Howard Panter and Rosemary Squire stepping down from running the Ambassador Theatre Group is a big deal.
The husband and wife team founded the group in 1992 and have built it up from nothing into a global behemoth, operating 46 theatres worldwide and employing 3,500 people. That is a huge achievement.
They have always been the figureheads of the group but never its primary owners. After private equity firm Providence bought ATG in 2013 for about £300 million, there must have been question marks over their futures.
Three years later, the question now is whether they walked or were pushed. Both sides are positioning the news as a mutual decision with Panter and Squire remaining connected to the ATG ‘family’ while going off to do their own thing at the Trafalgar Studios.
Certainly for Panter, the creative side of the business has always been his passion – producing shows. However, this has never really been the prime driver of profits for ATG as a group, which has founded its remarkable growth on operating theatres. So, it could be a win-win: Panter and Squire get to focus on their creative ambitions, while Providence divests itself of one of the less profitable parts of the ATG business.
There will be concerns in the industry about a non-theatre person coming in to run ATG, but on paper it makes sense.
An organisation the size of ATG will benefit from someone with Mark Cornell’s experience on the global stage with LVMH and Sotheby’s Europe, but – in this context – Adam Kenwright’s appointment as his number two looks particularly smart.
Kenwright is popular with and fully immersed in the UK theatre community and he will help allay concerns that suits with spreadsheets are taking over. Still, independent producers who book their shows into ATG venues will be understandably wary of what the new regime might mean for them.
The changes should also put AKA – Kenwright’s old company, which is also owned by Providence – in an incredibly strong position as the West End’s leading marketing agency.
Meanwhile, for ATG, one would expect its global expansion to continue apace, although with Panter gone its production output is likely be focused through its subsidiaries, such as Sonia Friedman Productions.
Whatever the future holds, Panter and Squire leave an impressive legacy at ATG – they have built the world’s largest theatre company from the ground up. It will be exciting to see what they do next.
One final thought: what does it mean that theatre’s largest company is now being led by a marketer and a luxury-brand expert?