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John Kaplan: embracing retirement after 40 years at Specialised Exhibitions

For over forty years, John Kaplan has enjoyed an illustrious career with Specialised Exhibitions, a division of Montgomery Group, starting back in the 80’s. His enthusiasm and commitment to his work have brought him much deserved success. Over the years, John has also generously shared his wealth of knowledge and expertise with others in the exhibitions industry, with many of those who have been fortunate enough to work with him also achieving success.

This fulfilling chapter of his life will formally finish at the end of June this year, when he embraces full retirement and the new adventures that this will bring.

Where it all began

With a Bachelor of Commerce degree and several years of business experience behind him and with a strong background in sales, John formed a publishing company in 1973 that specialised in trade journals. He was responsible for the advertising as well as the actual publishing of the journals, managing copy deadlines whilst also running the business. Publishing was his world during the 70’s. During this time he was approached by the Machine Tool Merchants’ Association, who knew him through publishing, to get involved with their Machine Tools exhibition. This was the start of the journey that would eventually lead him to Specialised Exhibitions. Throughout the 80’s, John worked with Specialised Exhibitions as a part-time sales consultant selling for the Machine Tools Africa exhibition and for their woodworking show at the time, WoodPro, whilst also still involved in publishing.

“I look back now and realise that it was the start of an opportunity of a lifetime,” says John enthusiastically, adding that he joined Specialised Exhibitions full time in 1993 as exhibition manager for Electra Mining Africa. “Management at the time recognised the experience I had gained over the years and my suitability for the position of exhibition manager for Electra Mining. It was an established show when I joined averaging around 20,000m² of exhibition space.”

John’s objective was to grow Electra Mining Africa. He followed a very simple formula: to get very close to all his exhibitors through frequent personal visits and to get involved with all the associations that were aligned with the show and strengthening those ties. “This was how I developed Electra Mining Africa. My focus was on repeat business – the more repeat business we had the better the show was going to be.”

“Of course, visitors were also extremely important. I was fortunate to have an excellent marketing team led by Gary Corin as marketing manager, who joined the company in 1996. The combined marketing, advertising and PR campaigns ensured that the right quality and quantity of visitors came to the show.”

John was instrumental in building relationships with stakeholders from all over the world in the mining, electrical, civil engineering and industrial fields. To promote Electra Mining Africa, he visited various international shows including the Australian mining show and the South American mining show, looking to attract exhibitors and visitors. The strategy worked with international exhibitors booking for the show and attracting a lot of international visitors, especially from the big mining companies from South America and Australia.

Probably the biggest highlight of Electra Mining Africa was in 1996 when then President Nelson Mandela accepted an invitation to officially open the show. “We aimed high,” smiles John. “We reached out through the connections we had to the presidency and we were thrilled when he said yes! I was honoured to have the opportunity to meet him.”

Appointment as Managing Director

During his time as exhibition manager, John was appointed as a director for Specialised Exhibitions. Then, in 2001, he took up the position of Managing Director of the company.

One of John’s many priorities in his role as MD was to ensure the continued growth of Electra Mining Africa. Following discussions with the then Department of Minerals and Energy, it was agreed to incorporate government’s ‘Mining Week’ with Electra Mining in the early 2000’s. Conferences and workshops ran alongside Electra Mining during the week of the show, whilst communication campaigns promoted Mining Week in the media. This heightened the visibility and awareness of Electra Mining. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the then South African Minister of Minerals and Energy, opened the show in 2002 and 2004.

Another first for Electra Mining Africa was the Inward Buying Mission organised by John and his team in association with the SA Capital Equipment Export Council (SACEEC), a public private partnership between the South African Department of Trade, Industry and Competition and the capital equipment and related services industries. Over 50 major buyers from around the globe attended the show.

