Having left Ambassador Theatre Group, the mega-business they founded, the irrepressible impresarios are rebuilding their empire. They tell Alistair Smith about their ambitious plans to acquire venues, tour productions internationally and expand into stage schools – and explain why resilience is the key to showbusiness success
Two years ago, Howard Panter and Rosemary Squire sat proudly atop the largest theatre business in the world. Over a period of 25 years, the pair had built up Ambassador Theatre Group from two theatres – the Duke of York’s in London and the New Victoria Theatre in Woking – into a global, integrated business that produced plays, musicals and pantomimes, sold theatre tickets and ran nearly 50 venues worldwide, employing 3,500 people across operations in the UK, US, Germany and Australia.
They topped The Stage 100, this publication’s annual list of the most influential figures working in theatre, for seven years in a row (above such household names as Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh). They were the first British operators to run a Broadway theatre and saw the company they founded through two private equity buy-outs. Panter was knighted, Squire (who was made a dame in the 2018 New Year honours) won numerous entrepreneur and women-in-business awards. By the end of their tenure, ATG turned over about £185 million. Then, suddenly, in May 2016, they were out.
Both retain shares in the company they founded, but in terms of day-to-day operations, they are no longer involved. ATG’s private equity owner Providence brought in a new team led by Mark Cornell, whose CV includes stints at Sotheby’s Europe and LVMH.
Panter and Squire are slightly reticent about precisely what went on, but are keen to stress that they continue to work with ATG and want it to succeed – not least because they have a vested financial interest: after Providence, they are the next-biggest shareholders.
‘The good thing about being big is you can achieve a lot and get a lot done. The bad thing is that you’re increasingly out of touch with the work’
“We built the company to be the biggest in the world, but we didn’t absolutely feel we were quite seeing eye to eye with the way that it was going and we thought it was time to create something new that was closer to our hearts,” says Panter. “The good thing about being big is you can achieve a lot and get a lot done. The bad thing is that you’re increasingly out of touch with the work.”
Still, going overnight from being the biggest kids on the block to being the new kids on the block was, admits Squire, a “huge” culture shock. “Suddenly you’re back to having to start from scratch,” she says, “having to buy a licence for Quickbooks to do the accounts – stuff you’ve not done for 30 years.”
But, if there is one thing that is clear from spending any time in Panter and Squire’s company, it is that they are not ones to rest on their laurels.
It is not hard to see how their combined force of personality helped propel ATG to become the market leader it still is. The couple – who have been husband and wife since 1994, as well as business partners – make a complementary pair (just look at their answers in the Q&A to what they would have done if they didn’t work in theatre) and their enthusiasm for theatre is palpable.
Every time I have spoken to them in the past 15 years, there has always been some new initiative on the horizon: a scheme, a project, a wheeze, preferably several at once. Stasis is a dirty word. Today is no different. I meet them in their shiny new offices for Trafalgar Entertainment, the company they set up immediately after departing ATG. The offices sit on the top floor of a glossy building on the Strand, have 360-degree views of the London skyline – you can see the London Coliseum, the London Eye, Buckingham Palace – and, predictably, plenty of room to expand.
What was your first non-theatre job?
RS: Tearing tickets in a cinema.
HP: In Woolworths, working in the store room moving boxes. It was a holiday job.
What was your first professional theatre job?
RS: Working in the box office at the Mayflower Theatre Southampton. As I was good at the numbers, I moved to the accounts office.
HP: When I left LAMDA, I was stage manager, production manager, lighting designer and designer – everything – at the London Contemporary Dance Company. It was really the first contemporary dance company in this country and came out of the Martha Graham Dance Company in New York. I was all the technical and design departments rolled into one. That they thought I’d be flexible and cheap is probably the truth.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
RS: You need to be resilient. Don’t take setbacks, find a way around them. Keep going, keep trying and keep coming back to it.
