The UK CEO was subsequently overruled by the Group Managing Director, Staffan Svenby, and I was appointed Development Director, he said, ‘to search out the gold internationally’. Though Staffan deigned to put any meat on this expression and couldn’t have picked a worse moment.
My first attempt was to visit our recently acquired American operation in the heart of Soprano-style New Jersey, certainly in the same building was a major ‘connected’ contractor, Greyhound. A year or so earlier, I had taken a small pipe-and-drape stand at CES and came up against Greyhound. I bought some Velcro from them and unwisely used a credit card. When I got home, I saw I had been charged three times what I had agreed. I called them to complain and they said, ‘Do you know who we are?’, I said I did (ie the Mob), he replied, ‘Well be thankful we only took that much!’ US customer service again!
I arrived to learn that the previous owners of these acquired shows had been ejected just before the weekend that I had travelled over, and so when I arrived I was as popular as a ‘fart in a lift’. Most of the staff had worked for years with the previous incumbents and here I was a physical embodiment of Blenheim London. However, I persevered and had some good brand extension and new launch discussions with key managers, but I had only worked my way back to becoming barely acceptable, not yet properly welcome.
Something similar happened when I visited the newly acquired French operation. This was still being run by the prior owners and they were not yet ready to acknowledge they were now part of someone else’s property. Unwilling to contemplate any outside influence, we again left on better terms than when I arrived, but it was not a firm relationship.
This was not working out, and I told Staffan there was no need to find me work I would happily move off back to doing my own thing. He was insistent that a day didn’t pass without someone having a proposal involving me – I wasn’t sure if that was a good thing. But this finally resolved itself by him offering me the Premier role, to run the jewel of Blenheim UK’s crown, the clothes trade shows, Premier Childrenswear, Premier Menswear and Premier Womenswear. Assembled by Blenheim into a one-roof two-season Birmingham event, it was then responsible for a significant proportion of Blenheim’s global profits.
These shows had been the fiefdom of Brian Wiseman for many years, something of an industry character who I knew quite well. The UK Managing Director was trying to corral any non-corporate exigencies, and there was no denying that Brian was a drinker. I had twice over previous years bundled him into taxis to get him back to his hotel room. Yet, before 1pm, few could match Brian’s experience and capabilities as an event director, and he packed more into those long mornings than most did in a day.
I went to see Brian, who had only recently been edged out, and told him I had been offered his role, what did he think? He thought about it aloud and said that he felt I was one of a very few who could take it on. I asked if he would talk with his team and get their buy-in to me and he agreed. Only then did I agree to take on the role.
David Pegler was still not done with this team. He decided to close down their Great Portland Street offices to save on overheads. What this failed to appreciate was that from there they were right at the heart of the rag-trade business. A calling-in and visiting point for the key players. The HQ at Chiswick had no fashion industry significance.
This led to an amusing clash because many of the Premier team were smokers and Chiswick had also been designated as a non-smoking office (this was not yet law). A group of them reacted rather uniquely, they read the Staff Manual and nowhere did they see anything that stopped them cross-dressing, or wearing high-heel brogues. So they did, until Pegler relented and set them up with a smoking room.
My role was not only to try to replace a legend, but to motivate a team that was angry for being beheaded and moved from their market core and subjected to a raft of new, pointless and personal, regulations to respect. Worse the shows were under assault. EMAP controlled many of the key fashion trade magazines, like them industry organ Drapers Record and had begun to plan its own shows in competition to Premier.
We went off on holiday at about this time and found on our return that Matt and Ruth had moved in, their move to Dulwich had stalled. They lived with us for several months until it all got back on track. I asked Matt who was moving him from storage to his new place and he explained it was me. He had borrowed a van and we were going to do it in that.
ASIDE: We turned up at the storage unit he had rented in Bethnal Green and I was a tad surprised that, in this area particularly, there was just one wizened little old guy in charge of his belongings. But when we found the back doors of the borrowed van were wired up to keep them closed, the little guy stepped up. He shook his forearm and suddenly his empty hand had a wicked looking machete in it. It was sharp enough to cut through the wire as if it was cheese. A second flick of his arm and the machete was safely stowed up his sleeve again. Clearly their security was more than adequate.
