“I am just around the corner about to make my way in,” said the deep eloquent voice over the phone.
I peered over the second-storey ledge of the industrial building, curious to know what kind of entrance Richardo Chua, the 38-year-old founder of social enterprise events agency Adrenalin Group, would make.
Established in 2008, Adrenalin is a social enterprise event and creative agency that believes the events industry can employ not just creative talents, but also those with special needs.
Adrenalin’s team includes employees who either have some form of disability or are youths-at-risk.
The company also recently took the next step in looking out for their workers by recently joining the Attractions, Resorts & Entertainment Union (AREU).
To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect of my first meeting with Richardo.
At the back of my mind, I was expecting a real-world, profit-driven entrepreneur.
He was someone who probably started this whole concept of an “event company that gives back to the community” as a sort of marketing façade for a revenue motivated enterprise, I thought.
But I was wrong.
Richardo came across as a warm, humble, and hardworking individual.
He was also pretty much someone who wore his heart on his sleeve. He was willing to share, without any pretence, one of the most eventful and challenging years of his career.
This was how our conversation went at his production studio.
LabourBeat: Could you tell me more about why did you decide to start a social enterprise?
Richardo Chua: I think that there are a lot of social enterprises with that cool founding story, right? Like “I went to jail, I want to come out and help people”, or “I have a family member with special needs that I would like to support”.
But for me, it was really about combining two interests.
Events has always been close to my heart. I love how exciting it is; I love how real and live it is; I love that we are doing something different every day.
Which is why the company is called Adrenalin, right? It makes your heart beat faster.
But at the same time, my parents also did a very good job instilling into me the need to be kind; the need to be a decent human being.
We have been blessed, so it is important to do the same for others.
Why is working with persons with disabilities and disadvantaged youths important to you?
One thing I am very proud of that has never changed is our North Star guiding principle.
How do we use events, campaigns and communications to try and spread some positivity? How do we use these things as a force for good?
We initially set out to help youths at risk. Instead of joining a gang, perhaps you can learn to be a photographer, be an AV (audiovisual) guy, or be an events manager.
And then over the years, we realised that this is a good thing that we’ve got going. We then expanded to hire all sorts of people with special needs.
You could think of us like the X-men. We are all strange people but working as a team and working well together.
Why have you decided to unionise now?
It was quite a natural step for us to take in the sense that we (Adrenalin) have always cared for our people.
We have always really tried to look out for their success, their growth, and their welfare.
Because we started with that, unionising was not incredibly difficult or troublesome for us.
Very often, we always see it as employers and employees having different objectives.
But I also draw a salary, so I am also an employee in a way. I have never reconsulted that we are on different pages and that we needed a union to represent our people somehow.
Because we are like that, joining the union was neither risk nor threat.
How has Adrenalin adapted to the changes brought about by COVID-19?
My industry has been decimated.
Big scale events were the first to go and would probably be the last to come back.
We can’t even play football now! 22 people can’t even run around the field, let alone 220 people gathering for a show!
With that said, we’ve used our wits, our creativity and sheer hard work to try making this year not a complete disaster.
Designers had to become directors. I had to figure out how to be comfortable in front of a camera instead of a live audience because I host the events.
We used to design and fabricate big things, and now we have to design digitally.
Thankfully, this studio was built last year. We didn’t know COVID-19 was coming obviously. We just needed studio space to shoot and to present as an alternative.
And because the team had the foresight to do this, and there were a few guys who were very tech savvy, we pivoted the whole organisation very quickly. It has not made the bleeding stop; it is just not gushing.
Everyone had to take pay cuts, no-pay leave, and pivot our job scopes. I tried to lead by example by always being the one that takes the biggest pay cut. And then we rallied together, and we are slowly starting to see normalcy come back.
How have you kept spirits high during this period?
It is tough, obviously.
In Adrenalin, we’ve always tried to do things differently. And because we have done things differently for so long, when we needed to take difficult steps, it was a bit easier.
For example, about 80 per cent of the team earns more than me, just from a pure salary perspective. We are proud of this. It shows that it is always staff first, then leadership.
In many other organisations, you get shareholders, leadership, then staff. We’ve flipped that around with staff rewarded first then leadership then shareholders.
Because of that, I think that when employees hear that we have to cut salaries, they know we are not saying that we have to cut you to enrich me. It is because this is what the economy demands of us.
And so even though it was difficult, everyone took it on the chin and continued fighting.
From a personal standpoint, how has the year been so far?
I have had quite an incredible year.
Last September, I lost my dad. He passed away suddenly from sickness. Then in December, my mum got diagnosed with breast cancer. And in February, COVID-19 happened.
So in a short period, everything that was very close to me fell apart.
At a personal level, this has been by far the most trying year.
But at the same time, I also feel like these things are the real test of whether you got it together.
Adrenalin doesn’t have that sexy founding story. We’ve never had that crisis story.
This right now is our crisis story.