“You’re a very lucky man.” my cardiologist told me as I tried to get my breathing under control following a treadmill stress test that had nearly collapsed me but produced no pain. “You appear to have suffered no lasting damage.” “What can I safely do in terms of exercise in future?” I asked hesitantly. “Anything you want – anything someone who has never had a heart attack can do.” The relief flowed over me. He went on to inform me that I was already fitter than the vast majority of police he tested for their medical at age 40. Six months after my heart attack I wasn’t sure if I should be elated or depressed.
“A poor choice of parents!” was his response when I enquired why I had suffered a heart attack as a fit man who ate healthily, wasn’t overweight, had never smoked, drank in moderation and whose cholesterol level was only average. My father had had his first heart attack at age forty one and, despite suffering many more, had gone on to die aged seventy four. He was very fortunate that we lived within a few miles of three of London’s major teaching hospitals.
Following four days in intensive care some months earlier, I had been discharged into the care of my GP and a Cardiac Rehabilitation Nurse. I include my GP but he transpired to be conspicuous by his absence, something that was probably wise. During the previous year I had ‘presented’ (as the medical profession love to refer to it – such an impersonal term) several times with acute arrhythmia only to be constantly informed that it was nothing to worry about. It has since been confirmed that the arrhythmia was certainly a precursor to my subsequent heart attack.
My euphoria at still being alive stayed with me for a long time following my experience. But the initial feelings of normality faded rapidly upon returning home. For the first few weeks I realised I was as weak as the proverbial kitten. Even a lengthy conversation exhausted me and I would take two or three naps during each day. I consider myself extremely fortunate to live in one of the parts of the country where the NHS offer a cardiac rehabilitation programme. I received home visits from my nurse giving detailed advice on diet and what I should and definitely shouldn’t do in the early days including guidance on the exercise I was expected to take each day.
Importantly, after six weeks I started with an exercise & guidance programme designed specifically for post heart attack patients. Looking back the exercises we did seemed more like a programme for geriatrics but they were challenging enough (terrifying at first) and each day we were pushed a little further and a little harder. My sense of competitiveness had returned and my new friend and fellow sufferer Andy and I subconsciously ensured we pushed ourselves harder each session. Each day I walked and each week covered many miles across the moors around our home. I felt good and eight weeks after my attack drove the 100 miles up to Newcastle to start work once more.
I had read so many stories of people whose lives had been dramatically changed as a result of an acute and life-threatening illness. But having been guilty of no life threatening behaviour that required immediate changes to my lifestyle, I felt that I didn’t need to make any great adjustments. I had changed, however, inside. I felt calmer and more knowledgeable. I had been through hell for most of one day and been lucky enough to have survived. I have always believed that all experience is a potential lesson for learning, so I’ve notched up one more. Looking back the really curious aspect of that day was that I was never frightened. I can’t say why, but it just didn’t occur to me to think of death or disability. I just had faith that if I could just hold on, the medical profession would make me better. It wasn’t religious faith, just a form of confidence I think.
So, no major adjustments were made to my life (despite the concerns of my wonderful family) and I went back to doing what I had done for so many years and continued to enjoy it. Despite the continued frustrations!
Roger and I knew that we had to replace him if we were ever to sell the Metal Spinners business. However, over a five to six year period we went through three potential replacements. All were very experienced and qualified engineers and senior executives. I had drawn up very precise specifications, employed experienced head-hunters, exhaustively interviewed candidates and tested the lot and then took the required references. All failed in a year or less.
Despite years of experience, extensive qualifications in psychometric assessment and a rigorous interview technique I must admit that recruitment (at all levels) is still a hit and miss affair. All of these executives (and more over the years) professed a desire to join a medium sized concern where they could make a difference. However, one progressively took to hiding in his office, trying hard not be become involved in anything that might be threatening. The next certainly got involved in everything that moved but suffered from terminally bad judgement. And the third? Well he was up to the job but ended up playing politics so I would have to question his judgement as well. I have come to the conclusion that many executives get to their ultimate level in large corporations on the back of their teams. Put them into a smaller organisation and they simply can’t adjust and can’t perform.
Despite these problems the business prospered and our debt from buying out 3i was eliminated. Without a replacement for Roger we decided to put off any attempt to sell the business and concentrate on improving profitability still further.
With the winding down of some of my business activities by 2009, I began to wonder what academic learning would feel like. Having left school at fifteen and never having attended university, there had always been a feeling of unfinished business lurking in the back of my mind. I knew from my business education in the USA that I could more than hold my own when it came to absorbing and applying knowledge. Psychometrics had long been an area of interest (and application) and I had logged up numerous qualifications. “Why not take a psychology degree?” I thought. I enrolled with the Open University and was soon heavily engrossed with the course and receiving grades that satisfied me. However, events were soon to conspire against (or at least interrupt my new found studies).
“We’ve just received a letter I think you’ll be interested in,” Roger said dryly in a phone call one Friday afternoon in late August the following year, “I’ll email you a scan of the covering letter but it’s actually a large parcel of information.” A few minutes later I was reading a very serious communication from the London office of the international agents of a large USA corporation. It was an expression of interest in buying our business. Approaches from prospective purchasers were nothing new, I received a number every year and most went straight into the bin being clearly from people who didn’t understand our industry sector and were merely tyre-kickers incapable of raising the sort of money we were worth.
