Tag Archives: Harvard

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 (chapter18 – Influence versus Power)

My wife had cancer and our world changed, the effects of which are still with my family today.  The immediate results of her illness were two major operations, radiotherapy and lengthy recuperation.  My wife was a nurse and well placed to understand her illness and the prognosis.  Despite her medical training she also took support and advice from the Bristol Cancer Help Centre (including a diet so heavy in carrots that her skin turned orange).  But she drew on of levels of courage and determination I never knew she possessed and gradually life went back to an appearance of normality.

Following this period, when I cancelled all travel to ensure that I was at home or close by, my focus returned once more to the challenges I knew we still faced as a company.  Our major competitors were heavily involved in the manufacture and sale of lighting fittings and this was important for a number of reasons.  By working with architects, electrical consulting firms, Local Authorities and large clients, competition ensured that their fittings were specified (usually ensuring the sale of their light sources within the fittings).  This power of specification ensured a large degree of leverage and influence over the electrical wholesale channel when it came to the supply of light sources and effectively inhibited the sale of our own.

The addition of a range of mainstream light fittings seemed to be a logical and essential extension to our activities.  Our European head office had already launched a small number of sophisticated (and expensive) fittings that were way ahead of competition in performance.  Unfortunately, these were niche solutions that were extremely difficult to persuade architects to specify or distributors to stock whilst we lacked mainstream products and an image as a competent supplier.  The logical next step was to introduce our own range of popular fittings with which we could attempt to establish our brand in this vital sector and overcome the barriers competition had created.

Having agreed this shift in strategy with my colleagues, I pressed ahead with further research into the market for lighting fittings.  Despite our own huge factory in West Yorkshire it made sense to outsource production, at least until we could justify investment in our own facilities.  After an extensive search across Europe, I located a manufacturer of the required quality in Eire who not only had spare capacity but who didn’t compete with us. Working with an industrial design group we produced and refined prototypes, which I tested using focus groups of architects, specifiers and electrical contractors.  Following a national launch supported by heavy trade advertising we achieved our initial sales targets.

Meanwhile, Brian had remained true to his word that he would support my career development.  An early demonstration of support was his engagement of a personal French tutor to start the process of preparing me for a career move into our European businesses.  This was followed by my enrolment in a management training programme that took place on both sides of the Atlantic.  GTE (our parent in its pre-Verizon days) had recently invested in its own ‘university’ spending $50m (30 years ago) building a magnificent redbrick management training school in Norwalk CT.  Spread over acres of prime real estate the objective was to provide a world-class business education.  Not only were the physical facilities superb but I studied under the best professors that Harvard, Yale, MIT,Dartmouth and Columbia could provide.

Eager to learn and with 20 years of business experience already under my belt, I soaked up everything I could that was at the cutting edge of business strategy and technique. Between programmes I found I could directly apply what I was learning to the challenges of my role.  However, the more I learnt the clearer it became to me that senior management, whilst supporting the concept of advanced management training, simply wanted a ‘business as usual’ life and would resist any moves that threatened change.  The scene was set for great future frustration on my part and friction with those to whom I reported.

One moment of levity at this time came from a delightful character, Phil Thurston, at the time Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. At the end of one programme Phil gathered us around and said, in his slow, hesitant drawl reminiscent of the actor Jimmy Stewart, “Well, guys I’ve taught you what I know about the subject and you’re well prepared.  But there is one additional quality you’re going to need in that world out there that I just can’t teach you – rat like cunning!”  Oh how right he was and how I wished I had found a way to acquire this vital quality.

Whilst our initial launch of lighting fittings had gone well the situation we were now finding was that the stock was not selling out of the wholesalers as planned.  Our sales force was now of high quality.  Having worked closely with Martyn on profiling, recruitment & training, my research now showed that we had moved from the worst image in the trade to the best.  Something else was wrong.  The sales force were supposed to start calling on electrical contractors, the critical group who actually bought the fittings from the wholesaler and installed them.  The problem was simple; the sales team weren’t making the contractor calls but the remedy was far from easy.

Whilst we had got good acceptance of our new product amongst our wholesale customers, and despite our advertising, they were finding it difficult to sell to the contracting trade.  We were an unknown quantity in a very traditional sector.  The solution was to split the sales force into two parts; one group continuing to sell into distribution and the second trained to enable them to design lighting schemes, obtain specification and to influence contractors.  I also started an intense period of public relations activity with the Electrical Contractors Association, building relationships with some of the key people in that sector.

During this same time I stepped up activity with our core customer group, the wholesalers, taking a number of those most loyal ones across the Atlantic to visit their major counterparts in the USA & Canada.  In this way we were able to demonstrate that whilst we might have been new to the UK, we were a company with a long and deep history of support to the distribution channel.  Another venture, in conjunction with a leading trade publication, was in forming of group we identified as the leaders of tomorrow and in creating training and development events for them (with appropriate publicity).  My latest research showed we were viewed by the trade as #1 for our sales force, service and trade support.

