Fortunately, I had plenty keeping me occupied. Years back when I had lived in Bedford there had been a loose extended-family connection to a Vodafone service provider, run by a brother and sister, Jo and Roger Marks, loosely related to my daughter-in-law. Having met up with them, and given my brief Granadaphone history, Jo asked me to pop in on a Saturday and work with her on local advertising campaigns. The market was moving so quickly that every week the market, the pricing, the product line-up and the packages had all changed, so it was an intriguing and challenging task.
Now years on and out of the blue Jo phoned me and asked for a meeting – Somerset to Bedford was a long trek but she had made it sound interesting. She was doing a reverse takeover of a fixed-line communications company and wanted to talk about marketing the merged entity.
There was a sectoral move at the time for comms to coalesce in this way and the move was timely. The merged fixed-line operation, Stanhope, had a group of managers that were coming with the deal and Jo was the only senior person on her side of the new group; Roger was pursuing other aspects of their earlier business. She therefore asked me to join as her Deputy Group Managing Director and ‘watch her back’.
I arrived after some early investors had already been attracted by a prospectus that appeared to have been prepared by the Financial Director of the Stanhope team and they had attracted some big hitters. My first role was to take the prospectus numbers and turn this into an operational business plan for the various divisions.
Very early on I asked Jo what she thought the Stanhope’s Financial Director was, professionally. She thought he was an accountant, when he was actually a PR man, which didn’t augur well for the figures he had drawn up for the prospectus. He had shown group turnover approaching £100m, with projected profits for the first year at just £1.2m.
My first enquiries established that over £80m of that turnover was in phone top-up cards. But this he had recorded at their retail face value, that is the price at which our retailer customers sold them. I’m not an accountant either but knew enough to realise a correct statement of that turnover was to use our invoiced wholesale price. On this basis we were really a £12m turnover operation, making that £1.2m profit, which is pretty respectable for the time and in a period of merger and redesign. But the investors had been shown £100m!
One of the big hitters they had attracted was Nigel Wray, perhaps best-known today for his ownership of Saracens Rugby Club. I was called to an early meeting with him where he explained his purpose for the meeting was to decide whether he should sue us or just put it down to experience, that focused the mind!
There had been something of a collapse in communications companies on the markets which to a minor extent provided a useful smoke-screen. But I didn’t rely on this, I talked instead of the underlying strengths of the business and the massive potential for a merged fixed/mobile operator. Fortunately, Wray concluded that he would wait and see what we achieved.
One day Jane had just arrived in Bedford to do some house-hunting, and in checking into my B&B flicked on the television to see the news that a plane had flown into one of the Twin Towers in New York.
She phoned me in the office and we all managed to get some info and pix before the Net ground to a halt. One of the women in my team was devastated, because her parents were in New York and planned to visit the WTC that day. It took her thirty hours to make contact with them, fortunately they were OK.
We initially rented a tiny two-up two-down thatched cottage at Scald End for several weeks while our real house transaction unfolded. It was attached to a turkey farm, just before Christmas and as we went to the barn where we could do our laundry we watched as their numbers declined day by day. The farmer explained that he could slaughter a turkey stood next to another and the survivor showed no reaction, do this to a goose and the tension experienced by the survivor would mean you could never pluck it, the feathers would be locked into the traumatised goose.
BIDDENHAM – 2001
We finally moved into this home, it was unlike any we had lived in since Cornwall – ie it was a modern house. Son after, my heart disease started to have an impact, as a result I needed to have my first stent put in at Papworth.
ASIDE: The Papworth procedure, angioplasty, entered at my groin, so the medical team were down in that general area, behind a lot of kit suspended over my chest, which included a screen for me to watch the process.
I was unconcerned because I was pumped with Rohypnol, the so-called date-rape drug, or something very similar. The doctor came around the kit and asked, ‘Have you ever played Pontoon?’, I confirmed I had. He explained ‘I have 18, and I want to draw again.’ I patiently (pun-intended) explained how many times I had stuck at 13 and won, but he said it wasn’t quite the same game. I watched the screen as he fiddled about locating the stent in my coronary artery. He emerged from behind the kit again to say, ‘I have 20!’, I said, ‘Stick!’ and he finished up the procedure.
