Category Archives: Business failure

The Business of life Chapter 38 – when a dream goes sour

“I’ve lost my job!” were the first words David uttered when he turned up to see me in early 2002.  David and I had known each other for well over twenty years, since our time in the lighting industry running competitor companies.  Despite the intense rivalry between our organisations we had always enjoyed each other’s friendship when we met at industry functions.  We had lost touch with each other when David had moved to the south for a new role but he had recently relocated back to Yorkshire again.  We spent time together discussing what had happened and the options David had for his next career move.

Our business crest & motto “Strength through knowledge”

It was some months before I met David again, but when he came calling it was to set my career off in a new direction and widen my portfolio of roles still further.  “I’ve got an idea for a business.” was David’s greeting that second meeting, “Are you interested?”  He went on to say that he had paid a large sum of money to sign up with what claimed to be a not for profit organisation that provided re-training for executives wishing to move into business consultancy.  David’s view was that the course he had attended had provided poor value for money and he believed we could do far better in setting up our own competing service.

I was noncommittal that first day but said that I would research the sector and see if the concept of a competing business made sense.  I went through the process of producing a draft business plan.  After reviewing the company in question, all similar businesses and the Small and Medium Enterprise (SME) sector I came to the view that, given David’s recent experience, we could well put together a superior service.  When I added in our respective experience and skills I became convinced that this was a viable proposition.  I met up with David once more, took him through my findings and we quickly trashed out the actions required to get our new business started.

Within a short period I had registered a company (The Academy of Business Consultants), obtained a VAT registration, taken out the required insurances, produced a corporate identity, leaflets and business cards, created and implemented a website and sketched out a marketing and operations plan.  I was driven!  Working with David proved to be extremely productive as we found that we had a synergistic effect upon each other that made creating concepts and resolving problems a simple and enjoyable process.  Within six months of our initial discussions we had our business and launch plans complete and placed the first advertisement of our advertising campaign in the Sunday Times.

The concept we had developed involved refining the enquiries we received from the advertising campaign, getting the candidates to complete an online personality profiling questionnaire and inviting them to an evening seminar.  During these seminars we would outline a genuine array of career options open to them, present a profile of the SME sector and its needs, pitch our training course concept and provide valuable feedback on their behavioural preferences and how these might impact upon future roles.  The responses we received to the advertising were good and we ran seminars in the North, Midlands and London.  However, despite receiving healthy attendance and strong interest it quickly became apparent that we had a failure on our hands.  We had encountered an insurmountable problem.

We had offered a better and more relevant training programme, set our price at a more attractive level and matched the offering of refined leads and continuing support to those completing the training programme.   There was, however, a critical element of our main competitor’s offering that clinched business for them but one we had chosen not to follow.  One of the key factors that invariably clinched the sale for our competitor was an ‘income guarantee’.  Having reviewed the documentation that David had been given it was clear that the guarantee was all but worthless, so hedged around with conditions and procedures that it was almost inconceivable that anyone could succeed with a claim.  Little wonder that they boasted that they had never had to pay out!  We decided that it would be unethical to match this misleading offer and we changed the direction of our business.

Whilst David had found that the ‘hot leads’ he had been provided by our competitor were at best on the tepid side of stone cold he had, nevertheless, succeeded in building a strong client base of his own.  An interesting and resourceful turn of events had been David’s success in persuading a local firm of chartered accountants to sub-contract the provision of business advice for clients to him.  This experience had led him into a similar arrangement with other firms.  The accounting firms were all members of a national marketing membership organisation (we’ll call them XYZ) that provided help and assistance to members to enable them to run a better business.

We knew from research conducted by Strathclyde University that accountants were the most trusted source of advice amongst private business owners.  However, David’s experience was that beyond the traditional areas of accounting and tax, most small and medium sized accounting firms shied away from offering other forms of business related advice.  “Why don’t we offer our business advice service to more of XYZ’s members?” I suggested. “They obviously see the commercial wisdom of offering advice to clients but don’t feel confident or expert enough to do so themselves.”  David agreed and this was the genesis of our new business venture.

I joined David (in my ‘spare time’) in widening the number of firms we approached and we quickly succeeded in winning further clients amongst the members.  Convinced that the service we were providing was potentially of real value to XYZ, we decided to approach them.  This was not a simple matter and it took many attempts over six months before we sat across a desk from one of the two founders.  The meeting went well and we came away with an agreement to trial our service to a sample of their members.  We recruited another highly experienced business advisor to join us and once again proved we could deliver results.  Some months later the trial was extended to a further region and the results continued to improve.

A short way into our extended trial the three of us started to uncover the same situation time and again.  It was the practice owner rather than their clients who was in most urgent need of face to face business guidance and support.  Despite being highly qualified and experienced chartered accountants the vast majority of practice owners lacked the wider business skills to get the most from their teams and their clients.  The answer we soon implemented was to commence a coaching programme with the practice owner in addition to our work with their clients.

We had implemented a client satisfaction feedback process whereby our researcher, interviewed every practice owner and client we worked with following a set period.  The feedback we received was invaluable and showed our service to be rated either first or second out of the whole XYZ offering.  It also enabled us to take corrective action where required and ensure that our service continued to meet members’ needs.  We also fed back the results to each associate and the XYZ management.  The change of direction was extremely successful and led to a real breakthrough when XYZ asked us to provide a national service for every new member they recruited.  We then formed a new company with XYZ as partners.  Given that we were now about to create a business with effectively a sole customer, we argued that such a shared destiny required a reciprocal shareholding in XYZ.  We were not successful in this but settled for the right to attend and participate in their board meetings.

Faced with a national launch far beyond the geographic capabilities of three of us we started an intensive recruitment campaign to cover the entire UK.  Within a short period we assembled and trained a team of 20 associates, each of whom had previously held at least one role as MD or chairman.  Ironically, each of these new associates had been uncovered via our previous competitor’s online network!  Based on the experience that we had gathered from our existing work, our model was based upon a mix of coaching and mentoring.  We knew that pure coaching methodologies (the coach questions and the coachee provides their own solutions) can provide strong results.  However, our own experience showed that a combination of coaching blended with appropriate guidance (based on the vast experience of our associates) enabled a time-efficient and professional solution.

By this stage I had been running businesses for thirty years and been an owner of various different organisations for ten.  These organisations had been many times larger than the one David and I had created and they had given me rich and varied experience.  But having created a successful organisation together from the failure of our initial concept was richly and uniquely rewarding.  To start and build a successful business is something really rather special.  We were now helping many business owners and their teams to be more successful as organisations and more fulfilled as individuals.  David and I had continued to make a truly synergistic team where difficulties were merely fresh challenges to be overcome.  With David’s superior interpersonal skills and my research, analysis and organisational work we were a powerful team.

David and I also worked closely with our new partners, resulting in an initially a strong relationship.  However, management changes took place within their organisation after a couple of years and differences of opinion started to emerge over strategy.  As time moved on I found that I was spending more and more time attempting to negotiate a resolution of these differences.  I became to realise that the rich feelings of satisfaction with our business that I had enjoyed so much had all but evaporated.  I could see only opportunity squandered and a loss of personal freedom stretching ahead.  A concept that both David and I had planned to run on into retirement had become something from which I could no longer derive satisfaction.

Following lengthy discussions over the situation we both seemed to realise that events had changed so much that we could never recapture the fun and satisfaction we had previously enjoyed.  Subsequently, following discussions with our partners, an offer was made to buy out my stake in the business and in 2010, after 8 great years working with David, I departed.

Reading over this last chapter I realise that it ends on a very low note but that accurately reflects the way it felt at the time.  There is a very much more complex story that I have abbreviated into a few short paragraphs but legal reasons preclude me from going into greater detail.  I really missed what David and I had created but time and circumstances had moved on and I had to do likewise.

David continued to run the business with our previous partners for another two years until the situation changed once more and the contract was terminated.  He is now continuing to offer business coaching and advice to a much wider spectrum of professions and still working with most of our previous associates.  I wish him every success in what remains a valuable endeavour.

We had succeeded in building this business together whilst I was still heavily involved in the running of ABC, Trisk and Bison as well as chairing Hallamshire.  I still don’t know how it all fitted together into 365 day years – perhaps the extra day in leap years helped.  And yes, whilst I was having fun in all these businesses, there was always the time I spent each week in Newcastle with the big investment I had made in Metal Spinners Group.  And events there were becoming ever more involving.

Less than a month after my departure an event took place in Newcastle that was to have far reaching implications.

 

Osborne’s employee rights sacrifice, equity for all scheme

Do politicians really think through the ideas they float?  Do they have any idea of the realities of business and especially the entrepreneur?  Come to think of it, do they have any idea of the complexities of business?Osborne's employee rights sacrifice, equity for all scheme

As a retired businessman who ran, bought, created and sold businesses, large and small in over a dozen industries, I have a reasonable knowledge of the problems facing business owners and the people who work in them.  I also spent many years in the layers below the top to have a fair understanding of the issues that face employees, what concerns them and what doesn’t.  Let’s start with the problem that Osborne is purporting to solve, the great employee rights and employment law burden.