Despite these improvements in customer perception and growing share in the market for light sources, our progress in the new area of lighting fittings remained very slow.  Realising that gaining a foothold in this tightly controlled sector of the market was going to be difficult, I commenced a search for a suitable acquisition candidate.  Alongside this new strategy I continued to look closely at the performance of our sales team.  The technical sales team were small in number and it was clear that their progress was going to be slow against long established competition.  The main sales team however appeared to be neglecting the tasks set to them to support the new range and it seemed to me that they were staying within their comfort zone.  I repeatedly raised this issue with Martyn but little seemed to change.

During the time I had been working closely with Brian (and supporting him in every way I could) I had also been taking every opportunity to remind him of my general management experience and the unused competencies that I possessed.  I was constantly pushing for a wider role in the business either in the UK or inEurope. Additionally, I had also used external opportunities to demonstrate I was a saleable property (which did no harm to my salary but achieved nothing else tangible). As the fittings growth stalled my representations to Brian increased and I was actively lobbying him to put sales under my control.  Instead, in a surprise move displaying the judgement of Solomon Brian, appointed both Martyn and I to the board!

With a new stripe on my sleeve my CV improved but nothing else had changed and the problem of little or no growth in our fledgling fittings business was causing me great concern.  The strategy I had constructed and implemented with the support of all in the UK andEurope included the vital component of achieving a shift in the image of the company from a light source company to a comprehensive lighting company.  In practice this would enable us to break a stranglehold competition had on sales via the wholesale channel (the vast majority of the market).  Our pitch to major distributors had been predicated on our commitment to displace competition in a sizeable share of the fittings market that would lower the wholesalers’ risk in moving more light source purchases to us. The power of competition came from the constant threat to route specification business away from wholesalers if they reduced their light source purchases.  Failure to establish our fittings range was jeopardising our means of breaking this tactic.

The relationships I had with the management team within our European headquarters were also a source of frustration for all parties.  With many of the team I had an extremely close and productive relationship.  However, the European strategy (such as it was) brought me into constant conflict with both senior management and the various holders of the role of European Product Manager for our incandescent light sources (ordinary household light bulbs).  There was constant pressure for me to target the retail sector in the UK (several of our other major subsidiaries were present in this sector and achieved reasonable volumes).  All of my considerable experience in the retail sector showed me that we could never make any profits from such a move and I resisted strongly whenever the subject was raised. Information gained some years later shed a fascinating new insight into this issue.

Armed with a great deal of knowledge concerning the UK retail sector, how it operated and differed from its European counterparts together with a great deal of personal experience, overcoming these representations was like shooting fish in a barrel.  It earned me enemies though.  Instead, Martyn and I sidestepped the main problems of trying to establish our own brand by winning considerable private brand orders that for a while boosted our volumes.

Over the next few months a number of shifts took place that saddened and frustrated me but finally gave me some hope.  Over the previous few years life at home had returned to normal and, despite the residual effects of her illness almost 5 years previously, my wife seemed well and had returned to working in the health service.  A real boost to her self-confidence came when the local authority offered to sponsor Jean through a degree course.  She was elated.  The joy was short lived as a week or so later my phone rang and I heard the news that she had collapsed with what appeared to be a seizure.  More fits followed in the next few weeks as we waited anxiously for the test results.  It was with horror, fear and sadness that we heard the results; a large tumour in her brain.  An operation was quickly carried out but the outcome was that the tumour had been in an advanced state and the prognosis was terrible.  We battled on.

The disagreements with Martyn remained and I continued to plough on using a full frontal assault to achieve the changes I thought we required.  The result became an open rift and little progress.  What had been an incredibly successful working partnership (recognised across the industry) was no more.  It also cost me a friendship. At the time I heaped all of the blame upon Martyn and it took me many years to realise and accept that, had I modified my approach, we might have been able to reach an accommodation, preserve our relationship and make better progress.  I continued my hunt for a suitable acquisition target but became frustrated when it was made clear to me by our European management that I should desist in my efforts.  This frustration with senior management had not been enhanced by ourUS parent’s failure to pursue acquisition of our majorUK competitor (Thorn Lighting) in 1985 when theUS$ almost reached parity with the Pound (at £0.95).  An unbelievable opportunity missed.

All became clear a little while later when our European management proudly announced the acquisition of Rotaflex.  ThisUK business was focussed upon the design, manufacture, specification and sale of high end architectural light fittings via the Concord brand.  The group also included Linolite, a smaller company manufacturing and distributing ranges of niche, low value commercial fittings.  Neither of these companies would assist in achievement of the strategy that I had constructed and that had been accepted.  All of my difficulties remained.

A form of hope came when it was announced that Brian was to move to run the newly acquired Rotaflex group.  The opportunity for me to replace Brian was obvious but it soon became clear that I would have competition.  The overall growth we had achieved since I joined the company spoke for itself.  But had I acquired more enemies than friends?  Could I convince our irascible European president? I tossed my hat into the ring.

Image courtesy of http://www.jollypeople.com