The husband and wife who built a theatre empire

By Will Smale
Business reporter, BBC News

Image source, ATG

If the career of multimillionaire husband and wife theatre impresarios Rosemary Squire and Howard Panter was ever made into a play, then a red car would probably play a central role in the first act.

The car in question was a small BMW, which Ms Squire had to use as her office when they bought their first theatre, the Duke of York, in London's West End.

This was back in 1992. With the help of a number of wealthy friends, the couple had managed to raise £3.05m to purchase the Grade II listed in building in Covent Garden.

Yet with backstage space in the 123-year-old building being severely limited, and no spare cash available to rent an office, Ms Squire instead parked the car outside the theatre, and worked from there.

So while having to dodge Westminster City Council's enthusiastic traffic wardens, she would sit in the driver's seat and do all the paperwork.

That was until a few months later, when in the summer of 1992 - always the quietest time of year for theatres in the northern hemisphere - money was so tight that the couple had to sell the car to help pay staff wages.

Ms Squire says: "Running a theatre can be a nightmare in the summer, especially if you are a small business.

"We simply had to sell the car, and Howard had to take out another mortgage on the house. It did focus our minds."

Thankfully for the couple, the theatre thereafter soon became a success under their ownership, and within a few years they were buying more venues, both in London and across the UK.

Fast forward to today and their company - the Ambassador Theatre Group (ATG) - is the UK's largest theatre business, with 3,500 employees.

Image source, ATG
Image caption,
When the couple bought their first theatre, Ms Squire would work in a car parked up outside

It owns and runs 38 theatres across the UK, and one on Broadway in New York, and enjoys an annual turnover of between £300-400m.

And instead of working from her car, Ms Squire has a decent-sized office in the firm's headquarters in the town of Woking, in Surrey.

Looking back on how ATG has grown over the past 23 years, she says that a core reason for its success is the fact that before she and Mr Panter set up the business they had both worked for many years in the theatre industry. She had done so for 10 years and he for nearly two decades.

Ms Squire says that this collective experience and knowledge was vital.

'Good with numbers'

Born and bred in Nottingham, Ms Squire says she was "bitten by the theatre bug" as a child, thanks to her parents regularly taking her and her sister to the city's Playhouse theatre.

"Famously, aged 16, I told my best friend on the stairs of the Nottingham Playhouse that this is what I want to do, I want to be a theatre manager," she says.

"I didn't know exactly what it meant, or what was required, but I knew that going to the theatre is a unique experience... something special and irreplaceable."

Image source, ATG
Image caption,
ATG aims for its theatres to show a mixture of "bankers" and some more financially risky plays

After working at her local cinema while she was in school, first tearing tickets, and then helping staff the box office, Ms Squire started her long career in theatre at the Mayflower in Southampton, where she worked while she studied Spanish at the city's university.

She says: "I worked there all through university, starting in the box office, and then graduating to accounts. I've always been pretty good with the numbers."

After a further year studying at Brown University in the US, Ms Squire moved back to the UK and got a job with the then second-largest theatre group in London, rising through the ranks to senior managerial positions.

Image source, ATG
Image caption,
Ms Squire looks after the business side of ATG while her husband has the more creative role

She then met Mr Panter, and they would go on to marry. While her role in theatres has always been the management side, the running of the business, he is the creative one, with a long background in production, in actually putting on the plays. This is how they have always shared the work at ATG.

Their aim for ATG from day one was that it would both own theatres, and produce its own plays. Ms Squire calls this an "integrated model", and says it gives the business more resilience - the venues can more easily find good plays to stage, and vice versa.

Today, ATG produces around a quarter of the plays or musicals at its venues.

It balances what it productions it puts on, between "bankers" on the one hand - such as popular musicals, and plays with big name stars in - and new shows, which may or may not be commercially successful.

'Commercial partners'

To help grow the business in recent years, Ms Squire and Mr Panter have accepted investment from private equity firms, first in 2009 and then again in 2013.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
ATG bought the Foxwoods Theatre in New York back in 2013

As a result, while the couple still run ATG as joint chief executives, they have given up their former majority stake in the firm. Ms Squire says this not been a problem in any way.

"We have had a very positive experience with private equity firms," she says. "They are our commercial partners, but they absolutely look to us for the experience and expertise of running the company."

Looking ahead, Ms Squire says she wants to continue to grow ATG globally, which is set to open a second theatre on Broadway, and its first in Sydney, Australia.

The current Ernst & Young UK entrepreneur of the year, her advice for anyone thinking of setting up their own business is to first get as much experience as they can of working in that industry - and allow yourself to dream.

"It is really important to indulge yourself a bit, and have a picture of where you want your business to end up." she says. "Paint it in, give it some texture, and then work towards that goal.

"And always remember that you can take more than one route to get there."