First-time visitors to ETC’s new offices in London’s North Acton are in for a surprise: behind the building’s unassuming industrial façade is an elegant Victorian theatre or, at least, the illusion of one.
Possibly the first themed corporate reception area in the UK, the affectionately titled "Playhouse at Gypsy Corner" is the latest brainchild of ETC’s CEO Fred Foster and follows on the theatrical "Town Square" atrium at the company’s international headquarters back in Middleton, Wisconsin.
“The idea behind our headquarters’ Town Square, which is based on the paintings of Edward Hopper, was to have an informal meeting place for staff and visitors that acknowledged the industry we work in: theatre,” says Foster. “Although we have far fewer employees at Acton than in America-- 25 compared to almost 500--I wanted the same sense of place and the same great way of presenting our products.”
Using the theatre-design technique whereby a scene painted on a scrim is visible when lit from the front, yet becomes transparent when lit from behind, the Playhouse at Gypsy Corner uses expanded metal screen to portray the auditorium of a Victorian theater packed to capacity with an enthralled audience. ETC visitors with a keen eye may recognize some familiar faces in the painted seats, including Foster himself and a few international figures.
Lit with a rig of 70 ETC Source Four®fixtures and five Source Four Revolution™ automated luminaires, the ornate space serves as a unique demonstration theater, showcasing ETC lighting in its natural habitat.
Most of what you’d see around this new ETC space is only scenery--MDF routed out to produce recognized decorative motifs like sculpted panels and columns, carved archways and elaborate fire-breathing griffins. But behind the doors are real ETC offices and technical workshops. One space belongs to ETC receptionist Milkica Bojanic, who is the first person to greet visitors. “It’s fun seeing people’s reactions as they walk in from the modern entrance,” says Bojanic. “They just stop short and stare.”
"Back stage," behind the red-velvet house curtain is the company’s training room, where staff, dealers, and distributors are inducted into the workings of ETC’s lighting products, both new and existing. “When we first opened in Acton, it was partly because the location was easy for the majority of staff to get to, but also because it’s within easy reach of many of our customers and not too far to Heathrow airport,” explains Foster. “As we designed our new London facility, we planned it to become the center for European sales demonstrations. Venues such as the Royal Opera House and BBC studios then are stops on the ‘grand tour’ we give decision makers involved in potential major projects. Plus, London is an affordable place to fly to. We will also bring our UK and European distributors and dealers here for training, and quarterly management meetings may be attended by staff from throughout Europe and the States.”
In addition to being a novel product-demonstration space and training facility, the new London location also acts as the hub for distribution and technical services and support for the UK, Eire, Northern and Southern Europe, and the Middle East. ETC prides itself on being able to repair and service every piece of equipment it has ever made, including early ETC products sold in Europe under the Arri brand. So ETC’s three technical service engineers at Acton could find themselves repairing, servicing or upgrading anything from a Source Four to a 20-year-old Arri Imagine console. As well as technical service engineers, several field service engineers provide support for commissioning projects throughout Europe.
While some 80% of ETC equipment is manufactured in Wisconsin, the remainder is manufactured in ETC factories in Germany and the Netherlands, so London has become the logistical center for equipment going from Europe to the States and vice versa. These days the warehouse takes delivery of an average of one or two 40' containers a week.
Prior to the move, ETC’s London offices, technical services and warehouse were spread across three separate units, so staff are now delighted to be in a single building. Sharon Todd, ETC’s European logistics manager who, like many of the staff, has been with the company since it started its European operations over ten years ago, says: “Now that we’re under one roof, communications are much better and everyone pulls together even more. We are all really proud to work here.”
Such comments are common among the staff, and they vindicate Foster’s unique corporate ethic and management style, which, like the layout of the offices behind the theatre façade, aims to turn traditional corporate thinking inside out. “The offices here carry on the style of our Middleton facility,” says Foster. “In most corporations, the higher up the management pyramid you get, the better your office and the bigger your windows. Here it works the other way around. We have three types of office space: low-walled cubicles, semi-private offices with a door but no roof, and offices with a door and a roof, for managers who require a high level of privacy. The cubicle offices are nearest to the windows, so instead of managers getting the views, it’s people in cubicles who are rewarded with daylight. The further up the scale you go, the less natural light.”
Management techniques such as this may be unusual, but they have ensured success for ETC since the company was founded thirty years ago. As with ETC’s strong history itself, this new out-of-the-ordinary facility is set to have a very long run.