From pushing trolleys to working with Robbie Williams and reorganising a £3m cruise when the ship caught fire, Laurie’s done it all
March 26, 2021
March 26, 2021
Over the years, Laurie Weitzkorn has DJ-ed to huge crowds, staged lavish parties in exotic locations across the globe, and worked with royalty, the super-rich and the famous.
By his own admission, his event design company, JustSeventy, is not the cheapest, but that, he says, is because they offer a service that is second to none.
“A lot of potential clients come and sit in our office and say we are expensive and go away. But after trying cheaper competitors and being disappointed, they come back to us for their second or their third party. We say we are kind of like Selfridge’s, compared with Aldi or Lidl.”
Yet Laurie (OE 1993–2000) has not always been in the glamorous world of international event management; in fact, his own career really began with another titan of the retail world known for low prices – Costco.
He took a job at Costco Watford while he was still in the Sixth Form at QE. “I started by pushing trolleys. The great thing about Costco was that it is a multinational company. If you are ‘hungry’ and have a brain, you can progress.”
As a QE boy, he definitely met the latter criterion and so received some good training and mentoring, in the process becoming the company’s youngest-ever forklift driver and goods inward junior supervisor. “With £2m of merchandise coming through the big door at the Watford warehouse from at least 12 articulated lorries a day, it was a busy, bustling place to work. They gave me a lot of responsibility. “
After leaving School in 2000, he carried on at Costco in a gap year and then went to Birmingham City University to read Business Management in 2001. After concluding that university wasn’t for him, he left 18 months later.
From the age of 16, he had also been DJ-ing, and in this period he won a DJ residency at a high-profile Birmingham venue that had both student and non-student nights, where he was often playing to 1,000 people.
(“I started DJ-ing as a hobby, but it turned into a career,” Laurie explains. “At one time, I was earning several thousand pounds just for five hours, although it’s worth saying that when I started I was getting £75.” He now describes himself as a semi-retired DJ, turning out only on special occasions.)
“Costco then opened up Costco Birmingham.” After his experience at Watford – Costco’s second or third-biggest warehouse globally – he found himself “being treated like a supervisor, but not paid like one. I clashed with the senior management and was a bit of a thorn in their side.”
News of his ability was spreading, however, and one day a call came from the national CEO of Costco: would Laurie transfer to the national depot in Lutterworth, Leicestershire? He eventually went there, but the work involved 4am starts and 12-hours days. His time was filled with firefighting issues amid the continual pressure of getting all the incoming fresh produce out on the road to Costco’s warehouse stores around the country within 24 hours. “It was brutal: it drove me to the brink and one day I got home and imploded. They gave me two months sick leave on full pay.”
After he had transferred to Milton Keynes to help open Costco’s 17th location, he found that he was, in fact, more experienced than many of the senior management there. When he was asked to take on more responsibility, but without a commensurate increase in salary, he quit Costco for good.
He had been with the company for six years and nine months, and today he can see that this time stood him in good stead for what would soon become his new career. “Looking back, I gained a lot of commercial experience with Costco – procedures, audit, handling pressure, transport.”
During a period of career limbo, he spoke to a friend who worked at event management company Banana Split, founded in 1976 by industry legend (and fellow DJ), Julian Posner. Laurie met Posner and set out what he could do. “After 15 minutes, he said: ‘Name your price’. I said: ‘What – salary?’ and he said: ‘Yeah, tell me what you want.’”
The reason he had won him over, Laurie believes, is that Posner wanted “people who could sell, who were creative, who could talk to a client, who could unload a truck, if necessary” – and he recognised that Laurie fitted the bill.
It could hardly have been more different from Costco, but Laurie loved it. “We were travelling the world and living the high life – organising parties for royalty, celebrities and a number of billionaires.”
One of Laurie’s “more random” events for Banana Split involved organising a party for a group at the country shooting estate of a famous restaurateur. He brought along the singing duo, the Cheeky Girls, who proved a hit with the 12-strong, all-male shooting party. On another occasion, he was involved in organising two lorries that were going all the way to Azerbaijan for a party.
“It was a good learning curve, but we were there during the hard times, too, after the 2008 financial crisis.” There were other downsides – “the company was a bit archaic and old-school in terms of the management style”.
