The Sound of Silence

“Come on, you too!” demanded the company nurse ” You have to set an example; you need to have your hearing tested like everyone else. ”  Protesting that in my role as MD I had never spent excessive amounts of time on the factory floor permitted me no escape; I was frog marched off for the test.  “You’ve got a bit of a problem,” was her response to the test results, “You’ll need to have your hearing looked into properly.”

Back in my office I sat pondering this situation. The news that I had been diagnosed with a hearing loss was indeed something of a shock. I wasn’t deaf, I protested to myself. I could hold normal conversations, listen to music and the radio. Then, a comment made a couple of months ago by one of my international colleagues came back to me, “You know that you come across as very aggressive at our management meetings.”

The context of this comment had related to what appeared to have been a habit of mine at our European management meetings.  These multi-day meetings usually took place in a huge hotel conference room with 20 or so executives seated in a horseshoe pattern with the particular country CEO, whose turn it was to present his results, at the open end talking with the aid of an overhead projector.  Ranged across the closed end of the horseshoe were the President and his team who would freely interrupt to fire off question after question. I hadn’t considered previously why I responded to many of the questions to me by walking the length of the horseshoe and then standing over whoever had asked the question. I could see how aggressive this behaviour might have appeared but then the initial questioning was often aggressive and I felt that I was merely standing my ground.

As I pondered the nurse’s unwelcome news I realised that the underlying reason for my ‘aggressive’ behaviour was that I was obviously struggling to hear questions from the other end of what were always very large rooms. Thinking further back, I knew I had previously had acute hearing. Working in the audio industry years before I could recall playing around in the lab with a signal generator with colleagues and finding that my hearing extended way beyond anyone else’s. As a consequence, many a night’s sleep when travelling had been ruined by some faint sound that kept me awake.

Referred to an ENT consultant shortly afterwards, I was tested once again and the results confirmed the findings of our company nurse. I was then taken through a complete medical history questionnaire. After responding to one question relating to drugs administered to treat Pulmonary Tuberculosis as a teenager, he sat back and roared

“Classic, delayed reaction! Still, you’d rather be deaf than dead, wouldn’t you?”

It seemed that the key drug (streptomycin) I had been injected for months had the known side effect of ototoxicity  leading to sensorineural hearing loss. I learnt that there was no known treatment and it was likely to worsen over time.

“You’d better look into a hearing aid.” Was the parting comment.

Shortly afterwards, at the age of 41, I received a small behind the ear aid for my right ear. This improved matters but I felt embarrassed wearing it. Crazy as it might seem, I would remove it before important meetings and would struggle as before to hear clearly what was being said and asked.

As predicted after a year or so I was back at my local audiology clinic and being prescribed an aid for my left ear.  Within a couple of years I was struggling to hear conversations clearly and returned to the clinic.  This time larger and more powerful aids were prescribed. These seemed to restore most of my hearing loss but the aids were large and cumbersome and, although they helped, I hated them. I hated that I had to wear the proof of my disability on display; it fought with my self-image.  But slowly I gave in and wore them every waking moment (except when swimming!) as my hearing deteriorated with every passing year.  I was managing (just) and hating the aids and their deficiencies more with every passing day.

The aids I was being prescribed at the time were old, analogue technology and very unsophisticated.  Chatting one day to the owner of a local business I had got to know quite well, he asked me how I was getting on with my aids.  Out poured all my frustrations.

“Let me give you the details of my audiologist.” Offered Ray who went on to describe in detail his similar experiences and joy at his new, digital aids.

“They’re expensive, mind,” Ray went on in his broad Yorkshire dialect “but worth every penny and more.”  From a Yorkshire man this was praise indeed.

So, I duly made the contact and, following further tests, was sitting some weeks later waiting for my new aids to be fitted and tested. These new aids were no longer behind the ear but were ‘completely in canal’ (CIC) fitting deep and snug into my ears.  With the aids in place a transfer of the programming took place and they were ready for use.

“Can you hear me now?” Enquired Colin, the elderly owner of the long established business. I was almost rendered speechless with amazement. Not only could I hear him clearly but could easy detect subtle nuances in his voice I hadn’t been aware of previously.  Even when Colin continued to speak as he moved behind me and then completely out of the room and down the corridor I could easy understand every word he spoke.

A short while later as I walked down the road to where my car was parked I was almost overwhelmed with the cacophony I noise I could hear. I couldn’t help grinning from the sheer pleasure of being able to hear clearly again and must have appeared somewhat idiotic to passers by.  Starting up my relatively new car at which I had previously marvelled at its near silence, I now discovered I could hear all manner of noises from under the bonnet! Back home I stood and listened to the noises of the car quietly cooling down whilst birds I had forgotten sang in the trees. Bliss!

My life had improved immeasurably, business meetings became easier and the telephone, television and radio less of a challenge. I was now no longer glued to watching people’s lips in an effort to supplement failing hearing.

Nevertheless, a year later I was once more conscious that my hearing had declined further. Back in Colin’s consulting rooms he tested me once more, showed me the frequencies where my hearing had declined again then made adjustments to the programming. I was almost as good as new again.

That was 15 years ago and a lot has happened in that time. My hearing continued to deteriorate as nerve endings died. Technology continued to improve and every two to three years I changed to the latest technology which would produce some improvement once more. This was proving to be an extremely expensive process (a pair of new aids is equivalent to a cheap new car) but without these continuing improvements I would simply not have been able to continue working in what were the very demanding roles I had.

Early on when the Pound was riding high against the European currencies (and then the Euro) I investigated prices in Germany and Scandinavia and seriously considered a trip abroad to purchase new aids. However, I was beginning to realise that what I was paying for was not just the aids but the continuing expert advice and skills of the audiologist and the relationship we had. It was becoming clear to me that yes, you can test hearing and then programme the aids to fill the shortfall across a wide range of frequencies. However, it seems that the brain doesn’t always agree with the analysis and implementation and throws up problems. It is then necessary to be able to articulate precisely what the problem is, the circumstances in which it is apparent and where in the frequency range it is occurring. All this takes time and skill on the part of the audiologist. And time is money.  It was this time and expertise that the NHS seemed unable to provide.

As time has passed, technology has continued to improve but my hearing loss in the mid~high frequencies has now moved into the range deemed ‘profound’. My old audiologist, Colin, decided that the demands of technology were becoming beyond what he wished to keep up with and so sold up. My luck is that Kevan who has bought the business is a technical genius, has great depth and breadth of knowledge of everything on the market and infinite patience. With Kevan’s help I have been able to test most of the major aids on the market. I have become, as a result and of necessity, somewhat of a connoisseur of hearing aids – a ‘petrolhead’ of hearing aids. I can’t identify a winner but at the moment my favourite and the manufacturer of my current aids is the Danish company Widex who produce a smooth and very natural sound.

The greatest problem with losing high frequencies is that one loses the ability to hear or distinguish between certain consonants – the sounds of F, S, H & T going first, soon joined by K and then S, C and H. The situation becomes one of being able to hear someone speaking but being largely incapable of deciphering what it is they are saying e.g. did they say sit, hit, fit or tit? One seeks to use context to provide the answer. However, once the brain has attempted to sort through the possibilities of each possibility, the speaker is two or three sentences further on each of which has raised fresh uncertainties. In one to one situations watching the speaker’s lips can provide vital clues. In many situations this is simply not possible. Female and children’s voices are particularly difficult as they are higher pitched.

The other critical problem is that of hearing a voice within a noisy environment. With normal hearing we seem to be able to focus upon a particular sound (or voice) in much the same way as our eyes can focus (and re-focus rapidly) upon objects far and near and anywhere in-between. Even with glasses we retain this ability. But once an element of technology has been placed between the outside world and our ear drum the ability to focus seems to be lost. Turning up the volume offers no solution and even makes matters worse.

Most manufacturers now offer programmes that transpose higher frequencies down into the wearer’s audible range. I find that this only works (for me) to a very limited extent. Of more use is a programme that greatly reduces background noise allowing one to concentrate on what, for instance, a partner is saying in a crowded restaurant. However, once more, I find this only offers a partial solution.

Technology has begun now to offer some real solutions. For example I now have a device that plugs into the television and transmits the broadcast sound (via a receiver device worn around the neck) directly into my aids. I can also switch off all ambient noise so that this is no distraction and my wife can listen at the volume she chooses. The only problem is that I only realise she is trying to communicate with me when her slipper hits me in the head!

Telephones remain a real challenge but here there are solutions. The first is simply to rely on the loudspeaker function on the handset and this can be supplemented by switching to a programme that boosts speech frequencies. This works not too badly when one is in a quiet environment but, again, not in noisy surroundings. However, I now have a device that allows my mobile phone to send the signal directly to both aids so I can hear the maximum content in both ears. Supplementing this again is the ability to eliminate all ambient sounds with one button.  I can also listen to music, streamed by Bluetooth directly to my aids. These advances are not always foolproof in operation but are a big step forward.

In a recent experiment (of sorts) sitting with a friend in a coffee shop that had become extremely noisy, I asked him to phone me. Using my Bluetooth device I was able to shut out all ambient sound and hear his voice clearly in both ears. This offered no solution for my friend, however, and we must have appeared an odd pair! One manufacturer does offer the possibility of a clip-on battery microphone that the hearing impaired can ask a friend to clip to their lapel. This may offer a limited solution but I would have to change my complete setup and might well lose certain other advantages that Widex offer me now.

Currently I’m in the situation where sounds above a certain frequency have gone forever and no technology can stimulate the dead nerves cells. Increasing the volume of these frequencies merely produces painful distortion in neighbouring frequencies. As nerve cells continue to die off my hearing will worsen. I have read that stem cell technology has reactivated hearing in rats and promises the possibility of a solution for humans at some stage but I have no idea if this is a real possibility nor if it would work for me (or even if I could afford it).

My life has been one of facing up to and overcoming challenges, something I have always learnt from even it not all of the challenges were sought or relished. I am aware that my previous, very extrovert behaviour has changed. Indulging in lively repartee is beyond me now as I struggle to work out the context of a word misunderstood three sentences ago. I hate answering the phone knowing that unless it’s someone I know well, I’m highly unlikely to be able to tune into their voice. I hate the trend that has caused companies to replace postal and email addresses with a call centre.

I’m now back with behind the ear aids once more but these are barely visible. However, in one way, I wish that they were more visible, vanity overtaken by practicality. Deafness is an invisible disability and anyone who doesn’t have this problem simply doesn’t understand what it means to the suffer. I’ve been thinking of having some badges made saying ‘Deaf but not stupid’. I’m fortunate that my time in the workplace has come to an end. But deafness afflicts one in six of the UK population with 3.7 million suffers aged between 16 & 64. These suffers in work have a sometimes terrible burden to bear. And the disco & iPod generation may unfortunately find that there has been a terrible price to pay for their musical & social enjoyment.

So now I shun large gatherings that I would once have sought out. I avoid using the phone unless it’s to someone I know well. I thank technology instead for providing Twitter where I can still meet people and enjoy a lively exchange of views.  It’s good, but it can’t replace face to face social and business interaction.

When I sold up and retired nearly four years ago I decided (and promised my wife) that I wouldn’t work again. After the novelty of having nothing to do wore off, I started voluntary work with a couple of schemes helping students and young people. I would now like to increase this work (as my brain hasn’t retired at the same pace as the rest of me) but I am finding it extremely difficulty to cope with the hearing challenges presented by a room full of students. Ideally, I would wish to increase the enterprise work with students and resume non-executive and mentoring work. But…

I well remember the days, many years ago, when I had hearing like a bat and could make out every instrument in an orchestra. But I also remember the sleepless nights because someone in the next hotel room was snoring loudly.

