A visit to AJ Pyroytechnics
A look around the Folkestone fireworks shop.
AJ Pyrotechnics – based in Folkestone – is well known in the fireworks trade having competed in national competitions such as the Plymouth Fireworks Championships. They also happen to have an all-year fireworks shop which is open to the public. I popped down to have a look around and interview company owner Adrian about his fireworks journey to date and what it’s like competing in the UK’s biggest competitions.
Their shop is easy to find on a dedicated industrial estate just off the A20 with a neighbouring retail park offering the usual range of familiar food and drink for those travelling a long distance to get there. On the subject of travelling it’s worth mentioning Operation Brock (a slight irony with that name) which has currently closed the M20 southbound. An easy alternative route from London is the M2/A2, in any case the M20 is still open northbound for the return leg. So don’t be put off by the current news reports of “gridlock” in Kent, it took me less than 90 minutes from the M25 even with Operation Brock and building Easter traffic.
I sat down with company owner Adrian and asked him where it all started. “About 20 years ago I was friends with a builders’ merchants who had started to sell fireworks too,” Adrian recalled. “Because I was quite knowledgeable about fireworks I used to make a lot of suggestions for new items they should stock. The owner John and I became friends and after a few years we decided to go into business together selling fireworks. As my name is Adrian and his is John we called it AJ Pyrotechnics.
“We remained at the builders’ merchants for 5-6 years during which time we had expanded to provide professional displays too. However professional shows are hard work and John decided due to declining health to leave that side of the business to me, before eventually asking me if I wanted to buy him out completely.”
“So I asked the wife and then the bank manager,” Adrian grinned, confirming that he definitely asked the wife first! “It wouldn’t have been possible without her support so yes she was more important than the bank,” he added, “and then the bank manager confirmed it was a viable business and could be financed. So I went it alone!”
“Initially I continued at the builders’ merchants but then moved to my own space which was a 40ft portacabin in Park Farm not far from where we are now. I then added another 20ft portacabin to use as a shop area. I did this for three years on my own,” he said, sighing, “looking back the first three years was an exercise in throwing money away!”
I asked Adrian what most of his money had gone into during those early days. “A huge cost was kitting out the portacabins so they could be used for the business and also a customer-facing shop. I didn’t make a lot of profit in those early days but it was clear there was a huge local interest in having a fireworks outlet for Guy Fawkes and New Year’s Eve which stocked the best quality products and this was the incentive to keep going.”
Finding a dedicated retail premises to move into was the next important step for the business as Adrian recalls: “I got wind of an industrial unit that was available and immediately saw its potential. It was right next to the A20 with great access and lots of room, really it was a no-brainer. However there was the small matter of getting a storage licence.”
When I interview firework retailers and the discussion turns to Trading Standards (who usually issue firework storage licences) I get a variety of responses ranging from abject misery to grown men crying. However Adrian was quite upbeat about the experience. “I approached Trading Standards about getting a storage licence for the unit and did this well before I signed the lease,” he said. “They said, almost jokingly I think, that an ideal store would be a shipping container inside the unit. This set about a chain of events which ended up with me inserting a container into the unit to use as the store.”
I didn’t quite believe this to start with as shipping containers are quite big and there was no sign of one in the unit. “The door is just around that corner,” Adrian said, pointing to the end of the shop area. Sure enough, hiding literally in plain sight were the two big black metal doors of a container.
I asked him how on earth he managed to get that into the unit. “It wasn’t easy,” he recalled, “we had to put it on roller skates of sorts and push it in. Then we built the walls and flooring around it. Trading Standards were happy which is the main thing. Having a fireworks store next to other units is something they take very seriously so we had to tick a lot of boxes.”
But what about when it gets really busy and the standard shop store (250kg NEC) isn’t enough? “Another great thing about this unit,” Adrian replied, “is that it’s within 30 minutes of our bigger licenced stores. So it’s very easy to do frequent shuttle-runs on busy days and keep our shop topped-up.”
With every new retailer visit I do in 2022 there is an increasing sense that Covid-related lockdowns are definitely a thing of the past. However retailers are still recovering to various degrees after the bizarre few years we have just had. As with many retailers, Adrian reports a mixed bag of difficulties followed by success.
“2020 was hard,” Adrian recalled, “we had to add a shopping trolley to our website so that people could order online and then collect from our shop. We were not allowed to sell fireworks directly, inside the shop. This resulted in organised chaos as we had to turn customers away from the door only to direct them either to phone in their order or do it online – then collect it immediately.”
“In contrast, 2021 was our best year for sales to date,” he added, “because organised displays were cancelled during lockdown a lot of families tried fireworks at home for the first time, enjoyed it so much and then came back again in 2021. So we had our usual seasonal sales with a lot of new custom on top.”
I asked Adrian about the brands he stocks. As an independent stockist he can pick and choose from the many available. “We’ve been with Celtic for years,” he replied, “and also Brothers who produce some excellent fireworks and have a good pricing structure. New kids on the block Vivid also make some stunning items with lovely colours and nice artwork. Other brands we like include Hallmark, Men Shun and we also stock Klasek as the firework buying public still like to make a noise and lines such as Rakety and Dum Bum are big sellers.”
“The best selling product line however is always the selection box,” he added, “to the point where we ran out in 2021! I had to go to Hallmark for emergency supplies and even those sold out in one weekend. Rockets are another big seller.”
I asked Adrian if he was tempted to import himself now that the business was expanding. “No, not really,” he replied. “With the state of global shipping at the moment I’m happy to stay out of it. Perhaps in the future it could be viable to do this with other companies but I’ve no current plans.”
