On May 3rd 1979 a lady named Margret Thatcher won the UK General Electionwith a Conservative majority of 43 seats. I had taken relatively little interest in politics up until this point, the economic upheavals of the 70’s scarcely touching my life (apart from the horrendous queues for petrol during the Arab oil embargo, the opportunistic but deeply unpatriotic miners’ strike and the power cuts). However, I was aware that things had to change or Britain would be consigned to economic oblivion and with it all hopes for my career. The events that followed caused me to believe that Maggie had brought me some luck along with her own (at least for a while).
The weeks dragged on with no news of Akai’s plans for their own company. Sugino had gone to ground and wasn’t returning calls. Surely they would want to retain the people who had turned around the UK business? I wanted to hope that this was the case but it seemed that a wall of silence had descended over the situation. Meanwhile, I applied internally for the position of business development manager for the division. Whilst I knew that I wasn’t ideally qualified for the role, I considered that I had convincingly demonstrated my ability to adapt and learn fast. However, I wasn’t prepared for the brusque treatment I received from our personnel director when interviewed. It was if he was merely going through the motions having already decided I wasn’t right for the role. Curious.
The mists cleared some days later when I received a call from a member of the Akai management who introduced himself as Yokose. He was inLondon and would appreciate a meeting at his hotel; was I free that afternoon? Yokose transpired to be a short, slightly built man in his early forties with an intense manner. He got straight to the point; would I join the new company? I replied that I would consider the role of managing director (my natural competitiveness quickly resurfacing). “Ah, so sorry,” Yokose responded with a curious smile, “not possible. Other roles are possible. What you wish.” Assuming that it would be Yokose himself in the role of MD and more of a titular head, I proposed the role of general manager. “This one would be possible,” was the response, “but cannot include sales.”
During the course of the afternoon I found that Yokose had already spoken with Andy and appointed him sales manager. This was not something that pleased me as I had an uneasy feeling about Andy. Putting this concern aside (his appointment being a fait accompli) it was clear that I was wanted and so I negotiated hard on my package. I won a significant salary & pension increase and a large new executive car. I agreed to start work at once on the detailed planning for the new company; a very tight schedule was in prospect. Back at the office I met with Andy and discovered that he had no more information than me. Putting my reservations over Andy to one side, I asked him to start work on the sales projections so that I would have a basis for the detailed financial planning that was urgently required. It soon became apparent that a significant investment was going to be required by Akai to set up the company and fund the planned growth. “Not problem.” was the response I got from Yokose a week later when I put the initial projections to him, “Please to proceed, much haste.”
Gordon’s secretary rang when I returned to the office saying that he wanted to see me immediately. Wondering where he had been hiding for the last few weeks I took a welcome break from the planning and went up to his office where I was greeted by an unusually jovial Gordon. Ushering me quickly into his office, he made sure the door was firmly closed before turning to me. “Welcome aboard.” he grinned. I gave myself a mental kicking for not having worked this one out. Given that Gordon’s role as divisional MD covered an extensive range of RAV businesses I had not assumed for one moment he would leave to head up Akai. It wasn’t until some time later when I had to have the full details to complete the business plan that I realised just how good a deal Gordon had negotiated. However, given Gordon’s hands-off operational style, his devotion to networking and a penchant for very long lunches (and dinners) it seemed I would continue to have a great deal of operational freedom. Yokose was going to join us as a UK based non-executive (sadly, it wouldn’t be long before he had earned my private nickname of tachograph).
Despite keeping his head down whilst negotiating his exit package from RAV, Gordon had already used his film industry contacts to find us premises. Our new company home was to be in the Production Village, a television studio and entertainment complex in Cricklewood set up by Samuelsons (manufacturers of film equipment) in a part of the disused Handley Page factory. These premises seemed to be entirely in keeping with the image I was striving to build for the brand. I set about recruiting the remainder of the team we required, setting up systems and leasing cars (Gordon having already lined up a Mercedes 450 SE for himself).
The bad news was discovering, despite Yokose’s prior assurances, that Akai’s capital injection into the new UK company was completely inadequate for our needs. This news meant that we required a substantial amount of working capital at commencement and growing steadily to finance the growth we had planned. Despite Akai’s success in Europe they had never succeeded to the same extent in the USA where they trailed significantly behind Pioneer and sold largely under the Roberts brand. It transpired that the US swallowed up large amounts of Akai’s financial resources. Following many negotiation with our bank they agreed to fund the working capital at start up providing the Tokyo parent company assumed responsibility for our UK borrowings. This was negotiated and allowed us to start trading but I was involved from this point on with constant re-budgeting, presenting in Tokyo, going back to the bank and starting all over again.
