The business of life (chapter 17 – learning to be successful again)

The prospect of losing one’s savings is not a happy one whatever the economy is doing at the time.  The remainder of my drive to the office was a nightmare, dodging rush-hour traffic as I attempted to think of what on earth I could do given the collapse of Norton Warburg.  With our house in Henley under offer for the asking price, the offer for our chosen property in Yorkshire accepted and the largest mortgage I could possibly afford lined up, I needed my savings to make up the remaining difference.

By the time I got to the office my plan was clear; I would phone the Bradford and Bingley head office and enquire if an account had been opened in my name.  Within a few minutes of arriving at my desk my hopes were dashed.  The B & B head office did not keep centralised records of investors; I was informed that I would have to contact the branch concerned.  The only problem was I didn’t know at which branch (if any) my funds had been invested.  I located aLondon phone book and started calling branches in an expanding radius from Norton Warburg’s office.  After only five calls I was informed that, yes an account had been opened in my name late on the previous Friday; all I had to do was provide proof of identity to access it.  I needed several cups of strong coffee before I could stop shaking and face the week.  A large number of people (including the members of Pink Floyd) lost a great deal of money as a result of Norton Warburg’s failure.  I had been incredibly fortunate (and ever more suspicious since).

Over the next couple of months and more than a few false starts, our move was completed and we started life in the house I still live in today.  Curiously it was not first choice for either my wife or me, in fact it came about seventh on our respective lists.  But it was the first one we both agreed upon. Situated on a very quiet dead-end road, surrounded by woodland and backing onto open moorland, it has provided a haven of tranquillity through all the intervening years of turbulent business and extensive travel. After a London commute of anything up to an hour and a half each way, my new home was only fifteen minutes from the office, providing me an extra two hours of quality time each day. Bliss.  The only downside until I adjusted was that I found that such a short trip home in the evening wasn’t long enough to leave the issues of work behind.

Despite my new-found rapprochement with John he remained an almost impossible individual to work with.  During his long business career he seemed to have acquired only snippets of knowledge on sales and marketing but he regarded these as immutable truths.  I knew before I took the role that my budget was tiny in comparison to what I had had previously but John continued to drive me crazy with his unremittingly penny pinching outlook and dogmatic views.  So, I bided my time while I continued with my research and planning and soon the beginning of a strategy began to emerge that made sense to me. But before I had a chance to develop my thoughts, let alone start the process of influencing John, a bombshell landed in my lap.

Walking into the office one morning I was greeted by Brian, the European Marketing Director from our Geneva headquarters, who ushered the senior team into John’s office.  It seemed John had resigned and was leaving with immediate effect.  Great news! The bombshell was that a decision had already been made that Brian was to be his replacement.  Recruited as MD designate, this was a bitter pill for me to swallow.  But when I was honest with myself, after only 6 months in the role, I had not yet learnt the industry or the business and I had no choice but to accept what had happened.  When I sat down with Brian later that same day he commiserated with me.  It seemed that he had been seeking a move with his family (from Canada) toSwitzerland for some time wanting to settle there permanently.  Having found the role and the house he wanted in Geneva only a short time previously the move toYorkshire was a bitter pill for him to swallow too.  I told Brian I would give him 100% of my support and he promised me he would do all he could to further my career.  The years that followed were amongst the most productive and professionally satisfying of my career.

I set to work with a vengeance and was soon working long hours once more; not because I had to but because I desperately needed to prove to myself that I could achieve results once more. I also realised that I had to complete the first role for which I had been employed.  Brian had not been replaced in Geneva and I hoped that his role was one I could step into.  I remember being the only person in the company who worked through the entire bank holiday whilst Charles and Diana married in London and my family celebrated without me.  The results were worthwhile though.

The UK was in the depths of the savage recession of the early Eighties and, with no end in sight, all of our competitors had enforced redundancies and mothballed production lines.  Knowing nothing of my new industry, I started work on a forecasting model in an attempt to identify market trends that could assist in predicting future demand.  Working with a variety of sources I managed to pull together fifteen years of back data.  I was then ready to begin the task of regression analysis that might help me to estimate future trends.  The situation was complicated as our main market was driven by two main factors.  Demand came for light sources that both went into lighting fittings installed into new installations and those required as replacements at end of life.  The industry records simply didn’t split the two and I needed to as light sources were the only products we made and distributed.  After weeks of further analysis and (pre PC) calculations I had a result and a forecast I could barely believe.  Whichever way I ran the figures or changed key assumptions the result was that of a strong upturn in 6 months time.  This was being entirely driven by what would be an enforced demand for replacement light sources.  Companies were either going to have to sit in darkened offices and factories or they would have to spend on replacement light sources.

