Fantastic Fireworks: Jon Culverhouse
The Fantastic Fireworks founder on rocketing growth and his explosive quarter century in business
Back in 1985 when Jon Culverhouse launched Fantastic Fireworks there were only a handful of competitors. Today there are at least 250 companies in the UK firework industry, but Fantastic Fireworks has remained at the forefront of the sector and is now one of the largest and longest established. Jon will be celebrating 25 years of pyrotechnic success this year with – yes, you’ve guessed it – a firework display. During its quarter century of trading, Fantastic Fireworks has put on an impressive number of displays at major events and for some very high-profile clients. Highlights include Sir Philip Green’s 55th birthday in the Maldives, a display at the Catherine Palace in St Petersburg, the relaunch of Cadbury’s Wispa and Simply Red singer Mick Hucknall’s 50th birthday. In 2007 the company also helped the city of Liverpool celebrate its 800th birthday with Europe’s largest display of the year and in 2008 was the official firework supplier for the European Capital of Culture. Jon was writing for The Daily Mail when he first considered making some cash out of fireworks. “It was after I bought a range of fireworks from a local shop in Hertfordshire and put on a home display that I noticed that they were produced by a company in China,” he recalls. “I was impressed by how exciting they were compared to the ones on offer in Britain at the time.” He ran a story in the paper on the superiority of the imported products and the Chinese company rewarded Jon with a selection of free fireworks, which he used to put on a New Year’s Eve display. That’s when the idea for his own venture was sparked. “It was very unusual to have displays outside of Bonfire night at that point in time” says Jon, who immediately saw the potential for year-round celebratory displays. He started importing stock in from China and selling through adverts in Private Eye magazine alongside his day job. The publication was the perfect vehicle for reaching his target audience. It wasn’t long before the phones began to ring. “The idea of fireworks appealed to Private Eye readers as they are a creative bunch of people. The business began to take off from there.” Jon was purely retailing at that point, but in 1984/85 the business rocketed and profit doubled year-on-year. Turnover reached £100,000 in 1987 at which point Jon left the newspaper and committed to the enterprise full-time. Today, the company employs 16 full-time staff, including some who have worked for Jon for a number of years, playing a pivotal role in building the business. The company also employs 200 part-time fully trained pyrotechnics and set up a training school in 2001 after Jon noticed demand for the service. Annual turnover this year was £1.4m but profits reached a plateau in 2000 after 15 years of rapid growth, which Jon expected. “You have to be realistic in fireworks as it’s a lifestyle or hobby business so it’s not going to continuously grow. We saw our largest growth in the first 15 years of business – when there were fewer competitors.” Even today Jon believes his greatest achievement has been to remain trading healthily for such a long time given that so many businesses fall by the wayside within their first few years. So while he may not be enjoying the kind of growth seen in previous years Jon is content with his company’s rude financial health. The firm takes roughly 200 bookings a year, although this figure fluctuates depending on special occasions and events and he’s expecting big demand in 2012 during the London Olympic Games and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Even after 25 years in the industry John’s enthusiasm and passion for fireworks remains strong. His fascination with the explosive product may stem from his school days, but there’s certainly no chance of it fizzling out any time soon.