VMI today is a camera rental company which supplies equipment for Dramas, documentaries, feature films, corporates and promos at the very highest level but few are aware of just how humble and uncertain its origins were.
VMI was founded by Jeff Bassett, who was the father of present-day Managing Director, Barry Bassett.
Jeff immigrated to the UK in his early twenties from Pakistan in order to study Aeronautical Engineering in the mid ‘60s. After some false starts, he became an electronics engineer and started selling first colour televisions and then later, early video cassette recorders from his garage in the late 1970s.
He had an original idea to convert the early VCR machines to record long-play and from the money earned in this venture, set up a consumer video store in Neasden in North West London with his wife, Monika Bassett.
Videomania Ltd began trading from a retail shop premises close to where they lived in NW London at the start of January 1979 selling early VHS video recorders. They almost didn’t survive their first month, as they suffered three burglaries in very quick succession but they kept going and at one stage, even operated a video club renting out VHS films.
Within four years, they had changed direction and the company evolved to buy and sell used professional video equipment but this was never run particularly well and the business remained extremely small.
They moved to a much larger professional unit in Golders Green in the late 1980s and Jeff ran an edit suite based on the U-Matic format but the profitability of the business didn’t improve and they encouraged their son Barry to join the firm after leaving university in 1989.
Early Edit 1, Golders Green with founder, Jeff Bassett, 1990s
Barry shook things up and joined the fledgeling rental department, which had been set up a few years earlier. Camera hire was operated out of a small, messy room in the same Golders Green building, containing shelves holding a couple of used tripods and a large cardboard box full of assorted cables, all tangled together into a great morass. The rental department at the time didn’t have its own dedicated rental fleet, as the strategy had been to rent out unsold equipment from its sales stock.
It took time for the rental division to develop and from these very humble beginnings, Barry introduced new investment ideas and the company initially grew its stock from used professional camera gear and then later, by buying new VHS and then SVHS professional equipment. Most of its clientele at the time filmed weddings and the cameras that the company stocked reflected this, since this was the niche that the company had evolved into.
In late 1993, the firm went through a re-branding exercise and in order not to alienate their existing clients in a new name change, the three Bassetts compromised on a new name of VMI, which stood for Videomania International Ltd. A new logo completed the rebrand and it was felt that this was more appropriate for a professional ‘Facilities House’. To this day though, whilst we are a bit embarrassed when clients ask what VMI stands for, we can’t run away from our history!
VMI Building, Golders Green, circa mid 1990
VMI transitioned from a sales company into a rental company and whilst the accounts showed almost nil revenue growth and non-existent profit for Barry’s first five years at the firm, the company did indeed change dramatically during this time, as declining sales were steadily replaced with growing hire revenue. By 1994, the transformation was complete and VMI had emerged to become a camera rental company.
Whilst continuing to work, Barry studied part time for an MBA at Imperial College between 1993 and 1996 and upon completing the course, decided not to join the Banking Industry and instead took over as Managing Director of VMI, where he remains today.
His tenure as MD saw a swift transformation of the company and compound annual revenues increased massively to 26 percent per year for five straight years from 1995. During this time, the company became known as an industry-leader of companies renting out the early DV and DVCAM digital cameras.
This period had seen VMI being taken much more seriously by the major manufacturers and took part in several joint-marketing initiatives with Sony, Panasonic, AVID, Canon and JVC, all of which had markedly increased the visibility of the brand. As VMI’s reputation grew, the company also won three industry awards, including Hire Company of the Year (1998), Broadcast Hire Company award (1999, which was the only year that it was run) and the Natwest award for good business practice (1999).
A very young Barry Bassett. Publicity shot, having just won the Hire Company of the Year award, 199
The edit business had also become quite strong and by late ‘99, VMI rented out some 20 AVID editing systems and the on-line business which Jeff Bassett had started, now included a second on-line suite, employed two staff editors and had its own branding of VMI Digital. This incidentally was the year that Chau joined VMI and would later become its Financial Director.
In 2000, Barry decided to move to Kent with his family and run the firm remotely for a lifestyle change and this proved to be both an interesting and tumultuous decade for the company.
VMI acquired a crewing division called Crystal Television which operated 6 crews to supply daily news material for Granada TV’s 60 Minutes with Trevor McDonald. The on-line edit facility was relocated to a plush new building in Shepherds Bush and the company opened a sales and marketing facility, complete with its own beautiful HD screening theatre in D’Arblay Street Soho; VMI at the time also operated the UK franchise of the Dutch Outside Broadcast company, Alfacam and an in-house production division shot and edited several pop concerts including 50 Cent and Robbie Williams with 10 HD cameras each and may more besides. VMI bought its first HD cameras in 2003 and in a gutsy move to corner the market and become a major supplier of HD cameras, stocked no less than 10 complete HD camera kits by 2004, before most rental companies had taken the plunge into HD.
Hire Room circa 1997
Kevin Oaten (now VMI’s Operations Director) joined VMI in 1995 and his involvement really helped to improve VMI’s rental standards.
However, in 1996 VMI suffered a devastating burglary which, for technical reasons, the insurance company did not pay out for and the £600,000 ensuing loss brought the firm to near certain bankruptcy.
The three Directors agreed that Monika and Jeff would leave the company, leaving Barry and Kevin the challenge of turning it into the professional company that they always believed that it could become.
It was a very worrying time and felt like touch and go at many times as to whether the company could actually pull through. Both Barry and Kevin were determined that none of VMI’s creditors would be burnt and over the following 4 years, every supplier was paid in full and the company today shares the same company registration number as the original Videomania Ltd had had, back in January 1979.
VMI Screening Room, D’Arblay Screet, 2004
Kevin and Barry meant business and started as they meant to go on, fighting on all fronts and working at least twelve-hour days to begin with.
Everything which could be sold was ruthlessly disposed of to raise much-needed cash. The crew department and multi-camera department were closed down; the post production division was sold to Peter Zacaroli and Darren Cock and lives on today as West Digital; the rental on-line AVID systems were disposed of and the entire department closed down; we moved out of the Soho building and rented out to became the 16mm Café and the entire staff of VMI shrank to just 12 people.
6 months later in early 2008, Jeff Bassett sadly passed away and was never to see the transformation of VMI to the company that it is today.
Jeffrey Syed Bassett
Drawn by Josh Bassett
Progress at first was very slow and then became more rapid, as the company developed and made a name for itself supplying cameras, lenses and grip at the very highest standards. VMI bought its first ARRI Alexa cameras in 2010 and this coincided with Ian Jackson (now VMI’s Commercial Director) joining the firm and starting the Drama Department. Stuart Neate (now also a VMI Director) joined us a year later in 2011 to run the rental desk.
Early VMI Alexa Camera at a corporate production of Rolls Royce, circa 2011
The company moved to its current building in Acton in 2012 which was a major milestone, since it was fitted out with proper test rooms and lens projection and was a building that we could be proud of.
Moving into the current building in 2012
VMI opened the Bristol division in 2015 and moved into its current building in St George a year later. This branch is a smaller version of VMI, expertly run by Branch Manager, Gary Davis who has been with us since 2007 and specialises in renting out specialist cameras and larger lenses which are especially suited to the Natural History programmes which they cater for.
VMI Bristol Team on opening, 2015
VMI today is a happy bunch of professionals who work extremely hard to supply a customer-focussed rental service to media professionals. We know that we are nothing without our clients and our staff and never take this for granted.
Thank you for your interest in sharing the story behind VMI.
Operation’s Manager, Michael White and Camera Tech, Andre Pinto, 2020