The business of life (chapter 19 – the end of a dream)

With my wife recuperating from her major operation and my business life far from stable, I had to develop a strategy that would allow the greatest chance of keeping everything together.  Once again I cancelled business trips and kept close to home until Jean could achieve what she considered was sufficient strength to resume some semblance of daily life.  Work was now out of the question for her and with it the dream of a degree that she had tasted all too briefly. I found strength for myself in a process of compartmentalisation.  By dividing my life into discrete segments I tried to preserve time for the things that were important in my life; time for Jean, for the children, for work and lastly for myself (cycling and playing trumpet in a terrible but enthusiastic band).

By the time Brian had moved on leaving the role of managing director of GTE Sylvania vacant, I felt I was holding the constituent parts of my life together.  Jean had encouraged me to apply for the job and I was awaiting news of the procedure.  My probing had revealed that there were at least 4 other candidates from within the global company but evidence of a selection process appeared non-existent.  Finally, I got a call to advise me that Gregg, the European President was coming to the UK, would interview me and then join the rest of the senior UK team for dinner.

I collected Gregg from the airport and drove him to The Devonshire Arms, a beautiful country hotel in the Yorkshire Dales that he enjoyed.  I had known him for approximately 6 years, although not closely.  I was aware he was a lifelong employee of the company, possessed of a mercurial attitude to the business (you never knew where he was going next) and a volcanic temper.  Seated in the elegant lounge with our coffee, Gregg got around to what passed for an interview and demonstrated that, whatever other skills he possessed, interviewing was not one of them.  It was like playing a game against a competitor who had no real experience or skill and didn’t want to be on the court.  Frustration (and more than a little doubt) was beginning to rise in me when we were interrupted by a call for Gregg and he excused himself to take it in his room.

What seemed an eternity passed while Gregg was on the phone and it gave ample opportunity for my fears and doubts to surface.  By this time I had spent 6 years with the company and had achieved significant success but had not returned to a full general management role. I was also 41 and one year behind the schedule I had set myself of attaining an MD’s role.  The thought of working under any of the other candidates filled me with gloom and I realised that I was going to have to leave if this appointment went against me.  Gregg then returned and shared with me that one of his oldest friends had died suddenly.  “Ah hell, you just never know what life is going to throw at you.” he said shaking his head and then, slowly looking at me with tears in his eyes, “Look, I’m going to give you the job.”  The evening went by in a blur shared with my colleagues at least two of whom had emerged unsuccessful.  Celebration at home later that evening was a quiet and emotional hug.

Margaret Thatcher was elected to a third term and Ronald Reagan was challenging Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin wall when I took up my new appointment.  One of my first duties was to sign a flurry of papers legally registering my appointment.  I don’t know if it was an error or a quirk of the corporate structure but I realised before I got to the bottom of the pile that I had also been appointed as MD of the ultimate UK holding company encompassing the complex web of businesses we then owned.  Technically I was now Brian’s boss.  I did a quick mental exercise and realised that, despite this, there were still ten layers of management between me and the president of GTE!  Flat management we did not have.

Life working for Gregg was never easy.  As he was based in our European headquarters in Geneva, I might go for several months without a meeting with him.  When we did meet either on one of his UK visits or at a pan-European meeting he always wanted a formal presentation.  He always travelled with one of his team and he would simply never sit and discuss subjects with you.  His style was that you either submitted to an inquisition on a subject of his choosing or, if you went to him with a proposal he would either attack it or ensure that you made a decision and not him.    He had a combative style, which may have been associated with his lack of height (around 5′ 5″) and, given he had one glass eye, you never knew if you had his attention or not.  The only time you ever got an easy ride was when he fell asleep in a meeting after lunch.

The time I loathed most was the day following one of Gregg’s board meetings in Italy.   We had a joint venture with Thorn in a manufacturing company there and Hamish, the Thorn MD, would usually succeed in winding Gregg up with a pack of half-truths or downright lies about our UK business.  I would then get a call the following day that interrupted my lunch in the staff canteen and would have to suffer Gregg for the next half hour bellowing down the phone at me on some issue that had been fed to him.

Being promoted ahead of my colleagues within the company I had worked within for years was a new situation.  All of my peers knew me well but not as their boss and I realised that, even putting the situation with Martyn to one side, they may not have welcomed my appointment.  I decided that this was irrelevant as my new role required a fresh start.  I had admired Brian and worked hard for him but I had to pursue my own style.  The first change I made was in not moving into Brian’s old corner office suite but staying put in my own.  Our margins were under pressure at this stage and it provided me with an excuse to not replace my previous position of Marketing Director.  The format of our management and board meetings I changed and was scrupulous in playing the role of chairman / facilitator.  I found that, with a combination of ensuring everyone’s full contribution and a variety of problem solving tools, we could resolve previously difficult issues with the team invariably making a unanimous decision without me having to reveal an opinion.

Worried about morale within the company, I instigated a company wide climate survey.  Results showed that the number one issue was a distrust of management, with a widely held belief that employees were not being consulted or informed on key issues.  Following discussion amongst my senior team, we agreed that I should speak to the entire company, share the survey results and ask for volunteers to join teams, to address each of the key issues (they had all recently been trained in problem solving techniques).  On the day of the meeting I made the assembled employees a number of promises.  Firstly, I would only hear the findings or recommendations at the same time they did.  I would also agree to any recommendation the teams made so long as the cost did not exceed our local country budget level, or contravene international corporate policy (if a recommendation did, I undertook to sell it to our company president).

I seemed to hold my breath for the next month, staying away from any of the team meetings and did not quiz any of my direct reports as to progress.  We assembled in the staff canteen on the day the results were due and the atmosphere I can only describe as electric.  Would the employees pressure for unrealistic changes?  Would my team leaders have handled the process democratically?  One by one each of the four teams presented their analysis and their recommendations.  I need not have worried.  The changes requested were surprisingly modest and reasonable and after asking further questions I was delighted to say, “OK, go ahead and implement everything and you will all receive regular feedback on progress.”  I learnt that together we could build a much more decentralised style of management, enabling us to make significant progress.  It also taught me a lot about trust and it taught me to empathise more with the feelings and views of the entire company.

We made rapid progress and my first year as MD ended strongly and over budget.  The new structure within the sale team seemed to be working better and emphasis on refining the customer groups we worked with was producing improved margins.  However, despite this and the more harmonious climate amongst the management team, I was sad to receive Martyn’s resignation.  He had received a good offer and had made up his mind to go; all I could do was to wish him well.  I missed him but it was almost fifteen years before we met again and resumed our friendship but that’s another tale.  Sad as I was to see Martyn depart another event proved shattering and changed me forever.

Despite battling on and regaining some semblance of normality following her operation for a brain tumour, Jean had entered a slow decline.  One Sunday morning driving herself back from church just half a mile down the road she lost control of her car, hit the kerb and came back complaining of severe pain in her neck.  Urgent investigation showed that the cancer had spread to multiple sections of her spine, which then severely restricted her ability to be mobile.  We made enquiries and managed to move Jean into a Marie Curie hospice a short distance from our house where she spent the remainder of that summer.  The staff were angels, caring for her constantly but her decline was relentless and one night in late September whilst I was by her side she passed away.

We had been married for twenty years and neither my two children nor I knew how we were going to face life without her.

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