With largely a new team in place, we started the Akai UK business in a blaze of publicity. With a marketing budget well in excess of £1m I had no shortage of funds. In another of those serendipitous moments our advertising agency found that Manhattan Transfer were about to tour the UK and we moved quickly to tie up a deal with their agent as sponsors. The sponsorship deal gave us the right to use the group for television and radio commercials in addition to personal appearances. A TV commercial was fleshed out, Bray Studios booked and we managed to secure the direction of Ridley Scott (fresh from his success with Alien). In one exhausting session of almost 18 hours the Akai commercial was shot (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XwYldNBNB-c) and proved to be incredibly successful in boosting the image and awareness of the brand. Radio advertisements followed quickly plus some absolutely hilarious personalised dealer radio advertisements ad-libbed by the group.
In parallel I progressed work on a launch party and secured The Talk of The Town just off Leicester Square in London plus the services of Michael Aspel as compère for the evening. With hundreds of our customers and their guests gathered in this great venue we put on a magnificent show including Richard Lloyd and his racing car rising out of the stage in a very noisy finale. After just a few hours sleep, and still exhausted, I flew off to Florida with my wife and children for a blissful couple of weeks in the sunshine.
Back in London I started work on our plans for the following year. Richard Lloyd had negotiated a switch to Audi for the 1980 season and our sponsorship continued. In an incredible piece of good fortune we managed to sponsor Stirling Moss’s return to motor racing as the number two driver to Richard. Ex Porsche works driver Vic Elford was recruited to be team manager. Sensing that we had to do something spectacular for the launch, I engaged a production crew to shoot footage of Richard and Stirling driving at Silverstone and commissioned what I believe to be the first ever multi-screen film (nine moving images on one screen). A press launch took place at The Production Village next to our offices for the Akai Audi team of Richard & Stirling. Every TV and radio company was handed film and soundtrack and it proved so successful that it produced over £3m worth of TV, radio and press coverage in just one week.
Word of our sponsorship activities was spreading fastproducing dozens of approaches, most quickly discarded, but there was one approach that also stood out head and shoulders above the rest. Alan Jones, a new Australian Formula One driver, was looking for personal sponsorship and we did a two year deal with our brand on his helmet. During 1980, Alan went on to win grand prix races in Argentina,Great Britain,Canada and theUnited States, making him the World Champion ahead of Nelson Pique; the publicity for us was wonderful. A sponsorship deal with Kork Ballington (double World Champion 250 & 350cc) and Kawasaki soon followed.
The media coverage continued to flow and an invitation to join the Akai team at racetracks around the country became very sought after. That summer almost every weekend was spent entertaining our dealers and sales rose steadily along with the hours I was putting in each week. The acquisition of a large Kawasaki soon had me roaring around the Oxfordshire lanes frightening the life out of my young son who clung on behind for dear life.
Hearing Barry Sheene (500cc World Champion in 1976 & 77) was departing the Suzuki works teamand competing alone on a Yamaha; we leapt in to conclude a deal for sponsorship of Barry and his bike (including a replica for use in promotions). All of this sponsorship was accomplished at incredibly advantageous rates and proved spectacularly popular with our target market.
Another major project I had running at the same time was that of locating new premises and organising the move. We were existing only by subcontracting warehousing, distribution and servicing and this couldn’t continue. I located a new industrial unit and offices located at the eastern end of the runway at Heathrow, signed the lease and set about planning the layout and organising furniture, phones, warehouse and service department equipment. The move shortened my commute but now every weekend was spent at one motorsport venue or another around the country or entertaining customers (often in the company of various celebrities of the day). Sales were still climbing but the personal strain was enormous.
By this time I was working 80~90 hour, 7 day weeks and this pattern, together with other aspects of my personal life, was taking a toll on my marriage.
Something had to give.
Margaret Thatcher image courtesy Daily Mail, Akai Audi 80 image courtesy of Spirit.com, Alan Jones image courtesy of Morem Sports History, Barry Sheene image courstesy of Wikipedia Commons