Just prior to the Prism demise I had been invited to talk with senior members of the Granada TV Rentals (‘GTVR’) board, located close to where I lived in Bedford. I had presented my ViFi concept and other forecasts of future products.
When they heard I had left Prism they invited me to join them for a major project. I had enjoyed working for myself and was not sure I wanted to work for others, but took this temporary role while the Prism dust settled.
The organisation had just acquired parts of Rediffusion and the combined operation now had some 800 small retail outlets that rented televisions and video recorders.
They were contemplating moving into retailing, and I joined as Consultant Retail Controller to oversee a multi-divisional project to evaluate this notion. However, they were playing a highly profitable end-game in rental and we could not replace the high margins they achieved in rental, without becoming uncompetitive as a retailer.
Early on, they had a Professor of Retailing from Bradford University present a vivid review of high street retailing. He likened performance of retailers to the football leagues (pre-Premier League) and asked board members where they thought GTVR might be in the leagues. He concluded it was at the bottom of the second division and soon going to be relegated. He stated that by any measure of retail success those at the top of the first division were new operations, only they had their stores configured as they wanted them, their concept honed and drilled into their staff. He pointed out that those at the bottom of the first and top of the second were those that were managing change best. So that was my task, to manage change with a six-month retailing experiment and get us at least back to the top of the second division, or hopefully into the first!
We concluded that we should test-run our theories in Scotland where they had fifty stores ranging in size and effectiveness, including the one in Irvine that was the UK top-producer at that time. We believed we could isolate media messages up there and not interfere with the rest of the country. However, we underestimated the large Scottish diaspora in Lancashire and Northamptonshire – who did see Scottish media. No www back then, so they subscribed to or were mailed Scottish newspapers, and came into their local stores seeking to pursue advertised deals for Scotland, to find absolutely no mention or knowledge of them.
Our agency came up with a great campaign that included an animated TV advert. It had a friendly-looking leopard, voiced by Georgie Fame, who sang about this ‘clever leopard has gone and changed his spots’ and explained that now we sold as well as rented.
If this sounds as if Granada was state-of-the-art, that would be to mislead. We had open-plan offices and when I first arrived I set up my personal Apple Mac on my desk. Middle managers actually asked me when I would start wearing a skirt, because they believed only female secretaries and typists sat at keyboards – both no PCs and non-PC!
In fact, just sixty miles north of London, the GTVR headquarters was disconnected from the London scene. They ridiculed the agency team that turned up in then-vogue baggy and creased suits. Yet, they were managing a national operation. To try to close that 60-mile gap we ran a series of lunches with trend-setters and conceptualisers presenting their thinking.
I have always been masochistic in terms of my workload and decided we needed to planagram all fifty shops’ window displays and store-shelf layouts. This was necessary because I found, with one early promotion we ran, that we had lost sales because stores did not display the products or the offers, so if we regimented what they had to do in the store then we would put ourselves at greater risk of achieving success.
Another thing we learned was that we were completely advertising-led. People going out to buy (or rent) a TV did not include us in their shortlist of store visits, they went to Dixons, Currys, Comet. Only when we had a current newspaper advert did we get considered. This made sales expensive to achieve. We proved that we could not achieve new retail business fully to supplant our rental base, the available margins were like chalk and cheese. We tried to supplement the retail business by placing most of it via credit to add a financing margin, and then we sold extended warranty to add a further margin – and hoped that the three contributions might amass to get close to rental returns.
The CEO, Bill Andrews, wanted me to stay on as what he called an ‘intrapreneur’ to apply my ‘hunter’ mentality within their ‘farmer’ community. He sent me off for a set of psychological tests at Salford University to get proof that I could fit into their corporate structure. My recollection is that it proved very conclusively that I should not even try to do so, but the CEO said he could change all of that.
Bill put me in charge of the Business Systems Division (‘BSD’), based in Aylesbury, and responsible for any business activity where GTVR needed to produce a VAT invoice. This included rentals to corporates, a third-party electronic-products maintenance operation and Granadaphone, an early mobile phone hardware and service provider.
The latter, Granadaphone, rather resolved itself when I discovered we had huge stocks of a Motorola phone that stood us in at eight times their current market value. The current sales were none too promising, so I encourgaed the management team to do a buy-out. One of the senior individuals crossed paths with me some years later and boasted that he had outwitted me on the deal, he clearly did not appreciate how it sat on our books, and I had expected rather more gratitude for allowing him to found and build his operation.
