The share placing of October 1986 was designed to circumvent this limitation. After its introduction to the USM, Blenheim made a number of further acquisitions in the UK, but the state of the market dictated that growth would be pursued across the Channel from an early date. However, Buch and Lewis were conscious that, if their grand design were not to end in disaster, they had to have the right kind of local entrepreneur to lead the expansion in each country. They dismissed out of hand "subsidiaries with export directors checking up on them". As Lewis says: "No way can you run exhibitions in another country."
The solution which they developed was to seek out a like-minded, highly motivated partner in each territory, and to establish with him a stable profits platform from which to launch new events. Known as "parallel partners", these entrepreneurs are tied into the group by equity stakes, but have complete autonomy in the running of their domains, in an arrangement which Lewis describes as "not dissimilar to that of an accountancy partnership".
Patrick Lecetre heads the French arm of the group, which contributed the largest proportion of profits in 1990 - 44% (overtaking the UK with 30%). Lecetre is a firm believer in Blenheim's partnership principle. "Without this culture, what they were undertaking wouldn't have worked," he agrees. "They don't just buy companies. They have developed a close-knit team which functions on the basis of mutual respect. It's down to Neville's personality to have known how to construct a network of allies. That's the success of Blenheim."
Like the other partners, Lecetre had built up his own company, Padco. When Blenheim approached him in 1988, he had no desire whatsoever to sell out, or give up his independence. But he was attracted by the chance to move from being a small entrepreneur into the big league. Ralph Ianuzzi Jr, whose company Bruno Inc, which specialises in computer shows, joined the group last year in a deal worth $65 million, heads the US division of Blenheim, and saw equal sense in surrendering ultimate control. The earnout complete, the Ianuzzi family collectively has displaced Lecetre as the second largest shareholder after Lewis.
As a result of its parallel partnerships, Blenheim's board is one of the most international anywhere. It consists of four Britons (plus one non-executive), two Frenchmen, one American, one German and one Swiss, average age just 43.
Buch almost slavers as he recalls his impatience to penetrate markets in continental Europe. "There were companies sitting in Europe that were incredible products, pre-eminent market leaders. We had no alternative but to get out there." Once a partner had been found, Blenheim would typically look for established events, often family run (and badly run), sometimes where the next generation did not wish to continue running them.
In France, the country which has seen most expansion to date, Lecetre and his second-in-command, Bernard Becker, who is also a member of the group board, were encouraged to "go out and hoover up". "We bought 20 companies in 18 months to become the principal independent operator in France," declares Lecetre excitedly. "Before Blenheim there was no strategy of acquisition here. The industry was made up of small independent entities or trade associations, organising single events."
The £1 billion French market (of which Blenheim now has 20%) was an obvious starting point, because of its fragmentation and the independent status of its operators. The larger German market, worth some £1.3 billion, was more difficult to enter. Unlike the £600 million British market, where all venues except the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham are in private hands, in Germany the massive Messen (exhibition complexes) are all owned by state or city councils. The Hanover Messe is the largest in the world, six times the size of Birmingham's NEC. The Messen, in their turn, own and run most of the exhibitions. Specialist exhibitions organisers are rare and Blenheim's share is just 3 to 4%. The situation is much the same in Italy, Spain and the Benelux countries.
While scope for future acquisitions is now mainly across the Atlantic (where Blenheim currently has less than 1% of the market), strategic purchases will continue to be made in Europe. Within seven days of a deal going through, a post-acquisition team goes into the new member to give it the Blenheim treatment and beef up its performance.
Bases already established in Europe should go on contributing to organic growth. Blenheim believes that it can continue to create brand-new events at the rate of 10% a year. While it retains the ability to increase prices well ahead of inflation (good exhibitions are said to be price sensitive), and to boost visitors by around 5% a year, organic growth should run at 20%.
Key to this target is "replicating", or reproducing successful exhibitions in new territories. Thus the Electronic Data Interchange and Secretary shows are being rolled out in several countries. The UK exhibition Forecourt Marketing, which promotes service station equipment, is being launched in France; while the French subcontracting event, Midest, is being reproduced in the UK. Similarly, the German fitness exhibition is being replicated in Switzerland.