Monthly Archives: April 2012

The business of life (chapter 11 – what goes up..)

Back as a hero from Japan, waving my bit of paper committing to contract renewal, I felt somewhat like Neville Chamberlain promising ‘peace in our time’.  My first action was to debrief Gordon on the exact details of the trip and the letter of intent and make the necessary changes to the operating budget. The flush of success soon wore off (I think it took place some time that same afternoon).  I then sat down with the team to plan out the detailed marketing plan to ensure we achieved the revised targets that I had agreed to back in Tokyo.  We had a mountain to climb.  However, I’d found that I rather liked challenges.

The Akai Golf

As our new brand widening advertising campaign got underway, one of the unwelcome effects was that all manner of ‘unmissable opportunities’ started crawling out of the woodwork.  Most of these were not worth the time spent reading them, but then one of those serendipitous events occurred.  I received a letter from Richard Lloyd  (of GTI Engineering) seeking sponsorship for the forthcoming British Saloon Car Championship.  What caught my eye and set his approach apart from many others, was artwork of his Golf GTI in our brand livery.  We met, got on famously and I agreed to a package of sponsorship for the year, with an option on the next. I had the artwork for the car reworked, wheedled a road going version from VW that I had resprayed into a replica to use for dealer events and then bought a double decker bus (a Bristol FLF for anyone interested).  I had the bus converted into a hospitality suite, also repainted in the team livery.  We then set about using the races for dealer hospitality, something that became hugely popular, especially as Richard won time and again. Sponsorship became a core element within our communications mix, offering a high technology, exciting and success driven image that resonated with our target market.

 The team I had inherited came up with a variety of ideas for boosting sales and, following a review of these together, we decided that one had real potential to fit with the exciting image we were creating and to boost sales.  That year the Akai Awards were born.  Hammed up beyond belief, we announced to our dealers that they could nominate themselves to win a ‘coveted’ Akai Award for success in promoting the brand and growing sales.  Following a long weekend of exhausting investigation of venues around Europe (in the welcome company of my wife) I chose The Trianon Palace atVersailles and engaged the services of Michael Parkinson as host.  The event later that year was a runaway success.

The most critical new product introduction from Akai that year was the new VHS video recorder.  Head to head with competition from the other brands in the VHS technology camp (especially JVC) it was an all out systems battle with the Sony Betamax system. Against the odds, Akai was the first brand of VHS recorder onto the UK market (and ahead of Sony & JVC) with a batch of just 50 machines air freighted in.  These machines had a recommended retail price of £799 but even while the first batch was still in transit (and with no firm date for the next), retailers were advertising a price cut to £750. Despite a severe supply restriction from all manufacturers in that first year, the price continued to fall.

An interesting endeavour took place whilst I awaited the first VHS deliveries.  We had left in stock quite a large number of an earlier portable black and white quarter inch video system (the VT100).  Never much of a seller and now completely obsolete, these were something I had inherited and they now needed to be cleared prior to our VHS launch.  Thinking of ways to clear the stock (none of our retailers would touch them) I hit upon an idea. My father in law had been struggling to get me to understand what needed to be done to improve my golf swing (my failure not his).  I realised that if I could see what I was doing it would be so much easier to understand.  Back in the office I set about recruiting a temporary sales team to sell these systems into golf professionals.  We succeeded in clearing the stock but it was an uphill struggle to get these ‘professionals’ to envisage the potential of what we were offering!  The joke about the machine gun salesman getting turned away at the battle of Hastings came to mind.

As that first year progressed and sales climbed, research was showing that our brand awareness was rising and that of our competitors was falling.  We repeated the research on a regular basis and monitored consumer purchases via an omnibus survey of household buying by brand. It seemed that the battle for brand awareness was very much a zero sum game.  Using this detailed information I was able to determine which elements of our marketing mix were having the greatest effect on consumer purchases.  It was therefore possible to fine tune our spend in the most cost effective way.  Unfortunately, this knowledge couldn’t save me in a future battle that was looming.

A change that occurred that first year was David’s departure and replacement by Gerry.  A very different man to David, he exuded charm and bonhomie, but soon demonstrated a severe lack of marketing judgement or expertise.  Bounding into my office one Monday morning shortly afterwards, he announced that he had had a simply great idea for a completely new advertising campaign.  “Picture it,” he gushed (complete with a wide ranging variety of hand gestures), “a nude draped over the bonnet of a red Ferrari hugging an Akai product that doesn’t quite cover everything.”  “Great idea.” I responded, trying to muster enthusiasm, “Why don’t you join me at the advertising agency next time we’re having a brain-storming session and pitch it?”  Oh, shit, I thought.

My trips to Tokyo became fairly regular events.  Whilst these visits had been mentally exhausting over the winter, as the months turned to spring and early summer they became physical agony.  As the world was still suffering an energy crisis, Akai had decided that the air conditioning would only be switched on in July and August.  Sitting on the plastic covered chairs in a pool of sweat in one of the windowless meeting rooms, during an unseasonal heat wave in early summer, Andy and I were soon afflicted by a medical condition colloquially known as ‘baboon bum’.  Sweating and fidgeting away we decided that we needed ‘rest and recuperation’ to ensure our fitness before we returned to the office.  The advantage of crossing the international date line on the return leg was that of gaining a day.  Why not take advantage of this?  A call to rearrange our flights saw us that Friday evening jetting off to Hawaii rather than Anchorage.  If you’ve never done it, arriving at 6.00 am (after a seven hour flight) on the morning of the same day you departed at 6.00pm, takes a little adjusting to.  Friday was largely lost in a jet lagged haze but we did manage a few visits the next day and decided that the (then) Kahala Hilton atDiamond Head would make a fine venue for the next year’s Akai Awards. It took a subsequent visit a few month’s later just to ensure that we had made the correct decision.

Back in London the visit of the Akai Company President finally took place (having been continually delayed), resulting in a significant shock.  There was to be no contract renewal despite our raising sales by 50% in under two years to a new high of £6m.  Instead, it was announced that Akai was to form its own company that same year (1979).  I was involved in no further discussions and the President and his entourage moved on.  RAV promptly served redundancy notices on me and my entire team.  The personnel director assured me that he would let me know if any other roles became available within the group. Gordon was nowhere to be found.

