It became a household name in Australia as strip group Manpower, but now the all-male entertainment show Thunder from Down Under has become a global phenomenon, expanding its reach across the planet and looking past its stripping beginnings to become a vibrant stage performance in its own right.
My Business speaks with founder and CEO, Billy Cross, about the challenges of running what is often forgotten to be a business first and foremost, international expansion and how he ensures the drama and performance remains on stage rather than behind the scenes.
“The show has been around since the late '80s as Manpower, and then when we [Billy, pictured and business partner Adam Steck] took it to America in '93 and we landed a permanent gig in Vegas, it's just gone to another level,” explains Billy.
“This is a small show that started on the Gold Coast 28 years ago and now it's an international brand and successful. If you asked me in the '80s would this show be around today, I'd say you'd maybe have five years, max.”
For Billy, the entertainment industry – much less stripping – couldn’t have been further from his radar growing up on the Gold Coast.
“I come from a conservative Greek family, and when I was dancing, it took me two years before I told my mum I was performing, until she saw me in the paper. It was at a time when the construction business went down, so I was looking for extra work. So I started working in this pub as a performer, and it was more like some extra money until the construction business got better,” he recalls.
However, the show quickly displayed potential as a moneymaker, so Billy decided to take the reins and see how far he could take it.
“As it went on and I had the entrepreneurial foresight to take over the show and the boys worked for me, I never looked back and it was amazing growth,” he says.
Hitting the big time internationally
With that growth came the ability to evolve the show’s offering, becoming as much about the music, lighting, choreography and acrobatics as it was about the bulging muscles.
Organic growth also enabled the business to take up opportunities to expand into new markets.
By 1993, one such opportunity arose to extend the tour across the Pacific to Las Vegas in the US, which was Billy’s big break.
“For five years we toured Australia, we would do all the small clubs, the RSLs and that, and it was great,” recalls Billy.
“But in '93 there was an opportunity to go to Vegas as a touring show, and what happened was we were just touring there for four to six weeks a year as part of our world tour. I then sent a video ... [to] a talk show called Donahue, The Phil Donahue Show. And he put us on the show, and from there we were instantly recognised and known in America, and that's when Vegas grew for us.
“What we noticed was instead of touring around America, America came to us in Vegas. So we were touring there from '93 to '99, as a touring troupe, and it started as four weeks, then six weeks, then eight weeks, and then it ended up being four months a year there.”
The show’s residency in the city of lights became permanent in 2000, initially with four shows per week.
“Now it's 13 shows a week, and nearly sold out every night.
“In Vegas especially, it's the hen's night capital of America, so every girl that wants to get married comes there and celebrates their hen's night, or bachelorette as they call it, and it's their right of passage to come to Thunder from Down Under.”
“You can't teach someone to be humble and you can't teach someone to really be a down-to-earth type.”
Relocate or stay put?
As the business became entrenched in the American marketplace, the question of whether Billy himself should relocate was raised. However, he opted to remain in Australia, which he admits has helped him focus on the broader business.
Instead, he relies on a US-based team to keep the everyday business ticking over.
“I've got a great business partner over there, and he's a big-time agent,” says Billy.
The business now employs 16 staff based in an office in Las Vegas, which manages the promotion and scheduling of all its troupes, while the 26 performers are employed as contractors.
Not just any man will do
Getting the right staff is a challenge for any business, regardless of size or industry. But when your product is essentially people, and you are based on a separate continent from your business, recruitment becomes more important than ever.
“There's 26 guys and they are all Australian. [We’ve] got a couple of token Kiwis in there, but … they were living here and when we auditioned them, we brought them over. But the big marketing buzz over in America is being Aussie, and that's what's really separated us from every other show over there – the Americans love the Aussies.”
While it would be easy to think that recruiting would simply involve taking a peek at guys removing their shirts, Billy says that engaging the right performers is the core foundation of his business and the crucial factor in the show’s longevity.
“We don't look for the guy who wants to be an actor, a dancer or a model. With guys like that who want to join and go to America, they will always want to use it as a stepping stone to be a model or actor, and I can't have people like that,” he explains.
Instead, Billy only engages people who are as humble as they are attractive.
“To dance, I have a full-time program over there where they consistently rehearse what we call a Thunder Boot Camp, and if it takes guys three months or it takes them six to months to teach them the show, I'd rather have the patience and spend the time and money to teach that guy to perform,” says Billy.
“But you can't teach someone to be humble and you can't teach someone to really be a down-to-earth type of guy and have that really good-looking style of attitude.
“I get so many guys come into my office and they have got their hat on, they are chewing gum and they are in thongs, and it's like 'yeah, yeah, you want me' type of thing, and I probably talk to them for two minutes and then they're gone and never to be spoken to again.”
Billy says time has helped him hone his skills in determining who best fits what he is looking for, and then enforcing a strict set of standards to which all performers must adhere to help them maintain those traits.
“I try to minimise my drama by picking someone who I feel is down to earth. Yes, what happens is I take a kid from Camden, NSW and then he goes to Vegas and it is a major shock. You do see a bit of – not ego come out, but a bit of confidence and a bit of cockiness. But this job is a highly paid job, it's strict rules, there's a contract they have to abide to, and we have zero tolerance – you mess up, you don't get a second chance.”
Managing reputational challenges
Regardless of which industry you operate in, it can be difficult to get people to take your business seriously. While part of that comes down to hiring the right people, as Billy explained above, managing your reputation externally can also be a challenge.
This challenge has been more pronounced for Billy than for most, given that his business operates in the world of adult entertainment.
“The stories like when we tour the small towns … and you might do a radio show and someone will just sit there and they will be so low-grade tacky, and it's so uncomfortable to hear someone talk like that and say something like 'You guys are strippers' or 'You guys are gay',” says Billy.
“You [just have to] say 'Mate, it's 2016, whether we're gay or not, it's irrelevant to what we're doing. We're a production show; we're a multimillion-dollar business'.”
In recent years, Billy says the Hollywood movie Magic Mike starring Channing Tatum has helped to bring his business “into the mainstream”.
“We've probably flown under the radar for so long, but ever since Magic Mike came out, it brought us into the forefront and it's probably now one of the top 10 shows in Vegas in terms of numbers and grossing revenues. Really, when you think about it, all Magic Mike has done is put it into the mainstream of society,” he says.
Looking to the future
After 28 years in business with an impressive track record of continual growth, Billy is now beginning to consider his options for the future.
“I would think in years to come, when it goes to where it is, we will probably get acquired by a massive entertainment company or we might look at a small IPO – who knows? It just keeps growing,” he says.
“When you sit there and think to yourself 'Far out – is this still the same thing that I started back in the days when I used to get my clothes off in these small little pubs? Now we're in one of the biggest casino groups in Vegas, the MGM Corporation, which is a multibillion-dollar corporation over there' – I pinch myself half the time.”
He adds: “If you ever go to Vegas and you go to the airport and you drive around and see our billboards there, it really makes you feel 'Hey, these Aussies are doing great'.
“It's probably one of Australia's biggest exports – when you go to Vegas, Thunder from Down Under is everywhere!”
Name: Thunder from Down Under
Industry: Adult entertainment
Location: Las Vegas, USA (originally Gold Coast, Queensland)
Turnover: In the tens of millions (US dollars)
Employees: 16, plus 26 full-time contractors