HP: Try to build relationships with people you respect and you think you’ll develop lifelong working relationships with. People say with accommodation it’s ‘location, location, location’. With theatre it’s ‘relationships, relationships, relationships’.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
RS: Ian Albery, who was my first boss in the West End. He’s now retired, living in France. He gave me lots of rope, so to speak, and I learned a lot from him. Also, for both of us Eddie Kulukundis has been massively influential – he was the very first chairman of ATG and gave us the vision and ambition to buy our very first theatre. And he backed us. He was a major producer and he understands that the heart of any theatre business is what happens on stage.
HP: Michael Codron was very important to me. I worked with him as a company stage manager and he knew what he was doing and was right at the centre of new writing. Michael ran an extraordinary company – at that time [in the 1970s] it possibly had eight or nine shows running simultaneously in the West End as well as on the road. He was clearly one of the greats in terms of breaking new writers in this country. His roster was extraordinary. It was a great experience working with someone who really understood how the commercial theatre worked – he’s unrivalled, still, as a play producer in his lifetime, I would suggest.
If you hadn’t been producers and chief executives, what would you have been?
RS: Possibly an academic. My two passions in life have been languages – I studied Spanish and Catalan – and theatre. Possibly if I hadn’t had this passion for theatre, I would have stayed in academia.
HP: I fantasised about being a drummer in a rock’n’roll band.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
RS: I don’t really have a superstition, but on every first night, I sit next to Howard and within the first 10 minutes I’ll squeeze his hand and say: ‘We’re okay.’
HP: I have a lucky tie – it’s blue with black spots – and I have lucky socks, which are black with white spots. Spotted items.
Trafalgar Entertainment is still in its infancy. But, even by their own standards, the growth over its first two years of existence has been pretty remarkable.
Initially bankrolled by Squire and Panter themselves, the company gained extra investment from existing friends, associates and business partners from their days at ATG, plus a few new investors including Richard Branson.
Then, earlier this year, things stepped up several notches when they were approached by institutional finance in the form of Barings, which soon became majority shareholder, buying out a number of the private investors (but not Panter and Squire), who were able to cash out.
It all sounds rather familiar. But they insist there are differences from the relationship they had with Providence and ATG’s previous owner Exponent.
“Barings is slightly different from typical private equity,” explains Squire. “It is backed by pension funds and insurance.”
“That means it has longer horizons,” adds Panter. “The private equity model is essentially buying and selling companies – flipping companies. But a pension fund or insurance fund is longer term. It is looking to pay dividends, which is different from PE, which is looking to flip.”
In other words, Barings is looking for ongoing profits rather than one big lump sum when the company is sold in a few years, as with ATG.
‘We’ve always believed in the integrated model – you need to create content and then all the ancillary pieces around that’
But similarly to their experience at ATG, it means Panter and Squire have “a war chest” to work with and a significant one: Barings is even bigger than Providence with $306 billion in assets under management, compared with $57 billion at Providence.
So, they have set about buying up assets, essentially replicating the model they developed at ATG, but telescoping the process into a shorter time frame.
“Someone said to us, ‘You’re building ATG plus one,’ and that’s how we like to think of it,” says Panter.
“We’ve always believed in the integrated model,” adds Squire. “That means you need to create content and all the ancillary pieces around that – ticketing, marketing, retail, merchandise. All of those are really important elements. But what drives the business is what happens on stage.
“We have a vision for how you make theatre really commercially sound – the other pieces are there to give you the capital to be able to produce. We all know the thing about producing is you can’t bottle it. Of course not. But what you don’t want is to have two flops and then think you’ll have to lay people off. Absolutely not.”
Again, the company has begun with bricks and mortar. First with Trafalgar Studios, the two-space West End playhouse that they developed while at ATG and then brought with them to Trafalgar Entertainment. This was joined by Trafalgar Releasing, a rebrand of Picturehouse Entertainment, the live cinema distributor that specialises in screening content from companies including the Royal Shakespeare Company, Glyndebourne and the Royal Opera House.
They see this as a big growth area and will screen their own theatre shows, for example their production of The King and I currently running at the London Palladium, but also other producers’ shows, such as Red by the Michael Grandage Company.
There are also plans to open a “high-end, five-screen boutique cinema” in Chiswick, which will be the first of five that Trafalgar Entertainment intends to launch. The cinemas will operate under the same brand identity as the group’s theatres.
