All Things Business caught up with Matt Bowler, one of the pioneers of event building and founder of Vantage Event Structures.
At first glance Matt Bowler may not be what some might expect for Milton Keynes’ current winner of MKBAA Entrepreneur of the Year. Whereas his competitors are clean-cut, suited and booted tax and recruitment consultants, Matt has stayed true to his roots; with a streetwise, urban style that wouldn’t be out of place on the estate he grew up on, in Great Linford. But his laid back, easy charm and casual style of Nike trainers and joggers, belie a sharp mind and proven skill for business.
Having left school at 15 with 8 GCSE’s he decided to become an apprentice scaffolder with his brother-in-law’s firm. Matt admits “I did well at school and enjoyed studying, I even passed my 11 plus, so I could have gone to a grammar school and potentially university, but from an early age I knew I wanted to run my own business, that was my dream”. By age 20, Matt had had his wish fulfilled and set up Buckinghamshire Scaffolding Specialists (BSS). The business did well, supplying domestic and commercial scaffolding to a burgeoning Milton Keynes. “I had learnt my trade and passed on what I knew to the men I employed. I found I had a knack for building a business and always had ideas for expansion”.
One of those ideas was to diversify into the events business, building marquee substructures and supplying camera towers and a permanent TV studio for Sheffield United FC. “We had just come out of a recession in 2011 and though we were doing OK, I wanted to ensure expansion and protect the business against further dips in the economy. Back then we were invited to put up scaffold towers for Wentworth and the British Open Golf Tournament and then Silverstone Grand Prix” Matt said.
Having built a reputation for reliability and quality amongst his clients, in 2011 he won the commission to build 40 media towers up and down The Mall for Kate and William’s Royal Wedding. Only a week later, they were invited to supply the media platform at Buckingham Palace for Barack Obama’s state visit. “That was a proud moment for us” admits Matt “the Royal Wedding really made us much more visible”. Matt soon had commissions to build hospitality structures and viewing platforms for the Chelsea Flower Show, Wimbledon and The Olympics in 2012.
His success in event building led Matt to dissolve BSS in 2011 and set up two new companies; Milton Keynes Scaffolding Specialists; devoted to commercial and domestic scaffolding and Vantage Event Structures for the event building and artistic side of the business. Since then MK Scaffolding Specialists has gone from strength to strength and is currently the only NASC accredited scaffolding firm in Milton Keynes (and one of only 248 throughout the UK). Through it he runs an apprentice scheme for school leavers and in the past has trailblazed a prison scheme for inmates, who on release, were already qualified scaffolders. A scheme so successful it has been taken up by other scaffolding firms.
Similarly, Matt’s ambitions for Vantage have been largely fulfilled, having won commissions for one-off design projects such as a pop-up cinema for Volkswagen HQ in 2015, a life-like prison for a billionaire’s Halloween party in 2016 and one of their most ambitious projects; the re-creation of the celebrated nightclub Nation for music festival Creamfields in 2017. In September 2018 Vantage were asked to build a giant Rubik’s cube for phone company Huawei which was unveiled on The Southbank.
So, what’s the key to Matt’s success? With a stringent work routine which begins at 6.30am, Matt can be found organising his team and handling up to a dozen projects at any one time. And his Old Wolverton premises have been a hive of artistic activity for well over a decade. His friendship with fine artist Graham Hudson who regularly visits Old Wolverton, has generated some very interesting projects. Since 2009 they have worked together on seven art installations; the most recent for Graham’s client Burberry, for which they built a giant installation Sisyphus Reclined for Riccardo Tisci’s 2018 winter collection at the Regent Street Store. “Working with Graham is immensely satisfying, it’s been creatively challenging and therefore personally very rewarding“ Matt admits. It’s perhaps no wonder that in 2019, Vantage won the Design & Creativity Award at the MKBAA. “We were thrilled to get that award and I feel it’s well deserved as my team and I work so hard”.
As well as a serious head for business and artistic aptitude, Matt clearly has a sense of humour and this is evident when you step into the foyer of his Old Wolverton premises, where his MKBAA awards are on show. For sitting near them is a foot high statue of Yoda. When asked about the significance of the Star Wars character greeting people in his foyer, Matt smirks and explains that it’s a prop from his fancy dress shop Crazy Wizard Fancy Dress, located over the road from his Vantage/MK Scaffolding HQ.
So, what’s makes Matt Bowler from Great Linford tick? “I wouldn’t say I have a game plan, it’s more of an openness to opportunities, a fluidity and willingness to seize opportunities and I’ve made a lot of mistakes along the way”. Matt is the first to admit it hasn’t always been plain sailing and there have been periods of struggle. “When I started out in the events industry, I learnt some hard lessons. Looking back, I was far too trusting, willing and open, even a little naive. I’ve had to toughen up in order to survive in the events world, but as a rule I always evaluate my mistakes, so that I don’t repeat them”.
And the future? Matt is candid about his plans “We want to explore new markets for the events side of the business in UAE and Qatar as that’s so lucrative, but I have lots of projects in the pipeline”. And some of those projects are much closer to home. “We are organising a Winterland at Milton Keynes bowl which will run from 22 November 2019 to 5 January 2020. It’s an idea I’ve had since 2013 and we’re getting really excited about it”. And if anyone can make Winterland 2019 a success, it will be Matt and Team Vantage.
For more information visit, www.event-structures.com