ASIDE: I can’t tell you how many CVs I have received from people who make claim for themselves of things that I had done. Not to mention those that painted themselves as holding a key role in an operation of mine when I have absolutely no recollection of them working with us – but I have always found that amusing rather than annoying.
I somewhat panicked when I analysed the £20m+ of rental income BSD enjoyed, to find that over 80% of it was out of its initial term, meaning that they could be cancelled with just 30-days’ notice. So, a substantial part of BSD’s income could disappear in a month! When I proposed to Bill a series of retention deals to get them back under contract it was his turn to panic. The art of rental had evolved into leaving well-enough alone, allowing inertia to rule. Few companies adequately monitored stuff on rental, as they were not capital budget items, and let these roll on beneath their guard – and this was how GTVR made most of its profits. He understandably forbade me to do any such exercise.
The Data Protection legislation arrived a decade or more later! So I could take a detailed look at the rental base, and found some interesting stuff. For example, Granada Television were paying us for several TVs and videos supplied to Violet Carson (Coronation Street’s Ena Sharples) when she had been dead for three or more years. I was also amused to see a number of entitled individuals who were paying for TV/videos in London garden flats occupied by a Miss Something-or-other, I wondered if their relationship was still live or whether they were also leaving well-enough alone.
ASIDE: It was not all sweetness and light at Granada. As ‘head of building’ in Aylesbury (we were the biggest tenant there, but there were others) I was called across to a meeting in Bedford when it was revealed that our premises maintenance work had run into a snag. In the stair-wells they found there was asbestos involved and they were planning to remove this. They asked me to pledge that I would tell no-one because they planned to do this without shutting down the Aylesbury offices. They particularly wanted me not to tell the union negotiators for our staff, I had 190 staff there. I refused despite extreme pressure to keep their secret, not winning too many management friends. The NHS says since the 18th century a link was known between asbestos and lung disease. Since the 1960s the link between asbestos and mesothelioma has been well established. Notably, Steve McQueen had died in 1980 of mesothelioma at just 50-years-old, a cancer of the lungs from inhaling microscopic asbestos particles. He believed this was from the flame-retardant suits he wore when racing cars and bikes. This was the mid-1980s and I was being asked to perhaps expose 190 personnel to this danger! I ensured that the offices were closed for the maintenance by a specialist contractor.
One big project that fell within BSD was satellite television. One of the leading prospects for satellite TV distribution was to be the major four bookmakers who were seeking to exploit new legislation. The first change was that encrypted signals had previously only been permitted by PTTs like BT, Mercury etc, but now this control was to be loosened.
Back in my days of working in a bookies, we were not allowed to encourage punters to stay in the shop, but now it was envisaged that shops could broadcast live racing, serve refreshments and generally encourage punters to remain there. Today’s addictive ‘betting terminals’, the ‘crack-cocaine of betting’ were not yet part of the thinking – or were they?
SIS, Sports Information Services Ltd, was set up to broadcast live races from the tracks, exclusively to the shops. It was majority-owned by the major bookmakers, though the smaller bookies were offered participation too. The bookmaking industry had some self-regulation in mind, the smaller chains and individual shops were fearful that this changeover would be disproportionately helpful to the Big-4 and hasten the demise of the small guys. It was agreed therefore that there should be a well-publicised geographic roll-out of satellite links that would empower the big-4 shops and smaller competitors fairly. As a result, someone needed to manage this massive campaign and we became one of the favourites.
Our interest was piqued because we would get the rental TV sets to put into the shop (there are still some 9,000 shops today, with an average of say six TVs per shop). I met all sorts of people in trying to find a solution. The whole thing was complex, for example betting shops usually sat at the ground floor of premises with other tenants above who were unrelated to the bookie’s lease. To put a dish on the top of the building we needed to negotiate ‘way-leave’ from the owners of each property that our cable run would cross.
We ended up at a Board Meeting when CEO Bill summed up, ‘What we need is some entrepreneurial operation to take on the other roles and leave us to concentrate on the supply of TVs.’ I put up my hand to laughs around the table, but Bill took me at my word and agreed that Granada would do everything they could to assist me in setting up an outside satellite TV operation.