Ambassador Theatre Group chief executive Howard Panter has said the company’s sale to private equity firm Providence will lead to domestic and international expansion, but insisted it will not result in worse deals for producers playing in ATG venues.
Providence has taken on a majority stake in the company with ATG’s previous main investor, Exponent, retaining an 18% share. Exponent will continue to work with Providence and the existing management team including ATG’s joint chief executives Panter and Rosemary Squire. Greg Dyke will continue in his role as ATG chairman.
Providence bills itself as “the world’s leading private equity firm focused on media, communications, education and information investments”. It manages funds with $37 billion in commitments and has invested in more than 130 companies globally since it was launched in 1989.
Panter described the deal, which has been reported to be worth in the region of £450 million, as a “game-changer” for the group. He said it would lead to greater investment in productions in the UK, as well increased penetration into international markets including Australia, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Germany and North America.
He told The Stage: “I genuinely think what is important about this is the scale. This is a massive new investment into British theatre – both in the UK and internationally. What this means is more productions, more jobs in theatre both in the UK and abroad. This is the first time in my memory when there has been a genuinely holistic strategic plan, which is properly resourced, to roll out the best of British theatre around the world.
“That means British technicians going to work in Seoul, Japan and elsewhere, as well as British directors, writers and producers. What Providence has bought into it is our strategic growth both in the UK with more productions and more commissioning and there will be resources then to roll that out internationally. It’s huge. This is hundreds of millions. This is a game-changer in terms of commitment to British theatre both in Britain and also the idea of exporting British skills, which are the best in the world and considered the best in the world.”
Meanwhile, he moved to allay fears that the deal would lead to worse deals for visiting producers at ATG venues. He stressed the terms of ATG’s deal with Providence were not “onerous” and would not lead to margins being squeezed.
Panter said: “That is genuinely not in the business plan we have agreed with Providence. We will be making more profit by having fewer dark weeks – particularly in the regions – by putting more productions into those dark weeks. Our growth in the UK is entirely predicated on putting more shows out in the regions and in London and having higher occupancy levels – by having more and more successful shows. It’s a proper three or four year business plan and it doesn’t mean screwing the producers harder. It means getting bigger and better shows and perhaps co-producing with a few more people.”
He added: “Everyone was afraid that we were going to distort the market when we bought Live Nation [in 2009], but the fact of the matter is that British theatre has got healthier and healthier since then, through a deep and protracted recession.”
Exponent, the private equity firm that was the majority shareholder in ATG, acquired its stake in the group when it helped finance the company’s £90 million purchase of Live Nation’s UK theatres in 2009 – a deal that led to ATG becoming the biggest player in the UK theatre market. At the time of the purchase, the group was valued at around £130 million. The purchase was investigated by the Office of Fair Trading, and cleared, following claims that the deal could created a near monopoly in the UK touring market.
Since then, ATG has focused on international expansion and earlier this year made its first inroads into the US market, with the purchase of the 2,000-seat Foxwoods Theatre on Broadway in a deal worth $60 to $70 million. At the time, Panter said the deal was a “springboard” to further expansion in North America. The move followed the appointment at the end of 2012 of Tim McFarlane as chief executive of ATG Asia Pacific, with a brief to oversee expansion from a new base in Sydney.
ATG was founded by husband and wife team Panter and Squire in 1992. The pair have been listed top of The Stage 100 list of most influential people in the theatre industry for the last four years. The group owns London theatres including the Lyceum and the Apollo Victoria. It also operates venues outside London including the Manchester Opera House and the Edinburgh Playhouse.