So, life may not be perfect now….but at least I have an ‘off’ button and can enjoy the sound of silence whenever I want.

The Business of Life – Chapter 44 Postscript II finding that elusive balance

 There are few phrases that have crept into the lexicon of life in the 21st Century that annoy me more than ‘Work-Life Balance’.  I believe it to be simply inane, socialist dogma to imply that work is somehow anything other than an integral component of a healthy life.  It would be equally inane to refer to a ‘Home-Life Balance’.  Work gives us an identity that for the majority of us defines what we do.  Yes, I also subscribe to the concept of multiple identities; after all I am also amongst other things a husband, a father, a cyclist, a volunteer mentor and an aspiring writer.  But when I worked, it was my work role that provided the answer to the invariable question at parties, “What do you do?”

Finding the elusive balance

The phrase and the concept that makes sense is ‘Whole-Life Balance’, which at least recognises there are multiple aspects of our life in which we seek or should attempt an equitable balance.  Nevertheless, this state of balance is an elusive and frequently ephemeral state to achieve and there is little room for compromise if you really wish to succeed.  There are too many variables, too many uncontrollable factors that do not cease to be demanding and which conspire to upset this delicate state of equilibrium.  Yes, I learnt to fight back against the petty aspects of work pressure when I could but competition does not sleep and creditors, the Government and the economy certainly don’t.

It’s strange that we can accept that the great sportsmen and women, the politicians and the artists and stars we admire so much make massive sacrifices to succeed in their chosen careers.  But do we ask, do we require, do we care if they strive to achieve this so-called balance in their lives?  How many Olympic medal winners do we hear being chided for not spending more time at home?  And yet we make so little allowance for those in everyday life when they strive to succeed in their chosen careers.  It’s true that the family can enjoy the lifestyle that comes with the salary the breadwinner brings home.  But is he or she not worthy of the same respect as our sporting heroes when they make the necessary sacrifices to succeed?

 I am a happy and a satisfied third-ager precisely because I have achieved a state of self actualisation.  Apart from an ever growing bunch of people doing their best to destroy this wonderful world we live in, I am genuinely happy with my life.  I could claim that the end justified the means.  Nevertheless, I certainly cannot claim it was either easy to achieve this state or to strike that elusive state of balance for more than a matter of weeks at a time.  Nor can I claim that it must have been easy for my family (but I’ll return to that shortly).  To achieve one big goal in life requires dedication, commitment and the subordination of all other roles and goals.

That I was never a successful sportsman may be down to a combination of my physique (now was that nature or nurture..?) and my lack of early exposure to the joys of ball games.  But I was certainly as driven as many a sportsperson.  That drive came as much from a fear of failure as it did a need to achieve.  When I was fired from Akai I was, one could say, a victim of my character.  It was an intense sense of failure that overcame me and then drove me on to succeed.  But it was the same set of behavioural preferences that had driven me to that situation in the first place.

For those initial twenty years I had one success after another.  I really believed that I had got the magic formula.  Not only had I believed that being very good at what I did would be enough to maintain my career momentum, I had always used my ability to present my case logically and rationally (but rather like a battering ram).  The problem was that I had no political skills to bring to bear and I wore my negotiating position on my sleeve.  When you’re being confronted with the choice of being burnt or scalded neither is easily preferable.  If the choice is actually being burnt today and scalded tomorrow, then my tendency was to enter the fight straight away.  With the benefit of hindsight, I could never have won the battle at Akai because I was working for a company that ultimately had to fail because it simply didn’t have the resources to succeed.

However, ten years later I was still making some of the same mistakes when I realised that the company I worked for did not have the strategy to succeed in reaching its stated goal.  I was right in my view (as history has again proved) but I still lacked the political skills either to convince others or to survive.  Anyway, by this time I was probably seen as a threat and was fighting a whole layer of senior management wedded to preserving a status quo that was doomed.  Should I have worked on my political skills instead of the full frontal, bare-knuckle approach?  I don’t believe so for two reasons.  The first is that being Machiavellian is beyond my natural style of behaviour, it’s simply not within my skill set.  The other reason was that having seen the future and the people my future would depend upon, I just didn’t like it or them.

It took just a couple of years more to realise that corporate life was not offering me the chance to play to my particular skill set.  If you are in the wrong company, in the wrong industry, with skills that are not recognised then life is going to be really tough.  More so if you are the one telling the emperor that he has forgotten his clothes.  I really think that in such circumstances you should think about doing your own thing – building or buying your own train set.  The constant stresses and strains of having to do battle within your own company, in addition to the real work of satisfying the market and battling competition and the economy, are debilitating.  They were for me and they were for my family.

If fear of failure drove me on, it never soured my enjoyment of the here and now and it never stopped me taking what some might call unacceptable risks.  Freed of the political constraints and frustrations of corporate life, I decided to take the king’s shilling of venture capital.  To do so meant investing my life’s savings alongside the millions from a VC and the banks.  It didn’t worry me as I felt I was really in control for the first time and dependent upon my own judgement.  I made a rule however that I would never give a personal guarantee to a bank.  The essence of the concept of limited liability is destroyed by providing some faceless, business-illiterate bankers with the ability to claw back your home if it all goes wrong.  If my life savings weren’t enough risk money, then they weren’t for me.  And I never had to give that guarantee.  In that sense I wasn’t prepared to jeopardise the balance between my aspirations and the roof over my family’s head.  In the event, two out of three ventures were successes and that was just fine.

When my dear late wife became pregnant with our daughter we agreed that she would put her career as a nurse on hold and become a full time mother.  It was her suggestion it and I thought it natural to agree.  Just as I thought it natural that I should do whatever it took to replace the money she had been earning.  It took a great deal of hard work and a toll on my health but I can’t recall that she ever complained that I had the balance wrong.  And when the time came and she wanted to return to her career, I supported that decision.  My daughter and my son might feel that I wasn’t around enough or that I wasn’t there when they needed me.  I don’t know.  A Dutch colleague once said to me that in Holland they have a saying that for the first seven years the child belongs to the mother, for the second to the father and for the next seven years for both together.  I do know that I wasn’t around as much as I might have been for my seven years and sadly, Jean wasn’t permitted to share the next and subsequent phases with me.

I now realise that for many years I was someone who made decisions solely on the basis of facts, logic, my reading of the future and the implications for my course of action.  This approach certainly gave me the advantage of having an uncluttered and largely rational approach.  Business decisions were made never pausing to consider others’ feelings and emotions but focussing on what was required to achieve the result.  It came as little surprise when in a group activity during a course in the US, I was described by colleagues as ‘remote and unreadable at times’.  My response at the time was to see this as something of an accolade.  Subsequently, I made efforts to try to include the human aspects in my decision making but most times defaulted to my natural style.

However, following the appallingly early death of Jean, something changed in me.  I cried for the first time at sad films and passages in books and even music could have the same effect.  What Myers Briggs call the ‘shadow side’ of my personality, the undeveloped natural senses, were seeing the light of day for the first time.  I don’t believe that I lost my natural, behavioural preferences but now make a real effort to understand the feelings and perspectives of others.  I would find it hard to describe a business situation where I would make a decision based solely on feelings and emotions.  However, seeking out and being aware of the human reactions and implications of a course of action has made me a more balanced leader.

My career was extremely stressful at times but on balance (that wonderful word again) I absolutely enjoyed it and cannot imagine what else I might have done.  I can only hope that Victoria and Alex have as much fun and gain as much satisfaction and self-actualisation from their lives as I have done.

Do I have regrets?  Or remorse?  I have often pondered what I consider to have been a grave error of judgement (spelt out in Chapter 22) when I claimed to have been aware of a major problem but when in reality I had been blissfully ignorant.  My misjudgement stemmed from a desire to conceal that I had been unaware of something (a stock loss) that I should have known about (even though it had been concealed from me).  If I had claimed the truth I might have come out on top for the subsequent battle for a bigger UK role.  However, had this happened, I would certainly have not been moved to Switzerland a few months later.  I cannot speculate if my career would have been better but I know that I would have missed the pan-European role and invaluable (but painful) experiences in Geneva plus the trigger to pitch for venture capital.

Certainly I made other mistakes for which I feel remorse and can still vividly bring to mind situations where my inability to see consequences from another’s point of view caused pain.  These were not situations where I stood to achieve gain from another’s loss but just where my lack of an ability at the time to see the world through others’ eyes made me thoughtless and careless in my attitudes towards others.

For many years I regretted (and felt less of myself as a result of) my lack of a university degree.  What I might have studied I really cannot speculate, although I was being pushed towards art.  I am sure that this would have been a mistake as I probably wouldn’t have been ready for the rigours of studying at university in my late teens and it could so easily have been a wasted experience.  Instead I had the pleasure of continuing to learn throughout life.  I am not an expert in any field (to my regret at times) but a mercurial mind has provided me with the inclination to delve into many and varied subjects.

I now consider that I was fortunate I missed out on university.  This might sound strange but it ensured that I was always focussed on learning whatever I needed to progress.  There were times when I thought I knew it all but the mistakes I made always spurred me on afresh with the learning.  Throughout my career I often found myself surrounded by people who seemed to have left the process of learning behind when they passed through the gates of their university for the last time.  Overtaking these people was therefore never too much of a problem.  So, even with the best degree (or two) there is always so much more to learn (and no more so than in business).

So, for all of you who have followed my writing to this point, I wish you health, happiness and all the satisfaction in your careers that I have had from my own.

I have the feeling that life has a few more challenges left in store.

The Business of Life Chapter 43 – Postscript (part 1)

It’s been almost two years since I sold up and retired.  The transition from hectic business life to retirement has taken more adjustment than I could have envisaged.  I hadn’t ever spent any real time imagining what life would be like when business ceased but the reality has taken me somewhat by surprise.

The Business of Life - Postscript (1) The euphoria lasted some weeks – a month or so.  I saw more of family and friends and that was very satisfying.  And a few health problems intervened to take and shine off things.  But very soon I started to get that old, nagging sensation that I needed a challenge.  I started a number of new activities before the world of blogging began to draw me in.  I had always enjoyed writing, even starting the great novel about twenty years ago (it still languishes unfinished enjoying a quiet life on a succession of hard drives).  The one thing I had intended when I did stop work was that I would write and had promised myself I would finish the novel.

 However, it was business thoughts and anecdotes that got me started with ‘The Retrospective Entrepreneur’ blog and it wasn’t long before I realised that I had the material for the book I wanted to write.  It was researching the life and times of my paternal grandfather that made me realise that there was a side to my life that had remained largely unknown to my family and certainly would to my granddaughters.  So, I started to write ‘The Business of Life’ and that has enabled at least many of the facts to be recorded along with all those anecdotes.  But now the tale has been concluded, I have realised that it still shines a light only on a part of my business life.

 Looking back I can see that what I have written leaves many aspect of the real me unrevealed.  Trying to strike a balance between the business and the personal aspects in a way that would satisfy all possible readers was a worthy enough aim.  But what was it that really drove me on?  What emotions and beliefs underpinned the decisions I made?  Did I really consider the consequences that the choices I made would have on my family?  Are there things I could or should have done differently?  And yes, are there regrets?

