Part four of the saga of my career reads a little like a great classic. The next few years were going to see some exciting changes and even more exciting prospects.
Fortunately I won’t be writing volumes on my own journey. I’m skipping a lot of stuff and I may drop back into some of the periods later in order to pad out some of the more exciting moments with a little more detail.
However, I do feel a bit like Dr Who as I might have to jump back and forth in time to make sense of the next ten years, in a way that you can at least follow.
With the invention of Fibresand in 1984, my focus at work was beginning to be split between group laboratory management, Fibresand production, which I appear to have been put in charge of, and the quality management system, which was growing daily as I got a better understanding of its purpose.
The aim of the company was to attain the BS5750 registration which allowed them to trade with some larger companies who insisted on the standard. I had an amazing assessor from LRQA who really knew his stuff. It wasn’t about the cost of quality (or “How much does this all bloody cost” as I would hear often), but the cost of NOT having quality. For instance, in the first 12 months of introducing BS 5750 we had reduced our Brickworks production waste from a massive 14% / month down to 1%. Now anyone into pareto charts will understand that this should have been relatively easy. What would be more difficult is eradicating the final 1%!
I managed to wangle myself on a one day course called “TQM – Total Quality Management” and was thoroughly enlightened and excited at some of the TQM techniques available, and the philosophies behind it – like “Right First Time”, or “Just In Time”.
This new way or working wasn’t exactly flavour of the month, and so it was left to me to sneak it in through the back door. If only we had a decent accountant that could see the benefit of not doing things twice, and only selling it once, or the cost saving involved in not having that customer complaint and eventually leave for a better supplier.
But times were changing, and many of these philosophies became enshrined in later versions of ISO 9001. The beauty of it was, many of the new clauses, which scared many companies, were already incorporated into our QA system due to my my TQM infiltration.
At around the same time, the company invested in a computer. The Chairman of the board, Edward Cannon, a very forward thinking person in many respects, saw the potential of the very first personal computers, and colluded with our young nerdy electrician to buy a small PC with a tape deck, and the electrician wrote our first computer program to record stone stocks.
The program was such a success the chairman invested in a larger PC with TWO floppy drives, a brand new magnetic storage medium that did away with tape decks entirely.
This isn’t turning into one of my chronological lists of computers; what was key that I sat with the electrician and was intrigued by the method of programming – a new language called “BASIC”. So I learned alongside him, and soon found myself at night school learning advanced BASIC and also MS-DOS.
Before long I had written my own program to automated a lengthy sand calculation that normally took around 20 mins / sand test. Entering the results into the keyboard gave an instant result. My manager was rather taken aback by this development and agreed to fund our own computer in the lab- a new PC on the market from a guy called Alan Sugar. Yes, the Amstrad 1512. And later the 1640.
Before too long I had written a dozen programs in BASIC, which I then found I could speed up to a very usable level by compiling them into “machine code” using a compiler program called Turbo Basic. I was getting quite sophisticated, and soon had the brick lab, moulding sand lab, technical service reports and a lot of the quality system stats and reports coming off this one little machine.
We actually had more PC’s in the lab than the accounts or general office – something that would upset both department managers. They wanted a cut of the cake, and I was happy to oblige. I helped install the first PC into the office to do word processing, while another guy who wrote in a program called “C” used the latest PC on the market – the Pentium 1, with 64Kb of memory. He did the sales accounts, but between us we introduced all sorts of error checking, validation and statistical calculations to feed back into the quality system.
When our new electrician started, I worked with him to introduce computerised bag weight monitoring on our bagging plant, closing another gap in our quality system requirements. This was all before such equipment had become readily available on the market. The company really did miss a trick by not running with this side of the business and developing and selling some of our computerised innovations.
The date was 1999 – a year that was about to gain enormous significance for me.
An important thing to note was, I had suddenly become the IT expert in the company, with no training whatsoever. To combat this, and following the purchase of Lotus Smartsuite – a cheaper alternative to Microsoft Office, I suddenly found myself on advanced database courses, and producing even more software for the company. Can you believe, that during my last visit to the quarry lab at Mansfield Sand in 2015 (we are talking 30 years later) they were still using my original sand testing programs. Now that’s what you call leaving a legacy!
Another part of my career was developing rapidly. Our MD had been travelling around trying to sell the idea of our fibre equestrian products overseas, and he had got some interest from Denmark. He developed plans for a mixing machine which we would sell to the Danish, and as explained here I found myself overseas for the first time. It wasn’t the best of times. Sue was left on her own with a very little Stacey in the middle of winter, having to basically run home and juggle work etc. while I was away.