Did my success count for nothing? Had my spell of success run its course?  With the trade unions wreaking havoc upon the economy, the three-day week, Britain being laughingly referred to as the sick man of Europe and with unemployment raging, the outlook seemed far from benign.  What followed over the next couple of years was to reveal aspects of my make-up that would cause me to question my abilities and the wisdom of meeting opposition head on

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The business of life (chapter 10 – in which I learn the art of patience)

So it was, after a whirlwind few weeks, that I met David at Heathrow one Saturday afternoon and we boarded the long flight out to Tokyo (in economy, alas).  At that time the only sensible route was over the Pole to Anchorage for refuelling and then on toTokyo (given thatRussia had yet to agree to its airspace being used by the new 747).  The brief stopover in Anchorage provided a welcome opportunity to stretch the legs, enjoy a bowl of ramen and be glad that the enormous polar bear in the lounge was of the deceased and stuffed variety.

Unable to sleep on the second leg to Tokyo, I took to wandering up and down the aisles.  Pausing near the emergency exit I looked down into the blackness through the small porthole and was greeted by a curious sight. Spread out as far as the eye could see were pinpricks of light all at equal distance.  I moved across to the port side of the aircraft and was intrigued to see exactly the same.  I beckoned to one of the hostesses to look and asked her if she knew what they were, “No idea,” she responded “but I’ll ask the captain.”  After consulting on the phone she turned to me with a smile and offered, “Russian fishing fleet.” in that delightful Japanese lilt.  We flew over this vast armada for half an hour.  Failing in my attempts to calculate how many square miles of North Pacific was being covered and how many tons of fish were being gathered, I realised I was exhausted and returned to my seat and slept.

We arrived the Sunday afternoon at Haneda airport to be greeted by the horrendous queues that were by then a constant feature.  Haneda, although conveniently close to Tokyo centre, was desperately overcrowded and the new Narita airport was not finally due for opening until the following year.  After a quick shower at the hotel, we were met by what became the usual delegation from the Foreign Trade department, headed by a senior manager, Sugino who was unusually tall for a Japanese man. What followed became a constant feature of my trips to Akai.  Firstly, I had to make my presentation to Sugino and his team at the hotel; this was greeted by sharp intakes of breath and pronouncements that Horie-san (the director in charge of foreign trade) would never agree to this or that some other aspect could never be contemplated by him.  This went on for several hours, by which time I was hungry enough to start gnawing at my own limbs, but didn’t give any ground.  It had been agreed that David would take a back seat whilst I, as the new man, would stick his neck out selling the process as the new start that I was heading.

Finally, Sugino, said that he would speak with Horie overnight to see if he considered it worthwhile even meeting us the next day, and announced that we should go to dinner.  The evening taxed even my youthful stamina and ability to drink and it was gone midnight before I crawled into bed.  The following morning we were collected by one of the department’s junior managers and driven to the Akai office. The first few hours were filled with a variety of junior managers wanting to ‘clarify a few points’; the clarification inevitably leading to request for reconsideration of one point or another that had already been discussed endlessly.  The juniors would depart whilst we were offered more green tea and then return to start the ritual once more.  By lunchtime, neither Sugino nor the elusive Horie had made an appearance.  A curious interpretation of a sandwich lunch followed.

And so it continued, until sometime in the late afternoon, at the point that David and I were ready to stage a walkout, Sugino appeared apologising profusely saying that Horie had been detained at a meeting with some important visitors and would be joining us for dinner.  Would we like to relax with a bath before dinner?  Having spent the day in a windowless meeting room, I was ready to agree to almost anything. In fact, I had already become a fan of the Japanese system of communal bathing and massage and readily agreed (David taking some persuading).

Following a leisurely bath and relaxing massage, Sugino took us to what was clearly a very expensive restaurant.  We were ushered into a private room where a very urbane and distinguished looking Japanese man in his late forties introduced himself as Horie.  No business was discussed that evening.  Horie concentrated, in an extremely polite and sociable manner, on seeking to find out as much about me as he could.  The meal went on for a considerable time and was served in what seemed an endless series of courses all presented on exquisite, lacquered dishes.  David was obviously not a fan of Japanese food and had been doing his best to avoid eating more than a morsel of anything.  However, he seemed to perk up at one dish which included what looked like two small bacon rashers.  With the rashers poised in front of his lips David, looked across smiling at Horie and enquired,  “Horie-san, what are these?” before popping them into his mouth and proceeding to chew enthusiastically.  Horie raised an eyebrow and glanced at Sugino who smiled back at David explaining, “Ah, how you say, cock of pig?” David stopped chewing, looked aghast and realising that he could only continue with his mouthful, proceeded to chew ever more slowly, his face reddening as he did.

In the morning Sugino met us at the hotel and drove us to the office where, after the obligatory wait, we were joined by a smiling Horie.  Following tea and more polite conversation, Horie invited me to present the business plan.  My presentation was accompanied by constant interruptions and haranguing from Horie.  The day wore on in similar manner with Horie finally stating that there was no way he could present the plan to his board without major changes.  David and I suggested a breakout and together we agreed that we had to make some changes if we were to stand any chance of getting the contract renewal. We returned and said we needed to review all of the points Horie had made and consider if any changes were possible to our plan.  We returned early to the hotel where we agreed to increase the units we were proposing to purchase, but with a corresponding reduction in the price we paid.  We ate a quick dinner and David left me to make the changes to the business plan. The changes complete, I sat in the top floor hotel bar gazing out high over an incredible vista of the blinking lights of night-time Tokyo wondering if it would ever be possible to win the contract renewal. The nagging doubts of possible failure stayed with me, producing a night of troubled sleep.

The following morning Horie was nowhere to be seen and the previous pattern was repeated with Sugino leading the discussions.  Game playing and histrionics became the order of the day once again.  I couldn’t believe how so much time could be spent going over the same ground in ever finer detail, time and again.  The day passed slowly until it was announced early evening that we were going for dinner. Sugino disappeared and we were taken off in a taxi by two of the junior managers.  First we went to a bar for several hours before being taken for dinner (considerably less sumptuous than the previous evening).  We then went onto the classic Japanese bar where hostesses joined us for more hours of stilted conversation, much joking and karaoke. I crawled into bed at some point in the early hours.