Before the current edifice of employment law was created and forced onto business the policies that determined how employees were recruited, trained, paid, promoted, cared for, pensioned and fired were largely at the whim of the employer.  What this meant was that all of these factors were points of differentiation that clearly separated good employers from their bad competitors.  Working for Unilever in the 1960’s I enjoyed benefits and practices that would still be regarded as outstanding even today.  Has the welter of employment law really made things better for the average employee in the average company?

Consider first that small and medium businesses (SME) account for 99.9% of all enterprises and 58.8% of private sector employment.  To the vast majority of these businesses employment law brings little benefit over and above that which enlightened owners and managers strive to achieve without the aid of the law.  But it also brings huge compliance costs and the threat of many disgruntled employees running off to employment tribunals.  Today a malicious ex-employee can wreak havoc upon a good employer.  Maternity leave can also create a nightmare for small companies.  There will always be bad employers just as there will always be bad employees.  We must ask ourselves what we have really gained by forcing policies borrowed from some of the country’s (and the world’s) largest companies onto our SMEs.  And that is before we should ask ourselves what role corporation tax and employers national insurance contributions do for employments levels.

So, if Osborne is recognising at least part of the problems facing employers here in the UK with his equity for rights proposal, shouldn’t we be applauding his scheme?  Sadly, I don’t think we should.  I believe that it is another dose of borrowing concepts of best practice from the largest corporation that will do nothing for the 58.8% of private sector employees who work within the SME sector.  And nothing for the company owners of these businesses.  Let me explain why.

There are already employee share ownership schemes that are used by large companies.  Usually these shares encourage employees to save and should they leave or require the cash then there is a very liquid market waiting to buy their shares.  The risk, of course, is that the value of the equity falls (remember Northern Rock).  Overall these schemes do not represent more than a fraction of the total equity of the company and do not carry voting rights or eligibility for dividends.  Are they effective in engendering concepts of ownership amongst participating employees?  Or are they just a savings scheme?  Would such a scheme encourage employees of these large companies to give up their rights?  And would having two tiers of employees be of real benefit to the company?  You decide.

However, when we turn our attention to the SME sector the problems become significant.  In privately owned companies equity is usually guarded closely by owners or can be very limited in number (£100 companies are quite common).  The reason for this is quite simple.  For those owners who wish ultimately to sell the business to achieve a return, then they wish to retain the largest percentage of equity they can.  For those businesses that are run as family concerns then there is little intention to sell and equity is often held in a web of different generations of family members and trusts.

There could be attractions for an SME to set up such a scheme as a means of opting out of employment legislation.  Any benefit for the employee could be completely illusory.  Why?  The issued value of any shares provided in such a scheme is likely to be low and any return only available when (and if) the company is sold.  Given that there is no market in equity held in privately owned shares, any departing employee (for good or bad reasons) would be at the mercy of the company in deciding a price for buying them back.  The cost of setting up such a scheme would be quite high.  Would it raise meaningful sums for a startup or early growth business?  Not a chance.

Of course there are already businesses run as cooperatives but these are tiny in number.  There are also those businesses who run employee share ownership schemes, these usually being very large companies with differentiated cultures and attitudes towards employees.

In my view if Osborne really wishes to help both private employers and employees he should scrap swathes of employment legislation (as it frequently strangles employment opportunities in 99.9% of private enterprises).  He should also reduce or eliminate corporation tax and employers national insurance contributions both of which act as a tax on employment.

Time to scrap the idea, George.  conference season is over for another year.  Just go and talk to a few SMEs before the budget.

Image courtesy of guidetowomen.wordpress.com

The Business of Life Chapter 34 – life under water

Earlier in 1997 I had been asked by 3i to review a technology business they had backed that was being viewed increasingly as a ‘problem child’.  I agreed to meet the two main director shareholders of Advanced Bar Coding (ABC) to see what the situation was and if we could work together.  The business, a distributor of bar coding products, had been formed by the joint MDs in the early 1990s.  It operated from an industrial estate in Hull where it had offices, warehouse and a technical department.  Approximately 60 staff were employed & turnover was around £8.0m (having grown by approximately 35% each year since formation).  There were two other members of the board, a Sales Director & a Technical Director.Life under water

The situation I found was dire.  It was clear that the business was on the brink of insolvency having lost £1.0m in two disastrous investments in the USA & Germany (with the losses increasing each month).  The bank was threatening to withdraw their overdraft and had placed the management of the account into the hands of their ‘intensive care’ division.  The factoring company were reeling in their advances due to the poor credit record of many of the customers.  Margins were slender and seemed to be slipping with each passing month.  On the initial visit I got on well with Mike and Alan (the joint MDs) and was subsequently appointed to the board as a non-executive director.  The total investment made in the business by the shareholders and the bank was, to quote a phrase, “below water”.

Mike was a volatile powerhouse, a dynamic and successful salesman, totally committed to his business but very autocratic and appeared lacking in broader-based business & strategic skills.  His energy was inexhaustible but at times he seemed merely reactive to events.  The other main shareholder, Alan, was a quieter and amiable individual who acted as Finance Director (despite being completely unqualified).  We started work on a revised business plan to try to convince the bank to stay with us while we turned the business around.  A core element of the plan was withdrawal from both the USA & Germany.

The meeting went well but the bank refused to support the plan unless 3i and the shareholders increased their investment.  In a separate meeting they also conveyed that any further support would be conditional on a restructuring of the board.  Specifically they required that Alan step down as joint MD and Finance Director and be replaced by a new and suitably qualified accountant.  I was appointed chairman and required to invest, as was the incoming FD.  3i agreed to inject a modest amount of further capital and the whole package was conditional on finding a buyer of the business without delay.

Mike and I had agreed to approach the subject of Alan’s departure in a joint meeting with him and I hoped that we could resolve the matter, if not amicably, at least following due process.  An early demonstration of Mike’s volatility was not long in coming.  I arrived on the morning allotted for our meeting with Alan to find no sign of him but was greeted by Mike in an agitated state.  “I’ve fired him,” were the first words he uttered, “I couldn’t stand him any more.”  It seemed a row had blown up early that morning between the two of them resulting in this potentially disastrous turn of events.  Not only were we liable for a clear cut claim for unfair dismissal but there was the not insignificant matter of Alan’s equity.

Upon inspection of the Shareholders’ Agreement I found that there was no provision in it that required Alan to sell his equity back to the company in the event of his departure.  Given the dictate we had been given to sell the business, the prospect of a disgruntled Alan with no requirement to sell his shares rendered this possibility almost impossible.  I proposed that I met with Alan and asked Mike to have no contact with him.  Over the next week or so I shuttled back and forth in a diplomatic mission that ultimately resulted in us buying Alan’s shares back for a nominal sum.  With the bank onside, albeit with a reduced overdraft (and ABC still in the intensive care department), the factoring company agreeing to continue support and 3i making their additional investment, we were only left with a small number of mountains to climb.  We now had to extricate ourselves from the USA & Germany, find a buyer for the business and, without delay, find a new FD.

In the event this last requirement proved relatively painless and Andy joined the team first as a consultant and then formally as FD.  An accountant with a very commercial outlook, good venture capital experience and somewhat of an IT expert, he also had the invaluable experience of having been part of a team that built and sold one extremely successful company.  He was a thoroughly nice guy who fitted in well but something of the iron fist in the velvet glove.  If Andy felt a particular course of action was not either legally, procedurally or ethically right then you knew that it was not going to happen.  Colin the technical director was supportive but I had my doubts about Jay, the sales director (who soon moved on as the business became progressively more structured in its approach).

The three remaining board members became the most successful team I have ever worked with in my entire career.  If anyone from outside had been an observer at many of our board meetings they might have thought we stood no chance of success as violent argument was not unusual.  But we proved Meridith Belbin (probably the world’s first, and arguably the best, expert on team-working) right.  Successful teams don’t need to be harmonious affairs, in fact dissent often ensures full examination of the relevant facts and the available options and leads to successful decisions.  Mike grew in my estimation.  I can’t imagine how tough it must have been for him to be planning the sale of his treasured business although I did know that a sale was something he hoped would never happen.  A previously successful entrepreneur, he had seem his creation grow and then fail, saw little or no hope of a return on his investment and had to welcome onto the board two outsiders who questioned every assumption about the business.  We certainly had blood on the walls at times and Mike would often storm out of the boardroom with a face like thunder when a decision went against him.  But always, and often within the hour, he would seek me out and tell me that he had already implemented (or put into motion) whatever change was required.

Mike knew everything about the industry we were in and everyone in it.  The problem was that his knowledge was vast at the micro level but it was akin to a huge database without a search facility that could link aspects together.  He had always existed previously making rapid decisions and usually without reference to others.  The business had been Mike’s train set.  I was worried however that he lacked the experience or toolkit effectively to analyse the industry and our place within it.  He didn’t know what he didn’t know so often he didn’t go looking.  If we were to stand any chance of turning the business around and selling it on (let alone making a return on investment) I knew we had to have a coherent strategy, one that would take us out of the maze we were in.  Mike had resisted initial attempts to instigate a full strategic review.  “Waste of time,” he would claim, “I know everything about this industry and this business.”  Finally, he agreed to a rigorous process of strategic review and over several long meetings, by a process of research, brain-dumping, questioning and probing a clear picture appeared that the whole board could grasp.