Around 1988 we managed to enlist another company into the international clan, this time in Luxembourg. You can also read about that adventure here. And yet again Sue had to suffer at home while I was gone, looking after Stacey single handed and catching the bus to work as she didn’t drive. And I didn’t really get anything out of the deal – I was getting back to find a week’s worth of normal work on the desk, which I had to catch up on.
In 1989, we successfully expanded in to the USA, and yet again I found myself seconded onto the overseas production team of one – me. I had managed by this time to argue a little more salary out of the boss based on my ever expanding workload. I made four successive trips using TWA and suddenly found myself a gold member of their airline, automatically upgraded to business class with all the trimmings that came with it. I was truly turning into a bit of an international jet setter.
The really antagonising thing came when I accidentally found out the clients I had been assisting were being charged a hefty sum for my presence, and yet I wasn’t being paid a penny extra, but at the same time my absence from home was actually costing us real money – and at a time when we could least afford it. After Stacey had arrived, money got really tight and I ended up having to sell the car and walk the 6 miles to work every day, and every evening walk back again. Snow, rain, didn’t matter. I can clearly recall one day checking my pocket in the pouring rain and debating whether to spend the 74 pence I had left on bus fare, or save it and walk it in the freezing torrential rain. I saved it. I walked it. Things were that desperate.
Anyway, I persevered and agreed to another quite long visit to the USA. It was a bit upsetting for Sue, as she was expecting the twins and didn’t really want me overseas. My MD convinced us that should the twins make an early appearance he promised to fly me straight back home, but obviously, the likelihood was they would be in their cots before my plane touched back down at heathrow should that happen. But I buckled under the pressure. Plus I couldn’t really pass up on the opportunity – I could see this might be leading somewhere for us all.
I would unfortunately find myself in a similar situation years later. We will get to that.
I finally got back to the UK after a fairly unsuccessful trip and about two weeks later, the twins were born prematurely – close call.
When I got back, I found myself with another title change – this time I was Quality Manager; my title seemed to change every Christmas, along with a few more duties to go with it. This time I had taken over the Health and Safety management of the company and also recently completed my DAPS quarry managers course – thus opening up the exciting prospect of becoming quarry manager in the near future.
But that position was never to be offered to me. I was kept on the overseas work.
One element that had been a constant niggle was my manager status. Every manager on the company had a company car, but not me. Still walking to work, I desperately needed transport. My immediate boss seemed reluctant to state my case, i didn’t understand why at the time. And so in the end I decided the only way forward was to apply for another job, and I was actually successful in gaining it, beating an incredible 350 other applicants. The downside was it was 2 hours drive away, and would mean us moving out of the area, something that Sue didn’t want us to do. I informed the boss of my success and he was startled to say the least. Within a hour he had been to see one of the directors, and a promise of a company car was on the table, plus a promise to match the salary at the next pay review. I agreed to stay, in hindsight it was probably the wrong decision. The other company, having offered me the position, were equally annoyed I had turned them down at the last minute. Shortly after I was given a second hand two seater works van, and we would put the twins in the back in their double pushchair with the brake on, and Stacey would sit on the wheel arch holding the pushchair steady – a little before the childseat and rear seatbelt laws came in – but still incredibly unsuitable.
My first company “car”
Not wishing to appear ungrateful or rock the boat, I let this situation remain for a while but eventually went back to the boss and asked about my car – again he was non responsive. Eventually I had to go to the director directly, who told me he knew nothing about the car agreement. I was well upset. I explained about my job offer, and the promises made which had caused me to stay, and he seemed quite shocked at this – he allegedly had not known about the job offer. Someone was lying. Who was it?
To appease me he gave me the pool car to use, an old Citroen BX, a left over from a recently sacked quarry manager. I had naively thought I might be his replacement but still didn’t get the offer.
A few months later, that time came around when everyone ordered their new cars, so I again approached the boss, and on this occasion I was more or less told to live with it and stop complaining. My relationship with a man that I had previously held in such high esteem had just gone down the pan.
I again approached the director, and he agreed that I was a manager, was doing a good job, and deserved the manager’s allowance. He asked me to get three quotes for a brand new car, I did, and he authorised me to order the car. I did. I wrote the purchase order out in my boss’s purchase order book. I thought he would notice it but he didn’t.