The next morning dawned with us due to catch a flight that evening and still no nearer an agreement.  Yet more negotiations followed at the office but I was beginning to feel that we might just be edging closer together.  Lunch was the usual sandwiches after which Horie appeared and announced that Sugino would draft a letter of intent with us for signature. I couldn’t believe that we had got to this point. The hours ticked by as every word was considered, reviewed, challenged, changed, agreed and finally the document was typed up.  It was late afternoon before Horie reappeared and we signed the letter of intent, which included the commitment that the President would sign a new 7 year distribution agreement in London later that year, providing we were meeting our plans.

We were driven to the airport where the first thing David did was to demand my ticket and charged off to the JAL desk where he promptly upgraded us to first class. “We’ve bloody well earned this.” he stated.  Upon boarding we were greeted by Gerry (Angus’s recent replacement) and Harry (my counterpart who had run the Nikon business for years).  The two of them had also had an extremely successful trip and we partied most of the first leg to Anchorage.  On the long flight back over the Pole, still buzzing with elation, I had time to reflect on events while the others slept.

The pugnacious side of my nature had clearly been guiding my actions when I agreed to take on the role of running the Akai business.  By this stage I had begun to believe that I could achieve success at whatever I turned my hand to.  Having had by then over 10 years of unbroken achievement and ascendency I really did feel invincible.  This week’s trip to Tokyo seemed to prove that I certainly could go on achieving results. However, I felt strangely alone in my new role, having left behind my own, hand picked team and a very supportive boss in Peter (and indeed Angus).

I had sold myself and my plan to a very tough new company; now the only thing I had to do was to deliver on my commitments. The problem was that the hill was now even steeper than it had first appeared and I wasn’t entirely convinced that my new team were 100% supportive.

Image courtesy of Panoramio 

The business of life (chapter 9 – is fear of failure a spur?)

Ushered into my vast new office that first morning as business manager for Akai, I felt quite alone.  Moira, my new secretary, did her best to make me feel at home and proved over the coming months to be an invaluable asset with her timely and appropriate guidance.  I quickly set off to walk my new territory and to meet the team (who numbered more than three times my old crew).  Following a series of personal meetings with my direct reports a vague feeling of unease settled over me.  To say that they were wary of me (the outsider, again) was to be expected.  What did concern me was the impression they left me with, that nothing really needed to change.  Why had the business plateaued for two years?  Not their fault.


The existing team included Lindsey (marketing manager), Andy (sales manager) & Peter (technical manager).  Of these, Andy seemed the most resistant to any thought of change (unless it was change that originated from him or favoured him). They had all worked together for a number of years and clearly felt that they should be left to run the business. Lindsey was an interesting and knowledgeable character (who went on to become a director of a major advertising agency).  However, my view was that he was somewhat defensive, which was perhaps natural given the stagnation of the brand, and possibly resentful of my appointment (and perhaps even scornful of my lack of formal qualifications). He remained wary of me throughout our time together.  Peter was a delight; free from commercial considerations in his role, he was a technical wizard who suffered my endless questions, always giving honest and invaluable advice.  Another gem was Ian, the product manager, who worked for Lindsey.  Whatever problem he was posed, Ian would return in double quick time with a well researched and intelligent response.

David my new boss was the director responsible for the entire Audio division (which included Rotel, Leak and Wharfedale brands).  He was well educated, refined but remote (even aloof) and someone who rarely ventured out of his office to talk to the troops.  He was a smooth operator, used to getting his own way and it wasn’t long before we had our first run in.  However, the big blow up occurred later that year when I was putting together our internal budget for the board. David drove me to distraction by continually sending me away saying, “Hhmm, I’m sure that if you take another look at the sales, you’ll find they could be higher.”  This went on and on, with me returning to find the same approach applied then to margins, then overheads, then cashflow.  By this time I lost patience with him and responded, “David, you’ve obviously got a clear idea of what it is you’re looking for, just tell me what it is, I’ll construct the numbers around it and do whatever I can to achieve your budget.”  He went apesh*t.  I have never taken well to the concept that I should take responsibility for someone else’s views.

An immediate priority was a whistle stop tour of our major customers, which I undertook with Andy (believing the time spent travelling would provide an ideal opportunity to get to know him better). Andy had been in the audio trade for some years and had an extensive knowledge of the sector and the customers.  However, he was, I became convinced, reluctant to embrace change.  However, he seemed well accepted by most of our customers (and certainly those who enjoyed lavish entertainment).

I hadn’t gained a high opinion of the major retail chains from my experiences in the grocery trade.  Nevertheless, and despite meeting some fascinating people in firms both large and small who became close contacts, I soon came to the conclusion that the major electrical retailers were in a class of their own. As it was the time of year when new product ranges were introduced there was a dual purpose to our visits. Andy and I shared the task of selling in the new ranges of products that were to form the next season’s key lines.  I made what I thought was a well reasoned and logical proposal covering the new product features and carefully researched price points to Nick, the buying director of one of the UK’s largest retailers.  Leaning back in his chair, hands behind head, he responded, “I don’t give s h*t about your research or product features! You come back with a price half that or less and I’ll think about giving you an order.”  Sadly, the electrical retailers seemed obsessed with price to the exclusion of all other factors (something that has not improved with the passage of time).

Meanwhile, I had been given six weeks to put together a plan, agree it with the board and get on a plane to Tokyo to sell it to the management of Akai.    Having listened to all everyone had to say about the brand, including the advertising agency and some quickly commissioned research, I started to put my thoughts together.  The brand had been known for and had flourished on its reputation for cassette recorders and open reel tape decks in the enthusiast market for HiFi separates.  In the area of amplifiers Pioneer ruled.  There were two problems looming.  Firstly, there was a growing trend towards ‘racked’ HiFi systems, which required the major components to be of the same brand (to fit physically and in terms of appearance).  Given that Pioneer were much stronger overall, the Akai brand was vulnerable to these changes as we were little known for our amplifiers, tuners & turntables.  The other challenge was the news that Akai had joined the technical group (led by JVC) who were developing the VHS home video system.  With Sony coming with the competing (and technically superior) Betamax system there was going to be a battle and Akai had to be at the forefront to survive and prosper.  It was clear that we had to reposition Akai as a broad based Hifi brand, raise its consumer awareness and be ready to extend that brand image to include video.

The next few weeks passed in an exhausting blur. My turnaround plan was principally based upon the required broadening & raising of the brand image and major investment in the necessary advertising, PR and other promotional activities required to widen our distribution.  In putting the plan together I also used elements proposed by my team that, to my mind, offered a valuable role in the overall mix.  Despite the mutual reservations that existed between my team and I they had worked with me on this key task.  Luckily, David and the board backed the business plan with little modification, agreeing that to retain our distribution rights we had to be seen to be raising our investment.  Frankly, Akai had been treated as a cash cow for the last few years.

