I left Mattel and tried things that I thought might suit me. Few were the right move.
There are different types of selling. You can sell an item that is sold on (like a toy to a shop). A product that is used by someone, (Like carbon paper), a service that some one uses (like insurance) or sell to the consumer (like working in a shop). I had a go at allsorts! I can remember the jobs but can’t remember the sequence!
I had a job selling hairdressing preparations with Clynol. Not fantastic pay, a terrible basic car, a very small area & hundreds of small outlets run by ladies whom seemed to be very unprofessional! We would have promotions where they could have a cheap set of dishes & a glass bowl for buying a huge amount of stock. I couldn’t believe people who owned their own businesses would choose this over 50% discount. They were impressed by looks (no chance there then, Frank), soft soap (its getting better) & lots of flannel (I’m good at that). As a race of people they were generally vacuous, vain & extremely un-business like. Some reps loved it. It certainly wasn’t my cup of tea.
I think it was an act of desperation to protect my family & be able to pay the mortgage that made me apply for Hall & Fitzgerald! Again, using the wonderful advantage of hindsight, why on earth did I join a firm selling smoking pipes & tobacconist’s requisites? Even that phrase is so old fashioned & of another era! The interview took all day, as we toured the building, pipe smoke everywhere and lunch was beer & sandwiches in the wood panelled boardroom. Being kind to me, I guess that’s what I was looking for. Something that needed an old style rep wanted regular calls & supplying with all the bits they needed. Something solid & reliable with a history. All I got was a dying trade. A firm buying stuff that wasn’t needed anymore and was just into taking on computers to try & become competitive! Everything was handwritten despite computers. They were nice gentle people selling garbage to a trade that was dying on its feet. The firm were in the Bristol registry of companies in 1878, as fancy goods warehousemen. Later they became briar pipe manufactures. Briar wood is the root wood of Erica arborea, used for making smoking pipes as it was so hard & resistant to burning. To see a man smoking a pipe is now exceptional but having no foresight at all, I thought it would last forever. There was no chance of expansion. Tobacconists were closing down, not opening. I had a canary yellow 2-litre mark 4 Cortina estate. Too many suitcases with very little stuff that sold. I took over from a retired guy who had been with them since Pontius was a pilot. His customers were his friends and it was an old mans club.
At some time, around here, I went back to Mattel, they had made a complete pigs ear of the marketing and changed to Burbank Toys, who had the rights to sell Mattel product. Pete persuaded me to rejoin. I still loved the product & the trade. That made no difference as shop after shop closed down, businesses grouped together under the banner of Toymaster or Youngsters. Nothing was going to stop the decline. It wasn’t the same world any more. The days of trading as an independent outfit, being serviced by firm’s representative was drawing to a close. I was a dinosaur in selling, not yet 40 and couldn’t see the writing on the wall.
One Tuesday we were all called in to H.O. by getting a telegram the previous day. One half of us were called in the morning, the rest in the afternoon. The sales force was cut in half at a stroke! Areas sizes doubled, the firms expenditure cut back. It was noticed that none of the bosses got the chop! My only thoughts were how good I must have been to be kept on. My light must have shone bright. I was obviously better than I realised. It was only later, when my MD Ralph Beresford (too nice to head a company!) explained to one of my customers, how painful all the sackings were and I was kept on “purely because of where Frank is located”. That put it all into focus again!
I took a chance at being self-employed. I was too soft, didn’t understand how it worked, I had no bankroll and I made the mistake of being a sub agent for Dave Beswick. There was nothing wrong with Dave, but he kept his best agencies for him & I got only 7.5% commission. What I didn’t truly understand was the secret of cash flow. As a self-employed person you needed every penny. You needed to be much more ruthless than I was. I started with a Volvo Estate car, a real good reliable vehicle. I chicken out as it passed 100,000 miles. It could have done more, but I elected to by my first personal new car. A Datsun Bluebird. (They are now called Nissan). An ultra reliable & well-equipped car. Mind you, on one of our caravan holidays, it failed to start. The only car that didn’t get away! It was because sea mist came in, the electrics got wet & I had to spray with “Damp start” to cure the problem. (Pride comes before a fall?).