Brian listened patiently as I presented my analysis.  If we did nothing we would fail to take advantage of an upturn in demand.  If we did lift production through the summer months and built stocks to the level I predicted, we would eat up a large amount of working capital that could be a major problem if we didn’t get the upturn.  In the event we bet the firm on stock building and when the upturn came (exactly as projected, even to the month) we doubled market share at sharply increased prices.  Competition simply couldn’t react in time to the increased demand.  The process helped cement a view that had been building in my mind; marketing success was really built on the initial but unglamorous work of understanding and analysing markets; the 90% that was pure perspiration.

Sitting at home one Sunday morning, sipping coffee and reading the Sunday Times business supplement, I had what can only be described as one of those ‘eureka’ moments.  As all of our UK range was comprised of totally undifferentiated, industrial lighting products I knew we had, somehow, to differentiate everything except the products.  If we were to create an identity for our business separate and distinct from our major competitors to give customers a reason to believe in us, this was critical. I had known this for a while but hadn’t yet worked out how to achieve our new positioning (and how to finance the process on my shoe-string marketing budget). What I read that morning started a process that would position our brand and our company far from competition.

“Thorn Lighting bribes local authority with billiard table” was the headline I read that morning.  Still in the grips of recession this story provoked outrage but also provided the spark of inspiration I needed.  Bribing buyers with personal gifts was clearly wrong but what if we could make public play of offering our customers business related goods and services that could only be used by the business?  Fantastic idea but how could I fund this from my meagre budget? Accounting rules at the time (on both sides of the Atlantic) came to my rescue.  I discovered that the funding could come, not from my marketing budget, but from a deduction of sales revenues prior to declared turnover.  Accounting sleight of hand perhaps, but perfectly legitimate.  Brian smiled and agreed to the plans I was fleshing out with my colleague Martyn, the Sales Manager.

We put together a road show for our wholesale customers, travelling from the Highlands of Scotland to London.  At these presentations we first put forward a portrait of the industry that the customers had never seen before.  This information came from my careful, factual analysis of all of our major competitors (Thorn, Philips & GEC).  This showed the tangled web of brands, second brands and companies that competition used to bypass the wholesale distribution channels and sell directly to major electrical contractors, companies and government and local authorities.  I followed this with an economic update showing the continued grim outlook and acknowledged how difficult it was for companies to invest in their businesses (especially in the face of major suppliers who were actively competing with them).

The highlight of the presentations was our commitment never to compete with the wholesale channel, together with our large new business support programme.  The programme I had put together offered each and every customer, large or small, the opportunity to identify what business product or service they most needed to invest in that year.  The solutions we offered ranged from warehouse overalls up to delivery vans and everything in-between.  The programme required the customer to sit down with our sales man (or woman, yes we were an equal opportunity employer) and agree a purchase target that would trigger the supply of the business goods at the year end. Martyn and I followed these presentations up with individual meetings with all of the senior and regional and head office to hammer home the messages.  The programme was a major success that ran for a number of years.

As I result of my growing knowledge of the industry, it became clear that whilst there were many large and national companies in the industry, the level of actual business acumen was low at all levels in these organisations.  This was an especially acute problem due to the decentralised nature of the structure and decision making of the large companies. Most of the industry management had simply little training or understanding of how to trade through and out of a recession.  I drew up an outline of a financial management training programme to meet this need. Realising that I needed a rather more heavyweight partner to author it, I went to the London offices of Touche Ross & Co (now Deloites).  Together we worked on the programme named The Business Expansion Kit that I turned into a partwork, published on a monthly basis and circulated by our sales team.  In addition to providing valuable information, each volume gave the sales team a subject to discuss that was of value and entirely separate from the process of business negotiation.  This further assisted in setting us apart from competition.

A close relationship with the industry federation and the major trade publications came as a result of these programmes.  Close contact with the magazines enabled me to secure offers to write long articles on topical issues.  Careful never to pen overt publicity for the company, these articles nevertheless provided further evidence to our customer base that we were a knowledgeable, ethical and trustworthy business partner.

A hugely enjoyable aspect of my role was teaming up with Martyn to visit major customers.  Aside from the benefit of having both of us present at major negotiations, great value came from the hours of conversation we had whilst travelling the country, allowing us to cook up further ideas.  Some of the meetings had decidedly lighter moments; one of which I recall served to put us two bright sparks firmly into our places. We had travelled to meet the owner of a successful independent distribution business who welcomed us in and listened patiently whilst we pontificated somewhat to the chap over how to improve business. Turning to Martyn he enquired in a polite tone of voice, “Tell, me Martyn, what motor do you drive?” “Well,” responded Martyn “I’ve got aGrenada.”  “Ok,” says our man, “you might be two bright young men who think you know all about business, but I’ve got a fucking new Bentley outside!”

Coming home in high spirits from one of these trips, my wife sat me down and shared fears with me that over the next few weeks led to her diagnosis of cancer.  Our world had fallen in and neither of us knew how we would or could cope.

‘Savings’ image courtesy of http://www.wordsaboutthings.com

‘Charles & Diana’ image courtesy of http://www.denver-weddings.blogspot.com

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