Sitting in my office on the Friday evening before my flight to Tokyo, I reflected on my situation.  I was now in a role that offered a fine balance between success and failure. I wanted the former but feared the latter. I had been given another significant raise (and was enjoying a great lifestyle) but once more I realised it wasn’t the money that was driving me.  I had known what being really hard up was like and had no desire to return to that state. I began to realise that it was as much fear of failure as it was a desire to succeed that kept me pushing forward.  Could I succeed in winning a contract renewal?  Were the results I was promising realistic?

Image courtesy of

The business of life (chapter 8 – a business to run)

Driving across London for my meeting with Peter and Angus the next day I reflected on the growing sense of dissatisfaction I was experiencing with my current role. I was by then earning a great deal of money.  I had flourished through the recessions of the early and mid-seventies (induced by miners strikes, 3 day weeks and Arab oil embargoes), had moved into our first house the year before and we were enjoying regular family holidays.  The problem was it wasn’t enough; not the money nor the standard of living.  The real issue, I realised, was that I was just frustrated with my role.  I loved the negotiations that came with the big deals but the day to day role simply bored me.

By this time I had been selling successfully for over 8 years in two demanding companies and had graduated to the most important customers. But it simply wasn’t enough; I wanted more responsibility, a wider role and greater autonomy.  A few short hours later I had all of those things.

Unbeknown to me, Angus and Peter had been engaged in negotiations with a Japanese manufacturer of cine cameras and projectors.  The new brand Sankyo was potentially a wonderful fit into RAV’s consumer brand portfolio as we had no presence in this sector.  A powerful additional benefit to the Sankyo brand was their forthcoming entry into the market with a first generation sound cine camera.  The negotiations had been concluded, apart from their agreement to whoever RAV chose to head up the new venture.

When I drove away from the office later that afternoon I had the role of Business Manager for Sankyo and full profit and loss responsibility for the new business.  The downsides were that I had to rely on sharing the services of my old colleagues as a sales force, I had taken a pay cut and would have to keep the car I was currently assigned.  The sales team issue was a temporary one, my car was still fine and I had negotiated a basic salary that was 50% up.  However, I was going to be one third down on a monthly basis earnings basis for the first year when I would become eligible for a generous bonus scheme if I exceeded sales and profit targets. But I was also now on the company executive contract with the additional security that provided.  A few days later I met with the chairman of the Sankyo business and his team responsible forEurope and the deal was signed.

The company also agreed to fund a move to ease my commute and later that year we became residents of Henley on Thames, a delightful location (and one now full of wonderful memories).

One of the first meetings I had upon taking up my new role was with Martin, the finance director.  I had been required to construct a one year budget for our new business including my first attempt at a cashflow projection.  Not to put too fine a point upon it, I was taken ‘back to school’ for about an hour and then informed I was booked on a “Finance for the non-financial manager” course.  I learnt quickly and it established my enduring commitment to the critical task of managing cash in a business.  I might have had the financial backing of a major PLC but God help me if the subsequent result was more than a few percent out from my monthly cash forecast.  Cutting back on forecast purchases from Japan, if I had failed to achieve my sales budget, also brought the wrath of the Japanese gods down on my head. One learnt quickly that honesty and accuracy were far more important than over optimism or chancing to luck.

Having ensured that the sales team was trained in my new products and the press was briefed, the trade launch took place.  Luckily for me the products were well received and orders flowed.  However, a few months after launch sales started to fall short of projections.  Two problems were responsible for the slowdown; the first taught me a lot about the challenges of adding a product range to an existing sales team and expecting synergy to take over.  My erstwhile colleagues had existing product sales targets to achieve as did my two fellow business managers (John & Doug) responsible for Pentax & Mamiya.  Gradually, by a process of discussion and collaboration, we managed to stagger promotional activity and product launches and sales started to climb once more.

The second problem was more deep rooted but, once identified, the solution became one of the most important factors behind the brand’s subsequent success.  In my previous role I had learnt to understand the purchasing behaviour and product use of the typical still camera owner.  In common with everyone else in the retail photographic sector, I believed that cine camera owners had similar needs and behaved in a similar fashion.  In an effort to understand more about the market I commissioned research into cine users’ beliefs, behaviours and perceptions of the major brands.  When the results were presented, I was amazed to find that the average owner was almost completely disinterested in the technicalities of the equipment; they saw little difference between major brands and merely wanted something that was easy to operate and would perform reliably.  Yes, there was a technology aware group of enthusiasts but they were a minute percentage of the market.

The implications of the research were immediately apparent; manufacturers and retailers were stressing the wrong aspects of the equipment both in advertising and instore.  There was much evidence in the research findings that many purchasers were alienated with a retail sector they believed talked down to them in terms they couldn’t understand.  The typical cine purchaser was scared off by sales pitches that dwelt on the technical aspects of the equipment.

Armed with this unique knowledge, I implemented two new strategies.  The first was to sit down with the advertising agency and spell out a new communications strategy.  The new top of the range models we positioned as aspirational objects (one of which you can see above, courtesy of an eBay vendor).  For the volume selling lines we took care to explain the benefits that came with new features rather than the universal assumption that everyone knew what these benefits were.  The other new approach I developed was a training module designed to teach our retailers a more congenial and benefits focussed approach.  I took to the road to deliver this training programme to as many of our stockists as I could reach.  The new approach was a success and sales started to climb.

Life was now anything but boring but in the first six months I found I had gained half a stone in weight.  My energetic regime in sales was now but a memory and the long ‘business’ lunch was fast becoming a regular pastime.  Yes, I was still selling my socks off but these negotiations more usually now took place around the table in some suitably upmarket restaurant.  Shocked at my rapidly thickening girth I joined the local Henley rowing club and soon became addicted.  For those interested in the sport, no I never achieved greatness, but spent whatever hours I could free up on the river with a fellow fanatic in a coxless pair.  Happy days, whatever the weather, and the start of a fitness habit that has stayed with me to this day.

