The business of life (chapter 16 – grim up North)

After just three months and 79 applications I had secured a new position that seemed to offer the future I sought.   Arguably it was at the same level as my previous role.  Yes, it had a narrower functional focus but it was with a division of GTE, a major US corporation, and I was earmarked as the replacement for the current UK managing director.  Sylvania Lighting, the company I was joining, was exclusively involved in industrial and commercial sectors that were completely new to me.  I had a lot to learn.

On a Sunday evening early in December 1980, I waved off my family who had spent the weekend with me in Yorkshire house-hunting.  I got an early night in preparation for the start of my new job the following day.  Sleep didn’t come easily due to a combination of an incredibly noisy heating system in my hotel room and the thoughts that kept crowding into my mind.  All of my marketing training and experience at this point (and the majority of what was taught at that time in the UK) focussed exclusively on consumer marketing.  The only information that my research had uncovered on marketing in industrial sectors was a very short pamphlet from The Industrial Society in London.  This was very different ground to the exciting sectors I had been involved with up to this point and the concepts kept going round in my mind as I struggled to sleep.

Feeling like death warmed over after what felt like only 5 minutes sleep I presented myself at the office and tried to appear bright and raring to go to John, my new boss.  Quickly introduced to everyone in my new team (all three of them) and the rest of the office based staff I took a briefing from John.  Having only acquired the manufacturing assets of an old established British company approximately 5 years previously, the business imported 85% of the range of products sold in the UK from other European group factories and exported 90% of our own factories’ output to the rest of the world wide group.  Following an initial period of UK growth sales had run out of steam.  Competition came in the form of Philips, Thorn & GEC, all long established and major companies.  My task was to construct a strategy to grow against these industry giants.

After sitting down with my new team I felt very alone.  They were warm, friendly and eager enough but had limited experience and low levels of initiative.  Meeting the rest of the management team revealed that Bob the finance director was the perfect caricature of the Scottish FD.  Mike the operations director seemed competent and friendly but both seemed somewhat reserved about my role. The really bright spots were Martyn the Sales Manager, a great guy with whom I shared photographic industry experience, and Andrew the HR director who I had met at interview.  I felt I could work well with these two.

I spent the remainder of the day trying to find industry & company information I could use for analysis & planning.  Before we left the office, Martyn suggested we had dinner together as we were staying in the same hotel (he also being in the process of relocating and a weekly commuter).  The evening was good fun and it became increasingly clear that we were going to have a great working relationship.  After a few pre-dinner drinks in the bar (it had been a long day), we sat down to eat and enjoy a bottle of wine.  Towards the end of the meal, Martyn waved the empty wine bottle and suggested, “Shall we have the other one?” I recall that I must have responded in the affirmative as I awoke the next morning with the most appalling hangover.  Somehow I managed to blag my way through the day, vowing all the time that I would never touch another drop.

Following my week in the hotel, John suggested I rent a flat as it would be both more economical and convenient for the time it would take to find and move into the house of my choice.  A large loft apartment was soon located in a quiet leafy suburb and it was suggested that I share with Cliff, an American student who was on secondment to us.  Cliff was an ideal flat sharing colleague as his interests and daily routines ensured we rarely ever met except in the office.  Immediately we moved in the key problem with the apartment became apparent – it was totally devoid of insulation.  With a combination of heaps of additional blankets & a huge electricity bill we would make it through a very cold winter.

Over the next few weeks it began to emerge that not only was John a curious character, but he was an absolute bully to his team.  The bullying took the form of a continuous need to be seen not simply to be the leader but to be right in any and every situation.  He appeared to be incapable of trusting anyone to carry out their role without his interfering.  That I knew little of industrial marketing I was well aware but John’s lack of understanding of the entire purpose and practice of marketing was verging on the complete.  This was however a deficiency that never prevented him from pontificating on the subject.

He was also exceptionally parsimonious; one of that select band who know the price of everything and the value of nothing but carried to an extreme. On one occasion he drove to London early one morning to attend a trade fair and drove back again that afternoon to show his face in the office.  He then went home, changed and drove down to London again to attend a dinner before driving back up to Yorkshire once more in the early hours.  The following day he made it known that he had saved the company money in this way (by driving around 1,000 miles in a day)!

