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Q+A – Mark Malherbe, Prosound

Solutions, not cheap fixes: the technical director of the company that put sound systems into nine out of South Africa’s ten World Cup soccer stadiums talks about the installation market across Africa, and how to win long-term business

Solutions, not cheap fixes: the technical director of the company that put sound systems into nine out of South Africa’s ten World Cup soccer stadiums talks about the installation market across Africa, and how to win long-term business

As we reported in IE last month, Johannesburg-based Prosound installed, and in many cases designed, the sound systems for nine out of the ten stadiums for this year’s FIFA World Cup. Formed in 1973 by CEO Terry Acres, the company initially rented equipment and services for concerts and theatre shows. It grew and diversified from the 1980s onwards, expanding into installation, lighting, broadcast and studios. Technical director Mark Malherbe has been with Prosound since 1984.

How did you diversify from pure rental into installation?
We went from being a strictly audio company to taking in the disciplines of lighting and video – we developed to meet the need. A lot of our work used to be in casinos – casino management were looking for turnkey companies, one-stop shops for entertainment and architectural lighting, audio and video.

That’s why, for example, we trade under a different name for the lighting: some people associate Prosound with just audio. In fact it’s all under one umbrella, but we trade as T&A Lighting, and so on.

Maybe you’d have chosen a different name if you’d known how things were going to turn out.
In fact we didn’t start off as Prosound, we started as Musicians Sound Centre, with a rental division called Prosound. Because the rental division was what was in everyone’s face, everyone referred to us as Prosound – it became a de facto name change, we had no choice.

Is the casino market still strong in South Africa?

Casinos were a huge market, but it’s now stabilised. Casinos were originally in the homelands – with the change of government gambling was made legal, but only a certain number of licenses were granted in each province. The only way you’ll get a new casino now is if one of the older ones falls away. With the current economic climate, no-one’s putting huge money into redeveloping existing casinos, so it’s pretty much levelled off.

As well as stadiums, your other key areas include houses of worship, and mass transit – what has brought that about?
I think it’s where the business model has been successful for us. What we’re not good at is doing the cheap fix. What we do is engineer solutions – anyone can walk into a space and put a couple of boxes up on a wall, point some lights and walk out. It can actually lose you business if you start to question clients about their short-term and long-term objectives – how you can spend your money more efficiently so that you’re not throwing away your first fix because you can phase everything in. Those market areas tend to fall in line with that.

Sometimes we’ll go into a house of worship and they’ll say, “We’ve got X amount of money to spend, we want everything”, and we’ll say, “No, you don’t actually – what you want to do is spend your money sensibly, get a good starting point – make sure your cabling infrastructure is in correctly and so on – then build on that.” Rather than putting in a big flash system and then throwing it away because you can’t use it in your next stage of growth. So that’s how we’ve grown into those markets.

Do you have sizeable competitors?
We have competitors that we come up against, but we are known as the largest company in sub-Saharan African in our fields. We’re doing work in Gambia, Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, very much working throughout the African continent – which is great. We have 75 full-time employees at the moment. At one stage during the World Cup period we had 250 temporary sub-contractors, just to get us through the work.

Are you seeing any trends across the African market?
It’s the same internationally – there are a lot of cheap fixes going on. There’s a lot of people coming in that don’t necessarily have the expertise or the back-up. A lot of our work is to come in and backward-engineer what have done badly. People come to us in the first instance and we’re never the cheapest, and they’ll sometimes go with an alternative. Then a year later they’ll come back and we’ll say that wasn’t necessarily the way to go, but we’ll see if we can go back and salvage anything and then backward-engineer it to get it to a place where we can build on it.
The kit that’s coming out now is so good and so reliable that once it’s put in, there’s no return business because it just sits there and works!

Will you persist with rental and installation side by side?
Yes, I don’t see a change in that for the foreseeable future. In the rental business we tread a very fine line because you can be seen to be interfering with your distribution client base. So we pick niche areas of the rental business that no-one else is looking at. So we do a lot of the high-quality musicals. Otherwise the bulk of our rental business is to companies that we’ve sold to – we offer extremely preferential rates to rent additional batches to supplement your stock. Which means that there are some smaller people out there who wouldn’t necessarily be able to take on major rental work, because they don’t have the capital available to purchase it all, but it means they can put together larger systems of matched kit and be competitive with the larger rental companies.

Can you see a ‘next big thing’ coming up?

Tourism’s going to be critical to this country. Hopefully we’ll make a good job of the World Cup – that’s an area that should be massive. It’s a beautiful country once you get out of the cities, and I don’t think we’re making the most of that. But I think the growth is going to be outside South Africa. I think we’re sitting here as a bit of a role model for what can be achieved in Africa – hopefully it will stay that way.

I understand that Soccer City [the national football stadium, in Johannesburg] has special memories for you.
It’s the stadium where, when Nelson Mandela was released in 1990, he gave his homecoming speech to the nation and internationally. For us it was something quite special: we were appointed as the audio contractor for that event. We had 24 hours notice to get everything ready, and then the man himself arrived to address the crowd. Personally it was quite a moment for me because I was the sound engineer for it.

Somebody was obviously on my side – I’d set the system up for maximum gain before feedback and it was borderline, because the stadium was filling up and filling up. As the man arrived, the helicopters came and hovered over the grandstand and I thought, “This is it – I’m doomed…” – but somehow I managed to get another 30dB on that fader – we got through it. It was a huge moment.

It was also one of the major centres for the ANC rallies leading up to the 1994 elections – so it’s nice that it’s going to be the location for the World Cup opening and closing ceremonies.

Do you have any personal ambitions that remain unfulfilled?
Retirement? Not doing any more stadiums? No, seriously, it’s been really great. When I joined the company in the Eighties it was only a dozen people and we’re very proud of what we’ve achieved. When we said, as a joke, that we wanted ten out of ten World Cup stadiums – and it was a joke – I think the fact that we’ve managed to do nine out of ten, and they’re all up and running and working, with nearly all the system design done locally – we’re very chuffed at that.

Mark Malherbe was talking to Paddy Baker.