 So now I’m going to take another look back to try and answer these and other questions.

The issue of nature versus nurture has occupied psychologists and sociologists and a great many others for many years.  As the continued unravelling of the secrets of DNA accelerates and a backlash against politically correct thinking occurs, I expect we may find a definitive answer in my lifetime.  But what of myself?  Did the factors that drove me on and enabled me to succeed come from my genes or from my environment?  And does it matter?

The children of first generation Irish-Italian immigrant families, my elder sister and I had few advantages.  Our father was a cabinet maker and mum was a seamstress and we lived in what today would be viewed as absolute poverty.  But we both passed the 11 Plus and both went to grammar school, something comparatively rare in our neighbourhood.  Our families comprised solely of manual workers with the exception of an uncle who did well enough as a minor civil servant and a cousin who rose to run a major insurance company.  However, these were relatives I saw but rarely, therefore I don’t believe anything rubbed off there.  So if my sister and I had the odd extra grey cell or used what we had a little more efficiently, it might well have been something nature caused to trickle down through the gene pool.

 Apart from my father ensuring I was encouraged to discover for myself the world that books revealed, there was another aspect of my upbringing that must have had an effect upon me.  In our neighbourhood (like so many others at the time) kids played out in the streets, communal gardens and little parks at all hours.  But not my sister and I.  My parents resolutely refused to let us join in informing us that we were “better than that lot.”  Finally, at age 13 I had become big enough and determined enough that they couldn’t control me any longer and I took my place in the local pack.  After an early event that could so easily have brought me onto the wrong side of the law, I learnt to pick my new friends with more care.

 Only one friend from my neighbourhood remained as I entered my twenties.  It wasn’t a conscious decision, there just wasn’t a sufficient range of common interests to bind us together and so we drifted apart.  One effect of my enforced solitude I am (and certainly was at the time) acutely aware of was a lack of social skills.  At least I now know that to be the case.  At the time I was always the quiet outsider who never initiated a conversation or any activity.  I remember railing late into the night to my sister, on more than one occasion that I hated small talk and only wished to discuss things that really mattered.  I can only assume that the many years of pre-teenage solitude robbed me of the chance to acquire some form of social skill.

 Over the next few years my interests diverged from the local lads as I discovered I had no interest in football (one visit to watch Millwall play saw to that) or cricket and rugby and, instead, joined a weight training club and developed a taste for jazz, blues, folk and classical music.  When I entered the world of work, aged fifteen, the ties with my erstwhile friends fell away (with one exception, Mike, until his untimely early death).

I hated authority with an intensity that has stayed with me to the present day.  This was not helped by the beating regime at my school.  I was never that distressed by the regular canings I received from the sadist that passed for our headmaster (Brother Peter – a nice religious man) as I probably deserved them.  But when I was beaten for fighting back against the school bully, that did it for me and authority.  Even though my tormentor was absolved of wrongdoing, I did have the satisfaction of knowing that he had been carted off to hospital to have his face stitched up.  No-one at school tried pushing me around after that.

When I turned my back on education and started work I had no clear ambition.  Although reading had given me many insights into the world at large, I had no knowledge of where I might go in terms of career in order to succeed.  The majority of my neighbourhood pals had followed fathers and uncles into union dominated areas such as the ‘print’ (don’t believe for one minute that nepotism and patronage is the preserve of the middle and upper classes).  All I knew, with a burning intensity, was that I wanted to go far enough up the ladder that I could never fall all the way back to where I had started.

By the time I entered the workforce I was determined to learn as fast as I could what it was that would cause me to progress.  Anything or anyone who merely wanted to plod along or play the system, I shunned.  I sought role models I could respect and I learnt from them as fast as I could and, in turn, I supported them to the extent of my abilities.  Years later when I was reviewing my CV (following my final departure from corporate life) I made an interesting discovery.  My greatest successes had come in positions where I had worked for a person I had respected and enjoyed working and constantly going the extra mile for.  All of what I consider my failures came in roles where I reported to someone who proved incapable of engendering respect in me.

 I never enjoyed (and therefore shunned) team sports.  I think that this was another result of my enforced exclusion from the endless impromptu football and cricket matches played in my neighbourhood.  Sport was never played at my junior school and by the time I entered grammar school I simply had no skills or knowledge to demonstrate.  However, I have always been ultra competitive and was always quick to respond to a challenge or a dare (inevitably bringing me into yet another brush with authority).

 For many years  I thought myself to be an introverted loner (probably as a result of my enforced childhood solitude) .  Certainly I have never been afraid to be my own man, frequently taking the lonely path and a book always seemed a reasonable companion.  However, it wasn’t until many years later when undergoing training for the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) qualification that I found that I corresponded quite clearly to the preference of extroverted behaviour.  For those who are interested my type is ENTJ (Extraverted Intuition with Introverted Feeling).

 Isabel Briggs Myers defined the ENTJ type as “Natural leaders and organisation builders.  They conceptualise and theorise readily and translate possibilities into plans to achieve short-term and long-term objectives.” She goes on to describe them as likely to be: “analytical, logical and objectively critical; decisive, clear and assertive; conceptual and innovative theorisers and planners.”  There are downsides to this type, which include, “Becoming overly impersonal and critical; being intrusive and domineering; and being abrasive and verbally aggressive.”  I largely recognised myself from this description.

Are leaders born or created?  I really don’t know the answer to that question but I do believe that everyone can learn to improve how they lead and that differing situations bring a requirement for different types of leader.  I had no influences of leadership that I am aware of in my early years but I was put in charge of a patrol in the Scouts aged twelve and then became troop leader at fourteen.  Having been given my first business to run at age twenty-nine, I suppose I must have shown some degree of leadership potential.  So what was my leadership style?

 Those who worked for me are best equipped to answer that question and I am certain that there are as many that saw the negative aspects as there are those who can recount the positive side of my leadership.  I have always believed in delegation but an interesting insight into this aspect came from Vic Vroom (a Professor of Psychology at Yale).  Following analysis he described me to be a clear believer in delegation, except in two circumstances; where time was of the essence and where I did not trust subordinates to make the right decision.  I can certainly identify with this description.  When I had a good, well trained team (as I did at Sylvania UK) I trusted them implicitly to make the right decisions.  When faced with a failing business and a team that sadly was lacking both experience and ability (as I found when appointed to turnaround Selmar), my style had to be far more decisive and authoritarian.

I find it sad that many senior politicians claim that they know they are doing ‘the right thing’ (usually when they are incapable of providing a logical explanation for their actions).  In business we have company law and legislation to guide us through many of the difficult situations we may face.  Despite my dislike for authority, when I fully understand the logic behind the regulations, I find it easy to do the ‘right thing’.  When I was called upon to make some of the hardest decisions (such as firing a friend and colleague and calling in the administrators) I knew that my actions were both legally correct and morally defensible.  Not taking these actions would have exposed creditors, other shareholders and employees to far greater risks.

With a life long thirst for learning I have always been interested in why people differ in their need and preference for learning.  A few years ago I came across the Learning Styles concept, pioneered by Peter Honey.  Taking the questionnaire I found my learning style preferences to be strongly for Theory and Activism (with lower scores for Reflector and Pragmatist).  This would explain my thirst for acquiring theory and a rush to put it into practice where relevant.  However, it also explains why I suffered from leaving the impression at so many interviews of ‘being all theory’ (despite my attempts to explain how I went on to successfully put theory into practice).

 Certainly, I have always tended to describe myself when asked, as being analytical and logical and I count myself fortunate in having had ample opportunity in my career to apply these behavioural traits.  And, looking back, I am fortunate to have succeeded more than I failed in my business endeavours.  It has also been possible to see how the negative aspects of my behaviour (and yes, every strength has a potential downside) have caused pain to others around me.  Not least of these have been those I loved the most.

 In the next part of this retrospective I will try to examine the emotional issues that I faced in tackling some of the problems I had to deal with and the consequences these had on those around me.

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The Business of Life Chapter 42 – where the road ends

“You’re a very lucky man.” my cardiologist told me as I tried to get my breathing under control following a treadmill stress test that had nearly collapsed me but produced no pain.  “You appear to have suffered no lasting damage.”  “What can I safely do in terms of exercise in future?” I asked hesitantly.  “Anything you want – anything someone who has never had a heart attack can do.”  The relief flowed over me.  He went on to inform me that I was already fitter than the vast majority of police he tested for their medical at age 40.  Six months after my heart attack I wasn’t sure if I should be elated or depressed.Where the road ends

“A poor choice of parents!” was his response when I enquired why I had suffered a heart attack as a fit man who ate healthily, wasn’t overweight, had never smoked, drank in moderation and whose cholesterol level was only average.  My father had had his first heart attack at age forty one and, despite suffering many more, had gone on to die aged seventy four.  He was very fortunate that we lived within a few miles of three of London’s major teaching hospitals.

Following four days in intensive care some months earlier, I had been discharged into the care of my GP and a Cardiac Rehabilitation Nurse.  I include my GP but he transpired to be conspicuous by his absence, something that was probably wise.  During the previous year I had ‘presented’ (as the medical profession love to refer to it – such an impersonal term) several times with acute arrhythmia only to be constantly informed that it was nothing to worry about.  It has since been confirmed that the arrhythmia was certainly a precursor to my subsequent heart attack.

My euphoria at still being alive stayed with me for a long time following my experience.  But the initial feelings of normality faded rapidly upon returning home.  For the first few weeks I realised I was as weak as the proverbial kitten.  Even a lengthy conversation exhausted me and I would take two or three naps during each day.  I consider myself extremely fortunate to live in one of the parts of the country where the NHS offer a cardiac rehabilitation programme.  I received home visits from my nurse giving detailed advice on diet and what I should and definitely shouldn’t do in the early days including guidance on the exercise I was expected to take each day.

Importantly, after six weeks I started with an exercise & guidance programme designed specifically for post heart attack patients.  Looking back the exercises we did seemed more like a programme for geriatrics but they were challenging enough (terrifying at first) and each day we were pushed a little further and a little harder.  My sense of competitiveness had returned and my new friend and fellow sufferer Andy and I subconsciously ensured we pushed ourselves harder each session.  Each day I walked and each week covered many miles across the moors around our home.  I felt good and eight weeks after my attack drove the 100 miles up to Newcastle to start work once more.

 I had read so many stories of people whose lives had been dramatically changed as a result of an acute and life-threatening illness.  But having been guilty of no life threatening behaviour that required immediate changes to my lifestyle, I felt that I didn’t need to make any great adjustments.  I had changed, however, inside.  I felt calmer and more knowledgeable.  I had been through hell for most of one day and been lucky enough to have survived.  I have always believed that all experience is a potential lesson for learning, so I’ve notched up one more.  Looking back the really curious aspect of that day was that I was never frightened.  I can’t say why, but it just didn’t occur to me to think of death or disability.  I just had faith that if I could just hold on, the medical profession would make me better.  It wasn’t religious faith, just a form of confidence I think.

So, no major adjustments were made to my life (despite the concerns of my wonderful family) and I went back to doing what I had done for so many years and continued to enjoy it.  Despite the continued frustrations!

 Roger and I knew that we had to replace him if we were ever to sell the Metal Spinners business.  However, over a five to six year period we went through three potential replacements.  All were very experienced and qualified engineers and senior executives.  I had drawn up very precise specifications, employed experienced head-hunters, exhaustively interviewed candidates and tested the lot and then took the required references.  All failed in a year or less.