Moving on from the retail side to his professional shows, I asked Adrian how he first got into professional fireworks. “When we were retailing fireworks an increasing number of customers asked us if we could provide professional shows for them,” he replied. “So we started to do this using fireworks from our retail range. Things grew from there and we set up a licenced store for professional gear which allowed us to expand into using Category 4.”
Category 4 fireworks are for professional use only and include items such as aerial shells for bigger effects than consumer fireworks can provide. I asked him whether his early shows were hand-fired, as many companies start this way and progress to remote firing. “No, we have always fired remotely using firing systems,” he replied. “We discussed this at the start and decided even just from a safety point of view that remote firing electrically was the way to go. Although our early systems, such as the Kingdom, were much more basic than what we have now.”
“Today we use Cobra,” he continued, “which in my opinion is a fantastic system. It’s by no means a beginner system but it has so many useful features and to date has been pretty much bullet proof, touch wood. You can synchronise everything to one tablet and the support is amazing. You can call Cobra at any time and Scott or one of his team will help you out. Future developments such as the show visualiser also look really promising.”
AJ Pyrotechnics are involved in all three of the UK’s main competition events: The MLE-organised Firework Champions, the national championships down in Plymouth, plus the Southport Musical Championships which they are competing in later this year.
“We’ve been in three Firework Champions events,” Adrian explained, “and are competing again this year in Eastnor. Though we’ve been drawn in the same competition as Illusion Fireworks so that will be a big challenge for us, Karl at Illusion does go all-out with his shows.
“We’re also helping out our friends in the trade, Solihull Fireworks, when they compete at Ragley. Though they did ask us to bring our PyroQuip so I’m not sure if they want us or the racking,” he said, grinning.
Having been to the national championships in Plymouth to feature some of the competitors on UKFR I’ve seen first hand how big the shows are and how pressured the setting up can be. I asked him what his own experiences were.
“We’ve been in two Plymouth competitions so far,” he explained, “2017 and 2021. Our first year, 2017 was very difficult. It was a huge learning curve and we weren’t at all ready for it, finishing outside the top three.
“We returned in 2021 and it was equally challenging. The weather was appalling and the wind was blowing our tarpaulin covers off and pyro was getting wet. The breakwater is very hard to set up on as you don’t have much space for each team.
“However our biggest problem was that we were still using wooden racks. There is a lot of time-consuming setting up with these to get everything secured and angled correctly. So much so that even by 4pm we still hadn’t finished setting up and had to abandon our candles, barrages and some shells.
“Even with a lot of items missing however we managed to secure joint third place with a show that many people were very complimentary about and left us wondering “What if?” everything could have been included as planned. A couple of other companies even wanted to buy the show off us to use themselves, but we said no as we plan to use it again.”
I asked Adrian what his biggest lesson has been after Plymouth 2021. “Racking!” he replied immediately. “I have now invested heavily into PyroQuip which is a modular metal racking system to replace our wooden racks. We’ve done a dry-run with a show the same size as Plymouth and we could set all the racking up within just an hour or so. It’s also a fraction of the weight compared to wood.”
As a point of interest with big shows being all high tech and fired using a script, I asked what it was like just before show time. “Terrifying,” he replied, “you put a lot of faith in your set up and firing system. Even after all the continuity checks are done it can be a nervous wait. However once you press the fire button and the show starts successfully, it’s a massive relief.”
Moving on to another competition now, which is Southport. The main difference compared to Plymouth is the inclusion of music. I jumped in feet-first here and asked him what was planned for their display, forgetting it was hugely competitive and therefore a closely guarded secret. “I could tell you, but I’d have to kill you,” was the gist of his reply.
“It’s difficult for me here,” he said, “in the sense that I am so excited by what we have planned I desperately want to tell everyone about it. But I can’t! All I can say is that we have some amazing sequences and set-pieces in store. And five cracking tunes.”
It seems that music choice is as closely guarded as pyro choice. I asked Adrian how much impact he thought music choice had on the final placing. “It’s very important to get the music right,” he said, “at the MLE Firework Champion shows for example where the audience votes, the music can be critical. The best tunes to use are well-known ones, it’s not necessarily a good thing to get too obscure with music. Crowd-pleasers and foot-stompers work best, I remember one year an MLE event was won by ABBA.
“Southport is a big show for us but with our big investment in PyroQuip and all that we have learned so far, I am confident we can give it a really good shot.”
I asked if there was a monetary prize for winning any of these competitions. “I think there is for Plymouth and Southport,” he replied, “but that’s not why teams enter. It’s an incredible experience win or lose and if you do get a placing it can open up commercial opportunities. We’ve been booked for shows on the basis of our third place display at Plymouth which clients have seen and been impressed with. Plus of course there is the bragging rights of being a winner!”
It was clear from Adrian’s back-story that money alone was not his main motivation when it came to fireworks. This was immediately obvious from his enthusiasm and knowledge about fireworks. He said as much himself when I pressed him about this: “Despite some of the massive shows we have fired I still get as much of a buzz from selling sparklers and selection boxes to the public, knowing they will go home and have a good display.”
With thanks to Adrian for his time.
Explore the AJ Pyrotechnics store through a 360 degree image and a video tour. Starting with the 360 degree image, click on the photo below to open this. You can then tap/click and drag to change your view!
You can also watch a short video which I filmed during my visit. Please Like and Subscribe – your support of my YouTube channel is appreciated:
Visit AJ’s website or give them a call to find out more: