Tag Archives: Sporting heroes

The business of life (chapter 12 – achievements grow but so does the stress)

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).

Margaret Thatcher wins in ’79

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.

Akai Audi 80

Akai Audi 80

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.

Alan Jones

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.

Kork Ballington

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.

Barry Sheen

Barry Sheen

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

 

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The business of life (chapter 11 – what goes up..)

Back as a hero from Japan, waving my bit of paper committing to contract renewal, I felt somewhat like Neville Chamberlain promising ‘peace in our time’.  My first action was to debrief Gordon on the exact details of the trip and the letter of intent and make the necessary changes to the operating budget. The flush of success soon wore off (I think it took place some time that same afternoon).  I then sat down with the team to plan out the detailed marketing plan to ensure we achieved the revised targets that I had agreed to back in Tokyo.  We had a mountain to climb.  However, I’d found that I rather liked challenges.

The Akai Golf

As our new brand widening advertising campaign got underway, one of the unwelcome effects was that all manner of ‘unmissable opportunities’ started crawling out of the woodwork.  Most of these were not worth the time spent reading them, but then one of those serendipitous events occurred.  I received a letter from Richard Lloyd  (of GTI Engineering) seeking sponsorship for the forthcoming British Saloon Car Championship.  What caught my eye and set his approach apart from many others, was artwork of his Golf GTI in our brand livery.  We met, got on famously and I agreed to a package of sponsorship for the year, with an option on the next. I had the artwork for the car reworked, wheedled a road going version from VW that I had resprayed into a replica to use for dealer events and then bought a double decker bus (a Bristol FLF for anyone interested).  I had the bus converted into a hospitality suite, also repainted in the team livery.  We then set about using the races for dealer hospitality, something that became hugely popular, especially as Richard won time and again. Sponsorship became a core element within our communications mix, offering a high technology, exciting and success driven image that resonated with our target market.

 The team I had inherited came up with a variety of ideas for boosting sales and, following a review of these together, we decided that one had real potential to fit with the exciting image we were creating and to boost sales.  That year the Akai Awards were born.  Hammed up beyond belief, we announced to our dealers that they could nominate themselves to win a ‘coveted’ Akai Award for success in promoting the brand and growing sales.  Following a long weekend of exhausting investigation of venues around Europe (in the welcome company of my wife) I chose The Trianon Palace atVersailles and engaged the services of Michael Parkinson as host.  The event later that year was a runaway success.

The most critical new product introduction from Akai that year was the new VHS video recorder.  Head to head with competition from the other brands in the VHS technology camp (especially JVC) it was an all out systems battle with the Sony Betamax system. Against the odds, Akai was the first brand of VHS recorder onto the UK market (and ahead of Sony & JVC) with a batch of just 50 machines air freighted in.  These machines had a recommended retail price of £799 but even while the first batch was still in transit (and with no firm date for the next), retailers were advertising a price cut to £750. Despite a severe supply restriction from all manufacturers in that first year, the price continued to fall.

An interesting endeavour took place whilst I awaited the first VHS deliveries.  We had left in stock quite a large number of an earlier portable black and white quarter inch video system (the VT100).  Never much of a seller and now completely obsolete, these were something I had inherited and they now needed to be cleared prior to our VHS launch.  Thinking of ways to clear the stock (none of our retailers would touch them) I hit upon an idea. My father in law had been struggling to get me to understand what needed to be done to improve my golf swing (my failure not his).  I realised that if I could see what I was doing it would be so much easier to understand.  Back in the office I set about recruiting a temporary sales team to sell these systems into golf professionals.  We succeeded in clearing the stock but it was an uphill struggle to get these ‘professionals’ to envisage the potential of what we were offering!  The joke about the machine gun salesman getting turned away at the battle of Hastings came to mind.