Life in our large open plan office was usually full of fun (and intrigue).  Doug and John were now my fellow business managers and we enjoyed a great deal of camaraderie. However, with John (sadly deceased at far too early an age) there was always a competitive edge that was exacerbated by his overly suspicious nature.  Our two heavenly secretaries, Sue and Linda, managed to lighten the atmosphere and both took delight in chiding and teasing John whenever the opportunity presented itself. I had confided in Sue the reason for my absence from the office for a couple of days which happened to be due to a minor operation that would ensure my days of procreation were over.  As soon as I returned to the office John became solicitous in an extreme towards me and I realised that Sue had been a little indiscreet (she just gave me her usual sweet smile when questioned).  It became progressively clear from John’s ever more pointed probing that, not understanding the procedure, he had assumed that I had been completely emasculated.  It wasn’t until several years later, enjoying a drink with Sue at a company function that she revealed the truth.  It seems that the day after my ‘procedure’ she had brought a small medical container into the office containing two pickled walnuts swimming in surgical fluid, which she proudly assured John I had given her as a souvenir!  John had truly believed that this was what my little procedure had entailed.

Towards the end of my first year in the role, I had my first visit to Japan, taking part in a multi brand press trip.  Up until this point I had been liaising with Sankyo with regular trips to their European headquarters in Düsseldorf.  It had been decided to steal a march on competition with a fact-finding press trip to a country that was still relatively unvisited fromEurope.  All of the major factories of our various partners were visited with a good deal of time for sightseeing and ‘rest and relaxation’ built in.  Once I had acquired a taste for sake, raw fish and Ryokan, I came to love the country, returning many times in the next 5 years.  With the excuses of further press trips, dealer visits and sales team incentives, I also managed to visit many of the traditional tourist sights. I also loved the hot spring resorts, the mountains, the temples and how even the smallest patch of garden was turned into a haven of peace and tranquillity.  I was highly impressed with the speed and sheer efficiency of the Shinkansen and particularly the Japanese methods of manufacturing and the care they had for their workers.   Business was something else though and gruelling in the extreme (more of this in subsequent chapters).

I exceeded budget that first year, reaching a level that now justified my own team.  My budget for the next year proposed a sales team of 6, together with a product manager and a secretary of my own (the lovely Sue being stolen away for the exclusive use of John).  Having seen how a good grounding in sales technique was more important than knowledge of the sector, I recruited exclusively from outside the industry.  With Laurie the Product Manager and Bernadette (from Grenada) our new secretary, my team was now complete.  Looking back my leadership style at the outset was one of working with people to achieve agreed results and this approach has stayed with me (although I have no hesitation of ‘letting go’ non-performers).  If I’m honest, though, I probably erred too far towards letting my hair down with the team on evenings before sales meetings and on trips.  I was always the first up in the morning and very intolerant of lateness or lack of serious intent with the business of the day.

We worked hard and we played hard and soon, in 1976, sales were at a running rate of well over £1m and growing healthily.  The new sound cine equipment was selling well, aided by our advertising campaign and good product performance.  In their first year my new team did well and together we beat budget; I was back earning serious money once more. Peter was delighted at the results, as was Angus and the Sankyo people back inJapan.  I also stuck close to the media and sponsored the annual amateur film competition run by a leading magazine.  The only downside of this sponsorship was having to take part in the judging, which involved sitting through hour after hour of the most turgid, amateur efforts.  The relief at finding one film that stood head and shoulders above the rest was palpable.

Shortly after my second year end I walked into the office one afternoon following a customer visit to find Bernadette looking as if the world was about to end.  “Quick,” she breathed in her uniquely husky Caribbean accent “Gordon’s been on the phone several times; he wants to see you now.”  Gordon our divisional MD (and Angus’s boss) was not someone I knew well (in fact I was not aware he even knew I existed).  A 6′ 7″ Scot, with a formidable track record, Gordon towered over the majority (literally and figuratively), inhabiting a suite of offices on the floor above and rarely venturing down into our area.  When I arrived in his secretary’s office, Gordon was on the phone and I had to sit waiting for what seemed an age, consumed with curiosity as to the reason behind my summons; I had done everything asked of me, hadn’t I?

Finally ushered into his corner office, I was directed to one of the armchairs that surrounded the coffee table, where I was joined by a jovial Gordon.  “You’ve been doing well,” he announced and before I could respond continued, “I’ve got a wee problem and I think you can help.” Trying to remain relaxed I muttered something about doing whatever I could.  The story then unfolded.  Akai HiFi was one of the largest of the Japanese brands in the RAV stable, was the first and had originally been won and run by Gordon.  “We’re in trouble,” he went on, “The sales have been flat at £4m for the last two years, the contract is due for renewal in a year and the Japanese have threatened to fire us. How would you like to take the business on and win another contract renewal?”

I had really enjoyed my time running Sankyo, having my own team and getting results.  For the first time in a long time I wasn’t even bored.  And now here was a monster challenge being dumped in my lap.  Did I want it?  Could I turn Akai around? Would it be a good move?

I said yes.  What followed were some of the most invaluable experiences and greatest successes of my early career.  Unfortunately, the next few years were also responsible for almost ruining my career, my health and my marriage.

The business of life (chapter 7 – on gaining a broader insight on life)

Business was not without its occasional pleasures.  From time to time various dealer conferences were attended in venues a littler warmer than off-season Eastbourne (my wife joining me for one welcome trip toMalta).  Another memorable trip for a number of reasons was a visit David organised for 3 of us target busters to a number of our fellow European distributors.  The great surprise upon gathering at Heathrow was being ushered like royalty through departures and out onto the tarmac where the company jet was waiting to fly us off to Copenhagen. 

Our first evening passed fairly quietly and an early flight the following morning took us to Odense. After a very short meeting at our distributor’s office we were taken to a delightful restaurant where beer and schnapps commenced at around 11.30 and flowed until some time after 5.00pm.  A very long evening and night followed and saw me the next morning (following about one hour’s sleep) suffering from a monumental hangover.  Somehow I managed to survive the drive to the ferry and was dragged into the bar where I promptly announced I wanted to die.  The barman took one look at me, poured a glass of dark brown liquid and instructed me to drink it down in one; I did and it had the most incredible effect.  Instantly a deep calm settled upon my very fragile stomach and within another 5 minutes my head cleared.  I had discovered Gammel Dansk.

The Beatles may have long departed but Hamburg was still memorable.  Deciding to wash the travel dust from my bones and sweat out the remnants of the previous day’s alcohol, I joined one of my colleagues for a visit to the sauna in the Intercontinental where we were staying.  Not realising it was for mixed sex we marched in as naked as nature intended to be greeted by a very Germanic blond (in similar state of nudity and using her towel simply to sit upon) with, “Hello English”.  Given we had not uttered a word I am still trying to work out what it was that gave us away.

