CEO Interview: Darcey Crownshaw, Snow Business
PUBLISHED: 17:40 16 October 2017 | UPDATED: 10:44 18 October 2017
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From a garden shed to a lead role in the Bond film franchise, Snow Business is Hollywood's go-to special effects company. Frank Tennyson meets the man behind the magic
You may not have heard of Stroud-based special effects firm Snow Business but chances are, you’ll certainly have seen the fruits of its labour.
The groundbreaking business produces over 400 types of artificial snow, for projects as small as shop windows, right up to mammoth operations such as the James Bond movie franchise. With a turnover of £5m and clients across film, TV, corporate events, and visual merchandising in 28 countries, Snow Business is very much a global concern. But according to founder Darcey Crownshaw, its beginnings back in 1983 were incredibly humble.
“I was working paper products business and was trying out making snow part-time,” says the 63 year-old. “We started off basically on the kitchen table and then we outgrew that table, hired our first employee and bought a shed for the garden.
“Then we bought a bigger house so we could have an office in it. Then we acquired the mill we are sitting in today. We bought it never ever believing we would fill the place because it had other tenants but now we fill it and a bit more!
“So I won’t say we never believed we would be this successful but it’s true that we perhaps didn’t expect it.”
Snow Business’ HQ is a beautiful 1730s water mill in Stroud which houses 40 full-time employees. It’s a far cry from the early 80s when Darcey’s first full year making snow brought a meagre turnover of £980. His big break came when a friend in special effects got in touch looking for artificial snow, free from environmentally harmful chemicals. In stepped Darcey with his eco-friendly, biodegradable paper-based snow and an industry revolution was born.
“All these years later we have set the industry standard for snow,” says Darcey. “If you see good looking snow on TV or film, it’s likely to be ours. Ninety five per cent of films from Europe or the States will feature our snow.
“By fortune we first came to the market using waste paper product because it was cheaper. To be honest we didn’t appreciate what an advantage that would be. When we started doing work in LA it became important we could say it was eco-friendly.”
The eco-friendly nature of Darcey’s creations isn’t just a sales tool, however. It’s something that drives him and his team to continue innovating within the movie business and elsewhere. In a world that’s becoming more and more aware of waste and the dangers of micro plastic, Snow Business’ approach seems to chime.
“Ninety per cent of our products have no impact on the environment whatsoever. Its about working with our partners to get that number up,” he adds. “For example, if there’s a film maker who is used to using product X and is reluctant to change, we’ll take product Y along and say, ‘Look, it looks great, its better for the environment and guess what? It’s cheaper!’ It’s amazing what results you can get with this approach.
“If you put plastic down, there’s a big clear-up which costs money. If you use something that is biodegradable there isn’t that issue. We also have a biodegradable product for use on organic land which contains a fertiliser. Even the material that the our products come in are plant-based plastic, so it means no whale anywhere in the ocean will be choking on our packaging.”
The movie industry gave Darcey his chance and to this day provides a jaw-dropping array of names for his client list. In addition to the Bond franchise, Snow Business has worked on Harry Potter, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Day After Tomorrow, The Bourne Identity, Gladiator, Maleficent, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Star Wars, Bridget Jones, Batman, Cinderella...the list goes on.
Yet no matter the size of the movie or its subject matter, Darcey and his team take the same approach. From start to finish it is a collaboratiion with the film makers, assessing what they want and how best to provide it.
“The film creators ask for snow and we start off by asking, ‘which kind?’ We have all sorts of snow which we can recommend depending on what is required. We provide dry snow, wet snow, warm snow, cold snow, big snow, small snow!” Darcey enthuses.
“For example, we did some work on the Muppets movie and we found out pretty quickly that the snow flakes were too big because Muppets are much smaller than real people. We went away, created smaller snow and the client was happy.
“Similarly, if we have to create the kind of snow you would might expect in a different country, we can do that too. Again, it is about listening to the client and working with them throughout – our people are on set 24/7, remember – to arrive at the right result.”
Spending just an hour or so at Snow Business HQ, one can see that this is a company with very much a feel-good factor. The atmosphere is friendly, the staff are approachable and there is a satisfying buzz about the place. When asked about his management style, Darcey reflects on how he used to do 80 hour weeks and had an intensively hands-on approach (in a previous interview he said he was almost “strangling the company”). Then came a life changing event.
“I went and got cancer so had to take six months off,” Darcey recalls. “I was obviously very worried about the health side of things but also thought, crikey how the will the business cope? I appointed three directors and thought I’d clear the mess up when I got back.
“In fact when I returned we had actually made more money without me! From that moment on I decided to work more from home and take a more strategic look at the business. It’s worked well.”
Today Snow Business is undergoing something of a managerial transformation. After reading a book by Frederic Laloux called Reinventing Organisations, Darcey is looking to prepare his brain child for the future.
“I’m 63 and coming up for retirement and obviously keen this company is successful after I’m gone. It’s a fact that many companies don’t survive a second or their change of ownership,” he says.
“So we have looked to bring in something called ‘Teal.’ It’s a flat structure so anyone in the organisation can create change. We’re evolving Snow Business towards this structure so no matter how senior or junior you are, you have an input and impact on the business. It means I become even more irrelevant!
“We work in open-plan offices, everyday we have a morning meeting which is a completely open forum to discuss the business of the day, ask questions etc. We want happy customers and we want happy employees, because, at the end of the day, life is too short.”
Clearly there is much for Darcey to be proud of. An innovative business which is now exploring the use of snow creation machines across the world which are operated remotely from Stroud. A happy work force with a genuine stake in the business. And satisfied clients who return to Snow Business time and time again.
“The elegance of the operation is the thing I like most,” he says. “To create a business where you can go home at the end of a day and see that everyone had had a fair deal, everyone knows what the expectations are, everyone has done their job happily, properly resourced. Our customers are happy and we are happy because we have made a margin.
“It’s a joy that I can go into any pub and bump into any ex or current employee or indeed a customer without feeling any sense of embarrassment, because I know we are doing a good job. It’s the elegance of knowing you are doing something properly. If a policeman stops one of our vans, I know 100 per cent that it’ll be above and beyond what is required.
“When we go on a job and have to do health and safety documentation, people are wowed because we give them the full package, the proper stuff.
“We do it right, we do it effortlessly.”
Three business tips:
1. Sales, sales, sales: I hear people say, “oh I can’t afford another salesman” but it took me about 20 years to learn that this is just wrong. It seems a no-brainer now but the more salesmen you employ, the more sales you achieve
2. Specialise: If you specialise you bring people into the market who otherwise wouldn’t enter it. It expands the market. We are probably the largest special effects company in the UK and about third in the world and we just do snow! Specialisation adds customers, adds opportunities – it doesn’t take them away.
3. Never give up: If someone says, “no it can never be done,” what they are actually saying is “yes, but not yet.” There is no such thing as no. Forget the fluff, just do the work.