The Business of Life Chapter 26 – casting off the chains

On my first morning at Selmar Industries I arrived early.  After a quick word with the few managers and office staff who were in at that time, I went on a tour of inspection.  The company was housed in an old textile mill on the outskirts of Brighouse in West Yorkshire almost at the end of a tightly wooded valley.  The buildings were a veritable rabbit warren with both offices and production facilities spread across different levels connected by tight and twisting passageways.  A new warehouse had been added to the rear of the site some years before and the yard outside appeared to be a dumping ground for disused HGV trailers.The Business of LIfe Chpater 26

Following a brief session with the management I held a series of meetings for both office and production staff.  After laying out the realities of the present situation, I went on to share my personal values and inform them that we would be working together to turn around the fortunes of the company.  I then held a series of individual meetings with all of the board and management team.  The highlights of my new team were Jeff and Neil (not my group MD), sales & finance directors respectively, professionally capable, enthusiastic, committed and nice guys.  They also proved to be extremely loyal.

The rest of the board and management were way below the level of competence I had been used to and, to be honest, made my heart sink.  They offered a veneer of support but it was barely masking an underlying denial of the dire situation the company was in and any personal responsibility for their role in it.  To say that I sensed a potential resistance to change would be a vast understatement.  Quite the saddest situation I found I had inherited was that of the administration director (who I’ll call ‘P’).  How he ever came to be promoted to this level was a mystery.  It would transpire that whatever hour I arrived in the office or left, he was always there.  Though supportive and loyal, I found that he was way out of his depth and was working 18 hour days in an effort to survive.  Knowing the urgent task I had on my hands to stem the haemorrhaging of cash, I decided to make no immediate personnel changes, there would be time later.  I knew ‘P’ was out of his depth and tried to protect him as best I could but he ultimately resigned.  A couple of years later I discovered from an HR consultant that my predecessor had engaged her to carry out an assessment of the board.  She had found ‘P’ to be so far below average intelligence, she simply didn’t know how he could even hold down a clerical role.  Nothing had been done.

The product ranges of the three companies in my group included domestic and commercial battery chargers, cable reels and power cords.  The business also produced small transformers on a sub-contract basis for another company in the wider group.  The battery charger business had been a market leader (and perhaps still was) but it suffered from a number of problems that were at the heart of the group’s problems.  Sales were highly seasonal with winter producing a demand at least five times that of the rest of the year (more in an exceptionally cold year – and one of those was about to strike).  Production had to run flat out throughout the remainder of the year to build stock as it was impossible to produce sufficient to meet demand as it occurred.  Thus this major division of the business consumed cash for nine months of an average year.  Selling through high street multiples and producing own brand for some of the major retailers it was subject to intense price pressures.  With its many export markets it also had significant foreign exchange risk.  These problems were serious enough but they proved to be compounded by sheer internal incompetence as I was to find out.  The other two companies demand patterns were not as seasonal but were also subject to severe price competition especially the cable business.

Having been intrigued by the trailers in the yard I requested that they be opened for my inspection.  This revealed a horror story of incompetence and connivance.  Each trailer (and there were five or six) was crammed to capacity with components and the largest single category was injection moulded casings for battery chargers.  These casings were either for obsolete lines or had retailers’ own brands moulded into them.  The own brand versions were for current production models but we had lost the business and they could not be used because of the branding.  This was in addition to the warehouse that was also stocked to the rafters with raw materials.  Upon further investigation I found that this stock was sitting in the balance sheet at full value!  This meant the true losses of the company (£3m in the previous financial year) were even higher than the accounts showed.

Horrified, I summoned the members of the management team who were connected directly or indirectly to forecasting or ordering stock to the yard and asked for explanations.  Unsurprisingly, the excuses flowed with much finger pointing but mostly in the direction of my predecessor.  When I raised the subject with Neil (my boss), stating that we had to write these off he growled, “Make some profits first to write them off against!”  After continued investigation the causes became clear with system disconnects and plain incompetence at the root of most.  Many issues could be rectified without delay but others took much longer to uncover and put right.

If the stock situation was bad then the production processes were at least the equal and arguably much worse.  The main production floor housed five production lines for battery chargers, transformers and cable reels.  Two separate facilities existed on different levels for cables and commercial battery chargers.  The first impression of the main production floor was of a state of chaos with people, components and finished goods everywhere.

As an example the cable reel line had fifteen people who seemed merely to be getting in each other’s way.  Finding that one member of the technical department was a trained production engineer I took him down to the production floor and showed him the line.  His response was to tell me that he had done the original line balancing and that it called for only eight operatives.  When I asked him what had happened he claimed that my predecessor, when output needed to be raised, had simply thrown people at the line.  This time the excuse sounded true and I agreed to strip the line down to its original eight members.  The very next shift the slimmed down team increased output and kept it rising over the following weeks.  We started work on the other lines.

I turned my attention to the cable line that produced relatively simple standard products with moulded plugs and sockets at each end.  The process had a history of problems and never seemed to run to plan.  The production supervisor was Marion, a lady who seemed to carry the problems of the world, not least of which were related to her personal life.  I asked her to join me in her small office and asked her what she felt could be done to improve quality and output.  She looked wordlessly at me with world-weary eyes that were deep set, spoke of little sleep and many problems and shrugged.  It was clear that she had once been if not beautiful then perhaps at least pretty.  But a broken nose, black ringed eyes and poor skin had long since robbed her of any claim to looks.  I asked her again. She stared at me with those dark eyes showing a mixture of  suspicion and confusion and murmured, “I dunno.”  It was Friday and I suggested she had a think over the weekend and if anything came to mind to let me know the following week.  She walked off back to the line.  I went home that night despairing.