But he DID notice the car when it arrived. One of the sales reps saw it parked in the car park, and as sales reps got a lower allowance than managers, he was truly miffed at my selection. I had gone for a smaller car but higher spec, which had rattled some people’s cages in the company.
My boss was also not pleased, and I found out very quickly why. It was all about status. He was MY manager, and yet I had the same car allowance as him. Apparently our wage differential wasn’t that huge anymore either, I was closing in on him fast. And he was furious that he hadn’t had a say in the model of car purchased. I merely pointed out that if he had been more involved, he may have indeed had a say. But as he chose not to support me in obtaining the car, I didn’t see the need to involve him in the purchase. It was a shame really, up until then we had got on really well, and it wasn’t my fault he hadn’t progressed further up the ranks himself. So in effect he was happy to hold me down and suppress my career in order to maintain his own differential. A bit selfish really. It was the beginning of the end.
My first REAL company car.
After my final visit to the USA in about 1994, we all went back to our normal work patterns. Until the next exciting development arrived. After a discussion between the MD and a guy on a plane who worked for British Aerospace, the idea was born to market our products into airports, and we joined up in a venture with British Aerospace to make it happen.
I was well in my element. We had originally embarked on selling the material to horse trainers (right up my manager’s street) then we moved into football and everyone else was getting great thrills from being stood on the pitch at Old Trafford, or Wembley, but for me – a non football lover – it was boring. But suddenly I was stood in the middle of Heathrow, Manchester, Glasgow, Warsaw airports, and I was loving it.
A plane spotters dream come true! My partner in crime from British Aerospace (later to become BAE Systems) was a great guy called Brian Goddard and we spent many a hour touring Europe trying to convince various international aviation authorities of the benefits of our new product.
It was exciting times. I was spending loads of time at Cranfield University while we carried out important product research, The company had joined the British Airport Group and ended up on one of their sub-committee boards, I was having meetings in 1 Victoria in London (home of the Department for Trade and Industry), having dinners in Westminster, you couldn’t have asked for a better job. But I was spending more and more time away from home, and still not seeing the financial benefit. You have to bear in mind I was now doing two jobs – I was still holding down the lab manager / QA manager / IT manager / Health and Safety manager roles as well as Fibresand research and Fibresand overseas sales, pulling in all of this extra overseas work, but actually only getting the same wage, similar to many other single role positions on the market. I felt that either I was being underpaid in my normal role, or I wasn’t being paid properly for the additional overseas work. For someone reason no one else could grasp that logic and everyone seemed to think it was acceptable for the one meagre salary to cover all of those roles, and totally unreasonable and disloyal of me to mention it.
My commercial skills were improving thanks to the guys at British Aerospace, I was coached in all manner of sales tasks, especially presentations – I was quite timid at the thought of presenting to others, and yet found myself thrown in at the deep end giving a presentation to forty odd African delegates on an inward airports mission – The guys from British Aerospace where there to support me and I will always be grateful for their help and advice. I was growing in both skills and confidence – even though at one point I was told by my employer my accent was ‘common’ and I needed elocution lessons!
In 1996 the MD won a prestigious project in Singapore, the Kranji Turf Club – a 14,000 tonne project, a truly awesome showcase of a project and a huge task – the biggest job I had done so far was about 1000 tonnes.
I was approached to head up the project accompanied by another one of our technicians, which would be 5-6 weeks away at the minimum. Six weeks away was going to incur some real costs for me back home, and it was a long time for Sue to manage on her own with the kids,
Once again I raised the issue of remuneration and was basically told that if I didn’t want it, there was another guy ready to step in. That was fine by me and so I politely declined. I had enough work on at home, my normal role at work was still more than a full time job and I didn’t need the additional hassle. So a week later our recently appointed sales rep was sent to Singapore to oversee the initial trials, a proper “Golden Boy” but I was quite happy for him to go.
Unfortunately he cocked it up big time, and ironically he left shortly after that to set up a competing product with a competitor. That’s loyalty for you. That left just little old me, and I was asked again by my boss to step in and take over the project.
I again respectfully declined. The MD asked me over to his office and in his words admitted “he may have burned a few bridges” and asked me to reconsider, and after explaining my reasoning, my grievances were addressed to some degree and we set about creating our biggest overseas project in history.
Times were certainly changing, and looking more exciting. And yet like the great eighteenth century Gibbon work, a decline was also just over the horizon, along with a couple of “Et Tu Brutus” moments…