I got the orders and Dave was delighted, but after a while, Mrs. Thatcher put the VAT up & everyone cutback on orders. I was just not equipped to handle the drop in commission. The bank leaned on me, very wisely, as I was not going to survive for sure. Aunty Anne helped us out with a loan & we carried on. Dave took me on as a rep. It was never going to work but I was getting older, the kind of stuff I was selling was very third class and I wondered if it was time to jack in selling on the road. I even contemplated truck drive or something. I had to get a steady wage. Wife, kids & mortgage needed looking after.
I had a go at the world of security. Securicor were the brand leaders. Getting paid in cash was still used by companies a fair bit. (But not by Securicor, they paid wages straight into the bank!). Cash was not quite the king that it was. Everyone was slowly moving over to bank accounts. Many older people still paid their debts by taking a paying-in book to the TV rental people or H.P. commitments to a shop, & paying with cash out of the wage packet. People still needed large quantities of money moved from A to B. whereas the guarding of buildings was really down to price; it depended on your budget. Once or twice a night visit with a dog patrol, evening guards or permanent staff. Cowboy firms were well into that. Securicor had the contract for cleaning Buckingham palace and used that in their cleaning division promotion. Plus they were starting on mobile phones. The first phones fitted in cars that had limited coverage. Huge heavy things, sold only to the heads of large firms or organisations. I can remember one of the reps saying how good trade was. We thought phones were things that were attached to the wall by wires. We all knew that having one that costs a fortune to use and you took with you everywhere, was just a pipe dream & an impractical toy. As one guy said “I got vision & the rest of the world wears bifocals”. I sure didn’t have vision. The one thing I didn’t try was the mobile phone unit! Lets face it, that’s the way the world went. Who knows where that would have lead?
One of my customers, Dave Barnes, ran several businesses. He thought he needed a general manager to help over see the toyshop, the café, sandwich bar and the off licence, in and around Bold St. in Liverpool. The boys got part time work on Saturdays in the toyshop. Andrew began to work for Dave full time in the sandwich bar, after falling head over heels in love with Andrea, his future wife. I think Dave was just a good friend with ideas above his requirements. The toyshop went the way of all toyshops eventually. Dave was brilliant in the Café, that’s the business he knew. The toy trade killed it all really, I think it was the mill stone round his neck. I was costing a fortune; he was slowly going under as his cash flow went out of control. At one time, I tried to help out with a second mortgage loan for him. I knew I had to get out and stop making him go under. So to save my loan, I quit & started looking for another sales job.
No one wanted to know about salesman that are past 40. It was the only trade I was good at, that paid well & gave you transport & covered expenses. I went via the executive side of the unemployment department on a job seekers course. Lots of re-writing your CV, a grim determination that it would be OK, if you finely tuned this, adjusted that. No one would admit that there were very few people who required a traditional salesman and if they did, he needed to be experienced in the trade they were in, with connections and not an “old man”. I was too young to starve, so I put my head down and wrote lots of letters applying for any sales job that came up. I got very few interviews. In some cases it cost me money. I could ill afford the petrol to swan around GB to attend those second interviews at their head office. There weren’t many. I was unemployed for 6 months. The first time since I started work after school.At last one came up. Once again it was written for me. Brock Fireworks from Sanquhar in Scotland were turning from agents (mainly professional cricket players who needed the work in the winter) over to representatives. It was doomed from the start. Harry Smee was a young member of the old Brock line, they claimed relationship to the Queen Mother. In 1865 it was Brock fireworks that gave the displays at Crystal Palace. They had a history of firework manufacture from before 1720, when a John Brock, (“Artist in Fireworks”) was buried in St. James Clerkenwell. I think it was him that blew his head off after going back to check a mine that had not gone off. His burial date reads November the 5th! Harry was a young gentleman of another class, whose family were gentry. He spent weekends at house parties and his previous training was in assessing real estate values. He elected a very nice old man (older than me even.) to be one of his area salesman & sales manager. We had very low sales figures to go on, so we were all going to improve turnover easily but our main objective was opening new accounts & trying to take trade of the brand leader Standard fireworks. Guess whose area had Standard in its town? The clue is, Standard was in Huddersfield! My first year was a nightmare; someone in Liverpool was selling old Brock fireworks. They were full of dust & being sold off lorries! It was on television, associating the name Brock with dangerous goods. What a beginning! To be honest I was desperate for a job. I hated fireworks, (28) they were always misused, and children got hurt. Before I got the job, we, as a family, only went to organised displays. My conscience bothered me for a long time & it certainly didn’t give me peace of mind. I spent most of the year convincing people to do something I would never do myself. Liverpool was full of scallys. The little buggers used to fire rockets across road in plastic tubes, like a bazooka. We even had fireworks called Bazookas! I had joined a trade on the decline again; selling stuff my conscience was giving me trouble with. Would I never learn? I know I had to feed my family but was this the way? One of the guys wasn’t doing a proper job, he became a good friend but I could tell his mind wasn’t on the job. I went down to his area & opened up a few accounts. It was like taking candy off a baby down there. There were richer, more affluent people. No bloody minded Northerners thinking, “if you have to sell it, its mustn’t be any good!”
