Golden lobsters

In the late '70s and the 1980's I held monthly sales meetings. All the individuals in my sales and marketing* team were required to write up on the whiteboard their own territorial sales results for the previous month and year to date. I did the same myself because I had the overall responsibility for all sales including our very important key accounts. This results exposure could be at the same time both a painful experience and a heavy incentive. Nobody wants to self-proclaim him/herself to the rest of the team as its weakest link. I also took the opportunity to provide a necessary update on the company's technical and financial fortunes.  The monthly meetings were held in head office or hotels locally to Gosport or in hotels all around the UK. I reasoned that the cost of them, including travel, meals and hotel expenses would be similar wherever we assembled, whether it be in London, Edinburgh, Belfast, Cardiff, or any other easy to reach point in the UK - and sometimes outside it, in Europe.

Motivation ; now there's a word to cover a multitude of business costs as well as massive business benefits. My sales meetings were unashamedly motivational. A chance for one of the finest industrial sales teams in the UK to become re-fired in the company's interests and, frankly, to have some fun, entirely necessary in my opinion for guys working on their own if they were ever to be a proper team working to peak efficiency. As we all know a true team always exceeds in performance the sum total of its parts. Although I would never have admitted it, my model was the high-living, high flying Spitfire and Hurricane pilots of the Battle of Britain. A poor comparison I know, but people who take it to the required limit are never going to be the ones sitting at home of an evening reading a newspaper. So when the very serious business of the meeting had been concluded we would relax over dinner and whatever else the evening and/or the night might bring. I know for a fact that none of us will forget those sales meetings because whenever I meet with my ex-colleagues they invariably come into the conversation. Amongst my personal favourite memories was the one in Amsterdam's Kraznapolski Hotel. Late in the evening Peter Bright, who played and had brought along his trumpet, led a crocodile of us across the city centre, marching to an oft-repeated Colonel Bogey. 'Bollocks, and the same to you', we sang ... No doubt the good Dutch people crossed the streets to avoid these madmen and no doubt the bars to which we adjourned were grateful for our largesse, even tolerating our harmless musical self-entertainment. Some amongst our number did not get much in the way of sleep; but nobody, ever, was late for breakfast and all were expected to play their full part in the following day's business proceedings.

Just as in major key those boy pilots at Biggin Hill in '41 would come back to base much the worse for wear but still take off at crack of dawn to meet the enemy on high, perhaps to live another day, perhaps to die.

I said nobody (would be late), but I'm now thinking to refute my own statement, for our sales office manager, Mike Medland, after a heavy night did once turn up very late for the next day's sales meeting. After that meeting we were to embark by private coach which would be taking us all to visit our sister company in Holland. I was furious with Mike, who was a very good friend, one of my very first appointments in fact. I remember how I had asked him in the very early days to join  myself and Ted Pool to entertain Albert Sherman, the venerable and highly respected Express Dairies head buyer, to a light lunch in Fareham's Red Lion hotel. Mr Sherman was not noted for his sense of humour, nor for taking fools lightly, so the lunch had been pretty restrained until, all of a sudden Mike, who up until then had been silent, whether as a nervous reaction or as the result of too much wine leaned over the table and uttered the immortal words; night porter, send up another woman; this one's split. I thought, in despair, well there goes the biggest dairy account in the UK but to my astonishment Mike's risky out of the blue joke broke all the ice. I cannot claim it influenced everything or anything but we were very soon 'in' at Express. Anyway after Mike Medland's late arrival to that sales meeting I invited him into my office and instructed him to give me one good reason why he should be allowed to come along with us to Holland. Because I've got the ferry boat tickets, was his response. Of course I had to forgive him. That excursion is quite another story, featuring crates of brown ale being emptied before we even got to Harwich for the boat crossing and Roger Berry distinguishing himself at the hotel in Groenlo with his favourite bar-room stunt whereby he finished his drink then ate a part of the glass. Yes, bit into it, crunched it up and swallowed the shards. No illusion, I promise you. Along with a handful of others I saw him doing it - and later, on more than one occasion. By the by, I understand Roger is now managing director of a substantial company,and good luck to him; he was one of the brightest and the best.

Then there was the meeting in Edinburgh's Great Northern Hotel, the meeting where one of our number registered a particularly poor result on the whiteboard which I promptly marked with a scribbled asterisk and a stern, silent look all around. This was at a time when, for various reasons to do with yet another change in ownership and its new found ridiculous policies, the company's production was continually falling short of sales / customer needs. Morale amongst the team was correspondingly low. Then, why have you given Mark's figures the golden lobster? enquired Alex Matthewson, to some general hilarity. Indeed my asterisk did look somewhat like a lobster and yes, I had used the yellow marker pen. Because lobsters can cut off your balls, I responded. So he who props up the monthly table will from now on get the golden lobster. Of course nobody wanted one of these mythical accolades. Avoiding getting one of them got to be quite a sales incentive all by itself. In 1987 after I was fired I took the company to an Industrial Tribunal. One of the 'witnesses' for the company - one who had not been invited to attend any of  my sales meetings - told the tribunal how I had made a special award of a gold lobster to the very worst performer in sales and marketing. Much all around hilarity. Even the three judges had to laugh at the sheer improbability of the statement. And as you will see later on, I was awarded maximum damages.

There is a fine line between business expenses that are, to quote H.M. Revenue, 'wholly and necessarily incurred in the execution of the claimant's duties', (well, something like that) and expenses that are primarily incurred for one's private satisfaction. It's all about the difference between what is customer entertainment, what is self-entertainment and what is business subsistence. Having signed off my managing directors' and many dozens of other employees' expenses for some seventeen years I reckoned I could spot the differences! As for my own expense claims, they were never challenged even though my annual expenses often exceeded my annual salary. So looking back, were they always 'wholly and necessarily' incurred? No, sometimes only in part . So were they ever pure, unadulterated fiction? No again. Looking back I am convinced that I actually under-recovered the money I took out of my own bank account in the interests of the business. And furthermore I am convinced this was nobody's fault but my own.

There are many more than fifty shades of grey in this whole area of business expenses, simply because at a certain level or in certain areas in the business the claimant really is expected to be involved in the life of the company to the detriment of everything else, even his domestic life. His/her time thus belongs to the business quite possibly to an unhealthy extent. Whether the business then or now can ever return or ever repay such devotion is a matter of considerable doubt, as time here will tell. And by the way both sales and profits continued to proper throughout those early and middle 80's.

Golden lobsters played their part, no doubt.



*Industrial sales, that is, face to face promotional contact with a buyer, and industrial marketing, that is all the non-person to buyer ground between advertising, public relations, brand awareness etc - what's the difference? I accept that now, in the age of the internet, the pound spent on marketing has more value than that spent on selling but back then sales, sales influence on the product line and the maintenance of good relationships with a company's individual customers had by far the greater bearing on the 'money-in' numbers.


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