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Q&A with Ian ‘Woody’ Woodall of XL Video

From his college burning down to working for Roman Abramovich, Ian ‘Woody’ Woodall’s career has been a remarkable one. Here, he talks about how to blag your way into a job, how he got his current job title – and his absolute admiration for Leatherman.

How did you get into the rental/staging business?

I suppose you could say that I got into the industry by mistake. I was doing a theatre/drama course at college – but after five or six weeks, the college suffered a huge fire, so that was the end of that. I knew that I wanted to get into the audio business, so I started doing some research. I discovered Concert Sound, and the guy who ran it, Mick Anderson.

I decided he was going to interview me for a job – he just didn’t know it yet. I had already made an initial call but didn’t really get anywhere. So I showed up on the doorstep, and told reception that I was here for my interview with Mick. He was sure that there had been some mistake, but I was so convincing, he ended up inviting me in and we chatted for a while. “But I haven’t got a job for you,” he said. My response? “Well, I’ll work for you for nothing.” The way I saw it, I wouldn’t have been earning anything at college, so I wasn’t losing anything by working for free. He was somewhat bemused – but I ended up working for Concert Sound for just over a year. Not only was that a great year, but the people I met during that time were people who have helped me to get where I am now. Everyone who’s been key in my career, I met through being involved with Concert Sound in some way or another.

I spent some time with Fender, Harman and LMC, and then I started up my own company – Green-i. How did it get its name? I wanted people to be jealous of what I was achieving. On my first day of trading, I had just my toolbox and an R-registered Transit. Ten years later, Green-i was a 15-16 person company, turning over around £2 million, and it still lives on today, but as part of the SSE audio group.

I thought I’d had enough of the install business – but it’s one of those things that haunts you, that’s in your blood. I’d describe it as a lifestyle business: people do it because they enjoy it. Sure, everyone needs to earn money, but no-one will ever make a real fortune at it – but it can be a good life.

I wasn’t involved with Green-i any longer – now that it was under the SSE banner – but I ended up talking to Lee Spencer at XL Video. I was keen for something new, and a bit more of that strong convincing meant that he asked me to join his team – and it was only at the end of our conversation and I was shaking hands with Lee that I realised I had no idea what his vision was for me. He smiled, clearly knowing that he had something in mind. “Just turn up on Monday,” he said. “We’ll work something out.”

I turned up for my first day at XL Video. Everything was going pretty well for a first day at work, but the second day presented new challenges in that their entire computer system had suddenly stopped working. I’m pretty IT-literate, so I offered to fix it. I succeeded – and that’s how I got my title of Group IT Manager. Originally, Lee thought it would be amusing for my title to be “Senior Head – Information Technology”, but we abandoned that idea: I keep telling him his jokes aren’t that funny… In fact, along with IT, I’m still heavily involved on the installation side, both permanent installs and temporary ones.

What is your favourite project that you’ve ever been involved in?

One of my most memorable projects was when I worked on the new ‘Under The Bridge’ music venue that opened at Chelsea’s football ground earlier this year. It was a project that I’d discussed with Roman Abramovich’s team quite some time previously – but when they came back to me and said they wanted to go ahead with it, I had to tell them that things had changed and i was now at XL Video. That didn’t cut any ice with them, and I ended up doing six months onsite, putting in the lights, audio and video. It was an amazing experience to work for someone at that level, and to work for a customer who knew exactly what he wanted and didn’t want. ‘Compromise’ wasn’t in his vocabulary, and if it wasn’t unique, he didn’t want to know. Roman and his people were a pleasure to work with – there was a real family vibe, and the commitment from them to achieve the best result possible made the working environment a pleasure to be in.

The joke was that I was at Stamford Bridge every day – football on tap, you could say – but I’m no football fan. I would rather be at a gig any day!

In terms of events, Coldplay at Glastonbury this year had to be pretty memorable. It was the last major project that Des Fallon was involved in before he sadly passed away earlier this year. We were doing projection mapping for Coldplay, and that involved 22 projectors on three towers hundreds of metres apart, projecting onto the legendary Pyramid Stage structure. The trick was to get them all synched. Des, in his own inimitable fashion, had suggested it wouldn’t take more than running a couple of cables between them. It ended up being a whole lot more complex than that but, given Des’s earlier involvement, I was desperate to make it a success. “Let’s just make it work,” I said to Robin Evans, XL’s project manager, who agreed wholeheartedly. And it did… beyond everyone’s expectations. Generally, if a project is a bit ‘out of the box’, I like to get involved – and this one was definitely one of those.

Is there a particular product that you’ve come to look on as ‘an old favourite’?

An old favourite? Apart from gaffer tape? That would have to be my Leatherman multi-tool. I’ve become attached to it, like most technicians I imagine. I’m on my sixth or seventh now – but I’ve only ever had to pay for the first. I’ve snapped blades and broken pliers – and each time, I write to Leatherman, explaining what happened – and each time, they send me back a free replacement. It’s amazing! I recall on one particular occasion, when plasmas had just come out – they cost around £8,000 back then – I had to install one. The wall on which it was to be mounted had to be cut away, and I’d forgotten my padsaw – so I used the Leatherman. I struck metal, and snapped the blade. On the basis that it’s is as good as a thousand words, I just sent them a picture – and within two days, they’d sent me a new one. You can’t ask for better than that, really!

Is there a recent product that’s caught your eye that you think will be very useful in your business?

Des Fallon once said the best innovative video product was Sky+, so I guess that one has already been earmarked! The thing that intrigues me most in the current environment is remote control, and how devices that weren’t originally intended for that purpose are being used for it. Of course, I’m talking primarily about the iPad, although there are plenty of others. I’m a big Apple fan – I’ve got three Macbooks around me now as i speak, for example. But I love the idea that a device that was originally designed exclusively for consumer applications is finding widespread use in professional applications – I love the reality when products are crossing over from one marketplace to another. I think just about every company has at least one good product – Apple may have more than just one, of course – but it’s fun to discover what that manufacturer’s particular product is.