 Despite years of experience, extensive qualifications in psychometric assessment and a rigorous interview technique I must admit that recruitment (at all levels) is still a hit and miss affair.  All of these executives (and more over the years) professed a desire to join a medium sized concern where they could make a difference.  However, one progressively took to hiding in his office, trying hard not be become involved in anything that might be threatening.  The next certainly got involved in everything that moved but suffered from terminally bad judgement.  And the third?  Well he was up to the job but ended up playing politics so I would have to question his judgement as well.  I have come to the conclusion that many executives get to their ultimate level in large corporations on the back of their teams.  Put them into a smaller organisation and they simply can’t adjust and can’t perform.

 Despite these problems the business prospered and our debt from buying out 3i was eliminated.  Without a replacement for Roger we decided to put off any attempt to sell the business and concentrate on improving profitability still further.

With the winding down of some of my business activities by 2009, I began to wonder what academic learning would feel like.  Having left school at fifteen and never having attended university, there had always been a feeling of unfinished business lurking in the back of my mind.  I knew from my business education in the USA that I could more than hold my own when it came to absorbing and applying knowledge.  Psychometrics had long been an area of interest (and application) and I had logged up numerous qualifications.  “Why not take a psychology degree?” I thought.  I enrolled with the Open University and was soon heavily engrossed with the course and receiving grades that satisfied me.  However, events were soon to conspire against (or at least interrupt my new found studies).

“We’ve just received a letter I think you’ll be interested in,” Roger said dryly in a phone call one Friday afternoon in late August the following year, “I’ll email you a scan of the covering letter but it’s actually a large parcel of information.”  A few minutes later I was reading a very serious communication from the London office of the international agents of a large USA corporation.  It was an expression of interest in buying our business.  Approaches from prospective purchasers were nothing new, I received a number every year and most went straight into the bin being clearly from people who didn’t understand our industry sector and were merely tyre-kickers incapable of raising the sort of money we were worth.

A couple of years previously (following our failed attempt to sell) we had received a similar approach from a firm of venture capitalists in Chicago on behalf of our largest US competitor.  The approach seemed deadly serious in that a team of four of them wished to visit and start acquisition discussions.  The party that joined us for dinner that Sunday evening a week or so later in Newcastle included the two VCs and the president and CEO of our competitor.  It seemed that they were on a buy and build acquisition spree and wanted an entry into Europe.  We sat and listened to a great deal of boasting and bluster over a long dinner and finally agreed to take them around our factories the following day.

Monday morning I left Roger to take the party around our two sites.  Several hours later they returned and almost the first words out of the president’s mouth were, “Jesus, you guys are already where we aspire to be a long way in the future!”  It was only too apparent that we were strategically and culturally incompatible.  Although three or four times our size they were far less profitable, had far lower levels of technology, chased high volume, low margin business and simply didn’t understand our markets.  They went away, never to return (although the VC did come back a couple of years later with another approach that also failed).

The package that had been FedEx’d to us indicated a very considered and very well researched approach on behalf of the parent of our most serious USA competitor.  Included within the information pack was an outline of the strategy of both Standex Corporation and Spincraft, their engineering division.  The letter indicated that they were deadly serious and were prepared to make a significant offer for our business, which they viewed as being strategically valuable.  Although we were very profitable, debt free and on a continued upwards curve we knew that we lacked a replacement for Roger.  Neither Roger nor I wished to undergo a lengthy period working for a new owner.  We were both refugees from corporate life and neither of us had any desire to return to that fold.  Nevertheless we agreed to meet with them.

Shortly after we succeeded in buying MSG I had said to Roger, “That was the hardest thing I have ever done.  But I know it’ll be even harder when we try to sell.”  Those words transpired to be acutely prophetic and what followed was another six months of difficult and exasperating negotiations.  It wasn’t that Standex was deliberately difficult,  but it was a large USA corporation with its legion of executives from every conceivable department all of whom became involved.  When you added in their lawyers, our lawyers, financial advisors and accountants it became the feeding ground for confusion and misunderstanding that I feared.  Somehow goodwill and commitment on both sides endured as the processed dragged on particularly with regards to environmental issues (not that any actually existed).

The replacement for Roger transpired to be a problem that was easily resolved.  We agreed with Standex to set about a recruitment exercise and I ensured that Len the CEO of Spincraft joined us for the interview sessions that I set up for our shortlist.  We had four excellent candidates and in the final analysis the decision was clear cut and unanimous and Brian was recruited to head the MSG business.

Completion had initially been set for December but it came and went with myriad strands of disclosures and negotiations still open and dragging on.  December moved into January, which came and went in similar fashion.  Misunderstandings flared up and were resolved with phone calls at all hours and a lot of goodwill.  It was clear they were deadly serious and committed to the deal but still the ground had to be covered and indemnities and warranties agreed.  A new date was set for the end of February but so many strands of complex issues remained it seemed that we would never get the deal to bed.

March came and suddenly it seemed problems were being resolved and the deal looked set for completion.  A date of 8th March was finally agreed.  The day dawned bright,  clear and spring like and I savoured the drive into our lawyers’ offices on the Quayside in Newcastle.  It seemed that it was finally going to happen but I held my breath and waited.  The day passed in great boredom interspersed with little flurries of activity as one last minute query or another was settled.  Shuttle diplomacy it was, with each party confined to its own meeting room.  Finally at around 3.00 pm the three of us were ushered into a third, large meeting room to put our signatures to dozens of documents.  It was done.  We had sold the business we had bought almost thirteen years previously, had invested in and developed and now it belonged to Standex Corporation and I was convinced would be good owners.

I sipped a celebratory glass of champagne, had a few words of thanks and congratulations with Roger and Malcolm and slipped away quietly.  I was just…numb.  Thoughts of what it would be like to make a successful sale had always been pushed out of my mind – business had always been too precarious to waste time on dreaming.

The sun was still shining from a perfectly clear, blue sky as I drove far out into the beautiful Northumberland countryside simply wanting to be on my own to think.  Finally I pulled over in a quiet lane where I could see only miles of rolling hills and switched off the engine.  It was still and so quiet and I let it wash over me feeling nothing but a delightful sense of calm.  I phoned Denise to let her know the good news and then Victoria and Alex, whom I had kept completely unaware of the whole process.  I stayed a little longer but no waves of emotion came, just that same feeling of tranquillity.  I had made no plans and realised I didn’t have the slightest inclination to start doing so.

After fifty incredible, roller-coaster years the business in my life had been concluded.  I had promised Denise that if the sale succeeded I would, aged sixty five, finally hang up my boots for good.  My time in business had finished in a way I could never have dreamt of at any time on the journey.  I allowed myself a smile of satisfaction.  I had started out on this journey through the world of business as a lad of fifteen armed only with an O level in English and a pugnacious determination to get on.  It hadn’t turned out too badly.

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The Business of Life Chapter 41 – when the attack comes (part 2)

I am somewhere inside Airedale hospital and in acute pain, the worst pain I have known in my life.  A stern but sensible looking female leans over me and informs me that I am having a heart attack.  I feel nothing except pain as she goes on to tell me that I am to be taken to Leeds where they have a specialist unit and they will perform angioplasty and insert a stent if necessary.  I am to go in the same ambulance.  Some conversation is going on with Denise over following the ambulance.  I am glad not be involved.When the attack comes (part 2)

“I’m in pain!” I tell the assembled throng.  They tell me that they can give me more morphine and soon a needle is in me again and then I’m being wheeled down those corridors again with Denise telling me she will see me later.  I feel alone but relieved to see my two ambulance men; they are good guys and I trust them.  We soon set off and I hear the siren again.  I try to work out where we are and succeed some of the time.  I am surprised at how fast the ambulance can go and how it doesn’t have to slow very often, when I’m not thinking of the pain.  My chest is being crushed.

I’ve always prided myself on what I feel is a stoic like ability to ‘hang in there’ through the worse times and I concentrate on doing this now.  I feel like I’ve been doing it forever; hanging in, holding on.  It’s not working.  I pull down the oxygen mask that has been placed over my face and I am ashamed to hear myself suddenly pleading.

“Make the pain go away!”

I have no shame.

I get a squeeze of the hand and stern instructions to replace the oxygen mask but they can’t make the pain go away.  I decide that all morphine can do is slightly blur the pain, perhaps take it down half an octave but the volume stays the same. The oxygen is about as much use as a chocolate teapot.  The pain rises to a crescendo and then gradually it reduces, ever so slightly it dulls a little and then a terrible wave comes again.

I’m going to be sick!

I vomit into a paper bowl.  It doesn’t feel better the way a good chunder usually makes one feel.  The ambulance man tells me that morphine can have that effect.  On goes the journey.  I dimly perceive that the sun has faded and been replaced by dark cloud or fog.  And it’s colder still.  How much colder can I get?  I think we must be going up Otley Chevin and try to work out how much longer it will take.

I vomit again.  I feel like the worse kind of shit. 

We speed on ….it’s taking forever.

I want to writhe around to ease the pain.  I do and it doesn’t   I try being even more stoical but it’s becoming a hard role to play.

Dully, I sense we must be nearing wherever in Leeds we are going as I am vaguely aware of a cycle of braking, slowing, turning and acceleration.  And the fucking speed bumps again, the cruel, fucking speed bumps.

Suddenly we have stopped and I am being wheeled out of the ambulance.  I feel cold as I am wheeled down corridors once more and then into a large room with a group of people – waiting for me.  I don’t have to wait – I must be important.   I am transferred from the stretcher onto another gurney-like bed where soon people are working on me.

 “Lie still.” I am instructed.  This is difficult, as I have found (relative) comfort (mental not physical) in a resumption of my writhing.  Something is happening in my groin.  I distract myself by looking at a bank of monitors to my left and over my head.  I decide I don’t like what is going on and concentrate on the pain.  From the bit of my brain that is still able to function I start to recall the comments made to me by my business partner, Roger, who had angioplasty and a stent inserted 6 weeks earlier.  Roger is a big guy who has battled MSRA and terrible pain for many years due to spinal damage before falling prey to angina.  I recall him telling me that the insertion of the stent was the worse pain he had ever experienced.  “Oh, fuck!”

“You really must lie still!” one of the hovering team sternly instructs me (I have decided to award them this description as they seem to be indulging in some sort of co-ordinated behaviour).  I wonder if he’s ever had a heart attack.  I think I stop moving for a moment before resuming a sort of slow, rocking, writhing and wait for the pain to get worse as I now believe it will.  Will I be able to cope I wonder?  This pain is bad, very, very bad.  Will I be able to withstand much, much worse?  Fiddling is still going on in my groin area, I am aware of this but it no longer has relevance to me.  I am detached, properly, not the semi-detached variety, but I am lost in my pain and the expectation of worse to come.

A slap on my shoulder brings me out of the depths.

“You’re done!” he tells me, whilst briskly ripping plaster about the size of the Isle of Wight from my chest.  “They’ll take you up to recovery now.”  I am shocked.  The pain didn’t get worse.  I am aware of being moved on the gurney by following my progress across the ceiling.

Somewhere between the room where they did things to me and the recovery ward, I think it occurs in the lift, something happens.  I am not sure at first, I have not been sure of much for some considerable time, except the certainty of the pain.

The pain has gone.

I feel normal.  The pain has not eased – it has gone.  I have no pain.  I HAVE NO PAIN!

