Pleasures and pressures

By the time of our annual holiday in the May of 1973 Joan's multiple schlerosis had become obvious to all, for she had exchanged her walking stick for a zimmer frame. Nevertheless we decided to go back to the Highlands of  Scotland, this time even a little further north; to a place called Gairloch. The girls were now of an age not necessarily to want the rigours of a sixteen hour car journey or of being tossed about on the ocean in a small boat for ten days. We trusted them to stay home. (When we returned we found our household had increased by one small kitten, but that's another story!) Joan herself liked the sea fishing and with two increasingly strong young boys along I knew we could get her in and out of boat, car or anything else. We pitched our tent at Big Sand, overlooking the Sound between there and Longa Island. It was in that Sound, that magical holiday, that we had great catches of plaice, dabs and haddock amongst other species, and where Robert caught his British record dab (limanda limanda). Two pounds, twelve ounces and two drams.

I phoned to register the record and was asked to take the fish as quickly as possible to the Glasgow Museum of Natural History  for validation. The record stood (and featured in the Guinness Book of Records) for more than twenty five years. It won several prizes including a two week family holiday on the West Coast of Ireland, so that October we towed Culash up to Liverpool, were ferried across to Dublin then drove across Ireland to lovely Trallee. A second great holiday. But on the way back, whilst heading for our ferry on Saturday night the wheel bearing on our boat trailer gave up just off the famous O'Connell Street. 'The Troubles' being at that time in full spate I was more than a little concerned. Nevertheless a fellow dressed up for his night out offered to help. He drove  Stuart and I to his home in the suburbs, leaving Robert in charge of my incapacitated wife and incapacitated transport. The man was kindness personified. He botched up a piece of galvanised iron pipe and, with a handful of glutinous grease we were up and running, at least as far as the ferryboat and into a Liverpool garage the next day. Furthermore our benefactor would accept no compensation. Reminds me of when a fellow did me an unsolicited kindness here in the Highlands. Again I offered to pay; Bryan, he told me, Up here you have to learn how to take.


The early 70's were pretty wild years at Sweetheart International. We needed to hit three quarters of a million pounds a month in invoiced sales, and quickly before the owners lost patience. Already Sir Julian had baled out, selling his fifty percent to Malcolm Bates' Spey Investments. Most importantly our sales had to be at prices that (a) produced the necessary gross margins and (b) did not destroy the industry norms. Setting low-ball prices would only serve to prolong the loss-making agony. We all know how easy it is to drop your price and how difficult to increase it. Nevertheless at a board meeting in 1974 Henry Shapiro, tired of pressure from his Board back in the USA instructed us to increase all prices by a substantial - and set - percentage. I gathered together my sales guys, Alex and Ted. They were in agreement that Henry's dictat was impossible, we would lose all our hard won sales. I said it wasn't impossible but in truth had difficulty believing my own message. That evening we got thoroughly drunk, which was by no means a first! Then over the succeeding months, lo and behold we actually did make the price increases and without losing much sales momentum! It was a lesson well learned; sales without profits in a manufacturing company mean precisely zero, other than in the temporary interests of job security.

If anyone thought Sir Julian Salmon a hard taskmaster Mister Malcolm Bates very soon disillusioned them. His Spey Investments were financiers, pure and simple with palatial offices in the City of London. They had latched on to one astonishingly simple moneybag fact concerning the investment of industrial pension funds, especially the giant pot of gold owned by the nation's postal workers - all one hundred and twenty thousand of them plus lord alone knows how many others in retirement. The truly massive fund's senior manager was at that time paid not much more than me! Bates and his bright-boy entourage certainly knew how to woo him!

But, never content simply to invest, like many such genre Spey believed they could and should actually run the manufacturing industry in which they had placed the pensioners' money. God-like in their City towers of ivory, they totally believed themselves better able than their incumbent managers. So one of the first things Bates did was to fire my boss, managing director Alan Watchman, by some way the best managing director I have ever worked under. He called we three remaining directors to his City eyrie and 'interviewed' us one at a time. I was first in. The interview was very short, beginning with his, but a single statement and linked question; 'I've just dismissed Watchman. Do you think I 've done the right thing for the company?'  He glared at me across an ocean of polished walnut table. It was obvious that any prevarication would lead straight to the exit door. In spite of my being totally convinced he'd made the wrong move I said in effect, Yes, good move, whilst telling myself the lie was in the best interests of the company (by leaving me in place). In fact it was in the interests primarily of myself and my recently disadvantaged family. Feet of clay? I was and am to this day actually ashamed of that yes response.

Going back a bit in time, when Henry Shapiro and Sir Julian made their joint green field investment in the UK he and his Maryland Cup Board had bought a family owned paper cup manufacturer operating out of the small town of Groenlo in Holland. They re-named it Sweetheart Holland. But (and the following happened before Sir Julian sold out to Spey and therefore before Alan Watchman got himself fired,)  Henry had been made aware of certain, let us say doubtful financial practices on the part of Groenlo's Dutch managing director. That is why Alan Watchman and I found ourselves on a Sunday flight out, then knocking on said managing director's door at 08.00 hours Monday morning. The guy had worked there almost man and boy and was something of a popular village luminary to boot. Our meeting with him was short and not at all sweet. At the end of it he was out, dissmissed. Alan Watchman returned to Gosport and I was left in position as stand in managing director. I had a special remit to dig as deeply as possible into the company, its practices and its finances. I was there in Groenlo for a little over a month conducting forensic investigations by interview with the staff and its suppliers and by an in-depth study of the company's historic accounts. In submitting my report to the owners I was all too well aware of how much compensation money my researches had probably saved them. No court of law ever needed to be involved. But when I stood to speak at the appropriate meeting of our Board I made two basic points. First, such 'malpractice' as I had uncovered was not necessarily unusual in Holland. Second, the man had been a very fair long time leader of the company.

For me, this whole business of hiring and firing top managers is ridiculous. It says that either the company had been built on sand in the first place and could never prosper in its present form or that the company had been well founded and therefore the person (Chairman usually) making the appointment was himself incompetent, his judgement suspect. But who fires the Chairman?

Early the next year said Chairman offered me the position of managing director at a substantial paint manufacturer near Leeds. I discussed it in depth with my disabled Yorkshire lass, Joan. We thought about the logistics and of course the children and their education. Seventeen years old Karen had by then left school and obtained student nurse employment in the geriatrics ward of a mental hospital. Julie was happy at school and with all her friends, the boys were not doing so well at their studies and showed little enthusiasm for them but would have hated to leave the sea and all the fishing. They certainly did not need yet another move. And yes, I thought about Delia, the secret part of my life that made bearable all that would have been unbearable.

So I turned down Bates and his henchmen. It was the first of three - possibly four head hunter approaches over the succeeding years, all of them refused. I knew I could never reach the heights at which, according to that Indian party-guy all those years before in Solihull, I could actually change things for the better and for everybody. But my philosophy held good. Still does. You don't deal yourself the cards, you just play the ones you're dealt as best you can.

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