From soldier to welder to computer expert, Damon Repton has led a colourful life. But throughout it Southsea’s historic theatre has been a constant theme – whether working behind the bar or installing a new way of ordering interval drinks.
At 17 Damon Repton was a soldier. At 19 he was an apprentice welder in Portsmouth.
By the time he was 24 the young man with a passion for electronics had a seat on the board of trustees at the Kings Theatre, Southsea – the youngest by an Albert Road mile.
Now 34, Damon has his own information technology company with bases in Portsmouth and Manchester, installing computer networks for big plcs. His company turns over millions each year.
And behind all his success is a continuing theme – serving drinks to punters at the Kings. It’s unpaid, but without that work he would not be where he is today.
Damon spends a large proportion of his life jetting around the world.
When we meet in a box at his beloved Kings, he has just returned from Chicago – a Microsoft conference for 25,000 delegates.
He fizzes with ideas and tries not to look constantly at his right wrist. He fails miserably because the day before he had picked up the latest gadget to emerge from the Apple stable, a Watch.
As he turns his wrist it springs to life and Damon notes that the FTSE has fallen several points since the markets opened.
It pings constantly as e-mail after e-mail, text after text roll in from his company, IBRL (International Business Ready Ltd) which is based at Lakeside, North Harbour, Portsmouth.
He is passionate about IT, always seeking ‘the next big thing’ which he will be able to sell to companies to improve their performance and reach in a world where having a technological edge can be the difference between success and going to the wall.
‘I suppose it is a bit of an unusual story,’ confides Damon, rewinding to his late-teenage years.
He joined the Royal Logistic Corp when he was 17, but two years later his mother was taken ill and he came out to care for her. ‘When she died I was a bit up in the air about what to do – whether to go back into the military or do something different.’
He took the latter path when his father, an electrician with cross-Solent ferry firm Wightlink, got him an apprenticeship as a welder/fabricator.
‘I was mainly working in the dockyard where the ferries were in dry dock, but while I was there my brother was working at the Kings where he was deputy front of house manager. They were having issues getting bar staff and he asked me if I’d work behind the bar on a voluntary basis.
‘I had no theatrical background at all. I didn’t go as a child because the family didn’t have enough money, but I quickly grew to love the atmosphere. The staff were like a family. They still are, except it’s a bigger family these days.’
Damon had always had a penchant for anything electrical and during his apprenticeship found himself mending the firm’s computers.
‘When I came to the end of my apprenticeship my company was having financial difficulties and was laying people off. I was fine with that because it gave me the opportunity I was looking for – to go to the University of Portsmouth and do a degree in computer science.’
Throughout the course he continued his voluntary work at the Kings at night.
‘I did the bars for a couple of years, becoming bar manager, but then the theatre went down in 2003 and at that point I was asked to become the front of house manager. Back then it was just me and three others who were the only full-time members of staff.’
It was at this point that Damon started to branch out. ‘In life, it doesn’t matter how many qualifications you have, it’s experience that counts even more and the Kings gave me that breadth of experience.
‘I started looking after all their IT, trying to bring them more up to spec and into the modern era in terms of technology – computerised booking systems, network phone systems.’
We are chatting in a box above the stalls in the 108-year-old Edwardian theatre. Damon gesticulates towards the walls and ceiling to check the connectivity for his phone which is tethered to that Watch. ‘One of the biggest problems here are the walls. They’re two-and-a-half feet thick and you try getting a signal through those.
‘The next headache is the sheer size of this building. All the technology is at the rear of the building, but the primary selling point is at the front.
‘We had to run a massive fibre optic cable from one end of the building to the other and get rid of all the archaic cables lying around the place.
‘It was an upheaval, but overnight it got rid of all the network problems associated with technology in such an old building. It meant we could get in telephone and ticket booking systems linked to the Cloud. This immediately meant we could sell tickets from locations other than the theatre box office.’
Damon’s expertise obviously went way beyond that of your normal front of house manager. ‘I’d done it while an apprentice, while at university and then when I had a job with an IT company at Fareham. In the end it got too much and I had to leave.
‘But the new-style Kings had become forward-looking.
‘They rang me up and said they didn’t want to lose me and my youth.
‘So at 24 I became a trustee and I still love being part of that family.’
He adds: ‘Most of the other trustees were in their 50s and 60s, but young blood will help it survive.’
Bringing a large Edwardian building into the white heat of the technologically-dominated 21st century is not easy.
But Damon Repton has a dream for the Kings Theatre, Southsea, which would revolutionise how it does business.
As a theatre trustee and owner of one of Portsmouth’s leading IT consultancies, his links to the theatre have expanded because he now attaches one of his apprentices to the theatre one day a week to help with its IT requirements.
‘They had a full-time member of staff doing that before, but when that person left the theatre it hasn’t had to replace them. This means more money is available to be spent on marketing and getting more people to see our shows.’
And making the theatre a more enticing place to visit is at the top of his IT agenda.
Damon says: ‘What I want to introduce next is a system in which an usher approaches people before the show begins and takes their order for interval drinks on a smartphone or tablet. That information then goes into the Cloud, is retrieved during the first half and the drinks are waiting for them at the side in the interval.
‘This would mean no queuing for the customer, either when ordering or at the bar in the interval.
‘It means those who hadn’t ordered at the beginning would get served quicker in the interval which in turn means increased bar takings.’