21 AUGUST 2002

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Let there be light

Starting a business at 25 years of age when you don’t come from a business environment is no mean feat, but starting a business on the verge of getting married is a tougher challenge still. Silvio Scerri, owner of Nexos Lighting Co Ltd speaks to RAY ABDILLA about how he built a successful business from the ground up – lighting up Malta’s stages, theatres, clubs, and concerts along the way

Do you come from a business-oriented family background?

No I don’t and when I told my father that I was to venture into business he went pale, he was so much against the idea. On the other hand, my mother believes more in my visions and supports me all the time, her biggest concern is when I become overly exhausted.

Initially everyone was against me. I was a senior technical officer at University Radio at the time when the station was producing high quality, award winning programs and as such, leaving my post was a difficult decision.

When you were at school were you always inclined to open up a business?

Not really, I wanted to be a professional actor and painter, as I always admired people who possess the talent of creating something from nothing. I had an interesting childhood and playing football was perhaps my greatest passion, it was at a much later stage that I discovered where my real opportunities would be derived from.

When did you start your business?

The business is now nine years old and over the years there have been some intense moments that literally modified my behaviour.

Time management is the order of the day, and sometimes you get the feeling of being radio controlled, but I have learned to take whatever happens as normal.

How long have you been in the lighting field and what led you into the area in the first place?

I have been in the industry for 19 years now and I was formerly involved in creating lighting designs for stages and concerts.

I was very lucky to have lived abroad for a time when I was very young, which helped me a great deal as when I came back I was trained and qualified in an area that was still non-existent in our country. Stage and leisure lighting in Malta was completely secondary, especially in theatre productions.

Sometimes I used to go to theatres and find that there were no systems at all, a case in point is our national theatre. It was then that I started offering lighting packages with a concept – and it worked.

Now practically every school has some form of stage lighting. This led me to offer full packages to the leisure industry including curtains, soundproofing and comprehensive stage illumination.

Was it difficult starting a business where, I presume, there were other companies already established in the sector?

The beginning was extremely steep with the most problematic hurdle presenting itself in convincing organisers to use our lighting systems. As such, we needed to create a profile based on good service and charisma. A charismatic CEO can win every argument regardless of the facts, while a non-charismatic one has to win on the merits of the argument.

At that time there were only two companies operating in the sector - one of them was on the verge of bankruptcy, so the timing was too good to miss. We wanted to be precise and immaculate in areas where our main competitor was weak, and it worked immediately. We forced efficiency and it took no more than two years to build a reputation. Good service and innovations in our industry pay back.

The secret to staying competitive is to be twice as aggressive in adopting new technologies that save you money and then spending those extra funds on equipment and becoming unique - a necessity, not a luxury.

Where did the name Nexos come from?

Everyone asks me that question. Actually the name was going to be Nexus, but just before printing our stationery, the Lexus car was launched, which I thought was far too similar to the name I had planned for the company. I changed the U with the O and the name became Nexos.

How viable are businesses in your industry, given Malta’s limited size?

The business has to be viable, if it is not you will not survive and will gradually vanish. This is the nightmare of every businessman – it is up to you to either make a business viable or immediately close shop.

You have to grab every single opportunity and make it work. If it doesn’t work, get rid of it as quickly as possible or re-pack it nicely and sell it to someone else.

There is no decision more difficult and dangerous than to ditch a proven business model for new or unfamiliar alternatives, but good managers have to do that. Gluing yourself to what used to work and failing to embrace change and innovation will ultimately lead to extinction.

In short, who comprises your main client base?

We supply and service lighting systems to the leisure and entertainment industry, to all TV stations, theatres, clubs, discotheques and concerts.

It makes us very proud to provide our lighting equipment to a wide array of international bands and nation-wide activities ranging from Deep Purple to Status Quo, The Tribu Music Festival, Faithless, the Farsons Beer Festival, The Jazz Festival, mass meetings, exhibitions, conferences and many more events.

The company is composed of three departments that are obviously connected – sales, rentals and generators – a set up that secures the necessary back up for our clients. Obviously everyone expects the best show and the best product from us and, believe me, there is no room for error – one single fault and everything goes black.

In all electronic-based businesses, technology is constantly improving, how do you stay on top of developments?

Circulating equipment is paramount, otherwise in a single year you would end up with derelict equipment.

We create lighting scenarios for their effect, so putting up the same equipment on a stage would destroy the creative concept and to be effective we need to electrify audiences all the time. Every day new technology is invented and we have to keep the pace as, if we lose ground, someone else would seize the advantage.

Are you content with your business as it stands today, is there room left in which to expand?

Yes I am, but nothing lasts forever. Good companies often get trapped in a feedback loop from the status quo. No one ever says, ‘Let’s miss the biggest innovation in our industry.’ However, if one is not properly organised, this can happen.

I think that is why some companies fail and are eventually overtaken by the competition. There is always room in which to expand, but in this day and age you need to make accurate predictions about where a business is going, and go with your gut instinct.

What worked in the past may be a dangerous guide and sometimes it is wiser to remain composed and seek smaller profits.

Do you consider yourself as a self-made businessman?

I was getting married when the whole thing started, so I had to take a loan. I can still recall the facial expression of my bank manager when I told him the reason for my visit. I then had to quickly learn to ask the right questions rather than come up with the right answers.

I don’t know if I should consider myself as being self-made, but what I recall distinctly is that I started from zero.

In which areas of business do you excel and do you ever think of starting a new business totally different from that which you operate now?

I think we are strong because I wanted to build a work ethic by which everyone wakes up in the morning and happily goes to work in an egalitarian culture, where success is equally enjoyed. Group satisfaction bonds people together. I am always on the lookout for new ventures but I am also very cautious, since what appears perfectly clear on paper may turn out to be wrong.

What are your main likes and dislikes in your line of business?

Teamwork is what I like most. We are a bunch of friends working together and we have a lot of respect for each other. Erecting a lighting system for a big concert is a lot of hard work, but in the end it gives you a great deal of satisfaction, having a good team is a winning formula and keeping it together is an achievement in its own right.

What I don’t like is the pressure before the concert starts, imagine this scenario: The majority of the Maltese people are in front of their television sets enjoying The Malta Song Festival and something goes wrong with the lighting system! No one thinks of us when everything is fine, the show depends on electronic automated controls and if they fail I am the guy who needs to come up with answers.

Do you have a dream for the future?

I have quite a few, but my favourite is to sell everything, retire early and enjoy life.

How would you advise others looking to venture out with their own business?

Being your own boss is not that easy and if you employ people, the responsibility is that much greater.

The best thing about a healthy business is enjoying good profit margins, something you will never achieve if you are employed.

If you are organised and smart it is a good way to make a quick buck. My advice to young entrepreneurs is to listen and absorb what the older and more experienced people in business tell you, their advice is more valuable than gold.

Copyright © Network Publications Malta.
Editor: Saviour Balzan
The Business Times, Network House, Vjal ir-Rihan San Gwann SGN 07, Malta
Tel: (356) 21382741-3, 21382745-6 | Fax: (356) 21385075 | e-mail: editorial@networkpublications.com.mt