Power Hitter Profile: Barry Johnstone — Managing Director, COO, Entrepreneur
In a 40-year career, Barry Johnstone has had just three jobs. After a 10-year stint in the record business, the perennial salesman is celebrating his 30th year as managing director of CTV Outside Broadcasts, one of Europe’s leading mobile-production-truck providers. Since beginning work at age 14, Johnstone has had some remarkable adventures, but OB trucks have long been his love, and they have kept him focused through three decades as managing director at CTV, a role he combines today with that of COO of CTV’s parent company, the Euro Media Group.
An Early Introduction to Show Biz
Born in Christchurch, New Zealand, Johnstone left school at age 14 and embarked on a printing apprenticeship, where he was expected to spend 10,000 hours learning the trade. Six months in, however, he realized that he had chosen a difficult road.
“I discovered quite early on that I didn’t like printing, so I was a ventriloquist in my spare time,” says Johnstone, who still holds a New Zealand passport even though he has lived in England for 40 years. “I discovered that I could make more money in 10 minutes in a smoky nightclub than I could make in a whole week learning to be a printer, so I spent my nights and weekends working in the clubs.”
He left the print business the day he reached his 10,000th hour and, by age 21, was running a nightclub and managing the career of a singer. Together, the two travelled to Las Vegas, where Johnstone intended to stay. However, a two-week vacation to England became an extended stay when immigration officials would not let him return to America.
“I never intended to stay in England,” he smiles. “I always intended to go back to the U.S., but, somehow, a two-week holiday has become 40 years.”
Separated from his only client by an ocean, Johnstone decided to stay in show business, joining a small record company in 1970. For the next 10 years, he managed the international and television side of the company, booking acts on television and making music videos (“pop promos” in British-speak).
Life in a Truck
In 1980, in the right place at the right time, Johnstone was offered a life-changing opportunity.
“I got the opportunity to join a group of people that wanted to build a mobile edit suite,” he says. “It was quite unique. One-inch tape machines had just been introduced into England. We decided that, if we bought these machines and put them into a truck, we could go around to all the network television stations and edit 10 times faster on 1-inch as opposed to what they did on 2-inch.”
With a group of associates, Johnstone built the edit truck, rented a hotel room and a place in front of the hotel to park the truck, and celebrated the opening day of the new business. However, most visitors to the truck were interested less in its mobility than in using its facilities, so, for the next year, his team stayed at the hotel, with the editing truck parked on the lawn, and edited music videos.
Eventually, the truck found a permanent home in a converted church in the center of London.
“We parked the truck alongside and built offices and a studio inside. We knocked a hole in the wall, created an entrance to the truck, and that was our edit suite for the next three years,” Johnstone says. “People had to walk through a hole in the wall to get into the truck, but, in that time, we edited some of the great pop promos.”
They include videos by Ultravox, Queen, Elton John, and David Bowie and Mick Jagger’s “Dancing in the Street” video, which was part of the effort for Live Aid. Johnstone points to the greatest achievement of that era as the recognition that CTV’s Roo Aiken earned with the Best Editor Award at the first MTV Video Music Awards in 1984.
“We started as an edit house; after a year, we were bought by Carlton Communications, and the new owner made me managing director in 1981,” Johnstone says. “And that’s where I’ve been ever since.”
Small Fish in a Growing Pond
In the mid 1980s, Johnstone began to develop Carlton’s mobile-production-unit business, and he soon found that mobile units were to become the love of his life. As Carlton continued to grow — purchasing such companies as Technicolor and Quantel — the conglomerate became massive, and Johnstone’s successful operation was somewhat lost in the shuffle.
“In 1995, [after I had] been managing director for 15 years with a very successful OB division, the group started to go in another direction,” he says. “We were a small company in such a big group that I felt maybe it was time to change.”
Carlton agreed to sell Johnstone the editing studio and postproduction assets but not the OB vans, so, when Johnstone started his new company — Corinthian Television (CTV) — in 1995, he had a company with postproduction and a studio but no mobile-production units.
“Within a year, that all changed,” he says, “and my life changed with it.”
Back in (OB) Business
In July 1995, Johnstone knew that he wanted to get back into the OB business and had set up a meeting with George Wensel of NEP to discuss joining forces in England. Sadly, Wensel passed away two days before he was scheduled to meet with Johnstone, so the NEP connection was lost.
“My biggest career disappointment,” Johnstone says, “is that I never got a chance to do something with George Wensel.”