But it wasn’t all plain sailing when John took over as MD. One of the biggest challenges was when the exhibition venue used by Electra Mining Africa went into liquidation. The Johannesburg Expo Centre was the only suitable venue for the show, so if that was lost, Electra Mining would face severe difficulties. “It was a tense time,” says John. “Montgomery Group stepped in and a decision was made and an agreement reached for the Expo Centre to be acquired in 2004 by a consortium of Montgomery Group and a local investor. It was a decision that ensured Electra Mining Africa’s future,” explains John. Electra Mining Africa celebrated 50 years of success in 2022.

Expanding the business

The long-term objective of the company was to expand the business with more exhibitions. But the most difficult part of the job was to launch a new exhibition. “When we had the opportunity to buy an existing exhibition company with its portfolio of successful exhibitions, it was an easy decision to make. With Specialised Exhibitions being in a stable and financially sound position, we were able to go ahead,” says John. “It was exciting to oversee the purchase of Exhibitions for Africa in 2007 and it led to Specialised Exhibitions’ big expansion.”

John used his years of experience gained through running his own business in his role as MD. He treated the business as his own business, applying the same principles, watching every cent that was spent. Fortunately, he says, he had staff who thought the same way.

“I was very fortunate to have a good team. They were stable, very loyal supporters of Specialised Exhibitions. I always had an open door policy. I listened to their views. Gave them guidance where needed and encouraged them in their personal development. We worked together as a team, each with the same end goal in mind. It was the same with our suppliers.”

“Developing good people skills helped me in my career. I got on well with people and had good relationships with customers, staff and suppliers, as well as the associations and media. Being able to read people, to understand their needs, and to have empathy also helped in building relationships.”

John became the Group Managing Director and CEO of Specialised Exhibitions in 2010, before becoming the Chairperson in 2011 when Gary Corin took over the position of MD. John remained intrinsically involved with Specialised Exhibitions and Montgomery Group, committed to ensuring the long-term success of the business.

Highlights of the past 40 years

“Every year was a highlight,” was the answer given by John when asked what the highlights were of his four decades in the exhibition industry. “I was energised by the vibrant and dynamic nature of the business. Exhibitions are fascinating. They are ever changing. It’s an industry that doesn’t stand still for a minute. Every exhibition has to be treated as a new launch. Consideration has to always be given to the needs of exhibitors who want a decent return on their investment, and visitors who invest their time in attending the show.”

“I really enjoyed watching Electra Mining Africa grow and also watching the companies who had exhibited at Electra Mining grow. They came to the show and found new agencies, got new orders, and they grew, and they came back to exhibit again and again. It was also exciting to see the growth of Propak Africa and the launch of the regional show, Propak Cape, which was launched in the early 2000’s, as well as the growing success of other exhibitions within our portfolio.”

“I truly value all the friends that I’ve made during my time with Specialised Exhibitions, internationally and locally. From staff to suppliers, to exhibitors and to all of the associations. Attending the UFI conferences was also a big highlight as it was an opportunity to meet all the international owners of venues and exhibitions, many of whom became good colleagues.”

And what would life be without a life outside of work!

Having lived and worked in Johannesburg for many years, John is now settled permanently in Knysna. He is a dedicated family man and enjoys his regular visits with his grandchildren in Cape Town, and, as often as he can, his visits to his daughter and grandchildren in Australia.

He has always been a dedicated fitness fanatic. When working at the Specialised Exhibitions offices he went to the gym for a workout every lunchtime. “Going to gym during lunchtime got me ready for the next session of the day – it relaxed me and took away the stress and frustration,” he laughed. He continues to go to gym regularly to keep fit. John was also very keen on karate but, having achieved his brown belt, was robbed of the opportunity of getting his black belt when the sensei that he was training with left for Australia. He also loves fishing and Knysna provides great opportunities to satisfy this pastime. Of course, you can’t talk about sport without mentioning rugby. John is an avid Western Cape rugby supporter!

The past four decades have been filled with an exciting career in the exhilarating world of exhibitions, the building of life-long friendships, relaxing days full of sport and leisure activities, and spending time with a beautiful family that brings him much joy and happiness.

John will be missed. But his friendships with many of us at Specialised Exhibitions and Montgomery Group will continue long into this exciting next chapter of his life.