In a highly fragmented channel, it was clear from our research that ABC was market leader in distribution.  This leadership stemmed from high levels of customer satisfaction, driven by an industry leading catalogue, great depth and breadth of stock, a superior technical infrastructure and a uniquely proactive telesales process.  Critically, we had premises and systems that could support at least double our current sales.

We had a customer base with a low level of creditworthiness, poor sales and marketing expertise below Mike and suppliers (some of whom were well known global corporations) with chaotic distribution strategies, poor service and zero demand building activities.  It was also now clear that we were suffering from a lack of certain key ‘flagship’ brands.  But overwhelmingly we suffered from a continual cash drain from the USA and Germany operations and a balance sheet with a £1m hole.

It was apparent that there were actions we could take to improve matters such as boosting our technical services and expanding our specialist product ranges, both of which provided superior margins.  We urgently needed to improve the quality of our customer base and lessen the risks we faced from bad debts.  But, far and away, the only option that offered a real step change in our fortunes would be to acquire one or more competitors.

Prices across the whole market were falling year on year and manufacturers continued to dump stock further depressing prices and margins.  But the greatest threat facing the business was of the bank ‘pulling the plug’ completely, leaving us with no means of raising the capital we needed to turn the business around.

The situation the business was in could be summarised as being fraught with problems and opportunities!  There was also only a very limited window of opportunity to act.

Mike admitted that he had learnt a great deal from the process & a new strategy was agreed by the board to move the business towards achieving a sale.  We were still living from hand to mouth in cash terms and were very exposed.  We desperately needed access to the ‘flagship’ brands to improve our offering in every category.  So, the suppliers of the brands we required were approached to allow us to gain access.  An agreement was reached with the least important of these, however the main two companies still declined to add us to their distribution base.

The obvious solution that had emerged from our strategic review would be to buy a competitor & transfer all business to Hull, thus improving sales & profits in one giant step.  We researched all competition & identified the half-dozen most likely candidates who had the key brands we required.  Meetings were held with all of these; some were initially interested in a sale, some refused.  But the crushing difficulty was in obtaining further funding.  Following meetings with both the bank and 3i to present our proposed strategy, both agreed that acquisition was an excellent idea but flatly refused to lend more to achieve it!

 Over the next six months and only following a great deal of effort (initially attempting to improve our operations) we finally succeeded in withdrawing from the USA and Germany.  A small but significant victory was receiving an ex gratia payment from one of the big four accounting firms that recognised faulty due diligence work they had carried out in Germany had led to the problems we had encountered.  We were still technically insolvent (with huge negative equity) but we had stopped making losses and, painfully slowly, each month we were starting to reduce the hole in the balance sheet.

Priority was then given to improving the internal processes of the business and to improving profitability.  Much work was done to analyse the customer base, sorting them into categories.  The sales force was now targeted with specific objectives against each of the main customer groupings.  Certain customers were ‘de-emphasised’ and left to competition.  However, we still could not break into certain of the best potential customers due to our lack of the remaining key brands.  The only remaining way we could gain access to these was via acquisition.  The problem was that we couldn’t raise a single pound more finance.

Of the discussions we had been having with a number of acquisition targets, one of these was owned by an American parent, primarily involved in software.  The UK products distribution business was losing money heavily, the parent was very keen to sell but they wanted serious money for a sale.  The business was ideal as it had both of our target brands, had an excellent customer base (a good percentage of which would be new to us) and had leasehold premises we did not need.  We estimated that we would need none of their staff and could transfer the entire business to Hull.  We also felt that we could grow sales of our product range via their customers.  A perfect match.  We left them with a statement that we were very keen to buy but that their price was too rich for us.  The chances of them selling to us seemed remote as we simply couldn’t raise any money.  The only option left would be to get the American parent to fund our acquisition.  But would they?  And if they wouldn’t, what future would ABC have?

We were still way ‘under water’.

  Image courtesy of lakedistrict.gov.uk

The Business of Life Chapter 32 – when death becomes inevitable

 When death becomes inevitableWith Richard gone I appointed Tim as MD, we started the hunt for a finance director and commenced the process of producing a new business plan for the next twelve months.  However, we quickly discovered that, such was the mess in the accounting systems, it was not possible to establish the true working capital position.  Our auditors hired us the services of an experienced accountant who quickly set about the process of investigating the current state of the company’s books.  The management accounts transpired to not be worth the paper they had been printed on deemed more like a work of fiction.  Worse, the VAT was overdue and the VAT accounts had not been reconciled for months; indeed it looked as if they never could be. Whatever vestiges of empathy I had for Richard quickly evaporated.

With a twelve month plan completed, Tim and I presented this to our finance company to plead for additional time.  We then visited every one of our key suppliers to explain the current situation and to present our plans.  Luckily, we gained the full support of everyone.  Tim proceeded to do a remarkable job as the new MD, working tirelessly to rally the whole team, whilst I started the process of seeking a new finance director. With the aid of 3i, we met and appointed a very experienced FD who quickly set about bringing the company’s books up to the required standard.  With the correct information guiding us and the whole team working effectively, sales and margins slowly started to improve.

By mid year (our second) we were trading profitably but cash remained as tight as ever.  Further close examination revealed that our finance company were slowly but surely reeling in their loan by reducing their advances against our invoices.  It was galling in an extreme to realise that, had we not suffered the actions of the vendor and his illicit cash strip, we would have been in a healthy cash position with no liquidity concerns.  However, with Offhand (the vendor) again doing a disappearing act at my latest attempt to arrange a dispute resolution meeting, it was clear that we were running out of time before we had to go to court.  Although we were sure of the odds of winning on our main claim (the cash strip), there was unfortunately (due to the poor state of the books before our purchase) a degree of uncertainty over the smaller claim.  With the prospect of enormous legal bills even if we won the main claim, it was clear that drastic action was needed.  My first foray into business ownership looked like it could hit the rocks.

With the business trading in two entirely separate markets, with two different product ranges, it was apparent that potentially we could package one half of the business and sell this to a competitor.  One of the product ranges had lower margins and poorer quality debtors but had potentially a higher strategic value to competition.  With a range of cautious estimates for a sale price, it became clear that the rump business, operating with lower overheads, could prosper even without the reducing invoice discounting facility.

I initiated a series of discrete discussions with our competition for the more saleable business.  Out of the calls I made, two produced meetings that showed interest and I progressed these.  Further discussions led me to believe that we could achieve a price at the upper end of our estimates.  Nevertheless, whilst we were now trading profitably, we were far from being out of the woods in terms of liquidity and in this uncertain situation we lacked the cash to pursue the legal action.  I drove the long way back home that week convinced we could make the plan work.

Given the somewhat vague legal definition of insolvency, I wanted to be sure that we were on safe ground selling off company assets and sought specialist advice from one of the big four accountancy firms.  It transpired that to be certain that we were seen to be acting in the best interests of all the creditors, we needed to advise them of our plans and gain their agreement.  As I was returning from that meeting I received a call from one of the two interested parties advising me that they were withdrawing.  This robbed me of the opportunity to have two parties bidding against each other but all you need is one willing purchaser; so, press on.  When I got back to the office I found that sales in the previous month had failed to reach our projection.  Immediately, the finance company reduced advances against our invoices still further.

Good news came at last in the form of an encouraging offer for the part of the business we had put up for sale.  We only now needed to gain the agreement of our creditors to a new overall plan, realise the sale at the agreed sum and we were home and dry.  With the sale achieved, we would be able to pay off all overdue creditors and finance court proceedings against Offhand.  We carefully revised our rolling twelve month business plan and Tim & I started the arduous task of again travelling the country to meet with our creditors.  We presented the full story including a fall back position (if the sale failed or we did not receive the full backing of all creditors) of having to place the business into administration.  In the event, we achieved 100% acceptance of our plan.  This proved to be of no avail.

The hammer blow came several days later, when I received a call from the CEO of the competitor that had made the offer; he had heard of the precarious state of the overall business and was withdrawing his offer.  It subsequently transpired that the credit control manager of our largest supplier (who had pledged full support to me face to face) had revealed our situation to our competitor.  We discussed the situation as a board but there was no way out.  With the working capital financing now almost depleted (and soon to disappear completely) and no way of raising further finance to continue trading and fight our legal case, we had run out of road.  That same day I appointed the accountancy firm I had met as administrators and arranged to meet them at the office the following morning.

The next day I was relieved of my duties as an employee and director.  Tim was kept on for a few weeks more whilst the administrators tried to sell the business as a going concern.  The part of the business we had originally received a healthy offer for went as an asset sale for a fraction of that which it was worth immediately prior to the administration.  I lost a great deal of money and the creditors never received a penny.  Our wonderful administrators then managed to string the process out for ten long years taking all of the money they raised in their own fees.

