We developed two ECRs – the Hugin 100 which avoided the Christmas tree approach of cramming every possible feature onto it and the Hugin 300 which was programmable, offering many more trinkets and processes.
Demonstrations of the prototype Hugin 300 ECR proved fraught. You would set the routines you wanted to show onto its RAM card, but invariably the battery would fail during an important demo and lose it. Helpfully, yet annoyingly, a series of warning lights gave a binary message as to any problems experienced; there was a two-light sequence that I almost came to expect.
A major demo at Jacksons the Tailor hit that very problem as the manager stepped from the presenter’s spot for me to take his place. He saw those lights and raised his eyebrows as we passed; he knew I was screwed. But I recalled a guy at Sweda who had experienced a similar problem. I copied him and presented the 300 without ever pressing a button – and got away with it.
I developed the technique of presenting a complicated demo that included slides, a flipchart (no PowerPoint back then) as well as the Hugin 300 itself. But when I had a board presentation at Currys, the electrical retailers, I hit a quite different problem.
I set up in the Currys’ board room and was seated in an anteroom as I heard the board assemble. Someone threw open the double doors but no-one introduced me, so it was a shaky start. I walked in, introduced myself and got into the three-media demo. It went perfectly, no battery problems. I was taking questions and I guess it was an overt sign of my beginning to relax that I parked part of my thigh onto the edge of the board table. A look of horror spread across the board members’ faces and without a word they rose, almost as one, and left the room. I’d had the audacity to sit on the board table. They would not take my calls following this event; any likely deal was dead. I did perhaps get the last laugh as much later while I was a director of Dixons we bought Currys and I metaphorically danced on their board table.
I seemed to specialise in issues with big name retailers. Prior to ECRs I had arranged a major meeting with Sainsburys. DCP, who was set to attend, was flying in from Indonesia late in the day. We were invited to have supper with board members at the top of their building. I arranged a helicopter from Heathrow to hustle my MD to the South Bank. Before all of this would unfold I was having lunch and spilt a full glass of milk over my suit trousers in our canteen. I had to sit behind my desk for much of the afternoon trouser-less while my secretary took them to a dry-cleaners. Not a great start.
I got to Sainsburys in good time and the helicopter link worked well and we were ushered to the lift up to the boardroom which was set for supper. The early conversation was pleasantries. We had just been served soup when their chairman switched to business rather abruptly. He stated that they would not do the deal for many 1000s of registers with Hugin unless we could offer all their branches full technical support on Saturdays.
I mentioned above that we were a company with two camps. In the Co-op camp were all our engineers, fully unionised and fiercely aggressive for their rights. Our current scheme was that each engineer was paid for a Saturday standby one week in four and this had worked well, particularly in supermarkets that could afford to lose one checkout for a day as they had many. The union reps had told us that if we took this Sainsbury deal then they would want all engineers to be paid for every Saturday and we simply could not afford that.
I had my soup spoon up to my mouth, lightly breathing on it to cool it down. DCP stood up and said ‘Well, good day gentlemen’ and promptly left. I recall briefly pondering whether to proceed and swallow the soup or lay my spoon down. I have no idea which I did, but I scuttled after DCP and caught up with him in reception. I was devastated. The deal and the meeting had taken many months to arrange. Thankfully, the Corps of Commissioners guy on the door politely approached us and said the board would appreciate us rejoining them. The chairman greeted us by conceding that they would accept our standby Saturday scheme.
|ASIDE: For no good reason this meeting reminds me of an Aerofone investor meeting I had in Kleinwort Benson’s top floor London boardroom. It provided a really good view of London but, as this was just two days after the 9-11 attacks, attentions wandered as we fearfully watched every plane on approach to Heathrow until it had safely passed!|
It was in my ECR role that I found myself first presenting papers at all sorts of conferences and meetings. As a result of our Co-op connection I found myself sharing stages with leading Labour Party theorists and pedagogues of the time, such as Shirley Williams and Barbara Castle. Though I would not have had the nerve of the Mayor of Scarborough who said there were now two castles in Scarborough, and he was sure theirs was the craggiest. Barbara smiled but I assessed her as capable of punching above her weight.
|ASIDE: I came across a remarkable orator at around this time. Another West-Country guy on the Hugin team was also a Round Tabler and we (he, a friend of his and I) decided to attend the inaugural dinner for a new Table in Bagshot. We were unfortunately sold a pup and told that everyone would be in DJs, a common enough occurrence at Table events. Of the 200+ attendees just three of us were in DJs, all from the West Country, and we were ribbed all evening. Whenever someone tried to refer to the serious side of Tabling they would be shouted down, everyone calling out ‘Titbury’ (my work colleague and his friend were Tetbury Round Table members) until we stood up in our DJs to great ribaldry. Then they’d call out ‘Stockport’ as a guy from that there had been established as the one who had come furthest for the inaugural.|
So just imagine how remarkable it was when a guy stood, told one joke then spoke authoritatively and quietly about Tabling’s charitable objectives. He gained total control of the rabble we had become. You got the impression that if he had asked us to march on some objective we would have risen as one and done so. I learned later he was a barrister and significant in various international youth organisations. I have never heard anyone exercise such control. Another speech that left its mark was made by Manfred Stolpe, not for his control but for its remarkable content (see later).