May 13, 2021 | By Joyce DiMascio

Gab Robinson is laser sharp and on top of his brief as the CEO of Harry the hirer (Harrys), one of the country’s biggest event suppliers.

He’s worked nowhere else in his entire life. It’s his dream job and he’s led a significant national expansion of the business which has seen Harrys spread from its traditional Melbourne home to its now prolific presence around the country.

Robinson could have been a spy – he turned down a graduate position at ASIO, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, to stay with Harrys as a casual, loading marquee components into stillages – the crate-like baskets that are used to move gear around. That was around 20 years ago when he was doing his Arts/Law double degree at Monash University.

It’s a great story. From loading gear to now heading up one of our coolest suppliers of just about everything events-related – AV, furniture, marques, custom design and build stands and structures and more.

Over the past year the Melbourne-based Robinson has been very vocal. He’s had meeting after meeting with government agencies and industry colleagues campaigning for targeted support for our industry. And like everyone one else, Robinson feels our industry has been let down.

The COVID setbacks started early for Harrys. There was avalanche of job cancelations including the big one, the Australian Grand Prix on 13 March for which Harrys was a major supplier. After that, the writing was on the wall. He says the company acted fast.

“We were flying when COVID hit,” he says. “Hundreds and hundreds of jobs were falling away and we had to make some rapid decisions.”

By late March, Harrys had stood down 1,200 people – pretty much its entire workforce except for around 50 people in the leadership team. Over April, May and June last year, the company lost 98 per cent of its revenue.

As events have started to kick off again, Harrys is gradually rebuilding.

“We now have about 300 people and expect to grow the staff by 20 to 30 a week – unless we’re shut down again. We will grow hand-in-hand with the industry rebounding,” he says.

When I spoke with Robinson last week, he was encouraged by the “mountain of work in the pipeline onwards from September”.

A lunch for Melbourne Food & Wine Festival

But rehiring people also comes with great risk as events can be shut down at no notice, meaning all the risk has to be carried by the business. Hence, the push for targeted support from governments.

Robinson is clearly a strong leader – strategic, focussed, articulate and compelling. He says one of the biggest challenges is finding staff as thousands of people have left the industry.

“We’ve invited all our staff back, but some understandably have found other jobs.”

With so many people leaving the events industry, Robinson says there will be a big loss of skills and unique IP.

“It’s going to put the industry at risk of not being able to maintain the standards and quality of work.”

It’s been a tough 14 months. Robinson says he’s squeezed 10 years of learning in one year, but Harrys has a great senior team and a lot of good things have come from all the pain.

He talks with passion about a few things – “never give up; stick together and teamwork”. These are the behaviours upon which Harrys rebound strategy is built.

“In the end, the quality of an organisation’s people will determine its success,” he says.

He’s emphatic. He’s straight to the point. He’s honest and direct.

“If we didn’t have such committed people, we wouldn’t have got through,”

Harrys has been going for 45 years. Robinson sayd its DNA is sound and based on liking a laugh, having fun and being with people we like to be around.

Robinson’s message for the industry is very clear.

“Don’t give up, stick together. This is a moment in time – it won’t last forever and we’ll come out stronger than ever.”

Finally, he knows things are still very tough – but his words of encouragement are compelling and delivered with the passion of an industry leader whose heart and soul is in his work and with his team and his clients.

“When you think you can’t hang on any longer, go one day longer than you think you can,” he says.

And with that, you can be pretty much assured that Harry the hirer is definitely on the way back. That has to be good for our industry. Those super outdoor set-ups, classy indoor designs and everything else in between, will be assembled for their clients so that our industry can rebuild, one event at a time, one day at a time.

Work on ADX in Melbourne this year