Against the backdrop of this sad and frustrating failure, I was by this time also heavily committed in what was to become an even longer running and equally challenging saga in the other 3i investment where I was now chairman and part owner.  Whilst up in Newcastle, the Metal spinners investment was also becoming more challenging by the day.  Was it all going to end in a disaster?

The Business of Life Chapter 31 – the gathering storm

Having successfully acquired the Metal Spinners group of companies I was elated But the glow of post-deal euphoria was destined to be short-lived.  As I started the process of taking control of the businesses with Roger and Mark problems in the other companies were bubbling to the surface.   I shall be returning to the MSG experiences in due course but, meanwhile, there are other tales to tell. The Business of Life chapter 31 - the gathering storm   

 The failure rate of new businesses is high with around one third disappearing within their first three years.  But once through this initial period the rate of attrition falls and many businesses survive to have a long life, weathering even the odd recession.  Business risk is omnipresent but there is one circumstance where the greatest risk arises and that is when a new owner takes control.  Research has shown that the majority of acquisitions work to the benefit of the vendor’s shareholders.  There are many reasons for this phenomenon, including inappropriate strategy and culture being introduced and sometimes sheer incompetence on the part of the new management.  But the greatest problem for even the best new incoming owners, despite the most exhaustive due diligence, is that they simply don’t know where the bodies are buried.

Introduced by 3i to become investing chairman for the acquisition of the Bridgestream business (not its real name), I had become the third member of the buy-in team.  The impression I came away with my initial meetings was that the team leader (we’ll call him Richard) was a great guy; originally a chartered accountant from one of the major firms and well experienced in business.  Richard was charming & urbane and we hit it off at once.  The other team member, Tim, struck me as a solid and dependable man who would make a great operations director for the business.  There was the added advantage that they had both worked together previously on another 3i investment.

Bridgestream was, at the time, a privately owned service based business with a large distribution arm for the products it used.  I reserved judgement until I could carry out my own due diligence.  The following week I visited, met the owner and had a chance to look over the main premises.  Being after office hours I wasn’t able to meet any of the staff or get a feel for the atmosphere of the business while it was operating (confidentially concerns on the part of the owner had precluded a visit during normal hours).  I came away thinking, the premises are old, they had a neglected feel and I didn’t take to the owner (I’ll call him Offhand).

However, when I reported back to Mark T at 3i it seemed we shared the same view.  The business was not a particularly exciting one but the plan the team had tabled seemed realistic and we both shared a very favourable opinion of Richard.   Furthermore, it seemed that he came with a tremendous recommendation from the references that had been taken.  We agreed it would be a goer given a ceiling on the purchase price, a satisfactory funding package plus my role as chairman and the experience I could bring to the team.

Richard, Tim and I worked on a detailed reworking of the business plan whilst we awaited the financial due diligence from KPMG.  A series of meetings with banks and factoring companies resulted in finalisation of the funding package and my individual equity investment was settled.  I was surprised to learn just how large a cash stake Richard and Tim were putting up.  They had originally planned to complete the transaction without external equity participation but suffered when, being unable to finance the deal on that basis, they had revealed to 3i just how much they could scrape together (and that was then set in concrete).  The final element of the funding package was an element of vendor finance in the form of a deferred element of the total consideration.  The vendor haggled but finally conceded.

Shortly before completion, we met to receive the financial due diligence report.  There was good and bad news.  Whilst the overall level of company performance was confirmed, it seemed that the financial systems were not particularly robust.  There were two associated companies, only one of which we were purchasing (the distribution arm), the vendor retaining the service business.  The concern was that the accounting systems couldn’t be relied upon to always delineate between the two companies.  Richard undertook to work with the vendor to review the systems and finalise a working capital level for completion, which would then be guaranteed.

Negotiations over the sale and purchase agreement dragged on but we finally completed the transaction with everyone happy.  We were the new owners of Bridgestream (along with our VC equity partners 3i) of a distribution business with eight branches around the UK and two separate operating divisions.  For myself, I had made my first private equity investment.  However, even as we sipped our champagne and accepted the congratulations of our advisers, the storm clouds were gathering.

With the glow of success (or it might have been champagne) still infusing our faces the following morning, we took control of the business and set about reviewing our new company.  Bridgestream traded from eight warehouses across the Midlands and Southern England, supplying a wide range of chemical and consumable products into two discrete industrial markets.  The business was trading profitably (albeit on narrow margins) but had high overheads in terms of both premises and staff.  Our business plan included achieving major savings by consolidating down onto a single site; this would also have the advantage of operating with reduced inventory whilst improving customer service.  During the remainder of the first week, I visited most of the sites, which served to confirm the urgency of the plan.

The first bombshell came with my return to the office to find an extremely concerned looking Richard in his office with the management accountant.  “ We’ve been screwed.” Richard announced to me.  In contravention of the terms of the sale and purchase agreement the vendor had cancelled all of the previous month’s payments to creditors.  The effect of this was to deprive Bridgestream of the major portion of the working capital we had relied upon.  I agreed with Richard that an overhaul of the accounting systems was vital if we were to have accurate information.

The situation was compounded when we also discovered a few days later that in settling an intercompany debt pre-completion between Bridgestream and its sister company (remaining with Offhand), a large over-payment had been made.  The net effect was now a hole in our working capital of well over half a million pounds.  This was a situation that moved us from being seriously injured to virtually crippled.  Richard quickly spoke to Offhand who made soothing noises over the matter and promised to look into the situation.  We hastily re-ran our cashflow projections and calculated that, with changes to our payment terms and some savings we could make we might survive; but we needed that cash.  Now.  The next call was to our lawyers.

Despite many calls to Offhand, no payment was forthcoming, so on our lawyers’ advice, we instituted proceedings against him for breach of contract.  Offhand’s reaction was to issue a counterclaim claiming repayment of the deferred consideration.  As the months dragged on I attempted to engage Offhand in an Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) process but despite agreeing he never showed up for a meeting.  One of our managers still in contact with Offhand reported that he had no intention of paying as he believed we couldn’t afford the legal costs to win our action.  The legal processes rolled on and our costs duly rose.

Meanwhile, the cash situation was not improving.  We were surviving but barely and the prospects of a new loan to compensate were zero.  Towards the end of that first year, the directors all agreed to reduced salaries.  Richard had previously agreed to replace the management accountant (we had acquired with the business) as he was, in Richard’s own opinion, simply not up to the job.  The months dragged on but no change took place, Richard always having one excuse after another to delay making a change.  It also became apparent that our invoice financing company were reducing their advances to us, having the effect of stressing our finances still further.  A meeting with their management revealed their concerns over the credit worthiness of many of our customers.  Richard promised a major drive to improve debt collection.

Richard had started giving me growing cause for concern over this period.  He was increasingly absent from the office, ostensibly improving sales but instead he frequently met with one ‘snake oil salesman’ after another and came back full of his latest ideas for additional (and wholly inappropriate) new product lines.   The monthly accounts were increasingly late for our board meetings and appeared to be showing profits whilst we were bleeding cash.  After another board meeting when we were again without full accounts, I called off the meeting and met alone with Richard.  What followed were, hopefully, the most difficult couple of hours of his life.  I covered all of his shortcomings, his continued failings to take corrective action despite commitments, inappropriate sense of priorities and his duties as a director and informed him I required a programme of specific actions over the next month (through to our first year end).

Over the next couple of months we set about the site consolidation process.  We finally found suitable premises, close to the centre of the country and the motorway network and, after careful planning on Tim’s part, we made the move over one hectic, weekend.  The long awaited reduction in stock levels finally started showing benefits and along with the staffing reductions our overheads would come down (after the effects of the redundancy payments had fed through).

Yet another turn of the screw came when the financing company rewarded our stock reduction programme with a corresponding reduction in their advance.  The promised sales improvement failed to materialise and combined with our reduction in stock financing we were seeing no improvement in cashflow.  Richard was pleading the need to concentrate on finalising our year end accounts (which we were under pressure to produce) and had still not replaced the management accountant (saying now that he had great loyalty).  I was forced to give him additional time to achieve the commitments he had made to me.  Richard shortly afterwards produced management accounts showing a break-even position at the year end.  He also promised that the cash situation would quickly improve and that, now the move was complete, we would see real benefits.

Some weeks later my mobile rang with a devastating call from our major supplier.  I learnt in a very difficult conversation that Richard had reneged on a previously agreed payment schedule and was now avoiding calls.  He informed me that all confidence in Richard was exhausted and was going to close the account.  I promised immediate attention to the issue and asked, on my personal surety, for additional time to resolve matters.  By this time I had also gone many months without payment of salary and other business expenses I had incurred.  The following day I was due to meet with Richard and Tim at KPMG’s offices for the audit meeting, so I decided to delay any conversation until we could meet face to face.