“They’ll all be high-quality and will have enough ladies’ loos. The wine will be nice and there will be high-quality customer experience and a high-quality experience for artists,” says Panter. “It’s about pushing the experience further up, because it’s certainly necessary. As we know, a lot of buildings are not good enough.”
The pair are also looking to acquire other theatres – in London, around the UK and abroad. Indeed, they were recently one of the unsuccessful bidders for the Theatre Royal Haymarket, which eventually went to Leonard Blavatnik’s Access Entertainment for more than £45 million – an extraordinarily high sum for a West End theatre.
“It’s no secret that we bid for the Haymarket,” says Squire. “Who didn’t? But it’s hard to compete when someone’s not looking for a return on it.”
She continues: “But we’ve met Len. He’s a very cultured, intelligent, interesting guy and he has a fantastic team. I think the pricing of the Haymarket was different [from other West End theatres], because that theatre is a jewel. It’s beautiful and I can understand why someone would pay that much. It’s like having a beautiful painting. Whereas I think with a lot of theatres – less attractive theatres that don’t have ‘curb appeal’ – it’s different because you are looking at a business, not a beautiful trophy.
“I think Len is a great addition to have on the scene and would be absolutely pro as much investment as possible in culture. He’s a major investor in theatre already; he’s a major investor in film and television. And I think it’s great that someone like Len wants to contribute.”
While they might have been unsuccessful in that attempted purchase, Panter and Squire do have one new acquisition – and it’s a big one – to announce. They have bought Stagecoach, the market leader in the stage school franchise business, from its current private equity owner Encore Capital.
At first this might seem like something of a departure for the pair, but on further inspection it fits the integrated model they have always espoused.
“Stage schools are an area that Helen [Enright – Trafalgar’s chief financial officer and business development director] and I have been really interested in for years. I think it’s a massive growth opportunity,” says Squire.
“We always did creative learning at ATG, but it maybe wasn’t a priority. But Helen and I had always wanted to develop it so it was coherent across the piece. I think for any kind of performing arts skills you get much more authenticity with professionals and it’s great if it’s connected with buildings, but at ATG we never really had time to do it.
“Stagecoach is a great business. I think having private equity discipline for the last six years has made it robust and has made it grow. They’ve done a great job and they have a fantastic team, but I think it’s something we can add value to.”
There are plans to grow the stage school franchise internationally – Panter lists Canada, Germany and Australia as examples of areas where he feels the company could expand.
“I think for the international roll out, we’ve really got skills,” says Squire. “And I think the other piece we can help with is access to the professionals. I think we’d love it to sit alongside a group of theatres, which we may have one day.”
There is also – completely coincidentally – a rather lovely link to one of Trafalgar’s other major projects, Bartlett Sher’s lavish West End production of The King and I, starring Kelli O’Hara and Ken Watanabe. Two of the kids currently appearing in that production have come through Stagecoach’s talent agency: Squire and Panter’s ‘fully integrated model’ in practice and with a human face.
The King and I is the largest of several shows – as many as 10 when co-productions are included – that Trafalgar is currently involved with. Others include The Rocky Horror Show, which is touring the UK and will soon have a Broadway outing; The Height of the Storm starring Eileen Atkins and Jonathan Pryce at Wyndham’s Theatre; and Patrick Barlow’s The Messiah starring Hugh Dennis and Lesley Garrett. There are also exciting-sounding plans for The King and I to be followed by “a series of annual classics each year in the West End”, which Panter believes could capitalise on the summer tourist market.
They will also soon be responsible for bringing two of the subsidised sector’s recent big hits into Trafalgar Studios: Nine Night from the National Theatre and Misty from the Bush. Both these plays are by young black British writers and represent a commitment to staging diverse work that dates back a long way for the pair, who were among the producers of the musical Carmen Jones when it played at the Old Vic in 1991.
“You want shows that represent the contemporary world, the world in which we live,” says Squire. “And if you scan down cast lists in the Radio Times, there are not a proportionate number of women – there’s a massive gap and a huge way to go on that. Likewise, London is a melting pot, one of the most diverse cities in the world and it would be great if our stages could represent that diversity.”
