The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has had a profound impact across both Australian society and its manufacturing industry. Based in Kurnell, New South Wales, StageKings is one company that had to rapidly adapt its operations in response to the pandemic. Sarah Cayless spoke to Managing Director Jeremy Fleming and Head of Production Mick Jessop.

AMT: Firstly, can you tell us a little bit about what the business was doing before the coronavirus pandemic hit?

Jeremy Fleming: Sure. We’ve been around for five years as a business. We worked specifically on decorated structures for festivals and events – so, big stages with a lot of set pieces involved. We’ve done some pretty big stuff like the Commonwealth Games Opening Ceremony; we’ve done Shakespeare’s Pop up Globe Theatre, which we built three times around the country; we built the replica Edinburgh Castle set for the Edinborough Military Tattoo; as well as a lot of big music festivals stages.


AMT: When the pandemic really hit in March, how did that affect your business and the way it operates?

JF: So the pandemic hit on Friday the 13th. Mick and I were in Melbourne, where we’d built a giant set piece for the Formula One World Tour down there with Miley Cyrus and Robbie Williams. We’d built a 30-metre long spike with a seven-metre-diameter globe on it, which was very cool. We were ready for that to happen, and to meet the international guys coming over, when the Prime Minister put out the ban on all public gatherings, and that put a stop to that.

Basically, from there on, over the next 48 hours, we had call after call, cancelling every event we had coming up for the rest of the year. That was a terrible, terrible time. We had all these phonecalls. We’d known that the coronavirus was happening everywhere else, but we didn’t realise it was going to hit us so hard until that day.

Mick Jessop: We’d anticipated that it could be a problem. But then it happened quite quickly, when everything was cancelled and all the work for the rest of the year just disappeared in a matter of 24-48 hours.


AMT: Okay, so how did you adapt to that?

JF: The first thing we had to work on was how we would manage the loss of income. Over that weekend and the following week, we worked through what we needed to do to cut costs. We spoke to the banks, and we talked to our landlords. We’d already started immediately thinking of what we thought we could do. For example, we designed up these hospital temporary waiting rooms.

MJ: Yeah, we’d heard that from a friend in the healthcare system that one of the immediate needs was waiting rooms for COVID-19 testing facilities, because they wanted to keep them separate from the general hospital building’s waiting rooms. So we looked into doing temporary structures, because that’s what we are specialists in. We put together a few designs based on temporary waiting rooms and temporary clinics, and we sent them out. But it didn’t really gain much traction at the time, we couldn’t really get it in front of the right people. So we went back to the drawing board. And that was the Sunday of the following week.

JF: On Friday the 20th, we made a decision that we couldn’t continue with as many staff as we had. We had 23 staff at the time, so we had to lay them all of, besides Mick and myself basically. And even Mick and I had worked on how we could just do two days a week and leave the other days, and worked out what we needed to do. So on the Friday, we sent everyone off: they left, they left their keys behind, they took all their tools. It was that Sunday that I was messaging with a friend in Ireland, and basically they run a production company as well, similar to what we do. And he said: “We’re looking at doing some furniture. You know, you guys have got the same stuff as us. Why don’t you do the same thing?”

And so I messaged that idea over to Mick, and Mick ran with it. I’ve said to a few people that Mick here, Mick’s a bit of a furniture hobbyist. He’s always tinkered with furniture itself, and it was the perfect idea for him.

MJ: Yeah, I’ve always had a bit of an interest in furniture on the side; I’ve got a little workshop at home. So we came up with a couple of designs that night; we inherited some designs from our Irish friends, and then we came up with a couple of our own. That was Sunday, and we did the prototyping on Monday, then we worked on the e-commerce site on the Monday evening, and they went on sale Tuesday afternoon. It was that quick.

JF: It was a really perfect idea for us. We have the machinery, we have the carpenters, we had the crew. It was perfect for those guys just to practically switch over and start that immediately. When we started on that, we made a couple of samples on Monday, took photos on Tuesday, and we were on sale at 3pm on Tuesday afternoon. And we actually had to call our crew back in on the Wednesday. We’d said to that crew on Friday: “We might not see you for the rest of the year.” And then we were pulling them back in the following Wednesday.

And it’s gone from there. We sold about 20 desks in the first day. That first Facebook post has now been seen by half a million people. And as of right now, we’re sitting at about four and a half thousand individual components sold.

Being from the events industry, we’re actually donating that $10 from every order of the desks to SupportAct, which is a charity for the music industry that’s supporting out-of-work event crew. And at the moment, after four weeks we’ve raised $20,000 for those guys. We’re really trying to support that industry. That’s really important to us.

AMT: That’s fantastic. So what do you think we’ve learnt from this crisis about the importance of Australia maintaining and nurturing a strong local manufacturing industry?

JF: I think it’s so important. Obviously for us, we’ve now got 56 crew back working, and they’re all out-of-work events guys and carpenters, and it’s important to us and to the industry that we can keep those guys working. And we also see that internationally, travel’s obviously going to be stopped for quite some time.

We do see that a lot when people are talking to us, focusing more on Australian made, buying local; they’re more open to the idea of buying from Australian manufacturers. So we see that as a huge opening, that we’re going to continue to grow in that area. We do think that businesses are more open already to buying Australian made and looking at that. We think consumers have got a little way go – we still get calls from people wanting to pay China prices. But it’s very important to be manufacturing locally and selling Australian-made products.