The information from our audit partner was worse than I could have imagined.  The year-end break-even result Richard had reported (critical to the continued support of our financing company) was in fact a very large loss.  Furthermore, we were informed that the firm had never seen an accounting system in such a mess.  Richard bumbled on making a series of ludicrous excuses whilst I sat and tried to configure a plan.  The first step had to be to remove Richard; not only was he past the point at which he could recover any credibility, it was clear that he was utterly incompetent.  I made suitable excuses and left to start moving things forward.

 My first action was to meet with our VC partner to bring him up to speed and gain his agreement to the action I was proposing.  I then had a meeting with our lawyers to review the terms of Richard’s contract.  They agreed that the situation constituted a serious enough breech of his duties to warrant dismissal without compensation.  That left the issue of Richard’s equity, which was literally under water and without value.  Under the terms of his contract if he left the company he was required to sell the equity back to the company at an agreed valuation.  In an act of generosity I set a valuation at a nominal sum.  I called Richard and set up an extraordinary board meeting for a couple of day’s time.

What followed was the hardest task I have ever had to undertake in business.  It had fallen to me to fire more than a few people in my time but to take away someone’s dreams and their life’s savings at the same time was not something to relish.  In the event a usually verbose Richard was stunned into silence save for a few monosyllabic replies.  I escorted him whilst he cleared his office and saw him off the premises.  Later that night he returned blind drunk and hurled two pallets through the front office windows.  The exercise of power can be a sobering experience.

Could we save the business?  

 Image courtesy of viralblog.com

 

The Business of Life Chapter 27 – no way back

Some people would say that it was madness, but I found it liberating to know that I had blocked off an escape route and that the only way was forward.  Having withdrawn from the job search process and informed head hunters I was out of the game, I had but one goal and that was to achieve a management buy-in (MBI).  To facilitate this process I had to earn just enough to support the household and preserve my savings for the stake I would need for my share of equity.  As John Major resigned the leadership of the Conservative Party to trigger a leadership election in June 1995, thus burning bridges in the hope of winning party support, I made my own play for future success.  My bid was rather less exalted but it was critical to me and had a similar air of ‘do or die’.No Way Back

A corporate finance partner at Grant Thornton I had met during the due diligence process at Selmar was my initial port of call.  “Why do you want to do this?” he enquired when I had finished laying out my plans.  “Because I can be a whole lot more successful at running businesses than most of the clowns I’ve worked for!”  “Wrong!” he shot back at me, “You stand in front of a venture capitalist and tell him that and you’re finished.”  I felt perplexed and my look must have revealed my confusion.  “You’re doing it for the money, you want to make shedloads of money for yourself and for them.  That’s what they want to hear.”

My first task was to commence my own due diligence on the process of achieving an MBI.  I started this by talking to several contacts, eitherold or new, who had managed to get VC backing to either buy-out (MBO) or buy-in to business.  Their advice was interesting but the one phrase that struck me as invaluable given my own experience with cash was, “Never buy what you can borrow and never borrow what you can steal!”

An essential element I absolutely had to ensure was in place was a contingent fee arrangement with a firm of accountants and a lawyer firm.  To get a deal to completion meant accounts and lawyers putting a great deal of hours on the clock for both accounting and legal due diligence plus all the work on the finances, deal structure and the sale & purchase agreement.  These costs would run to hundreds of thousands of pounds and without this ‘no win, no fee’ arrangement in place, failure to complete a deal would ruin me.  In the deal-charged environment of the 90’s all of the major accounting and law firms realised that without such an arrangement the deals would simply never happen.  The quid pro quo was an acceptance by VCs that transaction fees would be inflated for success.  It was a feeding frenzy.

The combination of my approaches and CV got me meetings with the corporate finance partners of every major accounting and law firm I approached.  A vast amount of highly practical advice flowed from these meetings, which was adding to my rapidly growing knowledge of the intricacies of the MBI process.  All lost no time in telling me how difficult it was to achieve and how risky it was to buy a company as an outsider, “You just won’t know where the skeletons will fall out of the cupboards!”  Knowing that it was going to be a lengthy and fraught process, the key aspect both parties were assessing was the personal chemistry.  There had to be mutual respect and trust, something that I was well aware of, but something that would also be brought into a stark spotlight in the future.  The result of many meetings was an agreement of backing from KPMG and Pinsent Curtis both in Leeds.

With one vital building block in place I started contacting all of the major VC firms.  Again I succeeded in achieving meetings at director level with every firm I approached.  The choice of equity partner transcended almost every other consideration.  Yes, you would share equity in a deal but management equity was a very subordinate animal to that held by a VC.  I knew that all firms could and would be ruthless in the event of non-performance but there were other considerations that I knew to be critical.  Most of the firms I talked to had a strict policy of exiting from their investments within a set time period, being driven by the way they raised finance.  I had met one management team who had almost been sunk by being forced to refinance as a result when their business was going through an appalling difficult period.

The one exception to this almost cast iron rule was 3i whose policy was that management drove the timing of exit.  With its roots in the Industrial and Commercial Financial Corporation and the Finance Corporation for Industry going back to 1945, 3i had probably more experience and understanding of financing private businesses than any other VC.  I had had a welcome and very useful initial talk with the head of the Leeds office and, following all of my other meetings, I decided that I simply had to get 3i backing.  The head of the Leeds office was Jonathan Russell (who went on to become a main board director) and underlying his smooth and urbane appearance and warm welcome was a very shrewd businessman.  After I had filled him in on my success in getting contingent fee arrangements in place with KPMG & Pinsents, he leaned back in his chair, nodded and enquired, “Anyway, how’s your job search going?”

This wasn’t a trap I was ever in danger of falling into and took delight in firing back, “I don’t have a job hunt.  I’ve closed all the corporate doors and I’m going to succeed in achieving an MBI with you.  That is my future.”  I was then vetted by Patrick Dunne (who ran their MBO / MBI programme) in London and was then able to benefit from the vast knowledge 3i had gained in this sector.  From their research I was able to ascertain just how many MBI candidates there were in the country attempting to achieve the same goal as me.  Comparing this number (over 2,000 from memory) with the number of deals actually completed each year (210 in 1994) was, at face value, disheartening.  Of these only 28 were MBI transactions that had been completed!  When I considered the reasoning behind Jonathan’s question about my job search and added this to the knowledge I had gained so far I realised that the odds were better than the apparent 1.4%.  Clearly some of the c2000 executives seeking a deal would also form part of a team of 2 or more.  I also knew from my research so far that the majority of people who claimed they had a goal of an MBI merely waited for the deal community to throw up an introduction to a potential transaction.  I had already decided that I wasn’t going to sit around waiting for a deal to show up, I was going to make it happen.  When I added this self-sufficiency to my competitiveness and determination, I decided the odds were rather better at around 8~10% pa.  Good enough for me.

I started work on a methodology for searching for suitable targets.  The advice I had been given so far was to buy a dog.  What was meant by this was buying a failing business and turning it around would yield fantastic returns.  The problem I envisaged with this approach was that the margin for error narrowed to almost zero.  Problems come from all angles even in a good business that one knows well but buying into a failing business raised the stakes dramatically.  No, I decided, I would buy a profitable business even if the price was higher but it wouldn’t be balanced on a knife edge from day one.  The obvious approach would be to attempt to buy a business in a sector where I was experienced, so the lighting industry had to be on my target list and I started making approaches to all my contacts in this sector.

I had drawn up a list of ideal criteria for a target company and this included:

  • Privately owned
  • No more than 3 shareholders and ideally same as directors
  • In business for between 15~30 years (potential retirement sale)
  • Turnover between £3m~£25m
  • Profitable and cash generative
  • Engineering, industrial manufacturing or distribution
  • Were differentiated in some way (or could be)
  • Had growth potential.

Obviously businesses in declining sectors were out and I also decided that I would have nothing to do with those selling consumer products into high street retailers.  I new that Companies House had all the information required to ascertain if the first 6 criteria could be fulfilled for a small fee.  However, there is no way one can carry out a criteria based search from this source (needles and haystacks).  However, I knew that there were many credit agencies and other research companies who bought the entire information from Companies House and compiled databases that could be searched by criteria.  Their fees were beyond me though.

Leeds business library proved to be an excellent halfway house for the information I required.  It had research reports on a vast number of UK business sectors and it had searchable databases that would give me a snapshot of likely companies.  In addition, the cost of information was only £0.10 a page.  I would blitz a business and geographic sector and come away with a single page on each of around 200 companies.  Returning to my office at home I would wade through this information refining it down into a short list of 20 to 30.  I would then arrange a meeting with Phil, the corporate finance partner at KPMG and we would then discuss each one and agree a final list of 10 to15.  Phil would then get one of his team to run off a complete financial history for the last 5~10 years in great detail for each one.

Back in my office I would then input all of the resulting data into a large spreadsheet model I had developed that would produce key ratios, further analysis and graphs.  The resulting report I produced for each company showed at a glance a clear picture of the health of each business plus all of the relevant trends.  I would put together any further information I could gather as desk research and then get together with Phil to review the results.  These reports together with our discussions enabled us to whittle the list down to 5 to 8 key targets.  Having discussed the various ways of approaching these targets Phil counselled that we would get a better response if he approached each company saying that he had a client with funding in place who was interested in a purchase.

