Jeremy Fleming on helping his small business survive lockdowns


Jeremy Fleming is founder and chief executive of Stagekings, a company that specialises in making sets for theatre, sport and concerts.

Last year during the first lockdown he was in Melbourne putting up the stage for the Australian Grand Prix, which was subsequently cancelled. He returned to Sydney, laid off staff, then thought of making office furniture - including the IsoDesk - which grew into a viable long-term part of the Stagekings business.

He has further diversified the business and supports the entertainment industry, where much of his work is still focused. Stagekings has donated over $90,000 to Support Act and gives 1% of all furniture sales to the charity.

friends with money podcast 9 jeremy fleming stagekings

What was the lockdown like for your Stagekings business in 2020?

It was a real downer. To start with we didn't know what to do. Luckily, we quickly came up with the idea to make home office equipment.

It was a really up-and-down time, but once we could get everyone back in, start manufacturing, and have an additional 70 people when we got right into it, it was a positive place to be.

A lot of people loved the experience of being able to still come in and be working, so it was quite a positive year for us.

When live events started again, how did you structure your work to get back to doing what was originally your core business?

The big thing we learned was that we couldn't rely on one pillar of income, so once events started to come back, albeit in a smaller way, and sometimes cancelled at the last minute because of border closures, we structured it so that the furniture continued under its own brand - the IsoKing brand.

Stagekings was then ready to go with events. We also created some new parts of the business - commercial and hospitality fitouts - and that has added to the business and allowed us to get through it.

Does pivoting get easier or harder at this point?

I think it's become easier. Once you realise you can do it, and all you have to do is have a go, there's no barrier to trying new things. We started with the furniture and we've continued to do that.

We've also started a signage company in-house and we're looking at a steel fabrication workshop, too. We're looking at all these vertical integrations and how we can weather the storms.

What have been your biggest lessons for a business owner during the past 18 months?

The biggest lesson for me was having different sources of income pillars. To have all our eggs in the events basket when events are down means there is no income.

We lost millions of dollars overnight when [initial event] bans were put into place. We've now got staging, we do building fitouts as well as the furniture, signage and rentals for film and television.

What was your first job?

It was working in our family mini-labs - two photo processing jobs. From Year 7, I worked behind the counter in those labs, developing film.

What's the best money advice you've received?

Don't spend money you haven't earned. I didn't always use that as a younger guy, but I think it's a great piece of advice.

Try to avoid debt. If you haven't earned the money, don't spend it.

What's the best investment decision you've made?

The first apartment my wife, Tabitha, and I bought in Randwick.

She said, "I think we should buy this apartment", and I thought who would spend over $400,000 on a two-bedroom apartment three kilometres from the city centre. Luckily for me we went for that and six years later it turned out to be quite an amazing investment.

What's the worst investment decision you've made?

My wife would say it's the Chopper Read-signed photograph I bought at my buck's night many, many years ago. I brought it home and had paid way too much money for it and it was never allowed to leave the laundry, so that was the worst.

What's your favourite thing to splurge on?

I like to go to nice restaurants wherever we go. That, and boat fuel.

If you had $10,000 where would you invest it?

I always tell Tabitha that if I won the lottery I'd buy more scaffold. So if I had $10,000 I'd buy more scaffold or truss.

What would you do if you only had $50 left in the bank?

I'd probably go to the open house inspections of as many waterfront homes as I could. I'd like to see how people who have money live. If I only had $50 I'd try and get as much inspiration as I could.

Do you intend to leave an inheritance?

Yes, I do. It would be great to help the kids as a starting point, but saying that we're going to have some fun in the meantime.

Would you like to see any changes with the way people look at money post-COVID?

I hope they are prepared to put a bit of money into events. I'd like to see people encourage getting together and having event experiences. There are some great events and theatre shows.

Finish this sentence: money makes ... 

... it easier to make more money. That's probably the sum of it.

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Julia Newbould was editor-at-large and later managing editor of Money from November 2019 to February 2022. She was previously editor of Financial Planning and Super Review magazines; managing editor at InvestorInfo and at Morningstar Australia. Julia co-authored The Joy of Money, a book on women and personal finance. She holds a Bachelor of Economics from the University of Sydney where she serves on the alumni council.