Profile – A floating business

Sonic the Hedgehog, the Caramel bunny and a bottle of White Horseiscovered how his accountancy background has shaped his career. whisky adorn the walls of Mark Dorey’s office. Actually, they are photographs of ten-storey-high balloons – tools of the trade at Virgin Airship & Balloon Company. Dorey is the chief operating officer at what is principally a marketing company which uses balloons as giant floating billboards – now a regular sight at worldwide events.

Photographed in majestic settings, the images provide a colourful backdrop to a chaotic workplace which reflects a dynamic industry. Caps and other mementos from clients around the world are scattered around, and Dorey’s bookcase includes titles such as ‘Thriving in Chaos’ by business guru Tom Peters. In the background, executives locked in a video conference are yelling instructions to colleagues overseas.

The 12-strong airship business is the world’s largest assembled commercial airship fleet and is set to expand rapidly. Dorey’s main role is strategic development of the business around the world, and includes tasks like setting up an Asian division in Singapore. He clearly relishes his position, but it is one that is a long way from his accountancy training.

Halfway through the interview, we jump in a Land Rover and head to a rainswept field where one of the dirigibles is moored. Dorey quickly enters into conversation with members of a support team who are in place to ensure nothing happens to the airship.

The easy rapport that he generates with the team is confirmation that his role requires a hands-on approach where getting to know the coalface of the business is all-important.

Acquiring a taste for advertising

Dorey, 34, trained at Coopers & Lybrand after obtaining a finance degree at the London School of Economics. ‘The opportunity to see small and medium-sized companies at work was unbeatable,’ he says.

He specialised in financial services to construction and marketing companies. It was the latter that wetted his appetite for advertising and marketing – a dynamic but notoriously volatile sector.

Dorey spent two years at KLP, a North London advertising group, now part of the RSCG Group. But when recession hit the advertising world in the late 1980s, he moved to a more secure job at Pepsico. He says: ‘This gave me experience of a blue-chip company with plenty of international work.’

After the economy picked up, Dorey sought a return to the advertising arena and joined Virgin’s airship outfit five years ago. ‘I saw it as a fantastic opportunity, with an entrepreneurial feel and creativity of people trying to push through boundaries.’ Despite a bitter courtroom clash with British Airways, Virgin has vigorously expanded its branding into new areas and offers a protective umbrella for the group.

In the past few weeks, the Virgin Corporation launched a fashion line to complement an empire that includes trains, soft drinks, music, cosmetics and financial services. Although the corporation’s share price has taken a volatile path recently, Branson has set long-term profit objectives for the divisions.

Dorey joined Virgin’s airship business as financial director but secured the position of chief operating officer in June this year. It reflects an increased role for him in negotiating with blue-chip customers and potential business partners.

Companies such as Goodyear buy sponsorship of an airship and supporting crew for up to three years. They offer rights to aerial camera shots of events in return for coverage of the airship.

The need to tackle new challenges is a key element of the job. ‘I see myself as a problem-solver, using my financial background,’ he says. ‘What interests me most is being put into new situations and meeting new challenges.

That’s the excitement that gets me out of bed in the morning.’ But then Dorey is the competitive type, gaining under-19 honours for Hampshire cricket club and playing golf off a 13 handicap.

He understands the highly creative industry in which people are the main assets. Certainly he has had to develop the flexibility to enforce financial controls while ensuring that individuals are not stifled. ‘We’re always looking for innovation in our business systems. And accountancy is one of the best backgrounds you can have,’ he says. ‘We effectively have 13 different businesses worldwide and transferring money to fund them is a big issue.’

No slowdown in sight

The airships and balloons business delivered #2m profit last year on #25m turnover from 250 staff.

But, with the prospect of a downturn in the world economy, Dorey remains sanguine about the company’s prospects. Five or six airships are set for production each year for the next three years, and demand does not appear to be abating in the short term.

The company is also developing a fleet of larger airships for passenger excursions. Richard Branson’s own ballooning endeavours also ensure he will remain close to the project. ‘With Virgin’s backing we’ve got the muscle to carry through the ideas of local management,’ Dorey says.

A trip round the building reveals new balloon designs in the boardroom, where the video conference is still in full flow. Chairing it is the European section head, wearing a horned Viking helmet.

It is not your average business meeting, but then this certainly is not a normal company. Mark Dorey is not your average accountant, either. He knows about thriving in chaos.

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