Whilst carrying out this research I had been working my way through all of the potential businesses I knew in the lighting industry that were worth an approach.  I had meetings with a number of potential targets but despite serious interest from the owners there was really nothing worth pursuing.  I was waiting to hear of the results from the initial batch of letters Phil had sent out when he gave me a call and suggested we meet.  He explained he had information on a paper processing business that was for sale and he could introduce me if I was interested?

Was I interested!  After months of work I was off running with a lead on a business that was for sale.  Would it shape up?  Could I pull off a deal?

 Image courtesy of http://www.virtualdjradio

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?

 Image courtesy of businesspundit.com

The Business of Life Chapter 25 – when it’s time to pick yourself up

The flight back from Geneva that evening gave me some time and space to get my thoughts together.  There was none of the rage I had felt when I had been fired from Akai 13 years previously.  Instead, what I felt was a mix of great relief and sadness.  The sense of relief had been something I expected, as working for Norman and Eddie would have filled me with horror.  This feeling was vindicated later that same year when a friendly head hunter shared his experience of dealing with Norman  But more of that in due course.

The sadness was an unexpected sensation.  I had spent all those years working for a company in roles that had provided me with enormous challenges, to which I had usually been able to rise.  The company had given me a superb business education, which I have since come to realise was peerless.  It had also provided me with rich and complex problems on which to apply my new found knowledge.  I still count some of the solutions I arrived at to be amongst the greatest successes of my career.  It was sad that middle management had not always been able to step back from their personal positions and embrace a new reality.  Strategic thinking had been subordinated to the protection of personal gain in many cases.  Nevertheless, I knew I was going to miss the company, the challenges it had provided and the people; even the ones who had frustrated the hell out of me.

One worry luckily I didn’t have was financial.  At least I was confident that I would find the next position before money became a problem.  With the savings I had accumulated and the severance pay I had received life wouldn’t be too bad.  I was under no illusions though as the UK was still recovering from a nasty recession.  For the moment I put that from my mind as I had more immediate matters to deal with.  I had an apartment in Geneva with more stuff accumulated over the previous year than would fit into a suitcase and I had to get it back home.  I made plans to drive over in a few days.  Speaking to a couple of my old team I discovered that they had already had a farewell lunch together but on hearing I was returning for a couple of days they decided to do it all over again – with me.

So, after a few days catching up on my sleep and delighting in being back home with Denise, I headed back over the Channel and through France to Geneva for the last time.  The lunch was bitter-sweet.  I was touched that they were all prepared to give up their time to meet with me once more.  It was apparent though that a number felt a lot less philosophical about the situation than me and it was clear that at least a couple were going to find it very tough to get another position as good as the one they had lost.  One saving grace for them was that Swiss welfare payments were a whole lot more generous than the UK but only for a time.  When the hugs and kisses were over we went our individual ways and I began the long drive back.

Back home in Yorkshire my first priority was to shake off the excesses of too many meals and probably too much to drink.  So, Tilly our Rottweiler joined me for long jogs across the moors around our home and gradually I began to feel good both physically and mentally.  Without a break I started work full time on the hunt for the next position.  In the following 6 months I travelled 20,000 miles attending interviews, networking and researching the market.  Contacts I had made were unstinting with their time and advice and the many head hunters I either approached afresh or renewed acquaintance with were generally extremely helpful.  Together with the advice I had previously received from Max, I was becoming more focussed and more professional in my approach.

Discussing the very exact profile a client had drawn up for a position I was reviewing with an extremely helpful recruitment consultant he suddenly enquired, “It was the same Norman that had run FKI that bought your old company, wasn’t it?”  When I nodded he went on, “God you had a lucky escape!  I had a brush with him a few years back.  He contacted me and said he was looking for half a dozen MDs.  Well”, he went on, “I thought Christmas had come early, so I asked Norman to let me have candidate profiles and I’d get back to him with a plan and an invoice for the amount we charge upfront.”  It seems Norman had responded, “Don’t waste my time with stuff like that, just get me the candidates and I’ll see if I like any of them.”

Things were certainly a lot tougher than they had been the last time I was ‘between positions’.  I was that much older, that much more senior and the number of openings higher up the greasy pole were that much fewer.  It became clear quite quickly that, despite my extensive contacts, I wasn’t going to walk into a senior role in the industry I had just left.  I think I was known as someone with strong views and a different perspective on things and that didn’t appeal to many.  In any case longevity in position was a hallmark of the industry I had been in and there was no game of musical chairs to join in.  Moving industries once again looked the most likely route back into gainful employment.  This bothered me not one jot as I had already worked in 6 diverse sectors and had found problems were invariably generic.

Drawing on the experiences I had accrued in my role in Geneva I reflected on the behavioural skill set that my role had really needed.  When I compared this with the psychometric feedback I had received over the previous few years, I realised that I had really been a square peg trying to fit a round whole.  Whilst the experience and knowledge I possessed had been more than sufficient for the role, my behavioural profile lacked the key political skills required.  I had the influencing skill alright but I clearly lacked what Phil Thurston at Harvard had referred to as ‘rat like cunning’.  My first approach to a problem or resistance was usually to summon the power of logic and rationality.  If that didn’t work I rarely shied away from a full blown, full frontal attack.  I could build and receive the loyalty and support of a team, I could understand the biggest of pictures and what was required to solve the underlying problems.  Yes, there was much I could learn of politics but, as I saw things, I was far more suited to leading than being led.

But my mind was beginning to move in a different direction.  During the final months in Geneva I had started to think of working alone as a consultant and had sounded out a few people I knew who had created successful careers in this way.  The advice had been to specialise rather than risk being known as a jack of all trades.  The obvious specialism was marketing strategy and I was pondering the prospect of setting up and promoting my own business when, in one of those amazingly serendipitous moments, my phone rang.

The call was from Gerard, the finance director of an old customer I had known for many years whilst with SylvaniaUK.  He explained that they had a problem he felt I might be able to assist with.  Was I interested in meeting to discuss the situation?  A few days later I travelled down to Croydon to meet Gerard and Steve, the MD of Jerrard Bros PLC.  The company had been founded by Steve’s father and uncle, had done well for many years but now required a new supplier of a key product.  Would I help them?  I said I would let them have a proposal.  During the visit it became clear that the company had reached a plateau over the previous few years and I probed for reasons.  I said I would also let them have some thoughts on working with them to address this issue also.  A couple of weeks later and after some good natured negotiation we had a business relationship based on two projects.

Almost straightaway I received two more approaches for significant projects and following discussions, proposals and more negotiations I found myself engaged to complete both.  One was a feasibility study for a foreign manufacturer looking to enter the UK market and the other was assisting a company looking to acquire one of my old, major competitors.  Very quickly I became extremely busy and drew a halt to any idea of seeking a new employed role.  I revelled in the freedom of working on projects that interested me at my own pace (although to agreed deadlines).   By now it was summer and I fell into a routine that, when I wasn’t travelling, I often cycled long distances in the Dales.  I would start early and return by midday and then work through until mid evening.  I had always found cycling conducive to thought and now I could actually keep fit whilst doing something I really enjoyed and apply my mind to various problems at the same time.

During my job hunting process I had followed a highly targeted approach seeking opportunities that had not even been advertised.  Each day I would scour the business press looking for news items concerning major companies that were either contemplating or had made major investments or acquisitions.  Whenever I came across a situation where I felt I could add value I would write to the chairman or chief executive (often to their home address so my letter wouldn’t be screened by a secretary).  I would either compliment them on their success or wish them luck with their plans and then spell a short but precisely targeted couple of sentences laying out how my experience could assist.  I would follow these letters up with a call aiming to achieve a meeting.  Several of these approaches got me in front of senior people.  I hadn’t succeeded in getting a new job from this approach but I decided I could use the experience to win new clients.

Another opportunity for creativity had arisen when I lost out after being down to the final two for a position running a national chain of builders’ merchants.  Having invested the time to carry out a great deal of background research on the firm and its competitors I thought it would be foolish to waste it.  I called the new MD, introduced myself as the guy who came second, congratulated him and suggested we meet as I had a proposition.  He was sufficiently intrigued to agree to meet me.  When we met I made the suggestion that as he was busy getting to grips with a big new role there was a way I could help.  He listened very carefully to what I had to say about the industry, the position of his company and the issues I had identified.  He considered for what seemed an age and then said he would be pleased to receive a proposal.  I went away and submitted a detailed proposal for a very focussed consultancy project.  He accepted but not before something else got in the way.

Towards the end of my period of applying for jobs I met a head hunter with whom I had established a good relationship.  Out of the blue he called me months later to say he had an assignment he felt was well suited to my experience.  We met and I listened to the facts he laid before me.  His client was Ross Group a small UK PLC with a number of businesses in electrical products.  They were seeking an MD for one of the group companies, Selmar Industries, itself a group of three businesses manufacturing in West Yorkshire.  The previous MD had departed after running up losses of £3.0m.  Smelling a dead horse, I declined to take matters further.  However, a couple of weeks later he was back on the phone pushing me to meet the Group MD at the company’s factory, “It’s just down the road from you, I’m sure you’ll get on famously with Neil and if you still decide it’s till not for you, well fine.”