Bizarre that a person as squeamish as me could have held such a discussion, but I did! I went back to work, at Aerofone, the next morning, and six weeks later, on a follow-up appointment, the doctor suggested that I could perhaps go back to work now! The stent worked for thirteen years!
As Business Devvelopment Director I spent a few years pursuing all sorts of aspects of the Aerofone business, creating a new aerofone* logo (see card below), negotiating to have our own top-up terminal so retailers could sell electronic mobile top-ups (ie no stock!). I also negotiated to have our own-label aerofone* mobile service to sell alongside our Vodafone and Cellnet business – our handsets would come up with the aerofone* logo. We also launched Pollytel fixed-line phone cards (with a parrot logo). I also developed an automated quotation system for the sales team.
Jo illustrated something during my time there that I have reminded myself of many times subsequently. She highlighted the false assumption that issuing your team with a PC/terminal was a sufficiency for efficient work practices. She printed out a simple and relatively short A4 letter, properly laid-out, with spellings and punctuation completed correctly. She asked each person with a terminal to copy-type this and declare the time it had taken. I took four minutes which I know Jane, an old-school shorthand-typist, might have halved. It was shocking to learn however that most took over twenty minutes, a few took several hours. Which highlights that seeing your team sat at a terminal, apparently gainfully employed, should not suggest that they are being productive.
Grandkids were growing – Chloe, Dan and Laura and Artie (photoshop-ed by Matt)
WATLINGTON – 2003
We moved down into the Chilterns to be closer to London.
This was an interesting house, originally a 17th century cottage with flint walls and tiles laid directly onto the soil, it had a mid-Victorian extension roadside that provided a beautifully proportioned lounge and bedroom above, then a 1960s extension at the rear added a dining room and utility on the ground floor and a master bedroom and en-suite above.
The previous owner had been a high-flyer in business but was felled by drug-taking. He was off to Goa running a tented-hotel and left friends to house-sit, who shared his enthusiasms. Jane had taken our daughter-in-law Ruth to view it, and at one stage commented on the lovely smell of incense, Ruth disabused her of its source. I took a large skip and two days to clear the house of all sorts of equipment and material before we moved in.
The actual move had to be the weirdest. The owner his girlfriend and some random guy had walked up the road to the local Co-op and garnered half-a-dozen small cardboard boxes and proceeded to load a small open-back pick-up. The guy then sat on top of the small load like Old Ma Clampett from the Beverley Hillbillies. It was slow so after they had departed for the nth time I got our, by now very frustrated, movers to pull their truck up the drive and shift all remaining outgoing stuff into the front lounge so they could take their boxes out through the sash windows. Impolite but they would have taken days if we had let them.
To sum up their lack of practical nous, his girlfriend could not work out that he had removed the dishwasher and so if she ran the water it came straight out onto the floor. She did this three times – give me strength!
Our preemptive strike turned out to be fortunate because at the eleventh-hour someone had tried to take legal action to seize the property against his debts, but by then we were in and not for shifting!
I realised that they had a coin-op electricity meter so arranged for this to be changed, when the engineer arrived, he pointed out that they had in fact by-passed the meter, si I could have saved some money by not being so prompt with the upgrade.
We kept getting odd people knocking on the door to reclaim their stuff and it became clear that the hut at the bottom of the garden had been lived in by a number of transients. More insistent were the bailiffs who insisted on not believing we were not in some way connected with him. One was determined to come around, though promised not to be in any sort of uniform. We showed him the paperwork, he backed off. Another phoned and had Jane in tears, because having no forwarding-address and beginning to recognise the style of envelope, she had opened his mail. Jane called this bailiff to appraise him and he took a very aggressive line, assuming this was a lie and then threatening legal action for her opening the letter. They were real darlings!
Once this had all subsided, we really loved the house, moving there coincided with moving our office to Marlow giving us just a 13m country commute – or 16m M40 and A404(M) trip.