As that first year progressed and sales climbed, research was showing that our brand awareness was rising and that of our competitors was falling.  We repeated the research on a regular basis and monitored consumer purchases via an omnibus survey of household buying by brand. It seemed that the battle for brand awareness was very much a zero sum game.  Using this detailed information I was able to determine which elements of our marketing mix were having the greatest effect on consumer purchases.  It was therefore possible to fine tune our spend in the most cost effective way.  Unfortunately, this knowledge couldn’t save me in a future battle that was looming.

A change that occurred that first year was David’s departure and replacement by Gerry.  A very different man to David, he exuded charm and bonhomie, but soon demonstrated a severe lack of marketing judgement or expertise.  Bounding into my office one Monday morning shortly afterwards, he announced that he had had a simply great idea for a completely new advertising campaign.  “Picture it,” he gushed (complete with a wide ranging variety of hand gestures), “a nude draped over the bonnet of a red Ferrari hugging an Akai product that doesn’t quite cover everything.”  “Great idea.” I responded, trying to muster enthusiasm, “Why don’t you join me at the advertising agency next time we’re having a brain-storming session and pitch it?”  Oh, shit, I thought.

My trips to Tokyo became fairly regular events.  Whilst these visits had been mentally exhausting over the winter, as the months turned to spring and early summer they became physical agony.  As the world was still suffering an energy crisis, Akai had decided that the air conditioning would only be switched on in July and August.  Sitting on the plastic covered chairs in a pool of sweat in one of the windowless meeting rooms, during an unseasonal heat wave in early summer, Andy and I were soon afflicted by a medical condition colloquially known as ‘baboon bum’.  Sweating and fidgeting away we decided that we needed ‘rest and recuperation’ to ensure our fitness before we returned to the office.  The advantage of crossing the international date line on the return leg was that of gaining a day.  Why not take advantage of this?  A call to rearrange our flights saw us that Friday evening jetting off to Hawaii rather than Anchorage.  If you’ve never done it, arriving at 6.00 am (after a seven hour flight) on the morning of the same day you departed at 6.00pm, takes a little adjusting to.  Friday was largely lost in a jet lagged haze but we did manage a few visits the next day and decided that the (then) Kahala Hilton atDiamond Head would make a fine venue for the next year’s Akai Awards. It took a subsequent visit a few month’s later just to ensure that we had made the correct decision.

Back in London the visit of the Akai Company President finally took place (having been continually delayed), resulting in a significant shock.  There was to be no contract renewal despite our raising sales by 50% in under two years to a new high of £6m.  Instead, it was announced that Akai was to form its own company that same year (1979).  I was involved in no further discussions and the President and his entourage moved on.  RAV promptly served redundancy notices on me and my entire team.  The personnel director assured me that he would let me know if any other roles became available within the group. Gordon was nowhere to be found.

Did my success count for nothing? Had my spell of success run its course?  With the trade unions wreaking havoc upon the economy, the three-day week, Britain being laughingly referred to as the sick man of Europe and with unemployment raging, the outlook seemed far from benign.  What followed over the next couple of years was to reveal aspects of my make-up that would cause me to question my abilities and the wisdom of meeting opposition head on

Image courtesy of Forzamotorsport.net

This sporting life

As I set off on my usual healthy trek across the moors today, I was trying to take my mind off the dire debt situation facing the West.  BOHICA, as an ex-colleague of mine used to say. The politicians can’t blame the bankers this time; oh, no, they’ve done it all themselves creating one giant Ponzi scheme after another, all over the West.  We even have National Insurance– the biggest con trick yet. OK, no doom and gloom today, let’s have a few sporting anecdotes.  From me?  The man who never follows sport?  Ah, well, I haven’t been successful in business without knowing how to please the customers.  This was particularly true when I was involved in consumer goods and had very large budgets to spend.  In achieving brand building, awareness and image, I have found sports sponsorship to be highly effective and have met many famous stars.  It didn’t usually lead me to build lasting business or personal relationships, though as I never usually found sporting ‘personalities’ to have one!