The following week I duly arrived at Selmar’s factory, which was housed in old mill premises in a tight, wooded valley on the outskirts of Brighouse.  My heart sank; it looked a tip.  However, my head hunter chum was right about Neil with whom I quickly established a rapport.  He had also worked in major corporations and there was a basic understanding between us over how businesses should be run.  Nevertheless, after several hours of discussions I politely declined to take matters any further.  A week later Neil came on the phone to chat and pressed me to meet the chairman, “Nothing to lose, see what he has to say, eh?”  A long trip down to Basingstoke the following week produced a firm offer, which I rejected.  They responded with an improvement and promises.  By this stage, I have to admit, it had become something of a game, so I pushed on and won more concessions.  Finally I accepted but not before I had negotiated approval to continue my work with Jerrard Bros.

I was back running a group of businesses and was confident that I could improve them.  Would it work out?  Or had my pugnacious nature set me up for trouble again?

 Image courtesy of Eliasbadi.com

The Business of Life Chapter 23 – Keeping Enemies Close

An early, hazy summer sun was shining the morning my flight approached Geneva and I could see the Jura, the city and Lac Leman spread out below.  I had spent ten years flying into Geneva on a fairly regular basis but this morning was different.  I was coming here to live and to work and although visually everything was familiar it felt very strange indeed.  A few years earlier our European head office had moved from tiny, cramped offices next to the lake into a new block adjacent to the airport.  Although it was now just a short walk from the terminal to our offices, the heat of a sunny day together with the humidity that came from Geneva’s position, ringed by mountains and built by the lake, meant I arrived drenched in perspiration. 

Sitting for a few minutes in the office I had inherited from Louis, my predecessor, I gathered my thoughts.  It was compact and somewhat clinical but did offer an astounding view.  Sitting at my desk I could see, over in the distance across the city and Lac Leman, Mont Blanc, just visible above the haze.  After a welcome cup of coffee delivered in beautiful white china by Germaine my new secretary, “Louis would never accept his coffee in anything else!”, I went in search of Don.  Sitting in his palatial office he proceeded to light a Marlborough.  The offices had previously been declared a no smoking zone but Don had imperiously decreed that the rule didn’t apply to his own office.

The briefing I received was perfunctory.  Don announced that stock levels across Europe were far too high and he wanted me to make a significant improvement.  I was perplexed as the company had spent a vast amount of money previously on a Distribution Resource Planning (DRP) software programme.  This programme (identified and implemented by Peter, a Cambridge PhD, who had been recruited to head up pan-European logistics) was designed to analyse sales history and trends and make more accurate forecasts than the capabilities of mere mortals would permit.  I politely reminded Don of this but was greeted with the response that my marketing team should be close enough to the market to be able to predict sales far more accurately.  He would hear no counter argument and made clear the meeting was concluded but not before emphasising that this was to be my absolute priority.  I said I would investigate and see what needed to be done.  This issue was destined to become my Nemesis.

The rest of the day was spent gaining the views of my new team.  They were a real multinational group including Swiss, German, French, Belgium & Romanian members most of whom I already knew extremely well.  The marketing department numbered 13 out of a total headquarters staff of 70.  In addition I also had what is referred to in management speak as ‘dotted line responsibility’ for the sales and marketing functions in all of the 16 European countries where we had subsidiaries.  At the end of that first day I was sitting quietly in my office writing notes on the day’s meetings when Rien Swaanen (VP Manufacturing) burst in.  Without pausing first for pleasantries or even common courtesies, he immediately launched into a vitriolic attack on me, my function and the whole of my new department.  I was totally mystified because the attack was laughable and demonstrated a gross lack of understanding of the issue he was complaining about.

A few years previously after Jean’s death,  I had heard from a colleague that Swaanen’s wife was suffering from the same cruel disease.  I felt spontaneously driven to write to him and let him know of my concern for them both and offered an understanding ear if he ever felt the need to talk.  Very shortly afterwards, I got a call from Swaanen’s secretary to fix a date for us to have dinner on his forthcoming visit to the UK.  We talked late into the night and he poured out his soul to me and thanked me profusely for my concern for them both.  It wasn’t long after that I heard the sad news that his wife had finally passed away.  I wrote again but it was some time before we met as I was still running the UK while he was based in Geneva.

A year or so later, I again received a call from Swaanen inviting me for dinner on his next visit.  Business concluded I drove him to his hotel.  As the sun was shining brightly on that fine summer evening, we decided to take a walk along the river that ran by the country hotel I had chosen.  Once more Swaanen talked at great length, of the pain of his wife’s suffering and death, of the slow repair of his inner self and of a returning belief in the joys of living.  And then he shared with me his love for a new woman in his life, how they had met, what she meant to him and how they would spend their life together.  I had been pleased for him but now, for some inexplicable reason, he was acting as if I was an enemy appearing in his back yard.  I retired to the hotel that shared our building.

The following morning I was met by Walter the office manager, a genial Swiss German who proved an invaluable part of the process of integrating me into Swiss life.  Our first stop was the ministry responsible for registering foreign workers and I was guided carefully through the process of obtaining my visa.  We then set out to inspect the half a dozen apartments Walter had lined up for me to view. In the end the last viewing of the day proved to be the one.  It was a pleasant and large apartment in an old block, close to the lake with on street parking and local cafes and bars, close enough to walk into the old town and it gave me a good feeling.  Critically, it was on the same side of the lake and only 3 kilometres from our office.

Louis had promised to meet me for a full briefing on my role but this never materialised.  Instead, I received in the post a few notes he had jotted down, which included the suggestion that I read through the files he had left.  One of the priorities was to continue working closely to bring a project with The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) to a successful conclusion.  It seemed that Don had initiated a number of major projects when our parent board had put the business up for sale, of which this was one.  The scope of the project was an outwards one to look at the European market and assess what could be done to improve our position.  I also discovered that another major project had been to look at the performance of our manufacturing operations across Europe but this had been put on hold (it was never instigated and I suspected Swaanen’s dead hand).

When I met with the BCG management a short time later I learnt that on finding that no product line profit and loss statements existed on a pan-European basis they had managed to create these.  I was staggered to find that our company, a major global player, had never attempted to create this basic information.  I had been carrying out this process in the UK for some time and found the information simply invaluable.  What the BCG exercise revealed was staggering.  Working from the factory cost price through to the ultimate selling price at market level less all costs showed that our entire incandescent product range was making large losses.  Furthermore, France which had for years been paraded as the premier example for their marketing excellence in this product area, was making the greatest losses.  The situation should have been recognised and addressed years previously.  However, in the current circumstances the required solution (closing obsolete factories and investing in new production facilities) was out of the question.  My previous UK profits for this product group were amongst a minority and vindicated my strategy in this area.  My cynicism started to mount.

The routine side of my new role involved monitoring progress on planned new product development projects, touring subsidiaries to review and promote good marketing and sales practice, sitting through Don’s meetings, which never seemed to address core issues and taking part in the travelling circus that was the individual country operations reviews.  New product development was driven by technical developments that manufacturing felt would enhance product performance rather than any attempt to establish what markets required.  It became crystal clear that my previous suspicions were well founded.  The central marketing function was largely reactive and existed without a clear role in overall company strategy.  In fact there was absolutely zero talk of strategy to improve the long term viability of the company and if such a strategy did exist it must have been securely locked away in a Credit Suisse bank vault.

The hectic schedule of meetings I was required to attend (both in Geneva and elsewhere in Europe) gave me the feeling I was on a treadmill that custom and practice had determined but which rarely achieved anything of value.  However, during this time I had been working away on the objective I had been given by Don and had started to see some startling results.  Swaanen had an entire department (headed up by Peter the director of logistics) solely to run the DRP system and manage the logistics of our business.  I had always kept close to Peter and had been a fervent supporter of the DRP system.  I had encouraged him to work with me in widening the scope of the relationship I had built with some of the largest UK distributors and this had borne fruit.  When I arrived in Geneva I found that this whole department with its huge potential was largely ignored by Swaanen.  With the added benefit of the relationship I built with Peter’s team, I soon had them working enthusiastically with me.

The DRP system complimented Manufacturing Resource Planning (MRP) that ensured materials for production in our factories were available when required.  The purpose of DRP was to ensure that our subsidiaries around Europe had exactly the correct stock levels of all finished stock at any time.  The system was participative with the subsidiaries in that it required that each and every one to define stockholding parameters, share key demand factors (e.g. large contracts producing sales spikes) and merely to review the sales forecasts generated by DRP each month for individual products lines.  In this system the subsidiaries never had to place an order as once up and running and reviewed regularly it replenished stock automatically.  This system was predicated on the finding that the best place for non-differentiated stock was in the centre (the factories) with rapid replenishment of subsidiary stocks.  The problem was that it seemed that the system was not working, giving rise to Don’s complaint of high stocks.  There were profound systemic problems.

