Solomon Sharpe — the practical life of the party

Without Limit

with Rachael Barrett

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

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For a small island, Jamaica’s prowess as a cultural powerhouse is a given. Our sport, food and music form the triumvirate of our leading exports, and our love of having a good time is a mainstay of local culture as evidenced by the proliferation of corner bars, late-night dances and movement of our people from day to day.


Solomon Sharpe can be described as an early adapter, an innovator and inspiring leader who committed himself to elevating the level at which we Jamaicans celebrate — building on an opportunity that he and his partner Richard Blair formed in response to what they saw as a need for streamlining production practices, improving efficiency and raising standards within the fast-growing event and entertainment industry.


This past week Main Event has been in the headlines for successfully listing on the Junior Stock Exchange after a much celebrated IPO campaign that saw a total of 1,033 applications for shares worth approximately $673 million.


A leading provider of event production services, brand support and digital signage, the 12-year-old firm operating with revenues of approximately $1.2 billion sought to raise north of US$1 million from the listing, and used its track record and reputation, bolstered by Mayberry Investments, to assist with assuaging risk and generating interest in the offer.


The first new listing of 2017, and surprisingly one of only three creative sector firms listed on the exchange, the stock debuted at $2.00 a share, and quickly appreciated to the maximum 30 per cent daily cap as the offering was oversubscribed by 460 per cent. Trading closed in less than one minute of opening — raising just over $122 million. After the morning ceremony that saw Prime Minister Andrew Holness and Minister of Finance and the Public Service Audley Shaw offering their support, the company celebrated at its Lady Musgrave compound. Nattily uniformed servers were on hand with chilled Mumm champagne at the ready, ensuring that everyone in the company could celebrate the moment.


In his usual elegant attire, the bowtie-clad CEO was flanked by his colleagues in the company’s in-house creative lab, jacket off and bottle of Mumm in hand, "bigging up" on Snapchat his friend - and Mumm’s new ‘chief entertainment officer’ - Usain Bolt.


"When I was at Red Stripe, I moved from being a public relations assistant to corporate affairs officer, to community relations officer, corporate affairs officer, community relations manager, then display and sponsorship manager... so I had the enviable experience of going from working for a strong, family-owned company in Jamaica to working for a strong, multi-national company - Guinness.


"At Guinness, purchasing was centralised, so no matter how small, each market could benefit from the economies of scale. Guinness [also] wanted to reshape the culture of Red Stripe, how we branded, how we owned events. Initially the guys called me the budget buster, but they then realised I was living to my mandate of what the president wanted. "


It became part of the movement that saw international branding standards take over the local market, influencing not only marketplace visuals but even production in terms of raw materials now being produced to satisfy international parameters of materials, size and scale, Sharpe began to notice that it became trickier to execute events in keeping with the levels required.


"Having learnt all of that, when I did Red Stripe superstakes I had to hire 50/60 vendors...you’re talking about hiring a vendor from 5k to 500k, then you’re all over the place trying to manage these guys. I realised … the marketplace was missing that all-encompassing person who understood everything and could provide it."


Sharpe’s departure from Red Stripe was sudden and controversial to those in his field, and interestingly this is the first part of his history he chooses to share in detail — in sum, something concerning an approved purchase order missing a signature. However, this openness becomes clear why, as in a turn of events that even seasoned business operators can learn from, Sharpe turned what at the time seemed like a setback into the launching point for a bright future.


"Corporate politics was not for me… for you to survive corporate and do well in corporate, you don’t necessarily have to be bright, but there’s a certain code and behaviour to manage corporate politics. I never had the energy for the corporate politics.


"When I was offered resignation I felt dejected.... here it is I had a stellar career from day one. Every year I got a commendation letter, I was employee of the year..."


The first of four children and former football team captain at Campion College, Sharpe went on to Tiffin University in Ohio paving the way for a bevy of Jamaican athletes after him. He returned home as the true life of the party, holding enviable positions in the corporate world as well as on his own as a renowned promoter of events such as 90s mainstay RAS - with longtime friends and colleagues Richard Blair and Andrew Price. However, each step along the way proved essential for the future Main Event.


"As a boss I’ve learned to be patient with people, and they’ve learned along the way that when they don’t speak up is when they get in trouble. We’re not about holding back people because they seemingly don’t know the right thing. Nobody knows the right thing all the time. It’s when you don’t know the right thing and you don’t ask - that’s when we have a big problem.


"At Red Stripe I never had any interest to be CEO and that kept bothering me.[I wondered] does that mean that I’m not ambitious? But the CEO is not necessarily the most important person. No man is an island, so he always has key people he needs around him. At this company I don’t want to be the CEO forever, but what I do know is that I rely on all the people below me."


From day one, Sharpe notes he and Blair set out to execute at a first-world level, to satisfy a demand he had seen first-hand as Red Stripe was acquired by Guinness and as the local landscape became more global in look and feel.


"We never thought of ourselves as a Third World company. This marketpace was a first-world thinking space, there are multi-nationals here, everybody is going back and forth from ‘foreign’, it was the internet age. If we are doing this with our restaurants and internet access, then why are we holding ourselves back in our entertainment and social creative space?"


Frustrated at their attempts to execute their vision for events without the proper supplies on hand, the company started to acquire stock. "Nobody thought you could have a business with 500 lighting fixtures...if you compare the competition they might have 500 in total. But we never saw limits. We run a 24-operation here, we can’t install digital signage when a store or restaurant is open, and events may need us on call, so we work around the clock."


In keeping with his coaching style, Sharpe urges young entrepreneurs to be bold, but more importantly, bold with attentive caution.


"When you’re doing what you’re doing, if it feels uncomfortable, that is when you have to do it. If it feels so easy that it’s all going to fall into place, re-evaluate....something’s not right. Myself and Richie, when we think something has come easy to us, we stop and think what we are doing that can allow us to go even further."


On his business role models, "Butch Stewart, Denis O’Brien, Michael Lee Chin, Steve Jobs... when you look at all of those guys they did it against the odds... Lee Chin, this tall country boy wasn’t supposed to be a billionaire in Canada. Find a mentor and just idolise that mentor and do what that mentor does...Lee Chin says for you to be the part you have to play the part. I tell people I’ve been faking it for a long time in order to make it."


A 47-year-old father of one, awaiting the impending arrival of twins, while reviewing the last 12 years that have led to this billion-dollar day, Sharpe does not seem to see the past, but instead is preoccupied with the future.


"Having hit the billion we then got a bigger appetite, and we hit just over a billion two years in a row... Our five-year plan is to get to that two-billion mark and we want to be in the regional space - although part of the problem is we have never been able to satisfy the thirst and appetite for the Jamaican market.


"Main Event Entertainment Group currently has no subsidiaries but in time, especially post IPO, we think there is the possibility that we will be purchasing some brands so the group will come to full fruition. There are a couple of companies we are looking at, and we are going to potentially manage different brands that will fall under the Main Event group, but given the nature of the business it makes sense that they have their own retail branding...overall though, our end game is continuity."

 


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