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History, ethos and 2020 vision: An interview with directors Keith Cox and Chris Hotham

From early start-up days and home offices to multiple awards, a US base and a family of companies. It’s been a whirlwind of a journey since directors Keith Cox and Chris Hotham first brought the Bloc vision to life 20 years ago.

Throughout their journey innovation, creativity and pushing the boundaries has been at the heart of the company’s mindset. But what’s next? And how did Bloc Digital become the company it is today?

To celebrate 20 years of Bloc, we met up with Bloc Creative and directors Keith Cox and Chris Hotham to discuss history, ethos and 2020 vision.

First of all, what was the vision 20 years ago? Why did you decide to take the plunge and start your own companies?

Keith: “We wanted to shake things up a little. Challenge the idea that design and creative talent is only found in London or big cities. So in starting a Derby business we intended to disrupt the visualisation industry and showcase what the area has to offer.”

Chris: “I agree. I think starting our own company was just a natural next move for us. We wanted to ‘spread our wings’ and the time seemed right.

After starting out we soon realised that the way we dealt with our customers meant we were building lasting relationships and even to this day this has helped us thrive. We never take our relationships for granted and I hope our clients would agree that our honesty and commitment to customer satisfaction has never changed.”

So how has Bloc Digital evolved?

Keith: “Originally both myself and Chris worked for Rolls-Royce creating 3D engines, but around the same time in 2000 we both left the company to set up as sole traders.”

Chris: “In these very early days we were operating separately, I was trading under my name and Keith under the name of Bloc Graphics. When I won a large commission from a national bowling company we made the decision to join forces.”

Keith: “And it all went downhill from there…”

Chris: “Haha! Thankfully the opposite is what actually happened. Working together we started to land larger contracts, so we took another leap. We rented our own office space and then around 2005 we became a limited company.”

Keith: “This was when we really started to grow, both in terms of clients, size of contracts and capabilities. We recruited new staff and got involved with animation, AR and web apps. And then in 2011 were joined by Steve, our Director of Marketing, and we changed our name to Bloc Digital.”

Chris: “On to this year we formed the Bloc family… first venturing into architectural visualisation with Bloc Arch Viz, then marketing with Bloc Creative and finally came Bloc Media.”

Keith: “And the rest is history!”

What do you think makes Bloc the company it is today?

Keith: “To me one of the most important things about Bloc is our investment in research and development. It has been key to advancing our international reputation in VR & AR experiences and training.

In the last five years we’ve been developing strong research partnerships with the University of Derby, including three KTPs (Knowledge Transfer Partnerships). This focus on innovation is what ultimately led to our move to the University’s Enterprise Centre, which is currently going on in the background, as well as breakthroughs in improving production workflows.”

Chris: “I think another important aspect would be the Bloc team and the working environment we try to create. At the heart of our creativity is our people. That’s why we’re so focussed on seeking and nurturing talent, whether it’s through apprenticeships, graduate schemes or direct hires. We want to encourage fresh ideas and perspectives, and we believe a less ‘corporate’, more collaborative environment is central to unleashing this creativity too.”

Keith: “Another aspect would be the Derby business community. Derby was the obvious place to start our company due to our client base but relationships with local businesses and organisations like Marketing Derby, East Midlands Chamber and the university have been an important part of our journey.”

During your 20 years at Bloc, you must have completed thousands of projects. What would you say you are most proud of?

Chris: “Our most recent work is always our best, as we are constantly pushing the boundaries of our capabilities and are always challenging ourselves. But if I had to pick I would say, for me, a standout project was the ‘Split Engine VR training package’ we created for Rolls-Royce.

It was the first time VR was used to train engineers on how to maintain and repair Rolls-Royce engines, so it was a groundbreaking project not only for the company but for the whole industry. It’s exciting to see how new technology is allowing us to be innovative with how we learn and teach engineers.”

Keith: “For me it was our first large research project that has spanned over a few years and involved several KTP associates. This was our company’s first step in creating software packages as products. It has helped move the business from purely being a service provider to, for the first time, also including products.”

You've worked together for over 20 years - what are each other's best qualities?

Chris: “Keith and I are very much like ‘ying and yang’ but have never (yet!) had an argument and always somehow see eye to eye. I think the one big quality we have is ‘no fear.’ Never being afraid of what may come our way and always pushing forward with our positive mindsets.”

Keith: “I would agree with Chris, we are both very similar – always wanting to move forward and striving to try something new. We often joke that “the answer is yes…what the question?”

And finally, what are the next steps for Bloc Digital and the Bloc family?

Keith: “When we first set out our ‘vision’ was to provide our clients with a full digital journey – delivering everything from marketing and creative to operational and digital visualisations. And with the Bloc family we’ve been able to achieve that.

We recently announced our new US base so I would say the next step is to build on this international presence. We’re currently working to grow organically in the US mainly focussing on the engineering side of things.”

Chris: “We’re also working to build a range of products as Keith has already mentioned briefly. One product, the virtual event, we recently brought to life with General Dynamics. We’re focussed on helping companies adapt to this ‘new normal’ so products like these help us deliver important digital support, especially during the current situation.”

Keith: “This one is in the early stages so we’re keeping it under wraps (for now!) but we’re also looking at new markets. Some sectors are delivering great opportunities for us to move into in the future.”

20 years of Bloc and the start of a new era

20 years on and the Bloc vision is well and truly realised.

Bloc Digital are poised to offer industrial clients with over 20 years of tacit knowledge and award-winning solutions. Bloc Media are bringing impactful digital content to public-facing clients, Bloc Arch Viz are delivering property sector expertise and Bloc Creative are providing brand design, marketing support, and more.

Welcoming nearly 50 people to the organisation and expanding our reach and capabilities, the last five years have seen the Bloc brand grow in size and strength. As we start the new era at our new Enterprise Centre head office we can’t wait to see what lies ahead.