How failing as a theatre producer set this CEO up for long-term success

In his early 20s, Matt Wreford was running the biggest production company at the Edinburgh Fringe – and then he lost his business. He explains why it’s proved a blessing in disguise Failing As A Theatre Producer Set This Ceo Up For Long Term Success
Illustration: Sara Gelfgren

If you start your career by creating and running a successful theatre production company, it might feel strange to look around 20 years later and see that you’re leading a supply chain finance firm. But such is life for Matt Wreford, CEO of Demica and former co-founder of Fat Bloke Productions. 

The secret behind this apparent diversion? Failure. 

The story begins at the University of Oxford, where a 19-year-old Wreford was studying chemistry. A friend had set his sights on directing a show and needed a producer. Wreford volunteered and went on to put on seven more, paying his way through university with the proceeds. After graduating, he teamed up with two friends to build the biggest production company at the Edinburgh Fringe. By late 2001, their firm was employing about 100 people and turning over nearly £500,000 a year. Serious business for beginners still in their 20s. 

So what are three ambitious young entrepreneurs wont to do? Aim higher, of course, and take their sold-out show to London. 

“We were really starting to believe our own marketing, which is always a risk,” Wreford recalls.

Unfortunately, the adult mime show that had proved such a hit in Edinburgh didn’t work in the venue they chose. The mistake proved costly, losing the firm three years’ worth of profits in eight weeks. 

The co-founders faced a tough choice: cut their losses and pay off their staff, the venue and their advertisers; or move to a new theatre and risk losing everything. 

“I began to realise that making a really successful career in the theatre business is very difficult,” Wreford says. “It was an existential crisis moment. To have a full reset back to zero was hard.”

The trio decided to call it quits and pursue different careers – a move that proved to be the right one for Wreford. 

Crucial lessons learnt from failure

What key leadership insights has he taken from that formative rollercoaster ride? 

“The first thing is that it’s really important to work with the best people you can,” he says. “My co-founders were amazing, which meant that there was real trust between us. Setting up a business is hard on your own. Doing it with a couple of partners where there’s mutual trust? That works very well.” 

But trust has to be built – another lesson Wreford learnt as Fat Bloke Productions was failing. The secret to doing that, he realised, was to be open about the problems it was facing and share as much information as possible with everyone affected. It’s something he does with his team to this day. 

“I believe that you can build trust if you have complete transparency,” he says. “Then, when there are road bumps, there’s a degree of: ‘OK, leadership did warn us this might happen.’”

Wreford’s commitment to transparency was crucial in motivating a large team, especially in the theatre industry, which has its own particular quirks. 

“Theatre workers are often volunteers, which means that they can easily vote with their feet,” he says. “You work with people in a small group and then get them to motivate the next group, so you can start to scale up.” 

This approach has helped him significantly in his current role. When Wreford became CEO of Demica eight years ago, it had 12 employees. It has 350 today. 

“That type of scaling wouldn’t have been possible without really understanding how to motivate people, which I learnt at a very young age,” he says. 

Two pieces of advice for struggling business leaders

Some say that the fruits of failure are worth struggling for – and Wreford wouldn’t disagree.

“Failure is important,” he says, noting that, had the show worked in London, he “wouldn’t have ended up running the world’s largest supply chain finance business. I’d probably still be a mid-level theatre producer, because it’s such a hard sector to succeed in. So actually I’m pretty grateful for the car crash.”

As the UK economy continues to struggle, many firms may well be facing a similar choice to the one made by Fat Bloke Productions in 2002. To any business leader wondering whether to shut up shop or continue investing in the hope that things improve, Wreford would offer two key pieces of advice. 

The first is: be bold and take risks, but ensure that they’re well calculated. Understand what you have to gamble with and be realistic about the pitfalls and rewards.

“Moving the show to London was a big gamble at the time, but we could afford it. We were betting profits, not our houses,” he says.

The second is: make full use of your support system. 

Wreford explains: “Most people aren’t alone in their careers; we have people around us. It’s critical to get their buy-in to whichever path you have to take. If you do that, it will be far less stressful – the decision has been shared. It’s very lonely at the top. If you make it lonelier, it’ll be even harder to make the right choice.” 

The best lessons may come from failure, but perhaps the most important one is to understand when to risk it and when not to.