However, the event that really began to send the doubts that were gnawing away in my mind into overdrive was the Christmas staff function.  John invited the whole management group to his house for drinks before dinner, which was fine but it merely served to demonstrate that his obsessive compulsive behaviour was not confined to the world of business (his poor wife….).  We then moved to a local pub where John had booked a function room for dinner.  The meal was simple and I kept well away from John and used the opportunity to become better acquainted with my new colleagues.  At the end of the evening I witnessed an event that, even today, I still cannot really believe I saw.  John went around the room collecting up glasses that still had wine in them and poured the contents into several empty wine bottles.  “Waste not, want not.” he opined when he saw that I was watching him.

Driving home for the Christmas break my mind was in turmoil with the conflicting experiences of the last month plaguing me.  The challenges of the job had got to me and I was convinced I could devise a suitable strategy for growth but it would not be a five minute task.  I had to have the freedom to explore on my own and I was growing less tolerant of John’s style by the day.  I had turned down two other roles and they kept returning to my mind; perhaps they had not yet made an appointment?  I realised that I would be in a very weak negotiating position if I pursued that route.  The four hour journey gave me plenty of time to mull things over and by the time I neared HenleyI had decided to give my role one more try.  I was a fighter and I was determined to make things work if there was a chance.

Back in Yorkshireafter a wonderful Christmas with the family, I started to review the task before me. The meagre information I had on industrial marketing (the one brief pamphlet) suggested that if it was not possible to differentiate the product itself (a cornerstone of consumer marketing) then attention should turn to differentiating everything other than the product.  It was quite clear that our product range was totally non-differentiated with every product made to a set of harmonised industry standards.  Construction of a complete marketing strategy that differentiated our company and our strategy was the great priority; it was what I had been recruited to do.  But I had John to contend with and I had to get him out of the way while I worked on the planning and then get him onside for whatever the solution transpired to be.

Then one of those serendipitous events took place that was to change things overnight. John called a meeting one afternoon and around six of us crammed into his office (in the old office we lacked even one meeting room).  With the heating pumping out and the windows and doors closed to exclude noise it soon became stifling; I undid the top button of my shirt and undid my tie. “We keep our shirts buttoned at all times in this office” barked John.  I was, to use a newly acquired local expression, gobsmacked and quickly responded, “That’s simply ridiculous.” and left my shirt how it was. John glared at me for an age and then moved on to what became another of his usual uninspiring meetings.  As the meeting concluded, without thinking and probably remembering the general office was considerably cooler, I did up my top button, restored my tie to full mast and walked out to the gents to relieve myself.

I had barely concluded matters when John burst in announcing, “I need to talk to you in my office, now!” Ready for a fight and thinking that I couldn’t take his petty bullying any longer, I followed and quickly became astounded back in his office.  “You disagreed with me earlier,” he started in on me, “in front of my management and wouldn’t back down.  But before you left my office you made it clear that you would comply with my rules and I just want you to know that I respect that.  Now, how’s the house hunting going?”  From that moment on, John changed his attitude towards me, even seeking my views in front of others and then making it clear that he would back them.  He also gave me the time and space to concentrate on my key goal, something that consumed my full attention.

Just as I was starting to enjoy my role something more serious occurred that rocked my world.  A couple of years back my old boss Gordon had introduced me to Norton Warburg, a financial investment and asset management company.  I had been persuaded by their presentation and seemingly very professional manner to place my savings with them for investment. The actual sum today would seem slight but it represented well over a year’s earnings for me then.  The money had been duly invested and it had produced not only a very good yield but, due to some highly effective financial planning available at the time, was very tax efficient.  I was relying on these savings to help finance my move to Yorkshire.  One Friday afternoon I had spoken to my advisor and informed him that I would require access to the money at short notice.  He came back to me with the suggestion that the Bradford & Bingley were offering a very good rate for short notice investments.  We agreed he should make the switch.

Early the next Monday I set out on my usual drive from Henley on Thames up to West Yorkshire.  Breaking the journey on the M1, I bought my usual copy of the Financial Times, which I started to flick through as I sipped my cup of the usual foul motorway coffee.  When I came to the business section I was stopped in my tracks by a story that indicated that over the weekend Norton Warburg had been placed into administration and that first indications were that it was doubtful that creditors would receive any recovery.  I went cold.  The thought of losing my savings was more than I could bear to contemplate.  I found a payphone and called their number only to be told that the administrator was not taking calls from creditors; I would have to wait until he was ready to make an announcement in due course.

I drove the rest of the way to the office in a state of shock.  There must be something I could do.  Surely, I couldn’t have lost all that money?  Or could I?

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