Arriving shortly after 7.30 the following Monday morning I found Marion waiting outside my office.  “You serious what you said on Friday?” she blurted out, “You really want to know what I think?”  We went into my office and I sat her down and assured her that I was, indeed, really interested in any views she might have to improve the line’s performance.  “No-one’s ever asked my opinion of anything, ” was her response, “but I’ve been thinking all over the weekend and this is what I think.” What followed was a succession of ideas that sounded sensible and easy to implement.  “Go ahead then.” I replied.  Her eyes came alive, “What?  Can I?”  Improvements followed quite quickly and were maintained.

An intractable problem was the night shift that was required to meet demand for the sub-contract transformer work.  Due to uncertainty concerning its future my predecessor had made a not unreasonable decision to use contract labour.  A contract had been signed with a local firm who recruited and bussed in the required labour from neighbouring towns each night.  The assembly tasks were relatively straightforward and the day shift was reasonable in its output and quality.  But the calibre of the people we were getting to work the night shift was dire.  I arrived in one morning to find that an entire night’s production had been lost to ‘an incident’.  It transpired that two of the crew assembled the previous night had been rival drug pushers who had decided to set about each other with machetes!

Output and cost of production slowly improved and the end of the financial year showed a reduction in the losses.  However, as soon as one problem was solved continued investigatory work revealed yet more.  We were by then winning more distribution but price competition was eroding any benefits gained from the lower production costs we were then achieving.  Component quality problems continued to be a problem especially the injection moulded components that came from another company in the wider group.  Attempting to resolve these problems always led to counter allegations of constantly changing demand, which I would invariably find had some substance.

Quite apart from the challenges of solving the cash drain problems of the battery charger business, we also had an unacceptably high level of product returns for damaged and faulty goods.  Carrying out a detailed inspection of our product packaging I found that the quality of the board used had been reduced to something that was totally inadequate for such a heavy product and many products were arriving at retailers damaged.  I then decided to test a number of our products myself taking a different model home each evening and attempting to follow the instructions.  My experience quickly proved that the instructions (even in English) were simply ambiguous at best.  God only knows what the myriad additional translations had turned them into but an unacceptable quantity was being returned as faulty purely because the instructions were unintelligible. .

 Into the second financial year it was becoming clear that with increased competition and the power of major retailers driving prices ever lower our efforts to improve UK production efficiency were never going to be sufficient.  With the greatest of reluctance I decided that the only future for the brand was to outsource production to the Far East.   Having made contact with several potential manufacturers, I headed out to Hong Kong with Jeff our technical director.  During that trip we visited many factories in mainland China, all were dispiriting places and, which combined with the fledgling infrastructure and teeming population, produced a hellish vision of a dystopian future.  Yes, it seemed we could achieve lower invoiced prices but quality and the lengthy supply line troubled me.  By the time we returned to the office the decision had made itself.  We had already received, via another route, a leaflet from an unknown Chinese manufacturer offering their products to us.  ‘Their’ products shown on their full colour leaflet were the samples we had left in China with our brand names carefully concealed!  It was just too risky to take the chance but events overtook me anyway.

By this time we had managed to pull the losses back to a break even position but added to the pressures within my business, our parent company was struggling to survive.  Neil my boss, with whom I had established a super working relationship, arrived early one Monday morning a few weeks later with bad news.  The group had decided, without reference to me and despite our elimination of £3m of losses, to close our operation in Yorkshire and merge with another group company.  I was informed I was to be made redundant but first had to oversee the sale of our cable business, again something that had been arranged by the main board.

For the next month or so I worked with the accountants sent in by the purchaser in the due diligence information gathering process they were conducting.  The sale concluded Neil informed me that I would have to work out the remainder of my contract (in some capacity) but ‘could take reasonable time off to seek other employment’.  The conversation turned into one of those blood on the walls events as I fought to achieve a clean financial settlement instead of working for another 10  months in some spurious role.  Not being able to reverse what was clearly a decision forced upon Neil by a cash-strapped main board, I engaged the services of a law firm specialising in employment matters.  A few weeks later I walked away with a cheque having compromised on a slightly lower sum.

This time there was neither rage nor sadness but simply the realisation that I needed to take stock afresh.  I had proved once more that I could achieve what required but to no avail.  Seeing the writing on the wall over the previous few months I had been quietly testing the market once more and had got to offer stage with a small US corporation.  However, my research on the company told me that I might well be going from frying pan to fire.  I was now 49 and had begun to feel that my corporate days were over and it might be better to draw a line than suffer the same fate again in a few years time.  My mind went back to Norman and his CVC backed purchase of GTE Sylvania and the decision wasn’t hard to make.  Reviewing my knowledge and experience I decided I could achieve a management buy-in (MBI) and I would.  I phoned the Americans and informed them I was withdrawing.  I then called all of my head hunter contacts to let them know that my time as an employee had come to an end.

I had barred and shuttered the route back into employment and, with my mind clear of distractions, I could concentrate on achieving this major new goal.  Could I do it though?  Could I really convince the venture capital community to back me with the millions it would take?

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