In 1996, however, European Tour Golf offered Johnstone a new opportunity. At Carlton, he had worked with the European Tour in his Carlton days, when golf coverage was always regionalized: Italian coverage was handled by Italians, Scandinavian coverage by Scandinavians, etc.
“I convinced them that we could probably go to all of those countries with a more coordinated effort and do it cheaper and with more experience,” Johnstone says. “They took that on, and we did that with a yearly deal.”
The First Custom-Builds and Multiyear Contracts
In 1996, the European Golf Tour put the contract out to tender. Johnstone was interested in getting back into the OB market, so he proposed creating a multiyear contract, which had never before been done in Europe.
“I said that, if they were to give me a five-year contract, I would build trucks specifically for them, painted in whatever color they wanted, but it had to be a five-year contract. Everything in the UK then was only a year,” he says. “They agreed and gave me the contract, but I didn’t have any trucks. It was unheard of at the time, to win the contract for five years. To get it and not have a single truck, that was a highlight for me.”
Effectively, the second coming of CTV, this time with OB vans, was with a fleet of purpose-built trucks for the new European Tour contract. Johnstone had the production trucks painted green, so that they could hide in the trees at the golf course, and he persuaded the crane, uplink, and generator companies to paint their trucks the same color, so the full fleet of nine 60-ft. trucks looked uniform as it rolled out to each event.
“It wasn’t just television trucks that we were responsible for,” he says. “We had trucks to carry scaffolding and offices and cable. When you’re doing 30 events in 20-something countries, you have a leapfrogging setup for the cable. The same production trucks and support vehicles went every week to all events.
Each truck was also painted with the logos of the European Tour, which was a first at the time.
“Today, many vendors brand their vehicles with the clients’ colors and logos, but, in 1997, in this part of the world, there was nothing like it,” Johnstone explains. “We built trucks that were just used for golf, so, when the golf season finished, we polished them up and got them ready for the next season. That was the basis of building the company, just to do golf.”
Eventually, things changed, and CTV was building more trucks and doing far more than golf, from cricket and boxing to concerts and award ceremonies. But it was Johnstone’s first CTV contract with European Tour Golf that marked the end of one-year contracts in Europe.
“People began to realize that, if you offered longer contracts, you could make it more personalized,” he points out. “We changed the way that people would look at OBs in the future.”
A New Role as COO
In 1999, a new era dawned for Johnstone when National Mobile Television offered to purchase his OB operation. He agreed to stay and run the company with no further ownership, although he still owned the transmission, studios, and postproduction side of the business until he sold them in 2005.
When NMT began selling off its assets, CTV was sold to a Dutch group, UBF, in 2005, and Johnstone was asked to stay on as managing director. In 2007, UBF merged with a French group, EMT, to become the Euro Media Group. At that point, he not only stayed on as managing director of CTV but took on a second role, COO of the Euro Media Group.
“Today, I don’t own anything; I just work,” Johnstone says. “And I’m very happy with that. I enjoy the bit that I’m doing.”
That bit has included overseeing CTV’s association with many U.S. broadcasters and producers through numerous Olympic Games, the British Open, and the NFL games played in London. CTV was also host broadcaster at this year’s Ryder Cup and provider of flypacks for HBS at two venues at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
“CTV’s only business today is outside broadcasting, and probably three-fourths of that is sport,” Johnstone says. “We’ve built trucks in England that Americans would like and feel familiar with. A German isn’t going to come to England looking for trucks, so we listen to what the Americans say when we build our new trucks. We like the fact that we work for Americans. We’re very proud of that.”
No Work at Home
When he is not working, Johnstone spends time with his wife, Libby, and his three children, a 26-year-old son and 23-year-old twins, a boy and a girl. The children are split between London and Los Angeles, and he escapes to his holiday home in Portugal to relax with Libby whenever he can.
“If I’m working, I’m working, and, if I’m not working, I’m home,” he says. “It’s been like that all my life. I’ve been away too long in my life. I do enjoy my friends, I play a little bit of golf, I love watching sport, and I like spending time with the people that I’ve been working with over the years. I enjoy my place out in Portugal; that’s where I go with my wife to relax.”
A salesman at heart, Johnstone most enjoys the day-to-day operation of CTV, the company he has called home for 30 years. Becoming COO of the Euro Media Group has added a new dimension to his life, but, ultimately, his heart lies in OB.
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