Another area where the pair feels that UK theatre is sometimes lacking is its insularity – both in terms of taking British work abroad, but also importing international work to the UK. Along those lines, they have plans for a big international tour of The King and I.
“There’s not enough international exporting of British theatre,” says Panter, warming to his theme. “It’s very ad hoc, not very well organised. We’re a bit insular. One of the things we’re focused on is the international market and venues in different international places, for instance we have Indian partners on The King and I and the notion is that we’ll be taking the show to Hydrabad, Mumbai and Delhi. That’s pretty unheard of. Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast are the only ‘Western’ shows that have toured India. We’re also looking at venues in India.”
Squire adds: “We’re interested in India as a market. There’s obviously a huge, burgeoning middle class who all speak English. There is a real hunger for global content. So some of the challenges you have in China, where English is not the universal language, you don’t have over there. Many of them have seen The King and I, seen The Sound of Music, and studied Bernard Shaw and Shakespeare at school.”
Closer to home, there are also plans to expand into family entertainment and pantomime, something they oversaw at ATG with the creation of First Family Entertainment. That business was shuttered after the pair left, with the dates that had been programmed with FFE shows at ATG venues instead going to Qdos Entertainment, run by Nick Thomas and Michael Harrison.
Panter and Squire feel there is room for a second big player in one of British theatre’s most lucrative areas.
“I think now First Family has gone there’s a big opportunity,” says Squire. “Nick Thomas is a great friend of mine and is a lovely guy, but he’s got a huge amount on his plate at the moment and we’ve always been interested in family entertainment.”
Another area the pair are sniffing around is ticketing: part of their business model at ATG had been to control the ticketing to their venues, but now they are independent producers and theatre operators, they are reliant on using ATG Tickets for Trafalgar Studios. Like the pantomime plans, it’s early days, but they are in talks with two ticketing companies. If that wasn’t enough to be getting on with, they are also in talks with a number of producers about setting up subsidiary deals – much in the same way that Sonia Friedman Productions became a subsidiary of ATG.
Squire, a former president of the Society of London Theatre, also has plans to rejoin SOLT’s board. She thinks the West End is “buoyant” at the moment, boosted by the advent of live broadcasting of theatre shows, which both are convinced will be a significant growth area. However, looking beyond the capital, they have concerns.
“The road is tough at the moment,” says Panter. “I think it’s quite volatile out of the big cities. Generally it’s tough – not for something like The Rocky Horror Show or The King and I – but if you talk to anybody trying to do good, middle-range touring, it’s very hard. I think it needs to be star-driven or a huge, beloved title or you have to have a great theatre – somewhere like Canterbury [the Marlowe Theatre] – where it’s really engaged with the community.
“I think one of the absolute keys – and one of the things we learnt when we built ATG – was that you have to think and act local, as well as have a national resource. It’s a huge mistake if you think, with a national resource, you can run things from London. You can’t. You have to be there on the ground.”
“Although the geography of the UK is very small compared with many countries, there are distinct communities still, and they need distinct and proper understanding. You have to really work hard on those places and have respect and local knowledge… When people give that too low a priority and think it can all be done by pressing a button in London, they’re wrong.”
Trafalgar’s “big priority” at the moment is venues and they are developing deals across the world. “We’re working on theatres in different cities abroad at the moment,” says Panter, “Australia/Asia-Pacific, Europe, Canada as well as two or three UK regionally and a couple of sites in London – a new-build on one, a pop-up on another. So, it’s that sort of thing. It’s a combination, but all within the notion of trying to create experiences that are special and high-quality.”
I ask them whether that means that they will tend to be looking outside the West End, to which Squire makes two intriguing responses. The first is to point out that “some independents change hands from time to time and we’re prepared to sit and wait and take the long view”.
She pauses and then adds the second: “And ATG will come up for sale.”
So, does that mean that Panter and Squire could end up buying back the company they left suddenly two years ago? Could it even happen quite soon, given that most people expect ATG’s current owner Providence to put the company up for sale in the next couple of years?