And so Laurie and a colleague, Stas Anastasiou, decided to take the plunge and strike out on their own. Launching JustSeventy in January 2011, they brought with them several clients they had worked with at Banana Split.
Taking on their first additional employee after a year, the company embarked on a period of continuous growth that lasted for several years.
Highlights included running the biggest bar mitzvah in the country in 2015.
One particularly memorable job was a cruise organised for a client living in France. In just eight weeks, JustSeventy planned an itinerary around Corsica and Sardinia, chartered a fabulous cruise ship in Cannes and sourced everything from the flowers and lighting to the on-board entertainment.
And then, five days before it was due to set sail, the ship caught fire. A replacement was found, but it was in Dubrovnik in Croatia. “Working with the client, we agreed that guests would arrive in Cannes as planned, travel by privately chartered flight to Dubrovnik board the ship and sail an alternative route to the Amalfi Coast in Italy. The guests would be none the wiser. Perfect!”
Of course, it was not as simple as that, and Laurie’s team faced a host of difficulties, having to rethink the entire itinerary, helicopter in entertainers, and organise a finale event from scratch in the Italian town of Ravello, all the while trying to work at sea with minimal wi-fi.
“Though the pressure was at its highest, the team was able to pull everything together really well – an experience we’ll never forget, and one that reminds us that nothing is impossible.” And fortunately the client was happy to pay the final bill, which came in at a cool £3m.
At the peak in 2015–16, JustSeventy had 12 employees. There were the high points, including running the biggest bar mitzvah in the country. And yet, Laurie says, they were too often “running around like headless chickens, but not really making the money”; the need to maintain the increased overheads induced them to accept some poor-quality, unprofitable jobs.
Laurie and his business partner, Stas, reacted by bringing in consultants to help them, taking on a “proper non-exec”, slimming down the payroll, using freelances more often, and generally becoming more selective about the work they took on.
JustSeventy has built its reputation on “working at a fast pace and on attention to detail”, says Laurie. “In my office, there is nowhere to hide.” In everything, the focus is on delivering the best possible experience for clients, who, however rich they may be, are often well out of their comfort zone when commissioning an event from JustSeventy: “They are coming to you at their weakest, about to spend £50,000–£200,000 on a party, and they want it to be perfect.”
Laurie has retained an entrepreneurial approach and has had both hits and misses. One less successful venture was a new company established to hire out sound and lighting equipment`. He and his partners stretched themselves financially, spending £400,000 on state-of-the-art kit. When they realised it was not going to be the roaring success they had hoped, they were able to extricate themselves by selling the business.
On the other hand, the £40,000 JustSeventy has invested in developing a piece of industry-specific software, including CRM, is proving to have been money well spent. “We have attracted interest from other companies, and we are about to start licensing it to competitors.”
The pandemic has, however, inevitably been a testing time for a luxury events company. “We have only survived because of the furlough scheme and the bounceback loan from the Government.” Bookings are finally starting to appear, but it is still only a trickle.
Looking back, overall, Laurie is immensely proud of what has been achieved with JustSeventy. He observed that in his generation, those who have gone on to commercial success have often been those who, like him, were not the academic high-fliers at QE. “I was definitely in the bottom half of the year in everything, always struggling a little for air! Some of the boys that have really achieved are the ones who left halfway through the Sixth Form.”
Nevertheless, he says he has many reasons to be grateful to the School. “QE taught me some basics of ethics and morals and how to conduct yourself.” He pays tribute especially to his Business Studies teachers, Jason Dormieux and Matthew Sherman (“an American fond of skateboarding”). “They were the two guys who got me interested in business and gave me an understanding of it.”
He threw himself into QE life, playing rugby for the School and, in an early pointer to his later career, taking on running the lighting and sound for numerous School concerts and drama productions. “I was just quite involved. I did enjoy it. I stayed for the Sixth Form and I went back for the ten-year reunion. It was a good place.”
Laurie, who enjoys horse-riding, travelling and music in his spare time, keeps in touch with a number of other OEs, including his neighbour Neil Phillips and his financial adviser, Daniel Coburn, from the year above him. “There is a good network. QE Boys has got gravitas and massive kudos even today.”