The very next evening I relaxed back into our now less-crowded lounge, not wishing them gone but relishing the calm uncrowded sense. At about 10pm the phone rang, it was a friend of Jane’s parents advising us that Jane’s Dad had collapsed and hinted it looked likely it would prove fatal. We hustled down to Eastbourne where they were having a pre-Christmas excursion and weekend with friends. Ivan had enjoyed a good meal and was dancing with Vi when he collapsed. A great painless way for him to go, but devastating for her. We took her back to ours, from where we arranged his funeral.
The funeral and a function for friends was held in Bristol and we travelled back to Fulham where we had a quiet dinner locally. During the dinner Ruth and Matt advised us that they were having their first child (apparently Jane had already known this) and Sarah and Laurent announced they were to be married. So, we had attended a despatch and now had news of a hatch and a match all on the very same day.
Meanwhile at Premier
The manager of Premier Menswear had driven the desire to move this element of the unified show to come back into London to stand up against EMAP. This moved it away from its sister events and he came up with sound reasons for this, but perhaps they should have been outweighed by the benefits of sustaining a one-roof unified show.
EMAP launched Forty Degrees as a casualwear event to seize one part of the market. Forty degrees is the temperature at which you washed jeans, back then at least. Their marketing campaign was very good, a sequential mailing of items revealing the name ‘Forty Degrees’ but not what it was. They out-marketed us in this sector, but it has always been easy to rip parts from an existing format, the database is easily definable and reached, the messages more specific. When your event is trying to be all things to all sectors it becomes exposed.
Premier Menswear fashion show and logo
Our show went well but this was my first and it was therefore more about learning who to listen to and where I might add momentum. I did get one superb personal opportunity, as a Chelsea fan, I presented a birthday cake to our ‘Best Dressed Man of the Year’, Ruud Gullitt. However, I then had to take the pain of a rather irate live interview from a Newcastle radio station asking me why its favourite son David Ginola had not won the award.
My fondest memory of Womenswear and Childrenswear was the whirlwind that was escorting Margarita Pracatan around the show. She had gained popularity as a novelty singer on the Clive James Saturday Night Clive programme and rapidly become something of a gay icon. However, this octogenarian Cuban also ran a successful New York cable channel. She was remorseless at the show, bringing to mind Jeremy Beadle, attracting visitors, learning enough to sell the goods, walking out on the catwalks, and taking over the small electronic keyboard in the bar back at our hotel. She wore me out.
In the meantime, EMAP was planning a womenswear show in London, so the question was, did we move ours to the capital or not? The team and I thought their early progress would recede and we should see them off with our benefits of a one-roof event momentum.
British Fashion Council
As part of my role I was automatically elected to be a member of the British Fashion Council, sitting with designers and industry leaders to discuss industry-wide matters.
ASIDE: This was a point of some amusement at home as Jane had bought all of my clothes since we met at 15 years old, she really cares about fashion, while I have never shown a great deal of personal interest. But, now, whenever she criticises what I am wearing I can counter with ‘Remind me, which one of us was on the British Fashion Council?’ – that usually closes any argument.
EMAP lobbied the Fashion Council and a meeting was called with EMAP and Blenheim invited to talk over the future, before our battle of the shows could damage the business. I was allowed to sit on the Council for much of this, and Staffan and David were invited to represent Blenheim. For several sessions we were requested to leave the meeting of course.
We were all re-convened for the chair to summarise what had been discussed. He made one point that I believed to be incorrect and started to correct this, Staffan turned and said aloud ‘Shut up Bob’. Later in the summary I started to dispute another false conclusion and Staffan again said ‘Shut up Bob’. The outcome was that the Council supported EMAP to seize more of the market. As we walked away from the meeting, I resigned on the basis that I could not command respect after those public rebukes.
What’s in a name?
Before I had cleared up my departure Blenheim was sold. Miller Freeman, a San Francisco based publishing and exhibitions’ company had been acquired by United News & Media in the UK during 1985. Now they acquired Blenheim for £592m.
Almost on my last day I was invited to a meeting held at the top of the old Derry & Toms building. It proved bizarre because they were at great pains to suggest that the two operations would merge seamlessly. The two principals made a presentation and Staffan Svenby was presenting his vision of ‘Sector Strategies’ and Marshall Freeman’s pitch was instead focused on ‘Market Forces’.
I believe I was among the first to notice that they were both applying their own initials as their theory’s title. Hilarious, I left the next day.