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?

Image courtesy of http://www.Haskins.com

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

  1. A great chapter, as usual. Looking forward to the next one.

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