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?

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