Every employee at management grade and above (worldwide) participated in a Management by Objectives (MBO) system. Each individual had as many as eight or more quantitative objectives they had agreed to each year and bonuses were awarded on the basis of performance against each component.  At senior management level these objectives were spread across set areas and could be very prescriptive. For country and factory managers and above there was a specific target given each year for stock levels.  Given that stock levels were contributing to bonuses, subsidiary managers in each country felt inclined to attempt to manipulate these by adjusting the sales forecasts produced by DRP.

The factory managers also had an incentive to manipulate stock levels as they too had targets to minimise stock at factory level.  At one meeting shortly after a year end Swaanen had actually boasted that only the action of his factory managers in overriding sales forecasts agreed by subsidiaries prevented sales targets in subsidiaries from being missed.  The factories had an additional incentive to ship more stock than required because of the ever increasing drive to increase line speed to reduce costs.  Driven by a misguided bonus system both sides were playing the same game and I suspected this was the cause of excess stock.  The problem was that I had lacked the means to prove this.

Working with Peter and his department we solved the issue.  I asked if the DRP system could recover the individual product line sales forecasts it had generated for each subsidiary for the previous 12 months.  “Of course”, came the immediate response.  I then asked if these could be plotted against actual sales achieved over the same period and the revised sales forecasts the subsidiaries had made.  “Of course”, again!  Within hours I had a complete picture.  With the exception of a few low volume lines that had a very lumpy and unpredictable sales pattern, every major product line, in every country, monthly sales forecast by DRP had been far more accurate than the ones adjusted by the subsidiaries.  If the subsidiaries had done nothing more than merely tick the original DRP forecasts without making any adjustments and the factories had shipped against these, the calculation showed we would have ended the year with $10m lower stocks!  I had the answer and the proof.  We had to change the bonus system and stop the counter productive double guessing that was driving stocks higher.

Could I convince Don that I had found the root cause of the stock problem?  And would he agree to make the necessary changes?  Before I could take this issue further it was announced that a sale of the business finally had been agreed in principle and the potential new owners were to visit us the following week.

Image courtesy of Europeupclose.com

The Business of Life Chapter 22 – Saved by the Bell

Some years earlier our European finance group decided to implement a new IT system, which like most such schemes, was late and over budget.  Finally the UK was selected to be the first to implement the new systems.  An external team was parachuted in to attempt to do in a few short months what should have taken a year or more.  It was obvious that the system hadn’t been fully developed and the implementation process was horrendous and continued to be subject to endless fixes, that unknown to all, would leave gaping holes.

Another decision that was taken under heavy pressure from Europe was the appointment of a new Financial Director for the UK (who shall be nameless).  Recruited in Brian’s time, Nameless came with glowing recommendations from his previous (internal audit) role. He initially appeared to be competent but over time I began to realise that his interpersonal and management skills were severely lacking and had brought this to the attention of Claude the VP Finance in Geneva.  What I didn’t realise (until it was too late) was that he also lacked key functional skills that I might have spotted had I been more experienced.  Whilst preoccupied with the pricing & margin scenarios that were playing out at the time I discovered that we had suffered a stock loss that Nameless had not revealed to me.  The loss was not huge in relation to our business but large enough (at $250k) and the brown stuff hit the fan.  Suddenly, everyone in head office was an IT and an accounting expert and making known opinions on the UK situation.  An accounting hit man was put in to get to the bottom of it.  The process rumbled on for months with the interim result that Nameless was fired and I would make a big mistake.

By this time the stock loss had become a cause celebre within the company and it was being used to settle scores.  In the middle of all this Gregg had made one of his lightning lunchtime raids on me and demanded to know if I had known about the stock loss prior to it becoming public knowledge.  My mind was in turmoil.  If I admitted that I had known nothing of it, I would demonstrate that I didn’t have my hands around the accounting and IT functions in the UK (which was true enough).  On the other hand if I said I was aware of it but hadn’t blown the whistle, I could stand accused of being complicit (which I wasn’t).  In a snap decision that haunts me still, I lied and claimed I had been aware of the situation earlier.  Ultimately, it became known that the loss was a paper one and stock had never physically disappeared.  The issue had been faulty IT and accounting systems that couldn’t reconcile all the components of a transaction with the physical stock.  The head office IT and Accounts people were in full CYA mode and Claude never forgave me for making known that his appointment (Nameless) was a very poor manager.  He was also ‘retired’ a short time later but I came out of this episode badly.

Early in 1992 Gregg met me for what transpired to be the most open conversation we ever had.  He shared with me his view that I was a very bright strategic thinker and a loyal manager.  He went on to say that he felt I’d had a terrible set of problems to deal with but was too much of a nice guy who did not fight enough, “Nice guys come last!”  It was clear from other comments he made that a fairly comprehensive image destruction job had been carried out on me by others in the head office team.  He went on to share with me the news that he intended to integrate my company with another in the group (Linolite) and that I was not being given the role of heading up this new structure.  I put up a spirited defence but to no avail.  Gregg said that his view was that I had done a fantastic job in the past but that I might have been out of my depth with all the problems I’d had to deal with, “Anyone might have been.” he said and then added,  “but I don’t want to lose you from the organisation.”   I had worked tirelessly (and yes, in difficult circumstances) and could not have spent more time with either our customers or my people or had more support from them.  I was deflated.

I was duly served with notice of redundancy but simultaneously what I considered a non-job was created for me.  I had to sit on the sidelines, in a shiny new office, as my company was merged with Linolite by Gregg’s new protégé.  The only factor the two businesses had in common was that they both sold via the distribution channel and I could only disagree with the manner in which the businesses were merged.  My non-job was boring in an extreme and I took full advantage of the outplacement programme that was also offered to me.

My consultant, Max Eggert, was the most fascinating character who had the most profound and beneficial effect on me.  Max put me through a battery of psychometric tests and the words he used to describe me from the results were, “tough, strong leader, stable, assertive, competitive, change agent, highly creative, socially strong, relaxed, self-assured, secure, open, self-sufficient, warm, enthusiastic”.  These were very similar to results that I had been given some years earlier by a Professor of Psychology at Yale (Vic Vroom) describing me as,  “a strong leader, visionary, with a participative and informal style and a transformational leader”.  I felt somewhat vindicated, that I had been in the right role and decided that I would use my severance package to take a full time MBA and start afresh.  I applied and was accepted for the programme at Bradford Business School to start in the October of that year.  However, events soon took an unexpected turn that led me to decline the offer.

Soon after it was announced that our parent company GTE was putting the $2bn global Sylvania lighting business up for sale.  Whether my analysis of the industry and presentation to the President had played any part in this, I have no idea.  But I had clearly been correct in my analysis of the situation.  Another decision was announced soon after; that Gregg was retiring.  His replacement was Don, another American, and an accountant by profession from elsewhere in the organisation.  The European business limped on hindered by a hiring and firing freeze with rumours and uncertainties rampant.  I couldn’t have done too badly in my new non-job as my records show that Don awarded me a bonus for that year!  As my redundancy was effectively placed on hold and my salary was still being paid I continued to fill my days as best I could.  I ignored as many of the duties of my non-job that I could as they were futile.  However, events overtook me and a life changing event took place that demonstrated to me that I hadn’t learnt all the lessons from my psychometric testing that I might have done.

Early in 1992 I took a call from Alain, the European VP for HR.  I was asked if I would take on the role of European Product Manager for a group of our products and be based in the Factory in Belgium.  My heart sunk as this was a role that filled me with horror.  It had no line authority over the subsidiaries, their pricing or their activities but carried responsibility for the results.  It was also the product group that I knew to be struggling the most (and has subsequently been killed off by EU regulations).  I was never normally one to fail to respond when a challenge was put to me but I decided that this was a dead horse that would not respond to flogging.  I entered into a delicate process of negotiation, claiming that I wanted to assist the company but that the details had to be right for both parties.  I managed to drag the negotiations out for weeks whilst I did my research on life as an ex-pat in Belgium.  I pushed and wrangled, had meetings and more meetings and continued to delay until I had got to the point where I could procrastinate no longer.  Then, miraculously, at a minute to midnight, I was saved.

Alain came on the phone on the day I had committed to make a decision and said to forget Belgium.  Louis was leaving his role as VP Marketing in Geneva to run the operation in France.  This was the role I had wanted many years ago and I knew it would look good on my CV if things took a turn for the worse following a sale of the business (if indeed it ever happened).  I started to negotiate but it soon became clear that, given the circumstances, they were desperate to fill the role and I was the only one in the frame.  By the time we had finished I had on the table a salary in Swiss Francs that had doubled, a company flat with cleaner and all bills paid, a company car in Switzerland, the retention of my company car in the UK, business class travel to and from Geneva each week (or for Denise if she wished to join me in Geneva) and the guarantee of a severance package based on all this if I was made redundant from Switzerland (plus repatriation to the UK).  Delaying only for a discussion with Denise I accepted.

Would it work out?  Or had I gone from the frying pan into the fire?

Image courtesy of c&maccounting.co.uk