Founder and COO of Chimney Group on his teenage stockbroker career, starting a post house from scratch in the ‘90s and growing it across borders into eight other countries
Henric Larsson doesn’t just talk the talk. He really cares about what he does. Since founding the post production company Chimney in 1995, the business has grown to employ over 400 people at 14 offices in nine countries around the world, picking up all the accolades and awards you might expect, from the Oscars to Cannes Lions and everything in between.
The company’s website says its vision is: “to create world without boredom. We believe that those who work with us are passionate about what they do, which is why Chimney is owned by the team.” And Henric has put in the personal sacrifices to demonstrate this passion, missing dinners, weathering recessions and muddling through crises to come out of the other side stronger.
LBB’s Alex Reeves asked Henric to tell us a bit about himself and his worldwide creative business.
LBB> Where did you grow up and how would you describe your childhood? How do you think it impacted you and the work you ended up doing?
HL> I grew up in a pretty shitty suburb of Stockholm. Mostly alcoholics and not so many drugs in those days but still... I had a mum and dad that both had their own businesses so I probably have them to thank for my own hard work. In those days mom and dad were not best friends with their kids and brought them around like zombies from activity to activity, but we took care of ourselves so we became more independent and if one wanted something done one had to fix it oneself.
I also started working when I was 13 and for a long period had two jobs, both at a stockbrokers sorting annual reports and also on the cashier at a supermarket. I always worked more than all my friends, but not for the money since we weren’t really poor - I was just restless. I remember that I still never had money because I always paid for my friends! I even skipped school every Friday to work but the Swedish system is so screwed up that from the age of 13 the kids sign their own notice of absence notes from school. My parents didn’t know! I still passed with good grades so no harm done but still...
LBB> You had a Patrick Bateman style job in a stockbroking firm when you were young. What was that like?
HL> It was fun at the age of 13. In those days the stock exchange still shouted all the stock out loud - probably only 50 in those days. We did deal via telex but I also ran between the 20 brokers’ chalk boards to see if they had the stocks for sale we where looking for. Crazy compared to how it works today. Around 1989 everything changed since it was truly the yuppie era. They started paying kids from good business schools to drop out and start working for them. I suddenly worked with kids aged 22 who made millions and treated me like garbage. I left and started working the night shift with disabled people instead. Better paid as well and no dicks but normal people.
LBB> You used to work at MTV, back when it was culturally relevant! What was that like?
HL> It was very early days but still very professional I must say. It was also one of the first big reality shows so it was fun to be part of that.
LBB> How did you get started in TV show trailers?
HL> I actually started managing all the tech and equipment on [reality show] Real World for MTV, since a friend got to line produce it and knew I was super techy. They had all these surveillance cameras so he needed help. While doing that for three to six months I met the team handling the post production and I got super interested since it was both tech and creative.
After the show finished a Danish artist working at the post house said that if I could manage to finance a Flame for $700,000 he would leave and bring the team with him. Before we got to set up Chimney and buy the Flame we started an editorial house doing everything but we landed a big contract with a cable channel so we produced tons of trailers for them monthly. This must have been at the age of about 23.
After a year doing that I set my mind to try to finance that Flame and build a proper post house.
LBB> Tell us more about how you got started with what would become Chimney?
HL> It is a crazy story. I went back to the person at the stockbrokers that hired me since he worked at a huge bank as a senior manager. I got him and his well-known father on the board and to invest $100,000 for 50% of the company (a great deal for them). I did this since the bank he worked for promised to give me lease finance on the stuff we needed. We ordered equipment worth $1.5 million and signed an office space of 2,500 square metres (crazy!), brought the team over and started booking jobs.
We got our first client on July 1st 1996. In mid-June the bank called and said we did not get the credit approved! We had $1.5 million in equipment at the airport, 10 people to pay salaries for, a huge office space and booked jobs but no equipment.
I don’t know how we managed it but we convinced all our suppliers to release the stuff and to let us pay them off in six months. From that day we never went home but slept at the office for six months and brought in every damn job we could. By Christmas it was all paid off. We could have been bankrupt instead. Young and stupid. But I had no money myself to lose so why not take a risk?
LBB> To put yourself through all that you must have been really passionate about starting a post house. What was it that attracted you to post production?
HL> The tech and artistic side. A 3D render could take four days so you needed to plan everything in detail and understand how to transfer files quickly, build scripts to automate and generally make things quicker and easier. Even when we started doing feature films in 1998 it was super early and there were no purpose-built tools for it so we hustled and created a lot of it for ourselves.
LBB> What was post production like in the ‘90s?
HL> Tape decks, five-minute frame stores on the non-linear systems, no off-the-shelf 3D systems. It was much more hardware, a lot of programming. Nothing had been done before so we couldn’t really learn from anybody. The Internet had not taken off and Google didn’t exist so it was impossible to research. Instead it was trial and error and no sleep and learning ourselves.
LBB> And what were those early days like?
HL> It was crazy. I got married to my high school darling two years in and after a few years she told me she had never been so lonely as after we got married. She cooked dinner seven times a week but I came home for one, max. I never felt so bad, ever.
In those days there was only a professional industry in London where The Mill and the others opened a few years before, so we could expand into Warsaw, Oslo and other places in Europe, where we were the only real supplier of post services.
LBB> In 22 years, what have been the biggest moments for the company?
HL> I have never paused to look back so it’s hard to say. It’s every day spending time with 400 colleagues around the world that love going to work on Mondays to help clients. It’s everybody at Chimney that spends time together after work. It is truly an amazing family.
Something we should be proud of are the really tough times we have survived. We have been through a few recessions but always landed on our feet. I’m not sure how though so I can’t write a book about it. In December 1999 70% of the staff were recruited by a huge media group and they took 80% of our clients. I came back after Christmas and sat with three co-workers in our 2,500 square metre office and no work. I’m not sure how we got through, but it was just hard work and after six months we were back and profitable and today stronger and bigger than ever.
It was not fun, I remember. But I didn’t allow myself to think about it too much. I moved all four of us to the window facing the street so it looked like we were busy, just like a Chinese restaurant.
LBB> What makes Chimney unique?
HL> Of course being big and international with 20 years of experience from markets around the world and still being privately owned by the staff.
We are also restless and want to learn new things every day. We demand from each other that no matter which position you are at that you strive at being the best in the world. We don’t do exercise; we are professional athletes. My colleagues at the front desk need to strive at running the best front desk in the world. Same with my creative directors. One needs to read a lot, meet and learn from others, try new things. If we don’t become the best in the world in 20 years but only reach fifth position it’s still ok but we will never stop.
This also creates a culture where we are never satisfied with what we do. Chimney would rate all of our deliveries at a six out of ten where the client would say nine out of ten. Everything could be done better. We could have invested a few hours more, we could have not lost time in some part of the process.
LBB> What recent work are you most proud of?
HL> It is probably not the big projects but the small challenging ones where we work as a team with the client and manage to produce something amazing with a tight deadline and a challenging budget. I can’t really think of any specific project now but there are projects like this every month. Plus I never get to produce the ‘normal’ jobs anymore, I just get called in to handle the really challenging ones!
LBB> What do you do outside of your job to relax?
HL> I get stressed out by vacations. I need to work or read something work related, spend time with colleagues and clients I have become best friends with. I need to learn new things every day, that’s what drives me. I can’t understand people who think the goal in life is laying on a sunbed by a pool. We all just have one life so why waste it there?