I am soon wheeled into a small recovery room where a chatty nurse tells me she is going to attend to the incision in my groin where the entry was made into a main artery.  Soon I am sporting a large clamp-like apparatus over the wound that looks like something Lakeland Plastic sell for various kitchen tasks.  Then follows a short lecture on the dangers of moving too much and how I am to inform them if I feel a damp sensation in my groin.  I realise that my sense of humour has returned when I hear myself telling her that they would probably notice the blood on the opposite wall first, it being a main artery we’re talking about.

They then show me a couple of before and after screen prints of my heart.  The before shot shows one main artery completely blocked and another one almost closed.  The after shot shows the main one flowing clear and unblocked.  Amazing.  I ask for copies but am informed that is against some regulation or other.  I begin to feel like a third party again for a moment.

Soon a very cheerful nurse comes and tells me that they have saved me some dinner – am I hungry?  My brain is working once more and I calculate that I must have been having my heart attack for something like 7 or 8 hours.  My sense of humour really returns when I see that the meal they have saved me is macaroni cheese.  I have had a heart attack and they’re feeding me cheese!  It tastes like the best thing I have ever eaten.

Shortly my affable male nurse arrives this time proffering a pair of PJs at least two sizes too small.  He tells me it’s all they have and I accept them as they seem clean and better than the gown I am wearing.  We laugh together and it’s a great feeling.

I lie back and a wave of unbelievable relief and gratitude flows over me.  I am alive and I feel great.  I have survived a heart attack.  I speculate that this is how soldiers wounded in battle must feel when they know they have come through it and won’t have to return to front line duties.

Denise arrives with our neighbour, Michelle.  I feel like I am the luckiest man alive.

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The Business of Life Chapter 40 – when the attack comes

February 9th 2008 dawns bright and clear with the sun shining from an achingly blue sky.  The temperature is below freezing and it is the first fine day for some considerable time.  The weather has eased and I want to make the most of it.  At just turned 62 I’m still fit but outings on the bike have got fewer than I would like this winter.  As I pedal off up Wharfedale on my favourite route I think that coffee and a bacon sandwich at my favourite cafe on the way back is a reward for which it’s worth exerting myself.  My breath is making clouds in the cold air and I’m loving it. When the attack comes

I have been a cyclist for many years and have managed to keep this healthy hobby going throughout the many years of hectic travel, although this winter has been bad and has curtailed my normal mileage.  Apart from the health and fitness benefits I have always found that I do some of my best thinking in the saddle.

Heading towards the junction with the A59 is a short but sharp climb and, feeling good, I decide to take it out of the saddle, in a sprint.  But, “Christ!”  The climb puts me out of breath.  “You’re getting old,” I tell myself but quickly add the reassurance, “but then you haven’t been out for a while.”  Down the steep slope towards the roundabout I try to get my breathing back under control.  I don’t, so (with the excuse of adjusting a brake) I wait a few minutes.  It doesn’t seem to help and my breathing is still not back to normal.  I tell myself I just need to stretch my lungs and get my second wind, so I set off once more.  Half a mile later I am still breathing heavily so I stop again, telling myself it’s just to get some life back into my frozen hands.

I sit on a bench in the middle of a little green at Bolton Abbey, under a naked tree hoping to get my breathing back to normal.  Feeling like an old has-been and glad that no-one is around to see me I sit in the cold sunshine trying to warm up.  After 5 minutes I still feel like I need a really good, deep breath or two to get back to normal.  “Bugger it!” I tell myself, “I’m off and the breathing can sort itself out on the way.”  On I push, certain that I need simply to get the lungs used to working at the normal rate for the bike.

It’s just past 9.00am as I start a long climb up out of the valley bottom.  Normally this is a climb that I would attack out of the saddle but that day I decide to take it easy.  I am already in the lowest of my gears but it is hard work as I push on up the long hill.  After another half a mile I stop yet again.  “Fuck it!” I exclaim to a field of grazing sheep, “You’re a useless, unfit old fart and you just have to accept that you can’t do the things you used to do.”  I check my watch and decide it’s not long until the cafe opens.  I will have the coffee and bacon sandwich a bit early and amble back towards Ilkley, bowed but unbeaten.  I turn and head back.

Coasting back down the hill, I begin to feel even colder in the early February sun and tell myself that it is probably still below freezing.  After the long descent I am colder than ever as I pull up outside the cafe but it isn’t open yet.  I leave the bike propped against the wall outside and decide to sit on a bench opposite, where I tell myself I can warm in the sunshine.  Even in February the sun’s bound to have some warmth.  I sit and face the sun, hugging my arms under my armpits, trying to get some warmth into them.  It doesn’t happen and I feel colder than ever, still trying for that elusive, deep breath.  I tell myself that I’ll warm up soon and then there’s the hot coffee to come.

Suddenly, I feel an overwhelming urge to empty my bowels, not just the normal sensation in the morning, this is really urgent.  I hurry over to the gents and, thank God, it is open.  Inside I struggle with my layers of clothing, cursing bib tights not designed for rapid toilet manoeuvres.  I manage just in time.  It is so cold in the loo I am feeling completely frozen and desperate to get out in the sun once more for some elusive warmth.  I waddle back to my bench and looking up at the clock above the door I see that it’s 9.40am.  Another 20 minutes before I can get hot coffee inside to warm me up properly.

I sit hugging myself, face towards the sun in an attempt to extract some warmth.  I realise that I am completely frozen; not chilly, not cold but deep down frozen.  There is no warming effect from the sun.  I am still desperately trying to yawn and get a deep breath into my lungs but something new has happened.  My chest has tightened and I realise that I am in pain.  I am absolutely frozen, unable to get enough air into my lungs and the pain is increasing.

“You’re having a heart attack.”  I tell myself, quite calmly, the realisation being almost a relief.  I congratulate myself on this obviously astute and accurate diagnosis but the pleasure is short-lived, very short lived.  Seeing a young lad cleaning tables outside the café, I decide to enlist his help and try to move off towards him.  It is a colossal effort, crabbing across to him and the pain and cold are getting worse.

“Can you help me?” I ask in what is intended to be an authoritative request but which emerged from my oxygen starved lungs merely as pathetic pleading.

The young lad is very efficient.  “What’s the problem? Have you had the pain before?  Sit here and I’ll get the manager.”  I sit and don’t think.  A few moments later an attractive, young, blond lady appears and asks similar questions also in a very efficient manner.  Later, I know her as Helen and I call her my guardian angel.  Helen tells me she is taking me inside and will call an ambulance.  They both take an arm and help me into a very small back room.  Walking is an effort and the pain is getting worse.

“Is there anyone I can call for you?” Helen asks as we wait for the ambulance.  I suggest she calls Denise but the effort to remember the number is too great.  “Just give me the phone,” says Helen in her calm and capable manner, “I expect you’ve got it listed under home?”  I am grateful not to have to be in charge of anything, least of all me.  I feel like shit and it is getting worse by the minute.  Helen isn’t able to reach Denise.  I remember that she will be walking the dogs.  “Don’t worry,” Helen tells me, “I’ll try again in a few minutes.”  “Will you look after my bike?” I manage to ask.  The ever efficient Helen informs me that it will be put in their garage and not to worry.  Helen makes small talk and tells me again that the ambulance won’t be long.  But I am cold, so bloody cold and in pain.

Soon the room becomes full of two cheerful ambulance guys and their equipment. I see that it looks like a miniature, portable hospital.  The questions start whilst clothing is rearranged to fix electrodes on my chest.  “It hurts.” I say.  “We’re going to give you some morphine in just a minute.” they tell me.  I look forward to morphine.  I have never taken recreational drugs but it seems like a good thing to be going to have morphine in just a minute and I am sure that it will take the pain away.  I don’t notice the injection as I am too busy looking forward to the pain going away and trying my best to answer questions.  I think that I am doing well with my answers and being very grown up about the whole thing.  It hurts though.

“We don’t think that you have had a heart attack.” he one hovering over me informs me.  I feel vaguely disappointed that my astute diagnosis is wrong.  “We’re going to take you to Airedale hospital,” I am informed; “they’re expecting you.”  I am then shuffled onto a wheelchair and am soon being pushed through the café under the curious gaze of those lucky enough to be having coffee and breakfast.  I don’t have the energy to feel jealous or embarrassed at my depleted state.  I am simply concentrating on my pain.  I am surprised to see that the ambulance is backed up close, doors already open and I am soon inside and lying strapped onto a stretcher.  It feels cold inside, like a deep freeze.

We set off and I soon summon the energy to curse aloud the stupid, ignorant, thoughtless fuckers who invented speed bumps.  I am vaguely conscious of the siren as we finally get onto the main road but the sound is far away.  The pain is getting worse.  I decided that I don’t know what drug addicts see in opiates; they are doing fuck-all for me.

I try to work out exactly where we are at any one time; this is both so I can concentrate on something other than the pain and because I really like to know where I am.  It doesn’t work and I am conscious of the pain being, well, very painful, crushingly so.  Why is it taking so long to get to the bloody hospital?  I tell myself everything will be alright once we are there.

Finally we stop outside A&E at Airedale and the doors are opening.  I am being wheeled out when I see Denise.  I am encouraged to see that she is not breaking down or in tears at my depleted state; she gives me a very welcome kiss and holds my hand all the way down endless corridors.  Finally, we enter a small room filled with lots of people in medical gear who started adjusting my clothing once more.  I catch a glimpse of myself in a mirror and see my skin is white, perfectly white, corpse like.  Things are happening to me whilst I am in pain and Denise continues to hold my hand all the while.  My clothing is designed for cycling not hospitals but somehow I am soon wired up like Frankenstein’s monster and I notice lines on computer monitors out of the corner of my eye.  I don’t want to know what they mean and look away, trying to control the pain.  It doesn’t work.

The activity around me continues.  I feel like a third party to the process but it doesn’t bother me.  I am far beyond caring.  I’m not scared but believe that ‘they’ are responsible for me and will shortly make me feel better; ‘they’ will make me feel better.  Please?

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The Business of Life Chapter 39 – brought down to earth

Life had never been dull at Metal Spinners Group but on a personal level I had settled into a routine that most weeks saw me travel up to Newcastle on Tuesday morning and return on Thursday evening.  Having invested my entire savings in buying the company (along with my stake in Bridgestream and ABC technology Distribution) I resisted what might otherwise have been a temptation to buy somewhere in Northumberland.  Instead I stayed in a variety of rented flats & B&B’s in the peaceful village of Corbridge culminating with the delightful Jill at Priorfield .Brought down to earth

Travelling had always been a part of my life and if I had to spend longer than a week in the same place I would become restless.  Now the international business wanderings had largely become a thing of the past but I had been wearing out a succession of cars covering 25~30,000 miles each year.  Whilst the time spent away from home was not something Denise enjoyed it did provide me with plenty of guilt free time alone.  The long hours on the road provided valuable thinking time and evenings alone permitted ample time for reading and whatever work I needed to do at whatever time I chose.  I also managed complete box sets of The Wire and The Sopranos, vast number of books and was always up before six either swimming, walking or working out in the gym.

In corporate life I had frequently felt I was under relentless pressure to make decisions with insufficient time to really think things through.  Owning and sharing the running of up to six businesses, all in different industries, all at the same time, might seem a less than responsible thing to have tackled.  However, this lifestyle did in fact help with many problems.  Simply having the time to think more deeply about all of the options and their potential implications overnight helped a great deal and the reaction to phone calls tended to become, “I’ll get back to you first thing.”  Having this time to myself was invaluable but there was one area it didn’t always seem to help.

