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.
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.