At the foot of the mountain

1970: having returned from the States and after that idyllic weekend with Joan and the children* on the beach at Formby I came down to earth, driving down from Lancashire to London in my brand new bench seated, column gear change Ford Zodiac. I was to meet with my newly recruited future colleagues, assembled for the first time in Sir Julian's Jermyn Street offices: managing director Alan Watchman,ex-Unilever (their youngest yet MD); Don McNab, our production manager, ex-ditto of the giant Ever-Ready in the northeast and Richard Seaman, our hugely qualified young finance manager.

(Alan would 'leave without the option' three years later to be replaced in succession at several year intervals by three other managing directors during my seventeen years with the company. Alan was by far the best at managing and directing a manufacturing company. None of them or any other directors left us of their own volition. Donald on production would last a little longer but would be replaced by a chain of three 'imports' and two finance directors would follow Richard, who really was brilliant. They had all become my friends. They had all fallen out with the company or the company with them. Don't talk to me about industrial growing pains.)

That first get-together was something almost surreal. We had the investing partners' couple of million dollars in our bank account but no products, no machines, no factory and no employees! They were all looking at me. Which is to be our market, food service (disposable cups etc) or packaging (mainly dairy)? Alan asked, an understandable question if a trifle late in the day. I was the only one present with any first hand knowledge of the highly specific cups and containers industries. Cutting quickly here to my long-winded, well-rehearsed response; Plastic dairy packaging containers, I advised.

I had brought back from America drawings of Sweetheart Plastics Inc's magnificent extrusion and thermoforming line. I unrolled it on to the Board table. How much will that cost? was the next question. A quarter of a million dollars complete with the tooling for a single product. Second and ongoing product toolings at around fifty thousand a go. Those present appeared a wee bitty shaken. What product then, and how much of it will this  line turn out, Bryan? asked Don. I said, At standard rating, a million units of a fluted 4 oz mousse or ice cream containers a day. Gasps all around. Who the hell's going to buy that kind of volume? Richard asked. There are three companies in the UK who could each buy at least fifteen millions a year of these particular containers: Walls Ice Cream in Gloucester, Lyons Maid Ice Cream in London and Liverpool and Ross Foods in Hull. We will have to get contracts out of at least two out of those three. Don and Richard looked at me and at each other, shaking their heads.

They did right to shake their heads. That machinery, loaded on to us without the option by the Shapiro brothers, had been developed for America's gigantic, highly mature markets. Sure it would give us the lowest cost base in Europe, but to what avail if we couldn't secure sufficient of the right kind of orders? So, this was gamble number one of the many, many risks to be taken by Sweetheart Plastics, (soon to be renamed Sweetheart International) as the years rolled by. All industrial, manufacturing start-ups have to take  risks. Big ones. With machinery, with products, with people, with investment money. And the riskiest of these are the people.

I shall not forget Alan Watchman's next comment, calm and quiet as always; Then we'd best get busy finding ourselves somewhere to put this machinery. I have here four bundles of agents'  factory details. Don, you''ll look at those to the north, I'll take the south coast bundle, you'll take the east of England Richard and Bryan, you know the Midlands best, so you'd best cover these. He grinned. Then you'd better get selling something. He handed me a file with six industrial properties therein. Re-assemble here a week today to compare notes and make the decision. Right now I think we all need a drink. And so we did, at Joule's (very expensive) Bar just around the corner. The following morning we were all on the road. A week later we re-assembled, discussed our results and Alan made his decision. There was this empty, ex-steel stockholding building down on the edge of Portsmouth harbour in a town called Gosport. Don looked at me, winked. By then we all knew Alan's passion for sailing boats.

That decided, we drove separately down to Gosport, re-assembling in Alan's choice of factory. The vast, dirty, empty space echoed to our shocked voices. It smelled powerfully of rusty metal amongst other things and such 'offices' as there were were totally derelict - uninhabitable. Don't worry about that, advised Mr Watchman, I've rented some nice offices for us up in Fareham. Fareham was four miles away. Don, you'll need to get contract cleaners in here, pronto.

Of course we would all have to move our homes. This was not going to be any nine to five, nor  any five or even six days a week proposition. I spent the rest of that week exploring the area for schools and houses, phoning Joan at home up in Lancashire at frequent intervals to seek her counsel. I discovered that Gosport was a Royal Navy town. It was and is a kind of blunt, south pointing peninsula, on its eastern side Portsmouth harbour, to its south and west the Solent. Four miles away across the water you could see Ryde church steeple on the Isle of Wight.

In number forty five Raynes Road, Lee-on-Solent I found our new home. A couple of hundred yards from the beach it was / is a modern, four bedroomed detached with nice garage and a big enough back garden complete with empty swimming pool in much need of attention. At ten thousand pounds it was probably ten to twenty percent above the going rate for that locality but I cared not. Having signed up I went back to my Bellevue Hotel room to call home. On the phone I spoke to Joan and all the children about it, one by one in order of descending age. In spite of their all being happy and so comparatively recently well settled in Formby there was much - and positive - excitement. Can we have a boat, Dad? Robert asked. Little did any of us realise how much of our lives would come to revolve around that question and the almighty sea. When should we think of moving down? Joan asked. I took a deep breath; Two weeks today, whether or not we've sold Longcliffe Drive, I told her.

After dinner in the Bellevue that evening I walked across the road and down on to the beach. It was a beautiful moonlit, starlit sky over the calmest of seas. The lights of a tanker were heading slowly up the Solent into Southampton. Over on the Island I could see the pinprick twinkle of Ryde and Cowes and to my left the city of Portsmouth cast its sodium orange all across the skyline. I sat down on the shingle, lit a cigarette and breathed in deep to catch that lovely, intermingled scent of brine and fish and seaweed.

I had fallen in with some of the hardest, shrewdest, premier division industrialists and financiers in the world. It seemed I was now holding their newest baby. God help me if I dropped it. More importantly I was holding in my hands the lives, or at least the wellbeing of Joan and my four children. Close in to shore came the swirl and splash of a night-hunting bass. At thirty six my life wasn't even half way through. What a great adventure it had been! What great adventures were yet to be!

* By the way, 'kids' for me are young goats, not children; certainly not our own Karen, Julie, Robert and Stuart.

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