Dinner that evening was in a very upmarket restaurant in a converted wharf building.  The conversion had been carried out in such a way that there were a number of tiered levels permitting a panoramic view across the docks through full height windows.  The evening was relaxed with wonderful food, lubricated with David’s usual expensive selection of wine.  The clientele was decidedly cosmopolitan, expensively dressed and generally decorously behaved; with one exception.  Taking in my surroundings and glancing around the upper tiers of seating (which was in the main affording an expansive view of a sea of knees and the underside of tables) I couldn’t believe my eyes at a scene playing out one tier up.  A couple, clearly the worse for wear were, not to put too fine a point upon it, pleasuring each other (probably in the mistaken belief that what they were doing could not be seen under cover of the table).  This little demonstration of libidinous incontinence played itself out even whilst they were being served by staff, who effected not to notice what was going on right under their noses.

Richard, one of my colleagues, was strictly teetotal and had swept through the trip so far without even a sip of alcohol.  Having missed our flight from Hamburg, we arrived very late inAmsterdam and rushed through check-in at our hotel to get to the bar, which we found was just closing.  The barman said not to worry as he would rustle us up something to keep us going.  True to his word, he reappeared a few minutes later bearing a large grin and an ice bucket filled to the brim with an orange fluid declaring “Screwdrivers!”  “What are screwdrivers?” enquired Richard with a worried look.  “Oh, it’s just a Dutch version of orange juice.” David assured Richard, who rapidly downed a large glass. He declared it very acceptable and said he would have another.  And another and so on, finally becoming very animated when the bucket was drained, demanding more.   The following lunchtime Richard announced he had by then realised the terrible trick that had been played on him….but would try a beer.   He continued drinking through the rest of the day and most of the night.  He never returned to his former self.

Walking back to our hotel that night my colleagues decided they wanted to see the red light district, so a detour to De Wallen was duly made.  Our short (I promise) walking tour left me with two lasting impressions, one hilarious and the other deeply disturbing.  We had wandered along one side of a canal looking at the wares on offer in the various little windows when a commotion started further along the canal.  We elbowed our way to the front of what was a very jocular and large crowd to find a group of a dozen or more Scotsmen.  Clad to a man in their national dress and very much the worse for wear, they were noisily negotiating terms with one of the ‘angels of the night’ through her open window.  Finally a suitable financial arrangement was agreed, the door was opened and they ALL trooped in at once to a vast cheer from the assembled throng.  The curtain was pulled and we drifted away with the crowd.  The room couldn’t have been much larger than the bed it contained.

Further along the canal there were various small theatres offering ‘live sex shows’, which none of us had an appetite for.  As we were making our way back to the hotel, a smartly dressed trio came into view.  Probably husband and wife in their late thirties, the couple were hand in hand with an angelic looking little girl of not quite teenage years.  They paused to look at the offerings of several theatres before all nodding agreement and walking into one that promised the most outrageous show.  No objection was raised by the doorman and they disappeared inside leaving me feeling decidedly sickened, a sensation that has never left me and that returns whenever I recall the incident.

Quite what business lessons we learnt from this European study tour (despite the meetings we held with our various European distributor colleagues) I am not sure but certainly they have not stood the test of time.  Suffice to say that I gained a much wider appreciation of the social customs of our near neighbours and that it was now crystal clear that my strict religious upbringing had done little to prepare me for some of the more mentally (and physically) challenging aspects of international travel.

Over the next few months I received a morale boost with a move to take over the Central London region covering the majority of our major accounts.  My earnings continued to improve and I ended the year taking home more than three times that which I had in my role with my previous company.  This was fine from a financial perspective but it was far from sufficient in terms of either job satisfaction or self-fulfilment.  I continued to push both David and Peter at any and every opportunity for advancement; I must have been a complete pain in the a*$!  Then, the situation began to look much more hopeful with the news that David was leaving.   I liked David immensely, had enjoyed long ‘business’ lunches with him whenever we could fit them in and learnt a great deal from him, but I was aching for the chance to move on and up.  I began to visualise myself in David’s role and was mentally planning changes I would make.

Almost immediately matters took a turn for the worse when Peter informed me that I was not being given the chance to replace David and lead the team; David’s role was going to Keith one of my team mates, another old hand from the photographic trade.  My heart sank.  A nice enough guy and great company socially but it was clear to me that I could learn nothing from Keith.  Arrogance on my part?  Maybe, but I had studied my team mates carefully for the last year or so and knew that they were now trailing me both in sales performance and the knowledge of how to innovate. A series of meetings with Peter & Keith culminated with a deal being struck; I would support Keith, he would keep out of my hair and the company would support me to fund a study programme to equip me for a bigger role.  Courses at the Institute ofMarketing followed and I started evening classes once more.

One evening some months later I received a call from Peter.  Could I cancel whatever I had arranged for the next day and come into the office to meet him and Angus?  An urgent situation had arisen that he wouldn’t discuss on the phone.  Had I screwed up somehow? Or, was this the chance I had been waiting for?

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The business of life (chapter 6 – in which I discover riches are not everything )

The company I joined in late 1972 was Rank Audio Visual (a division of The Rank Organisation) based in an imposing, 1930’s style building on the Great West Road in Brentford,West London.  The products marketed by RAV included those manufactured in the UK (such as Aldis, Leak & Wharfedale) together with many of the premier Japanese and European brands (Nikon, Arriflex, Bauer, Akai, Pentax & Mamiya).   The team I joined was responsible for the sale of Pentax, Mamiya, Aldis & Bauer consumer, professional & educational products).

As a small team of six sales managers we covered the UK. My own geographic horizons broadened in that I was now responsible for more than half of the capital plus all of Essex,Kent, Surrey andSussex.  Apart from my new boss David, theUK sales manager, I was the only one of the team who had not previously worked ‘man and boy’ in the photographic business and, as such was treated with a mixture of caution or distain.