“You never know. We’d look at it. It would be very competitive,” continues Squire. “ATG is a great business. Obviously as a shareholder I hope it will go for the highest price. But yes, of course we would look at it.”
Clearly, the pair have a rather long shopping list. Or, as Panter puts it: “There’s a lot on and it’s moving quickly.”
It would be impossible if it were just the two of them. And, indeed, it isn’t. Squire estimates that they now employ about 100 people – “a company is only as good as its team,” she adds. Much of that team – they reckon nearly 50% – are people they used to work with at ATG, although Panter stresses: “We haven’t poached anybody.”
Both their long-serving assistants came with them to Trafalgar (“having them was a great bonus”, according to Squire) and other ATG alumni including business development director Helen Enright and executive vice president David Lazar are also on board. They have been joined by other key figures including corporate finance and project director Alexander Schmidt and the producers Matt Parritt and Daniel Brodie. The latter has come from London’s Royal Court, and is also Squire’s son from her first marriage to agent Alan Brodie.
‘There’s a family feel to Trafalgar Entertainment – people feel they belong and want to stay with the business’
“I think there’s a slightly family feel,” says Squire. “I think at ATG, it started as a family business and although it grew to be very big, while we were running it the culture in the business was something I spent a lot of time on. I like a business where people feel they belong and want to stay with it.”
She adds: “I think a kind culture in a business is good – it makes for a better, happier workplace and most of our staff have stayed with us for many years.”
Even with 100 employees, Trafalgar is much smaller than ATG, but the pair stresses that this has its advantages as well as disadvantages, as does the fact that they don’t own nearly
“It’s both easier and more difficult,” says Panter. “On the one hand, [if you own lots of theatres] you’re on a treadmill having to fill them and on the other hand, you can put your product where you choose.
“In a way, [not having lots of theatres] gives you the luxury of choice,” adds Squire. “I remember Sonia Friedman used to ask me: ‘Why can’t I put my shows on at Wyndham’s?’ [which is owned by Cameron Mackintosh, not ATG] and sometimes we had to say: ‘You’re part of ATG, that’s why.’ And she knew that.”
One is tempted to think that it won’t be too long until Panter and Squire are back on the same treadmill they had at ATG, with numerous theatres to programme. Not least because when I ask Panter about good pieces of advice he has been given during his career, he quotes Eddie Kulukundis – one of the key figures in the early rise of ATG.
“Eddie Kulukundis’ advice was to think not ‘should we buy that venue?’, but to think ‘can we buy that venue?’. That was a really important lesson.”
If that sounds like expansion for expansion’s sake, though, Panter is also keen to stress that size isn’t everything.
“The aim is to be the best we can be in what we are doing, always,” he adds. “But, by being the best in breed, then sometimes you get to be the biggest in breed. Size is not the objective. Quality is and quality of earnings is.”
Born: Hillingdon, 1949
Training: LAMDA, stage management and technical theatre course (1966-68)
Born: Nottingham, 1956
Training: Southampton University (BA Spanish and Catalan); Brown University, USA (postgraduate scholarship)
• Carmen Jones (1991)
• The Weir (1997)
• Shockheaded Peter (2001)
• Vincent in Brixton (2002)
• Sweeney Todd (2004)
• Guys and Dolls (2005)
• Legally Blonde the Musical (2009)
• South Pacific (2011)
• Posh, Jumpy and Constellations – Royal Court at Duke of York’s season (2012)
• The King and I (2018)
On tour (various dates):
• Rocky Horror Show
• Legally Blonde the Musical
• Monty Python’s Spamalot
• South Pacific
• Guys and Dolls
• Company (2006)
• Sweeney Todd (2006)
• Exit the King (2009)
• Oliviers for productions of Carmen Jones, Slava’s Snow Show, The Weir, Shockheaded Peter, Vincent in Brixton, Guys and Dolls, La Cage Aux Folles
• Tony award for Company
• Placed number one in The Stage 100 from 2010
• Howard Panter received a knighthood in 2013; Rosemary Squire was made a dame in 2018
• Squire won the EY Entrepreneur of the Year Award in 2015