She skips from trade show to trade show, wrangles with tardy truck drivers and juggles big-name clients on a daily basis. But Fiona Jefferies wouldn't have it any other way.
The owner of 3D marketing and exhibition stand business, Diva Works, has just picked up an Asia Pacific Stevie Award in the bronze division of Australian services company of the year. The award may be little known in some quarters, but in the business world a Stevie represents international recognition.
For Jefferies, it's a validation of the decision she made 13 years ago to fly solo.
“I set up Diva Works in 2001 and it was a bit of a baptism of fire,” she says.
“I'm a very bad employee, I think I know it all. I kept making suggestions about what can be done better and in the end, I thought, 'Enough of this I really just need to back myself'.”
Within two months, Jefferies had ditched her bridge job at bookstore chain Borders and Diva Works was turning a profit.
These days, Jefferies, 42, creates exhibition stands for the likes of giant companies - Bosch, Siemens, Metricon, Thiess and Bayer. Each year she handles up to 120 projects, which can also include organising displays at sales offices.
One of the more unusual jobs she's handled was providing a large 3D gift bow that unraveled for property group Mirvac to launch housing developments. The bow was strung up between two trees and unraveled when the development officially opened. Jefferies contacted a friend who works on the Myer Christmas windows to help.
Jefferies has also had to delicately position a $100 million Mercedes Benz car at the motorshow. The pricey Maybach came with its own security guard who carefully watched Jefferies and fellow organisers perform a "68-point turn" to locate the car on its circular platform.
She has also overseen the removal of the ceilings of a marquee for a mining show in Mackay, Queensland, using a 100-tonne crane for client Siemens. The tricky part was that the crane was positioned 35 metres away from the marquee.
Given she can pull off these amazing feats it's no wonder today Jefferies' annual turnover is $400,000 and each year she manages projects worth more than $7 million.
But, with more than 130 trade shows and exhibitions held in Australia each year, it's an industry that's becoming more and more competitive. “I can look after one to four exhibitors at each show,” Jefferies says.
“You get torn in different directions so it's a matter of giving precise instructions to people.
“There's certainly a lot of competition within the industry and I have some of my clients being rung up by my competitors who tell them, 'I don't care what you're paying her, I'm going to do it for half'. They've even been up to my clients on site trying to carpetbag them.”
One of the more unusual jobs she's handled was providing a large 3D gift bow for property group Mirvac.
It's no wonder rivalry is cutthroat - trade shows mean big bucks for retailers.
According to the Exhibition and Event Association of Australasia, 72 per cent of people attending trade shows intend to buy at the event or in the near future and 83 per cent have authority to purchase (either for themselves or on behalf of others).
The first trade shows in Australia were agricultural exhibitions organised by Royal Agricultural Societies, but today every industry – from big to small – hosts trade shows. Even the exhibition trade has it's own trade show, says Jefferies.
“There's so many different exhibitions, so many different niches - it's incredible,” she says.
“The graphics at the gastroenterology show are enough to send you into a lifetime of clean eating!”
Competitor Gary Fitz-roy from Expertise Events says trade shows follow consumer fashions.
“There is a show for virtually everything, but many are linked to trends and cycles,” he says.
“Food shows are big right now, but PC shows aren't any more but they used to be.”
Most Australian industries have cottoned on to the power of trade shows, Fitz-roy says.
“A trade show is one of the few times where the target audience is coming to you,” he says.
“The key thing exhibitors are there for is sales. They also get the chance to eyeball people and get their details, which is gold.”
A crowded calendar of trade shows has driven exhibitors to new lengths in creativity. Jefferies' displays often include complex audio-visual and lighting components.
For this, she relies on a team of up to 50 contractors, in addition to her core administration team of three.
“It's a good, solid team I've built in the background and that's only been a couple of years that I've put that in place because up until then I was at the point of burnout,” Jefferies says.
“I realised if I really did want to do the projects I wanted to and serve the clients I wanted to, I needed extra help.”
But working in a high-stress deadline-driven environment, things can go wrong. Jefferies and her team of contractors were once left with nothing to do for three hours while waiting for a semi-trailer to arrive. The driver's three-hour delay was caused by a trip to the casino and a visit with two prostitutes the night before.
“I was ready to tear strips off him, but then out of the cab of the truck came this woman with no pants on,” she says.
“I was speechless.”