Image courtesy of Wikipedia commons

Take one very famous English cricketer, known, loved and revered throughout the land.  Some years back we had engaged the services of the England cricket team for an appearance at an exhibition. Our sporting legend (let’s call him Hero) bounded onto our stand and was soon deep in conversation with a colleague and I on matters commercial.  Shortly, a very nice lady with an eager little lad in tow came up and humbly introduced herself to Hero, impressed upon him the adulation she and her lad had for him asking very politely for an autograph.  Hero turned and contemptuously and graphically told them how to depart his presence.  No sooner than Hero had uttered these soothing pleasantries than a press photographer hove into view; he then underwent what can only be described as a transformation.  Switching on a beatific smile, he grabbed our still horrified lady and her little lad in each hand, stepped in front of the photographer, hugged them to him and beamed at the camera.  Shots taken, photographer exiting the scene, Hero literally shoved his two admirers away.  Nice guy.

A sporting chance

However, one genuinely warm and wonderful character was the Formula One driver Alan Jones with whom we managed a personal sponsorship deal in 1979 for the prime position on his helmet (for a 3 year period).  The following year, driving a Williams, Alan struck gold for us, finishing 13 points ahead of Nelson Piquet to win the F1 Drivers Championship.  We had asked Alan to appear at an event in Harrogate to meet some of our dealers.  Now at the time Alan lived in Ealing, West London and the event was in Harrogate.  When Alan arrived, I greeted him and asked if he had had a good trip.  “Yeah, pretty good drive”, he said in his wonderful Aussie accent “Two hours 15 minutes, door to door”.  You can check the maths but I made that an average of 95.5 mph over 215 miles.  For the petrolheads amongst you, Alan was driving the Mercedes 450 SEL 6.9, which was a popular choice for F1 drivers that year.

Image courtesy C1 Owners club

We pulled off a major publicity coup that same year by signing up probably the most historically famous British motor racing star of all time to return to the sport, driving one of the two cars we were sponsoring in a well known motorsport series.  Even before he had turned a wheel in a race we made a humongous return on our investment by having a press launch with our legend (we’ll call him Gearknob).  We  gave each of the press and TV stations footage and stills of him driving the cars.  It made every news programme at peak time that night, every daily newspaper the next day plus every motoring magazine – result!  However, when the season started a few weeks later, things went rapidly downhill as Gearknob firmly staked his claim to the last position every race.  He complained that the car wasn’t on form, it was down on power or under steered chronically.  It was the same at testing sessions.  Our team manager (a famous ex-works Porsche driver) would take the car straight out and get very close to a lap record.  Gearknob was a legend but this was a disaster.  A mystery; until I happened to start looking at discarded footage from the cameras we had mounted inside his car for the publicity film.  A typical downshift gear change was taking Gearknob around 4 or 5 seconds!  When our number 1 driver made a downshift, you could miss the whole thing in the blink of an eye.  Either he had slowed dramatically or motor racing was a lot more leisurely in Gearknob’s day!

Image courtesy of Target Vacations

Finally, I planned a lavish overseas conference a year or so later and engaged the services of the events division of one of the major global advertising agencies.  As luck had it the account director assigned to my project was an extremely competent (and very attractive) young lady.  Well after some long planning sessions, a few lunches and the odd dinner we became firm friends.  Not that friendly, mind!  You see, having become chums, Account Director poured out her heart to me, one evening working late on the final details.  It seemed she had a chronic issue in her life – let’s just say it was a very bad and recurring case of a certain debilitating (and contagious) medical problem that, er, cramped her style.  So, the relationship stayed simply professional.  Meanwhile, we had engaged the services of a very well known personality whose TV talk show was massive at the time.  I never really took to Talkshow as he only ever seemed to want to talk about sport and I found him a bore.  However, on the weekend in question, the dealers loved him, lapping up every one of the sporting anecdotes he had to offer.  Great success.  Late into the night, the last satisfied customers evicted from the bar, I started to make a move towards my bed.  Rounding the corner from the lift, I heard giggling and saw Talkshow, clutching a bottle of champagne in one hand and Account Director in the other, slipping into her room.  You know, whenever I see Talkshow on the TV even now, I can’t help wondering……

Never a dull moment in sport!