Following a product introduction day spent with the two product managers, I was despatched to spend a few days ‘on the road’ with my fellow sales managers.  Having come from a highly structured and disciplined company with rigid call patterns and performance ratios, I was amazed at how relaxed the new business was.  It was clear that my new colleagues were coasting, they were old hands who did just enough to make target (usually with a great deal of  game playing) and who were never on territory before 10.00am and rarely, if ever, after 3.00pm.  Now, despite being someone who had had more than his fair share of afternoons off in the past, it had always been because I had finished that day’s workload and there was little or no way one could earn any additional money. The money I could earn now was limitless and I was certainly going to make the best use of every waking hour.

Here I was with a completely open-ended commission scheme meaning the more I sold the greater my earnings; I was going to sell the maximum I possibly could and reap the financial rewards.  This attitude quickly brought me into conflict with my new colleagues who attempted to instil in me (by fair means or foul) their own values and working practices.  I made it clear that I was going to do whatever it took to be successful.  Over and above the potential for earning, I was now ambitious and I had my sights set clearly on David’s job; he clearly had potential therefore, I reasoned to myself, there would be an opportunity sooner or later. The business was certainly more exotic than the one I had left.  One of the annual highlights was the unveiling of the Pentax Calendar shot by Sam Haskins one of the great glamour photographers of the 60’s & 70’s.  I was constantly befriended by those who clamoured after each year’s new edition.

From the outset my new role was wonderful, the freedom was stimulating, travelling the English countryside in a smart new car (still at far too high an average speed) was refreshing and the selling task was enjoyable.  I had taken over from an old hand who had neglected vast swathes of the market. My advanced level of training had prepared me well enough for the task and the environment was challenging but responsive.  The retail environment I had entered was split into two main factions. There were those that were still attempting to cling to manufacturers’ recommended pricing and a traditional way of retailing on the one hand and, on the other, the new volume driven entrants who created a cost base that enabled them to exist on extremely slender margins (usually via mail order).  I managed to make real progress with both groups.  With the volume operators it was a question of staying close, negotiating well and constructing pricing models that fed the volume needs of both us and them.  With the traditional outlets I spent time on a selection who I felt offered the right geographic coverage and who were receptive to the patient and reasoned sales methodology I put to them (concentrating on lines that the mail order outlets didn’t favour).

Getting past my lack of trade experience was never a problem but it did produce some hilarious moments.  I had one East End Jewish retailer called Ken who enjoyed a formidable reputation.  On my first visit I waited patiently for him to finish with a customer and was greeted with a scowling, “Who are you?”  I politely explained who I was and was peered at closely. “What were you doing before you joined RAV?” he barked.  Sensing a challenge was on the way I decided a truthful response was in order and replied that I had been a margarine salesman. Ken’s eyes narrowed.  “Do you speak French?” “Un peu”, came back my cocky reply.  “Good”, growled Ken, “then you’ll understand F*ck off!”  I grinned and stood my ground.  “OK, smart*rse,” he responded, “explain reciprocity failure to me.”  I did in very succinct terms, grinning all the while. He caved in and we did business.

At the end of my first year the money I took home came out at more than double my basic salary and I was even more confident that I could do better.  One of my largest accounts was a national retailer called Derek Gardner, run by him of the same name.  Initially a very intimidating man, who had been extremely difficult to meet, we built a good relationship and business flowed.  Derek was a very disciplined man whose office was always impeccable and without a single piece of paper on display anywhere; in fact the whole office, nicely furnished as it was, was completely devoid of anything of character.  One summer morning I arrived at his office mid-morning for an appointment.  Derek greeted me in his usual reserved but polite enough manner but after five minutes or so I could tell his attention was elsewhere.  “Do you fancy a game of football?” he chipped in halfway through an attempt on my part to engage him on the business of the day. “Come on”, he continued, not waiting for my reply, “We’ll go to my house.”

Derek’s house transpired to be larger than I had ever been in before and set in beautiful Surrey countryside.  The sun shone and for half an hour or so we kicked a football around a section of his enormous grounds.  When he had had enough we sat and chatted.  It wasn’t long before the chat turned into a very serious discussion over a proposition I put to him to launch a major national promotion on Pentax cameras.  We got as far as I could go before I realised that I was, as the saying goes, out of my pay grade.  I made a suitable excuse of checking supply with Japan prior to committing on the details of price and promotional support.  The potential we had discussed was simply huge, greater than my entire budget for the brand that year.  Fast driving got me back to head office that same afternoon and deep in discussion with David’s boss, Peter.  We agreed that if the necessary level of additional support fromTokyo could be obtained, there was the makings of a deal I could go back with.

With a new price agreement in place from the Japanese, I made another appointment with Derek to thrash out what we both envisaged to be minor details.  The evening before my meeting Peter called to say that he couldn’t be with me but his boss, Angus (the divisional director) would be accompanying me.  I had no problem with Angus as I had always had a good enough relationship with him.  However, from the outset it became clear that there was a significant clash brewing between the two of them.  Derek was a self-made man with a clear sense of his own abilities and Angus, although warm and engaging, had that public school confidence and assertiveness that set him a world apart.  I sat and watched as our carefully nuanced deal fell apart before my eyes.  Within half an hour Angus and I were outside on the pavement with Derek’s outright refusal to negotiate further ringing in our ears. Angus put on a brave face and departed for the office.  It was a long drive home but the first thing I did was to phone Derek and seek an appointment with him the next day.  “So long as you don’t have that *&%! with you”, was the response from Derek.  I assured him not.

The next day Derek and I negotiated hard once more, going over the key points but avoiding the pitfalls of the day before.  An hour or so later we finally reached a position we were agreed upon. This time, pay grade or not, I shook hands with Derek, got him to write out and sign the order and headed out back to the office.  I walked straight into Angus’s office unannounced and slapped down the order.  His eyes went wide and then he grinned widely. “You bastard!” was the greeting I got.  But I had brought back the largest ever order in the history of the company and it made sure that I earned a great deal of money that year.  The following month I bought our first family car and booked the first holiday in a long time.

I had certainly made the correct move joining RAV with a level of earnings now flowing that I could only have dreamt of previously.  But once the euphoria wore off I was increasingly bored and looking for a bigger challenge. I was tired of the motivational sales meetings, the endless tweaking of the commission schemes and the lack of any real learning opportunities from the company.

I wanted a move up the ladder; I wanted the chance to do things my way. But could the company provide the career opportunities I now so desperately wanted?