Business partners can be a great help especially in broadening the range of  experience and skills within the team and the sheer advantage of others with whom you can chew over problems.  But, like a successful marriage, a business partnership requires respect and trust to succeed.  In opting for the role of chairman in these businesses I had to take my hands off the day to day levers of control and place trust in the partner who was MD to make these decisions.  Unfortunately, and to my great cost, Bridgestream was an example of what can happen when trust is abused.  Despite this the majority of my business partners have been entirely trustworthy but it didn’t stop me chewing my fingernails down to my elbows on occasions.

Roger was a vastly experienced chief executive with great depth and breadth of knowledge of the engineering sector worldwide.  He was also a proud and independent man and attempting to look over his shoulder or double guess his judgements would have been sheer folly.  Having worked with him on the broad strategy for the way forward, I would step back and give him the time and space to implement.  After the initial year working together we ceased holding regular board meetings for the most part.  Instead, we would frequently just sit over coffee and discuss progress, problems and the key issues.  Often no decisions would be taken but I knew that, having taken a sounding and gained another view, Roger would then make whatever decision he felt appropriate.  One such decision provided me with more than one sleepless night.

Our largest customer (one of the world’s largest industrial concerns) was forever attempting to drive down the cost of purchasing by one means or another.  Roger informed me one day that he had found out that they were considering moving a major component away from us to another metal forming process.  “It won’t work, though,” he said casually, “I’ve paid for an engineering feasibility study and it proves it won’t work.”  He then shared the study with them but subsequently learnt that they were still pressing ahead with the trials.  “They’ve said they are going to take full production away from us,” was his next report back, “and they are refusing to renew our contract.  However, they want us to produce the samples but that is going to work out very expensive for them!  If we’re not getting the production volume at least we’ll go out on a very profitable high.”

With our largest (by far) customer threatening to take away the largest piece of work we did for them I tried not to think of life without them.  Yes, the margins for this work produced were lower than other business we had and this would blunt the effect of the volume loss, but it was still a nightmare scenario.  Some months later Roger bounced into my office. “Guess what?” was his greeting.  “The new trials are going wrong and they have asked us to drop down to the price we had previously agreed for production volumes.”  My spirits lifted.  “I’ve told them to get stuffed,” he went on, “no contract, so they continue to pay sample prices.  It’s not our fault their other process won’t work.” “Oh shit,” I thought.

A couple of months later when Roger and I sat down with Malcolm to review the accounts, they showed a giant leap in profitability.  “Good this sample business, isn’t it?” smiled Roger.  Over the next year our customer howled and squirmed but kept ordering and the profits mounted to such an extent we were able finally to pay down our remaining debt.  We also got a new contract.  Life on the roller coaster.

In 2006 we decided to see if we could sell and we appointed Deloittes in Newcastle to market the businesses and act as advisors.  Initial discussions led us to the conclusion that it would be extremely unlikely that we would succeed in finding a buyer for both of the companies we owned within Precision Engineering International.  We decided to put Trisk on the market first with the target of Hedson our largest competitor who had failed previously to buy in 1999.  After a long and increasingly fractious process we succeeded with a sale of the business and heaved a sigh of relief.  The only problem was we were left with a very large factory site in Sunderland as they quickly moved production to Sweden.

With Trisk sold we turned our full attention to the MSG business and Malcolm and I put in a vast amount of time pulling together the required information for the sale prospectus.  A global research programme was carried out and a shortlist of 20~30 prospective purchasers was assembled and contacted by Deloitte.  The interested parties were then supplied with the detailed information pack, which resulted in a small number of offers.  Unfortunately, there was only one offer that looked at all worthwhile and this was from a small northern VC.  By this stage our relationship with Deloittes had become somewhat acrimonious over the modest amount of senior management time that had been spent on our account.  Negotiations commenced and it quickly became clear that there were a number of real stumbling blocks to a sale.

The first issue was that Roger was being viewed as indispensable (and at that stage he was) resulting in the condition that he remained with the business.  This was compounded by the requirement that he roll over a large proportion of his sale proceeds into the new company.  Given that 3i still owned just over half of the equity it would mean that Roger would gain very little in cash terms from a sale.  This was bad enough but there was another major problem.

Due to the growing market in China our largest customer had been once more making demands of us and this time it was for us to open a joint venture factory there with them.  We had run the projections on such a project and come to the conclusion that because of the additional costs involved there was no way we could ever make money from the venture.  There was another insidious risk to such a move; with a far Eastern partner in a joint factory our unique technical know-how could be copied.  In the UK no outsider was permitted to observe or film our processes.  By this stage we had learned that there was no one else in the world that could match our capabilities.  This came to light when our ‘loyal’ major customer approached the manufacturer of our equipment to find another supplier only to be informed we were really the only choice anywhere in the world.

Shortly afterwards the purchase offer was withdrawn due (as we later learned) to the threat of a potential £2m investment in China.  By this stage Roger had negotiated a deal to supply sample production to China, promising that we were committed to the joint venture.  Gradually production volumes and shipments to China grew and the concept of a joint venture disappeared.

Following the collapse of the negotiations a strategy was devised to put the business into a more saleable position for the future.  This involved a new drive to widen the customer base (especially in the USA) and to eliminate the dependence upon Roger.  The first step was to commence a search for an MD for MSG and create an operational board for the company that would take control (over time) on a day to day basis.

We had made two previous attempts to recruit a potential replacement for Roger and, despite sparkling CV’s and wonderful references, both had proved to be incapable of the role.  It had become clear that attracting the right calibre of executive was extremely difficult.  We needed a mechanical engineer with large company experience and commitment to continuous improvement and someone who wanted to move into a smaller business.  By this stage we were very profitable and by far the largest company of our type in the UK (if not in Europe), our previously equal sized competitor having all but disappeared.  We were prepared to put together a very attractive offer for a suitable candidate.  But the problem with our two previous executives was that they seemed unable to adapt to life in a smaller organisation.

However, a new threat emerged that was of far greater immediate concern.  I got a call from Ian the executive at 3i who was our official contact (I had managed to avoid having a 3i executive appointed to our board back in 1997).  Ian and I had worked together during the years we had been turning around ABC Technology and had a good relationship.  I knew (from my years as a member of an unofficial group of investing chairmen 3i put together to advise on ‘problem investments’) that they had been slimming down their investment portfolio in businesses that were not of substantial size.  The word from Ian that day was we were being put up for sale in a bundle of around 40 businesses.

This prospect filled me with horror (as it did Roger and Malcolm when I reported back).  An unknown new VC owner who most likely wanted to meddle in our strategy and turn a quick profit was not something any of us could see any advantage in.  I called Ian and asked him if he felt 3i would be receptive to an offer from us for their shares before they put us up for sale.  I got an affirmative but with the caveat that we would have to work quickly to raise the money and complete the sale process.  We had the advantage that Roger had known the regional director at HSBC for many years, who proved very receptive to the prospect of financing our loan.

The negotiation with 3i proved somewhat more difficult than I had imagined and whilst they had no objection to a sale to us they were certainly no pushover.  The worst aspect was a ‘non embarrassment clause’ that held that we could not sell within a defined period without making good to 3i the money that they would have made had they not sold their equity to us.  Given that we needed time to complete our strategy we agreed and the sale and purchase agreement was completed.  The downside was that we moved from being debt free to being the proud possessors of a very large, shiny, new 5 year loan.  But the upside was that Roger, Malcolm and I now owned 100% of our business.  Thoughts of selling were put aside as we pressed on with expanding the business and paying down the new debt burden we had acquired.

Frustrated with the time wasted sitting in  traffic jams I started flying lessons.  The freedom of the air was wonderful but I was brought down to earth after a short period by two factors.  The first was that it rapidly became clear that given our weather patterns (especially around my local airport – Leeds Bradford) flying was never going to be something I could rely upon as a means of business transport.  Even thoughts of pleasure flying on the few favourable days we occasionally enjoy were also dashed when I found that Civil Aviation regulations would preclude me from wearing my (now essential) hearing aids for the medical I would have to take.  This was frustrating.

But frustrating as it was to learn that I would never take to the skies as a solo pilot, another event was to occur that was far more devastating.

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The Business of life Chapter 38 – when a dream goes sour

“I’ve lost my job!” were the first words David uttered when he turned up to see me in early 2002.  David and I had known each other for well over twenty years, since our time in the lighting industry running competitor companies.  Despite the intense rivalry between our organisations we had always enjoyed each other’s friendship when we met at industry functions.  We had lost touch with each other when David had moved to the south for a new role but he had recently relocated back to Yorkshire again.  We spent time together discussing what had happened and the options David had for his next career move.

Our business crest & motto “Strength through knowledge”

It was some months before I met David again, but when he came calling it was to set my career off in a new direction and widen my portfolio of roles still further.  “I’ve got an idea for a business.” was David’s greeting that second meeting, “Are you interested?”  He went on to say that he had paid a large sum of money to sign up with what claimed to be a not for profit organisation that provided re-training for executives wishing to move into business consultancy.  David’s view was that the course he had attended had provided poor value for money and he believed we could do far better in setting up our own competing service.

I was noncommittal that first day but said that I would research the sector and see if the concept of a competing business made sense.  I went through the process of producing a draft business plan.  After reviewing the company in question, all similar businesses and the Small and Medium Enterprise (SME) sector I came to the view that, given David’s recent experience, we could well put together a superior service.  When I added in our respective experience and skills I became convinced that this was a viable proposition.  I met up with David once more, took him through my findings and we quickly trashed out the actions required to get our new business started.

Within a short period I had registered a company (The Academy of Business Consultants), obtained a VAT registration, taken out the required insurances, produced a corporate identity, leaflets and business cards, created and implemented a website and sketched out a marketing and operations plan.  I was driven!  Working with David proved to be extremely productive as we found that we had a synergistic effect upon each other that made creating concepts and resolving problems a simple and enjoyable process.  Within six months of our initial discussions we had our business and launch plans complete and placed the first advertisement of our advertising campaign in the Sunday Times.

The concept we had developed involved refining the enquiries we received from the advertising campaign, getting the candidates to complete an online personality profiling questionnaire and inviting them to an evening seminar.  During these seminars we would outline a genuine array of career options open to them, present a profile of the SME sector and its needs, pitch our training course concept and provide valuable feedback on their behavioural preferences and how these might impact upon future roles.  The responses we received to the advertising were good and we ran seminars in the North, Midlands and London.  However, despite receiving healthy attendance and strong interest it quickly became apparent that we had a failure on our hands.  We had encountered an insurmountable problem.

We had offered a better and more relevant training programme, set our price at a more attractive level and matched the offering of refined leads and continuing support to those completing the training programme.   There was, however, a critical element of our main competitor’s offering that clinched business for them but one we had chosen not to follow.  One of the key factors that invariably clinched the sale for our competitor was an ‘income guarantee’.  Having reviewed the documentation that David had been given it was clear that the guarantee was all but worthless, so hedged around with conditions and procedures that it was almost inconceivable that anyone could succeed with a claim.  Little wonder that they boasted that they had never had to pay out!  We decided that it would be unethical to match this misleading offer and we changed the direction of our business.

