The germ of the idea that became CragRats was sown aboard a small sailing boat on Derwent Water in 1991. David Bradley and Mark Greenop had both tired of the teaching profession and were looking for a new direction. Sheltering from the rain during a climbing holiday (hence the name), they came up with an enterprise that would utilise each of their respective teaching subjects - business studies and drama.
The idea was a simple one: to offer theatre to organisations as a communications medium. To some it might have seemed airy-fairy but, almost a decade later, CragRats has grown into a pounds 2 million business, becoming one of the UK's largest employers of actors. CragRats won the Small Organisation award against two other short-listed contenders: Triple 'A' Animal Hotel and Foxdenton School.
Perhaps the most striking feature of CragRats is the truly vibrant atmosphere of its headquarters, a converted woollen mill at Holmfirth in the Pennines. Enthusiasm and sheer exuberance seem to infect everybody who works there, and the evidence of satisfied customers was equally abundant in the form of a small mountain of glowing letters from schools, training councils, police forces, and various other government bodies and private businesses that have used its services.
CragRats works in small teams that take the client's brief, develop a script, rehearse it and then go out on the road in a van to perform. Seven distinct brands have been established, encompassing training, careers, education, and issues such as drug abuse or low self-esteem, along with a community theatre, cafe bar and corporate catering service. CragRats is also sole contractor to BT's FutureTalk programme, which will promote verbal communication skills to more than a million schoolchildren over a two-year period.
At every performance, feedback forms are collected from the audience, and this is followed up by a detailed evaluation of results in conjunction with the client. According to Bradley, it is CragRats' flexible response to the customer's requirements that singles it out from those other theatre groups that have tried to branch out into bespoke presentations. 'We don't say: 'This is what we can do for you, take it or leave it,'' he explains. 'We are completely focused on the message the customer wants to communicate.'
CragRats demonstrated a remarkable ability to draw the potential out of employees and a number of those who started in positions of low responsibility have been promoted to run key parts of the business. CragRats' main representatives - the actors - are sub-contractors, but the process of their recruitment, induction and appraisal is approached with greater rigour than most companies would apply to full-time employees.
'We see hundreds of actors each year, and 95% we turn down,' says Greenop. 'We take it as read that they can act; it's the ability to be sensitive to customers and audiences, and to show initiative that we are looking for.'
CragRats has a unique working culture that emphasises verbal interaction at the expense of paperwork, but nevertheless demonstrates a real commitment to continuous improvement in all that it does. It has integrity - a project that involved making ICI employees redundant was rejected - and it is clearly delighting its customers on a regular basis, many of whom come back again and again.
'The only thing that really constrains our capacity is rehearsal space,' says Bradley. 'We have seven rehearsal studios here, and sometimes they're all busy. So it's a question of where we go next.'