A couple of years previously (following our failed attempt to sell) we had received a similar approach from a firm of venture capitalists in Chicago on behalf of our largest US competitor. The approach seemed deadly serious in that a team of four of them wished to visit and start acquisition discussions. The party that joined us for dinner that Sunday evening a week or so later in Newcastle included the two VCs and the president and CEO of our competitor. It seemed that they were on a buy and build acquisition spree and wanted an entry into Europe. We sat and listened to a great deal of boasting and bluster over a long dinner and finally agreed to take them around our factories the following day.
Monday morning I left Roger to take the party around our two sites. Several hours later they returned and almost the first words out of the president’s mouth were, “Jesus, you guys are already where we aspire to be a long way in the future!” It was only too apparent that we were strategically and culturally incompatible. Although three or four times our size they were far less profitable, had far lower levels of technology, chased high volume, low margin business and simply didn’t understand our markets. They went away, never to return (although the VC did come back a couple of years later with another approach that also failed).
The package that had been FedEx’d to us indicated a very considered and very well researched approach on behalf of the parent of our most serious USA competitor. Included within the information pack was an outline of the strategy of both Standex Corporation and Spincraft, their engineering division. The letter indicated that they were deadly serious and were prepared to make a significant offer for our business, which they viewed as being strategically valuable. Although we were very profitable, debt free and on a continued upwards curve we knew that we lacked a replacement for Roger. Neither Roger nor I wished to undergo a lengthy period working for a new owner. We were both refugees from corporate life and neither of us had any desire to return to that fold. Nevertheless we agreed to meet with them.
Shortly after we succeeded in buying MSG I had said to Roger, “That was the hardest thing I have ever done. But I know it’ll be even harder when we try to sell.” Those words transpired to be acutely prophetic and what followed was another six months of difficult and exasperating negotiations. It wasn’t that Standex was deliberately difficult, but it was a large USA corporation with its legion of executives from every conceivable department all of whom became involved. When you added in their lawyers, our lawyers, financial advisors and accountants it became the feeding ground for confusion and misunderstanding that I feared. Somehow goodwill and commitment on both sides endured as the processed dragged on particularly with regards to environmental issues (not that any actually existed).
The replacement for Roger transpired to be a problem that was easily resolved. We agreed with Standex to set about a recruitment exercise and I ensured that Len the CEO of Spincraft joined us for the interview sessions that I set up for our shortlist. We had four excellent candidates and in the final analysis the decision was clear cut and unanimous and Brian was recruited to head the MSG business.
Completion had initially been set for December but it came and went with myriad strands of disclosures and negotiations still open and dragging on. December moved into January, which came and went in similar fashion. Misunderstandings flared up and were resolved with phone calls at all hours and a lot of goodwill. It was clear they were deadly serious and committed to the deal but still the ground had to be covered and indemnities and warranties agreed. A new date was set for the end of February but so many strands of complex issues remained it seemed that we would never get the deal to bed.
March came and suddenly it seemed problems were being resolved and the deal looked set for completion. A date of 8th March was finally agreed. The day dawned bright, clear and spring like and I savoured the drive into our lawyers’ offices on the Quayside in Newcastle. It seemed that it was finally going to happen but I held my breath and waited. The day passed in great boredom interspersed with little flurries of activity as one last minute query or another was settled. Shuttle diplomacy it was, with each party confined to its own meeting room. Finally at around 3.00 pm the three of us were ushered into a third, large meeting room to put our signatures to dozens of documents. It was done. We had sold the business we had bought almost thirteen years previously, had invested in and developed and now it belonged to Standex Corporation and I was convinced would be good owners.
I sipped a celebratory glass of champagne, had a few words of thanks and congratulations with Roger and Malcolm and slipped away quietly. I was just…numb. Thoughts of what it would be like to make a successful sale had always been pushed out of my mind – business had always been too precarious to waste time on dreaming.
The sun was still shining from a perfectly clear, blue sky as I drove far out into the beautiful Northumberland countryside simply wanting to be on my own to think. Finally I pulled over in a quiet lane where I could see only miles of rolling hills and switched off the engine. It was still and so quiet and I let it wash over me feeling nothing but a delightful sense of calm. I phoned Denise to let her know the good news and then Victoria and Alex, whom I had kept completely unaware of the whole process. I stayed a little longer but no waves of emotion came, just that same feeling of tranquillity. I had made no plans and realised I didn’t have the slightest inclination to start doing so.
After fifty incredible, roller-coaster years the business in my life had been concluded. I had promised Denise that if the sale succeeded I would, aged sixty five, finally hang up my boots for good. My time in business had finished in a way I could never have dreamt of at any time on the journey. I allowed myself a smile of satisfaction. I had started out on this journey through the world of business as a lad of fifteen armed only with an O level in English and a pugnacious determination to get on. It hadn’t turned out too badly.
Image courtesy of Antonio Androsiglio (via chilloutpoint.com)