I got head-hunted to join the Dixons Group as Sales Director of a new small team setting up a wholesale arm, ACE (Advanced Consumer Electronics). Dixons had evolved a fantastic buying organisation with residents in Hong Kong and other Far-East markets. They therefore knew what was happening out East, but had only c.180 stores so could not close-out new products as a UK-exclusive for Dixons, those sort of volumes just couldn’t be sold through.
ACE was set up to provide a generic brand, Acetronic, for sale to operations like Woolworths, Boots, Currys, W H Smiths, Rumbelows, Greens, Debenhams, Menzies, CRS, Argos, Empire Stores, Grattans, Littlewoods, Kaleidoscope… Between them their quantities would be enough to seek exclusivity back in the Far East.
ASIDE: At ACE we had one multiple retailer buyer we visited regularly, his office floor and desk were always littered with abused paper clips, during any meeting he would destroy several more. We wondered if he judged the stress levels of a meeting that way – ‘Oh, that was awful, it was a ten paper-clip meeting!’ No names, to protect the identity of this senior retailer.
This job started a new, but soon to be a regular, role for me. I visited the CES (Consumer Electronic Show) in Chicago and Las Vegas, June and January each year, to review the latest products. I was usually armed with a briefer from the Far East team who advised what was real and what deserved my Lubbock aerosol spray.
ASIDE: One of the earliest memories of CES Vegas was meeting with Miss Swedish Erotica on a stand. There was a significant porno video section that had to be seen to be believed. This particular woman had probably hired an engineer of Brunel’s capability to support her ridiculously enhanced embonpoint. Of course, I retained some Swedish from Hugin, so in passing asked her ‘Hur mår du’ (How are you?) and in a New Jersey accent she replied ’You what?’. There was also a huge in-car section, which would later inspire me to add this feature to the plans for LIVE! (below).
We managed for a few years to have UK-exclusivity for a product based on a Signetics games-console chip-set which we supplied as the Acetronic MPU1000 to most of the above-listed retailers. But all momentum was swept away by Space Invaders on the Atari VCS. We had fared perfectly well against that console on price and margin, but it achieved a four-month head-start over us for Space Invaders and that scuppered us. Yes, you might have thought that with my inside line to Darth Vader I should have been able to resolve this!
We retaliated by bringing the Mattel Intellivision to the UK, the first 16-bit game, but its early forte was based solely on US sports – American Football, Baseball, Basketball. There had been some early UK interest in the NFL with a Channel 4 show, but the others carried little momentum here. I spent most of my time defining those sports’ rules!
The Intellivision did have an upgrade sit-in module that would provide a keyboard and the other necessary interfaces for it to become a full PC. However, that upgrade eventually proved to be more concept than product. So, we remained largely on the back foot.
ASIDE: I asked my Mattel colleagues where I should stay as we travelled from Los Angeles to San Francisco on a forthcoming trip with Jane and the children, then aged 10 and 8. They came back with two reservations for us. The Candlelight Inn at Carmel, rather famous then for its new mayor, Clint Eastwood. But the second was a little odd, they booked us into a log cabin in the Big Sur forest. It had a roaring open fire with a skin of some sort set before it. I imagine it was the sort of place they would take a secretary or mistress, but not really what was needed with kids along for the ride.
A few other products were mooted for ACE, but we never really got traction for any of these, and Dixons’ patience was short. The MD, who had been deputy MD of the retail business, demonstrated this best. We had switched a sales administrator from the retail side, he had served Dixons for over twenty years, but he didn’t work out for us. So, our MD stood uncomfortably face-to-face with him, haranguing him loudly, in the hope the guy would resign and therefore forego his rights on departure. I was delighted to see the guy, who was none too self-confident, had the smarts to stand his ground and got a full pay-out.
ASIDE: I was the only non-Jewish director at Dixons, and was amused to hear two PAs discussing if I was or was not. One of them said he must be because I have seen family pictures and his children are called Sarah and Matthew – QED. The first time we realised both names were Biblical.
Thankfully, when I left, I wasn’t given the same treatment. Instead I was paid six months’ money and allowed to keep my company Granada for that period. This gave me the time and cash as a springboard to launch my own business.