Chairman Neville Buch and chief executive Lawrie Lewis, who have masterminded Blenheim's rise to prominence in this sector, are a charismatic couple who complement each other well. Lewis, who founded the company as Blenheim Dresswell in 1979 with two associates (who have since gone their own ways), has a background in clothing manufacture - and a suitable penchant for flamboyant ties and eccentric suits. Trained in garment production, he was sales director for a company marketing the collections of the likes of Ossie Clarke and Sheridan Barnett in the early 1970s, before starting his own business with his second wife, herself a fashion designer. When that marriage ended, so did his involvement with the company and he looked around for something to invest in.
With 10 years on the exhibition circuit in Europe and North America, Lewis had a good understanding of the importance of exhibitions as a marketplace. On his travels he had admired a French womenswear exhibition which he thought might go down well in this country. But how to go about it? "I had first-hand knowledge of what exhibitors wanted out of a show, but we were manufacturers, not organisers," he says.
To make up for what he perceived as his own lack of experience, Lewis formed a "steering committee" of the parties most closely concerned - manufacturers, the industry association and the trade press - to plan the event. The idea, which earned him the title of the "listening organiser", has stood him in good stead ever since. As well as ensuring that the exhibition meets the needs of the exhibitors (in terms of the quality of visitors, the venue and aesthetics), it has the added advantage of guaranteed editorial coverage - a boon, as promotion is Blenheim's second most important cost after venue hire.
By early 1982 Lewis was organising four womenswear exhibitions. Even at this stage, however, he realised the potential of the business that he had entered. But he also recognised his limitations as a former manufacturer in the rag trade. What he needed was a financially minded partner to take the company to the stock market, and to use institutional money to expand the business and develop a diverse portfolio of exhibitions.
Enter Buch, a South African who had come to Britain in 1969 and gained valuable City experience in fund management and investment trust consultancy. By 1982, says Lewis, Buch was a "retired property baron". The two men had known each other for some 10 years. Like the old friends that they are, they readily recall the occasion, at the Odeon cinema in London's Westbourne Terrace, when Lewis convinced Buch of the power of his ideas. Buch was "impressed by the quality of the earnings: there's no stock, no work in progress and it's a very cash-generative business".
Typically, Blenheim asks exhibitors at an annual show for 30 to 50% of the space rental charge up to 11 months in advance, and the balance no later than six weeks before the show opens. At many of the established events exhibitors rebook for the following year, and there may be a waiting list of five to 10 years ahead. Although venue hire is Blenheim's biggest cost item, with in most cases a full year in which to sell the event, profit margins can be spectacular: the international building construction show Batimat (Blenheim's largest), which is held in Paris biennially, can show gross margins of over 50%; the information technology event Networld in the US almost 70%; for the group as a whole the average is 48%.
Buch started as chairman on a one-day-a-week basis, but within a year - according to Lewis - he was "hooked, working eight days a week". Such was his confidence in Buch that in the course of the first year Lewis "had no hesitation", he says, "in virtually giving Neville, for no money at all, 36% of the company". In the same year he bought out his two co-founders, leaving himself with 74% of the equity.
During the next four years the company grew rapidly, concentrating on small niche events such as chilled foods and designer gifts - "as you would expect from a growing company", says Buch. "But the aim was to own premier products. We took a strategic decision. We asked ourselves whether we wanted to grow organically by launching new events or go for market share and buy the prime products." Having determined on the latter course, Blenheim was still free to develop organically at its own pace.
Lewis takes up the tale: "By 1986 we were ready to use our paper to expand into more sectors, events, venues and countries. It was very premeditated. We would take the company to the market and then expand so that we did not have all our eggs in one basket, either geographically or by sector."
By then Blenheim had reduced its dependence on the "mercurial" clothing industry to 43%, by adding shows in information technology, cash and carry, franchising, food and financial services. The portfolio now contained 27 events, but being entirely UK based the company was potentially vulnerable to the state of the domestic economy. Says Buch: "The UK is a national marketplace. It doesn't lend itself to 'definitive' products" - events which nobody in the industry can afford to miss.