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The Business of life (chapter 5 – a crossroads is reached)

A couple of years later, we had a sales conference at the Grand Hotel Eastbourne, which was memorable for two main reasons.  When I arrived there was a new Rolls Royce parked so near the entrance, it was almost blocking the way in.   Propped on the dashboard was a small, neat plastic sign proclaiming; ‘This vehicle is the property of James Saville esquire, porter at the Royal Infirmary Leeds’.  Sure enough, a leather-clad Jim could be seen each day solicitously attending to the Duchess, his beloved Mum.

As a result of this particular conference I got suitably motivated upon hearing that a new sales team was being created to be in charge of a whole new product line and that a sales manager was being sought.  Well, at the first chance in the bar that evening, I buttoned holed my regional manager (dear old Bob MacIndoe) and proclaimed that I was that new sales manager.  Bob gazed seriously into my eyes, put his arm around my shoulder and walked me into a quiet corner. “Tony, my boy,” Bob proclaimed, “there are some of us who are cut out for demands of the leadership role and some of us that will continue to be great salesmen; you’re one of my best men.  Keep it up.”  I was stunned but soon recovered to resolve that I was going to make sales manager, with the company or not.   I have often looked back trying to figure out if Bob genuinely believed that I didn’t have leadership potential or if he was really smart and merely winding me up.  Whatever; I lifted my game again.

We salesmen continued to undergo a great deal more training, to a level I began to realise, even then, we could never apply in the restricted role we were employed to carry out.  Looking back I realise that we were guinea pigs for every new concept in the field of selling and even psychology.  One particularly intense week was built around the use of the T-group, a concept I much later learnt was based on the work of Kurt Lewin’s Field Theory and Group Dynamics.  I cannot recall the exact methods employed during that week except we endured the intense use of emotional interaction, leaving us feeling exposed and drained each day. Towards the end of the week, one of the group, who was clearly struggling with the demands (and relevance) of baring his soul to the rest of us, broke down and stormed out, leaving the building and the company.

Having moved through a succession of sales territories, by my 3rd year I was responsible for the largest territory in the UK (in terms of sales volume).  But with all the training and sales success I was now bored and unstretched.  One week was much the same as another and it was a rare day when work wasn’t finished by midday at the latest.  Within the strictures of a fiendish plot designed to keep us working throughout the day, our orders and call reports had to bear the last postmark from our territory.  So, when the sun wasn’t shining, hungry for learning, I turned to libraries, museums and the law courts for ways to fill my afternoons.  Of these the magistrates’ courts and the Quarter Sessions (as they were then) fascinated and horrified me with. On the one hand I witnessed liberal and benevolent attitudes to hardened criminals who committed appalling crimes, and on the other (comparatively) harsh, menu driven and arbitrary ‘justice’ for the likes of the motorist.  Photography was also a hobby I could pursue during my afternoons of leisure and little of the London of the early 70’s escaped my lens.

Married and with a young family, money was then becoming an issue.  We were not profligate spenders, far from it, but with my wife assuming the full time role of mother and inflation gathering pace (and hovering close to 10%), we were really stretched each month.   An advertisement for a sales manager in the photographic industry caught my eye one weekend and I applied.  Interviews followed that I sailed through exhibiting both the extensive knowledge of sales technique that had brought me success and, what for an amateur was, a fairly comprehensive knowledge of photography.  They said they’d be in touch.

Meanwhile, an event always spoken of in hushed tones was the Selsdon Park Course.  Less a course than a goldfish bowl, this was the company’s management selection course to identify those with talent for the first rung of the greasy pole.  So, when I got my invitation to that year’s course, I was elated (and delighted I had obviously proved Bob MacIndoe wrong….or had I?).  Whilst I prepared for the set pieces of the SPC (delivering presentations on a range of subjects), I took the opportunity to have a quiet word with some of the management who had progressed along this same route.  What I found was a little unsettling; there was a small salary raise to start with but you lost the company car and expenses and paid for your own travel.  It was worth it they all agreed, but it would take a few years to get back to the financial situation I was existing on at the time.  However, I decided to give it my all and joined the other hopefuls drawn from all over the UK one Sunday evening at the Selsden Park Hotel.

My contacts had also advised me that a sound way to display ‘management qualities’ was to be up at the crack of dawn swimming in the hotel pool, especially as McColl would be there without fail.  So, at 5.30 the next morning I padded down to reception to enquire as to the location of the pool; it was outside…and it was now early October.  Hidden behind a neat row of privet hedging I found a generously sized pool and took a header in only to find that the wretched thing was unheated and seemed to be just a few degrees above freezing.  I surfaced and looked around for McColl hoping I could get the exercise thing over before I died of hypothermia; no McColl.  I swam lengths as fast as I could in a vain attempt to warm myself but the minutes ticked by until I decided I could bear it no longer and decided that was it, McColl or not.  As I was climbing out, he appeared, beaming from ear to ear to declare, “Reception said there was some nut that decided to go swimming half an hour ago.  Well done laddie.”  After that first day, I delayed my trip by half an hour and swam for as long as he did (just about on my limits).

To say that the first day was stressful would be an understatement and I was relieved to find a few minutes to myself to phone my wife much later that evening and relate just how shattered I was.

“Never mind,” she responded, “ you’ve got it!”

“Got what?”

“That new job, they want you to start as soon as you can.”

I floated through the rest of the week on a cloud of self-confidence I never imagined that I could possess.   We were put under the microscope in every possible way but I loved every minute.  One beautiful moment of satisfaction came when, in a role play exercise, I found I had to conduct a year-end interview with a failing member of ‘my team’ – who just happened to be ….McColl!  The meeting (under the watchful eye of an observer) quickly acquired an intense feeling of reality as two highly competitive individuals battled for ascendency within the rules of the brief.  My desire to not only come out on top but to do so having demonstrated real leadership potential was complete.  As the meeting drew to its conclusion I could see in my protagonist’s eyes that he believed that I had not done quite well enough.  I waited until he was almost out of the room before calling him back, putting my arm around his shoulders and giving him the ‘Dutch uncle’ speech whilst looking deep into those ice blue eyes.  “I believe in you,” I murmured in his ear, “and I know you can do far better.”  A barely suppressed grin flickered across his face.

A week later I was told that I had come out at the top of the group and would be receiving a management position when the next vacancy arose.  I phoned my prospective new employer and accepted their offer.  The role was to provide 15% higher basic, a better car, an open-ended commission scheme and it had the management title (sales manager) already.  I had shone from a field of 350 in a blue chip company and was moving into a team of 6.

What this the right decision?  Was I turning my back on a fantastic career opportunity?

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