Whilst David had found that the ‘hot leads’ he had been provided by our competitor were at best on the tepid side of stone cold he had, nevertheless, succeeded in building a strong client base of his own.  An interesting and resourceful turn of events had been David’s success in persuading a local firm of chartered accountants to sub-contract the provision of business advice for clients to him.  This experience had led him into a similar arrangement with other firms.  The accounting firms were all members of a national marketing membership organisation (we’ll call them XYZ) that provided help and assistance to members to enable them to run a better business.

We knew from research conducted by Strathclyde University that accountants were the most trusted source of advice amongst private business owners.  However, David’s experience was that beyond the traditional areas of accounting and tax, most small and medium sized accounting firms shied away from offering other forms of business related advice.  “Why don’t we offer our business advice service to more of XYZ’s members?” I suggested. “They obviously see the commercial wisdom of offering advice to clients but don’t feel confident or expert enough to do so themselves.”  David agreed and this was the genesis of our new business venture.

I joined David (in my ‘spare time’) in widening the number of firms we approached and we quickly succeeded in winning further clients amongst the members.  Convinced that the service we were providing was potentially of real value to XYZ, we decided to approach them.  This was not a simple matter and it took many attempts over six months before we sat across a desk from one of the two founders.  The meeting went well and we came away with an agreement to trial our service to a sample of their members.  We recruited another highly experienced business advisor to join us and once again proved we could deliver results.  Some months later the trial was extended to a further region and the results continued to improve.

A short way into our extended trial the three of us started to uncover the same situation time and again.  It was the practice owner rather than their clients who was in most urgent need of face to face business guidance and support.  Despite being highly qualified and experienced chartered accountants the vast majority of practice owners lacked the wider business skills to get the most from their teams and their clients.  The answer we soon implemented was to commence a coaching programme with the practice owner in addition to our work with their clients.

We had implemented a client satisfaction feedback process whereby our researcher, interviewed every practice owner and client we worked with following a set period.  The feedback we received was invaluable and showed our service to be rated either first or second out of the whole XYZ offering.  It also enabled us to take corrective action where required and ensure that our service continued to meet members’ needs.  We also fed back the results to each associate and the XYZ management.  The change of direction was extremely successful and led to a real breakthrough when XYZ asked us to provide a national service for every new member they recruited.  We then formed a new company with XYZ as partners.  Given that we were now about to create a business with effectively a sole customer, we argued that such a shared destiny required a reciprocal shareholding in XYZ.  We were not successful in this but settled for the right to attend and participate in their board meetings.

Faced with a national launch far beyond the geographic capabilities of three of us we started an intensive recruitment campaign to cover the entire UK.  Within a short period we assembled and trained a team of 20 associates, each of whom had previously held at least one role as MD or chairman.  Ironically, each of these new associates had been uncovered via our previous competitor’s online network!  Based on the experience that we had gathered from our existing work, our model was based upon a mix of coaching and mentoring.  We knew that pure coaching methodologies (the coach questions and the coachee provides their own solutions) can provide strong results.  However, our own experience showed that a combination of coaching blended with appropriate guidance (based on the vast experience of our associates) enabled a time-efficient and professional solution.

By this stage I had been running businesses for thirty years and been an owner of various different organisations for ten.  These organisations had been many times larger than the one David and I had created and they had given me rich and varied experience.  But having created a successful organisation together from the failure of our initial concept was richly and uniquely rewarding.  To start and build a successful business is something really rather special.  We were now helping many business owners and their teams to be more successful as organisations and more fulfilled as individuals.  David and I had continued to make a truly synergistic team where difficulties were merely fresh challenges to be overcome.  With David’s superior interpersonal skills and my research, analysis and organisational work we were a powerful team.

David and I also worked closely with our new partners, resulting in an initially a strong relationship.  However, management changes took place within their organisation after a couple of years and differences of opinion started to emerge over strategy.  As time moved on I found that I was spending more and more time attempting to negotiate a resolution of these differences.  I became to realise that the rich feelings of satisfaction with our business that I had enjoyed so much had all but evaporated.  I could see only opportunity squandered and a loss of personal freedom stretching ahead.  A concept that both David and I had planned to run on into retirement had become something from which I could no longer derive satisfaction.

Following lengthy discussions over the situation we both seemed to realise that events had changed so much that we could never recapture the fun and satisfaction we had previously enjoyed.  Subsequently, following discussions with our partners, an offer was made to buy out my stake in the business and in 2010, after 8 great years working with David, I departed.

Reading over this last chapter I realise that it ends on a very low note but that accurately reflects the way it felt at the time.  There is a very much more complex story that I have abbreviated into a few short paragraphs but legal reasons preclude me from going into greater detail.  I really missed what David and I had created but time and circumstances had moved on and I had to do likewise.

David continued to run the business with our previous partners for another two years until the situation changed once more and the contract was terminated.  He is now continuing to offer business coaching and advice to a much wider spectrum of professions and still working with most of our previous associates.  I wish him every success in what remains a valuable endeavour.

We had succeeded in building this business together whilst I was still heavily involved in the running of ABC, Trisk and Bison as well as chairing Hallamshire.  I still don’t know how it all fitted together into 365 day years – perhaps the extra day in leap years helped.  And yes, whilst I was having fun in all these businesses, there was always the time I spent each week in Newcastle with the big investment I had made in Metal Spinners Group.  And events there were becoming ever more involving.

Less than a month after my departure an event took place in Newcastle that was to have far reaching implications.


The business of life Chapter 37 – the joy of closure

Assembled in a meeting room in a hotel close to Newcastle airport early one morning, the two sides eyed each other warily.  We had not met for three years but had fought with all the powers of the law on our side and what had seemed like pure obduracy & guile on our opponents’ part.  It appeared that Clifford had convinced himself that our legal claims would melt away as we failed in the business his father had founded all those years before.The business of life - chapter 37

The plenary session began with both sides facing each other either side of a long table with the law society facilitators at either end.  Both sides had legal teams present comprising lawyers and barristers, all enjoying huge hourly fees whatever the outcome.  The process of spelling out our claim in great detail and at length whilst staring Clifford in the eye was a strange experience indeed.  It was exceeded only by having to listen to what we felt constituted the fairy tale of their defence and counter claim.  The plenary session over we retired to our respective rooms and the shuttle diplomacy began.  The chairman visited each party in turn to ascertain at first hand the reaction each group had to the others’ position.

It was clear that no quick or easy solution was likely to emerge, in fact it seemed that Clifford and Mike were as resistant to a settlement as ever.  Day turned into evening with no progress at all and the session broke up with each group making its own arrangements for dinner.  The next day began and continued all morning with no progress.  I was becoming increasingly irritated by the corporate finance partner from our law firm who could only match the other side’s bluster and seemed intent on ensuring that we ended up in court.  In contrast, Stephanie his manager who had worked closely with me over the previous three years impressed me greatly with her calm efforts to find a solution.

The day wore on in like fashion and Roger, Malcolm and I were becoming resigned to having to endure the costs and uncertainty of resolution before a judge.  I had been casually intrigued by the behaviour of our barrister who for the last hour or so had been ignoring the rest of us and quietly doodling on his pad (or so I assumed).  “OK,” he suddenly exclaimed, “this is how I see things.”  He then proceeded to share his doodles with us, which were actually a matrix of all of the claims and counter claims at stake.  Ranged against each claim was a percentage calculation of the chances of each party winning or losing with his best estimate of the awards and costs each would incur should they win or lose.

The bottom line was the view that we had an almost 100% chance of winning all of our claims.  His view was that Clifford had, at best, only a 50% chance of winning their counter claim.  However, the killer result was that the costs and damages Clifford would suffer as a result of our wins would exceed any benefit from his counter claim succeeding by a factor of about ten.  We called in the chairman who quietly listened, asked a few questions and departed to put this picture before Clifford and Mike.   An hour later he returned and we learned that they had capitulated almost completely.  A couple more hours later we all signed the necessary documents that drew matters to a close (apart from some remaining issues that festered on with HMRC).

As I drove back to Yorkshire that night I reflected on what had happened over the last three years.  Many years previously Clifford and Mike had put in train a course of action that was relatively insignificant at the time but one that had snowballed into major proportions.  I felt it was sheer arrogance and mindless bravado that had brought Clifford into conflict with us, a process that set about unravelling their plan & compounding matters through their refusal to negotiate.  It was clear that Clifford and Mike’s legal team had failed to advise them of the costs they could incur by their actions.  We had won a long, drawn out and bloody battle that had never been of our choosing and had won handsomely.  Strangely, it gave me little satisfaction other than great relief that the whole sad story was over.  I had closure.

Freed of the efforts and frustrations of a long and drawn out legal fight, we threw ourselves back into the challenges of improving our complex new group of three companies.  MSG was our strategic acquisition, the core of our business with, we believed, great potential for highly profitable growth and an ultimate sale.  By the standards of the UK engineering sector it was already a highly successful business (not least due to its non-involvement in the mainstream automotive sector, one we steadfastly ignored).  It had a potential to become even more profitable through an ability to offer unique solutions to demanding blue-chip customers.  We knew that it would take hard work and patience owing to the extremely long leads times required to replace an existing process.  In the case of one of the major customers we won, it took fully ten years.

Trisk and Bison were more tactical (and certainly opportunistic) acquisitions.  Both produced exceptional profits in the first year of our ownership.  If we had then put both businesses up for sale life would have become a lot simpler (a lot sooner).  However, buoyed by the wondrous sound of cash hitting the bottom of the piggy bank and improving PEI’s balance sheet, we pressed on certain that we had hit the magic formula.  From then on matters got infinitely more complex as the cash production machine slowed.

There are long, frustrating stories behind our ownership of both these businesses but I’ll restrict myself to the following brief accounts.

A common feature of both businesses was the quality of management and many of the staff we inherited (courtesy of TUPE).  In both cases, instead of their embracing the change and opportunity brought by new ownership, we had to spend too much time fighting a tendency to revert to the orthodoxies that drove them into administration in the first place.  It was almost as if they believed their failed businesses had been pursuing the correct strategy and policies all along and some freak external event had knocked them temporarily off course.  These tendencies were bad enough but the net effect was to divert our attention from MSG where, with hindsight, we should have concentrated our time and energies.

With Bison, it only took a parting with the MD (son of the CEO of failed parent PLC) and four short years to sell the business in 2003.  We heaved a sigh of relief and moved on.

The situation with Trisk was much more complex.  The company still had technical leadership in infra red paint curing and had also developed ultra violet technology for more demanding applications.  The business was certainly a world leader in its sector and exported to every continent across the globe.  Once we had taken over we saw that Trisk had a number of critical strategic issues.  A major market for Trisk had been the USA where we had a network of commission agents.  Our products were capable of commanding far higher price levels but the agents had learned to sit on their hands ahead of the peak winter demand until our locally based manager panicked and reduced prices.  This was a pattern that revealed itself to be a major problem in many parts of the world.  Attempting to establish a stable and rational pricing strategy proved to be particularly tough due to internal company politics and the weak MD we had inherited with the business.

The other major problem took several years to emerge as the Trisk management either weren’t aware of the shifting dynamics of their marketplace or they ensured that they wouldn’t reveal what they knew (knowing it would require them to change strategy completely).  Trisk had built its initial success on designing and selling IR paint curing systems almost exclusively used for automotive repair work.  These systems were based around an array of IR lamps mounted on relatively simple mobile stands that could be moved around car repair workshops.  Trisk had also adapted the concepts into larger arrays built into custom spray booths.  A major market shift began to make itself felt in the first couple of years following our acquisition.

