and his team made sure this porker remained firmly tethered to the ground.
“He’s 10m wide - the size of a London bus - and a bit of a handful,” says Mark who has since flown the pig over the V&A Museum to promote the band’s Their Mortal Remains exhibition, and again last year at ground level at Wogan House for the One Show.
“Giant helium-filled pigs aren’t exactly known for their flying qualities.”
Also on the list of rock royalty who have ABC Inflatables on speed-dial are Led Zeppelin, who wanted a giant mothership, and artists from Shaggy to Jamiroquai and McFly, who commissioned a silver armoured pig for one of their gigs.
But Mark’s keen to stress the core business isn’t just based around celebrity clients and huge global brands.
“We do a lot of exhibition work,” he says.
“And a lot of site-marking blimps for local tyre and exhaust companies, or used car lots and the like. We work with family businesses and small businesses. We can make inflatables for everyone, from companies selling spas and hot tubs to tile warehouses and the big storage companies.”
There’s an office in Clermont Ferrand in France, which mirrors the Banbury operation, and a factory in the Far East which Mark uses to make his PVC inflatables, because, he says, he can’t find anyone in Europe to make them to a high enough quality.
From 6ft inflatable Nescafe coffee machines to giant AA membership cards, enormous apples for Tango to the iconic Mr Bibendum for Michelin, Mark is the brains behind all of them.
Clients span the globe, from London to Las Vegas and everywhere in between.
The four-strong team has made inflatables for Andy Murray; tents for the Army; candy-striped balloons for Eurovision; balls for the Scottish Children’s Lottery; 18ft tall purple Easter eggs for Cadbury and even an enormous pair of yellow wellies for the NFU.
Plus they’ve stolen the show at the Lord Mayor’s Show in London for the past two decades.
It’s a varied portfolio, all right.
And so it’s not long before the conversation turns back to some of the company’s quirkiest projects.
The website is full of them, the news section burgeoning with brilliant feats of manufacturing and installation from giant beanstalks for pantos in Covent Garden and The Lyric in Hammersmith to 500 inflatable, angry-faced cigarettes used by anti-smoking charity GASP to make its point, large.
But one of the weirdest requests, surely, came from the production company behind the Dad’s Army movie.
“They asked us if we could make some inflatable tanks,” said Mark. “I said, ‘no problem’.
“We did point out that the tanks couldn’t have square edges, but the tanks they wanted us to produce were to be based on the inflatables used as decoys during the war.
“They still use the same idea to this day, but with a more up-to-date design.”
Just one month from the call, the replica Sherman tanks rolled out of HQ on the Wildmere Industrial Estate, complete with caterpillar tracks, guns and the white star.
“We worked very closely with the production director to get the correct shape and size, together with all those convincing little details that make the inflatable tanks just right and helped us win the war,” says Mark. “In true cinematic style, we went right down to the wire making them because we only had four weeks from the time the order was confirmed to the day when filming was due to begin.
“So much so that our operators took the tanks to Flamborough Head, where filming was taking place, along with pots of paint and glue in case any last-minute alterations had to be made.”
Emails regularly land from new clients, says Mark, who remembers pre-tech days when enquires would come in by phone, to be followed up with a letter and brochure in the post.
Now, everything’s instant - although he does urge caution.
“Sometimes, saying no to clients is part of our job,” says Mark. “But we’d only say no for two reasons.
“One is if we don’t think we’ll have time to do the job properly. We’ll never let anyone down by saying, ‘let’s risk it’ if a client comes to us and needs something for a week’s time.
“And the second is if we really don’t think the product or the design would lend itself to being an inflatable.”
He cites mobile phones as one example, a Mini requested by BMW as another. Inflatables, by their very nature, have rounded corners, and BMW wanted an exact replica of its new model.
“I explained to them that the only way to guarantee that was to start with a solid,” says Mark.
“But the thing is, we have contacts. And if we can’t do it, we generally know someone who can help and I’ll always pass those details on.”
One of his proudest moments, he says, was working with designer Anya Hindmarch on her Chubby Hearts project for London Fashion Week earlier this year.
Supported by the Mayor of London, the British Fashion Council and City of Westminster, the mayhem started on Valentine’s Day when giant red, chubby heart balloons were to fly over or be squashed inside London landmarks as a declaration of the designer’s love for the city.
They were to appear as dawn broke and disappear at dusk, only to appear again at different locations the following day.
Mark’s installation team worked round-the-clock to pull it off, flying balloons at venues from The Ritz to Covent Garden, Piccadilly Circus to Trafalgar Square for this top-secret project.
As the hearts appeared, social media went wild.
“In business, the job you’re most proud of is usually the last job you’ve done,” says Mark. “But I really am most proud of this one.
“Logistically, it was a huge job, flying five hearts every day in 26 different locations. We had crews all over London every day. It was a jigsaw puzzle.
“And…how do I put this…the Queen commented that she’d seen one of our chubby hearts at Wellington Arch, and said how impressed she’d been with it. There’s no better endorsement than that, is there? And of course the client was absolutely delighted.”