Legislation was driving the introduction of health and safety and other environmental regulations and these were killing off small repair shops, consolidating the market towards larger and more efficient units.  As this trend continued (fuelled by a succession of mild winters) sales of Trisk’s traditional mobile units declined.  The problem, that took some time to emerge, was that we were not gaining the share of in-booth systems that we should have been achieving.  Booth manufacturers were being involved at the design stage of the new super car repair shops permitting them to specify whose paint curing system was installed.  By the time Trisk personnel got to know about a new repair centre it was already up and running with a competitor’s curing system installed with the booths.

It was clear that Trisk management and sales staff had simply been unaware of this key shift in market dynamics.  Or worse, they had chosen to keep doing what they always did (in their comfort zone) in the hope that it might bring about a return to the glory days.  Around the time that this strategic market shift was becoming apparent, our MD, Tom, came to us with a request to buy the company out from us.  Tired of the short-sighted and intransigent management at Trisk and a need to re-focus our attention back upon MSG, we agreed.  What followed was a disaster that we should have foreseen.  Tom took many months getting funding and putting his bid together during which time he clearly neglected the company.  The bid he put to us ultimately was derisory, was duly rejected and he departed shortly afterwards.

Roger and I became more closely involved in running the business and the strategic issues began to surface.  Trisk’s real expertise lay in the technology of curing paint quickly and effectively and it was a world leader in this field.  The actual delivery systems were secondary but it was vital that Trisk became involved in ensuring their systems were specified at the design stage of the spray booths.  We recruited a marketing manager to research the market, promote and co-ordinate the use of Trisk technology into booths.

We also looked to see where else the technology could be most effectively employed.  It didn’t take long to discover that the servicing and repair of commercial aircraft was a potentially hugely profitable sector.  The leading edges of wings and tailfins had to be resprayed on a scheduled basis but the paint curing systems used were slow and expensive.  Trisk’s solution could eliminate days of aircraft downtime saving thousands of pounds for the operators.  With these two strategies in place, we employed an aerospace expert and a new managing director.

Sadly, our new MD transpired (despite an apparently strong CV and significant technical qualifications) to be completely ineffective and I had the task once more of seeing an MD off the premises.  It became clear that the sales and marketing team were not being successful in either ensuring specification of Trisk technology into new booth installations nor were they taking the action we had agreed to improve pricing.  Despite diverting major time on the part of our local MSG US manager towards assisting Trisk, the distribution problems there remained.  The fledgling aerospace business was still struggling to break through and gain aerospace approvals.  Our aerospace manager resigned taking up a more mainstream role in the sector.  Despite investing huge amounts of our time the team never seemed to have their heart in stepping out of their comfort zone and taking the necessary action that would turn the business around.

Looking back, Roger and I had believed in the business and had pushed hard to effect the changes that we believed would turn its fortunes around.  Our experience once more had been of ineffective management that we had inherited (and subsequently employed).  Buying both Bison and Trisk had stretched our management capabilities to the limit.  I still believe that we could have made a success of Trisk had we been able to concentrate solely on that business.  Both businesses had initially contributed strongly but we should have sold both within a year.

Although 3i had never overtly pressured us to sell PEI we did experience attempts at ‘persuasion’ occasionally and around this time a fresh ‘persuasion offensive’ was made.  Roger, Malcolm and I discussed the situation and decided that we would put the entire PEI business up for sale.  MSG had been performing well, our debt had been significantly reduced and we would be glad to see the end of Trisk.

Could we find a buyer for the whole business?  Would we receive offers that would reflect the value we had built in MSG?

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The Business of Life Chapter 36 -it’s not just the business risks

Roger was taken seriously ill over the Christmas holiday 1998 and admitted to hospital with crippling back & chest pain.  Following MRI scans and blood tests he was diagnosed with an MRSA infection in his thoracic spine.  The affected vertebrae had all but collapsed, were partially fused, trapping nerves and were the cause of the excruciating pain he was suffering.  No one knew the source of the infection or how it came to lodge in his spine but it seemed life threatening at worst and incapacitating at best.  Whilst Roger was being pumped full of a cocktail of the most powerful antibiotics I pondered our situation. When it's not just the business you have to fear

 The illness could not have come at a worst time.  Our dispute with the vendors of MSG had reached the stage where a court action seemed inevitable and with the only certainty that we would be spending vast sums more to fuel the action.  I had been overseeing the detailed investigative work inside the company and liaising with our legal team.  I could ensure that our claims continued to be pursued with vigour but there was a peak of activity occurring simultaneously on a number of fronts.

A few months earlier one of our minor customers had been placed into administration.  The loss to MSG was small but the business itself was interesting.  The company concerned was Trisk, a world leader in infra red paint curing equipment for the automotive after market.  Situated only a few miles from us in Sunderland, it had enjoyed explosive growth with the founder recently receiving the accolade of North East Businessman of the Year award.  Unfortunately, a combination of poor strategy and uncontrolled spending had run the business into the ground resulting in the management being replaced and the bank appointing an administrator as soon as they had recovered their overdraft.

 The other aspect was that Trisk was also a 3i investment.  Although they had no hope of recovering their original investment they assured me that they would be supportive of an acquisition by us.  Prior to Christmas we had met with the administrators and the new management at the Trisk headquarters.  The new team had all been promoted from within and, whilst lacking experience, seemed supportive of our efforts to acquire the company.  However, there were a number of other parties interested including the largest competitor, Hedson of Sweden.  We were fully engaged in negotiations when Roger was taken ill.

Our efforts to locate at least one suitable acquisition candidate in our own engineering sector had come to nothing.  Having scoured our industry, had meetings with owners and analysed many sets of accounts, we came to the decision that there was not a competitor worth buying.  With the exception of a single piece of equipment (that we subsequently acquired for very little) none even had assets worth acquiring.  It was also quite clear that our competition fought with only one weapon – price.  They competed with each other for components that had always been made by the spinning process simply driving down price in the process.  The result was that margins in all of the competition were slender to non existent.

Following our strategic review we had identified that any new major business to be targeted would have to be conversion from alternative metal forming processes.  It was apparent to us that we could offer significant technical advantages for industrial applications where the risk of failure in life had to be eliminated.  This was a risk in particular (and demanding) applications where components had been made using alternative metal forming processes.  Companies were prepared to pay heavily for a process that eliminated these risks.  As the result of our new strategy, Roger had targeted the medical division of one of the largest industrial companies in the world.  Within hours of his contact they had put an engineer on a plane from the USA to meet with us.  Now, they had followed this up with drawings for a set of major components for one of their products.  The only person with the engineering skills to lead the investigation into how we could produce the components was Roger.

When I went into the hospital the following day to discuss how we might make alternative plans, I found I had been beaten to it.  Drawings were strewn across Roger’s bed and a small team were assembled around him.  “If I don’t do it, no other bugger can.” growled Roger in his inimitable manner.  He proceeded to lead the team that developed our ultimately successful solution from his hospital bed in the weeks that followed.  Samples were produced, shipped to the US and soon approved.  Unfortunately, despite our superior solution (and the winning of an internet auction) we fell foul of internal politics and it was to be several years before we became a regular supplier.

The infection that had laid Roger low was finally pronounced clear but it was to leave him with subsequent and recurrent problems that continue to this day.  Somehow he would shrug the problems off and battle on displaying a level of fortitude and perseverance I have never witnessed before or since.   It soon became apparent that to pursue these strategic opportunities required investment in new equipment that was capable of producing the power and tolerances required for the demanding, new work.  Over the next few years we acquired two of the largest CNC spinning lathes in Europe (capable of spinning components up to 5 metres in diameter).  These were followed by smaller state of the art spinning machines, water jet cutting, high speed plasma and a robot.

Our bid to acquire Trisk was successful, beating off our Swedish competitor.  Getting to know our new business and repositioning strategy proved to be a time consuming process.  However, we quickly had the business back into profit and started looking for fresh opportunities.

In another serendipitous turn of events we suffered a further minor bad debt when a second of our many MSG customers went into administration.  The company, Bison IBC Systems in Bradford, produced UN standard intermediate bulk containers for the transportation and storage of hazardous chemicals.  It was a leader in its field and had a strong reputation for quality.  However, once again we found a company that had been mismanaged, although this time it was through the activities of its parent company.  Following protracted negotiations we bought the assets of the business later in 1999.  A similar pattern occurred as with Trisk and profits started to flow shortly after our acquisition.

 By the end of that financial year both new acquisitions had made strong profits and, combined with our MSG business, we produced an extremely strong result for our holding company, Precision Engineering International (PEI) which we held jointly with 3i.  We now owned a portfolio of 3 industrial companies, each a leader in its sector.

Pleased with our track record, 3i positively encouraged further acquisition activities.  As a result I received a copy of their entire engineering and manufacturing portfolio (over 500 companies) together with an open invitation to consider any of these for acquisition.  Detailed investigation made clear a couple of things to me.  The first was that it was extremely satisfying to discover that we were one of their top performing investments in these sectors.  The other aspect was learning that they were quite amenable to turning over an investment with a fresh set of partners they considered could produce a higher return.  However, despite spending a great deal of time in further research and analysis there was no obvious target for us.  Shortly afterwards, another problem was sprung on us.

When I set up the funding to acquire MSG I had sat through a ‘beauty parade’ of banks (something that might reasonably be called an oxymoron).  The bank that offered the lowest lending rates and the most attractive deal was Allied Irish.  It seemed that they wanted to become involved in supporting VC backed deals and were anxious to become involved with 3i, hence their better than average offer.  All had gone well for several years although it was clear from various meetings that they knew little about manufacturing and less about engineering.  Nevertheless it was a shock when they turned up one day that year and said they were calling in their millions and we would have to refinance.  When pushed for a reason they claimed that they really didn’t understand our sector and were going to concentrate on property, a sector where they had real expertise.  Well, we all now know how that one worked out for them!

We refinanced easily with HSBC and that relationship worked well for a number of years with further lending to support our growing capital investment programme at MSG.  Until that is, they decided to replace their extremely knowledgeable regional director for someone who knew about as much about business as Allied Irish (perhaps less).

In 2000 another significant event took place.  Our claim against the vendors of MSG and our defence against their counterclaim had been consuming vast amounts of my time and we had already run up massive legal fees.  With all legal avenues exhausted, I had prepared for a full hearing with a brief to a very experienced barrister in London.  We were convinced we could win our case and this meeting reinforced that view.  The process had become more and more fraught as a result of constant rejection by the vendors of each and every attempt we made to resolve the matter and obstruction of our investigations.  It didn’t help that Clifford had a reputation as a blustering bully whose usual line of defence was attack.

Nevertheless, in one last attempt to avoid the additional time and expense of a trial we made a proposal to the vendors to join with us in the Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) process.  To our great surprise we learned that they had agreed to this process.  The stakes were very high.  We had already sunk a large six figure sum into legal and investigative fees in the previous three years but there always has to be an element of risk and uncertainty in legal matters.  Even the ADR process didn’t come cheap with barristers in attendance on both sides.

 Some weeks later I sat across the table from Clifford with our respective teams ranged around us.  It was the first time we had met since we bought the business three years previously and in that time I heard he had suffered a stroke.  Would illness have mellowed him or would he be as obdurate as ever?  Could we reach a settlement and put an end to the vast drain on time and expense?  Or was this just a futile exercise?

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