He had a real problem with the worry of hair loss. Spent hours in a morning getting it just right with cans of hairspray. Any meeting, sales conferences or shows, I had to make sure he was up. He couldn’t go out with his hair not to his liking. One year he turned up with a hairpiece that looked like an American football helmet. It was jet black! In the evening, before dinner, he pulled me to one side & said, “I’m happy with that, I don’t think any of the guys noticed” To this day, I have no idea if he meant that! He was a good laugh and we often paired up, if we could, in October, to give the office a hand to take phone orders & get the boxes of fireworks out. The phones seemed to be full of middle class people, with addresses like The Old Vicarage, Little Bumstead in the Wold or a businessman, going through his secretary, on behalf of the local Round Table. Sanquhar was a village on the way from somewhere, heading towards somewhere else. It seemed you either worked at Brock Fireworks or you were passing through. The tiny village shops were from another era too. I wanted to buy the girls in the office a thank you box of chocolates. They had nothing above a medium box, no gift boxes, special occasion or even just large. It cost the very strange sum of £2.05p. If a man in a kilt carrying a claymore had met me in the street, I don’t think I’d find it unusual! The pay structure of a minimum wage plus 25% of any commission held back against bad debt & any orders not delivered was crippling. Every year, I realised I was heading in the wrong direction. The firework trade was getting less & the imported Chinese fireworks were so much more powerful & better value for money. “They’ll be banned soon” was the constant cry. This was a once a year opportunity to make a profit. There were the problems of other people’s products, a constant barrage of organisations trying to ban them and fewer outlets willing to go to the bother of stocking them. You only needed a wet week on the days of bonfire night & there was stock left! Legally, firework went on sale three weeks before November the 5th. The actual sales out of the shops, in any volume, were the last three days. Getting it right was very difficult.
Andrew & Andrea got married in the December of 1984. They rented a nice house in Huyton, Liverpool.It must have been 1985 or 6 that Pete Woodcock & I had mad ideas about him going solo, getting himself established & I would join him later. So he paid for the flight & I paid for my food and off we went to Hong Kong for a few days! It was glorious. We really thought something might happen. In the end it went wrong disastrously for Peter and he went back to being a rep for an art company. Very sad, as he was sure he was on the brink of success, after finding a set of superb toys that were designed to take the figures that went with the Star Wars range. Typical of the toy trade, no sooner had you found the goods, then the fashion changed & you couldn’t give them away! We had a glorious time. I shall never forget him drinking free Brandy for 18 hours on the way out, with the Cathay Pacific airline. I was exhausted & jet lagged, he was as high as a kite & dying to show me Hong Kong! He insisted on going to the top of this tower, still out of his brains on Brandy, to have our evening meal, the revolving restaurant was very famous and as it slowly turned round, it showing all the wonderful sights of Hong Kong at night. We sat in the bar, waiting for the table. “Look at it Frank, the world is at our feet! We’ve made it, can you see the entire city passing you by?” he said, all proud, happy & drunk. To be honest, I couldn’t. We were in a stationary bar & the restaurant was twirling round us!
Our first Grandchild, Joanne, was born in ‘87. That was the year Croston had its floods. The village had always been subject to flood. It was not too bad for us at all, it hardly reached our house, but I was pleased the way everyone in the village pulled together & helped everyone else. Of course it made the papers & the radio, they made it sound like we where up against the Hun in 1942!
It must have been around this time, that my barber, a wonderfully opinionated, football mad, prejudiced guy who was slightly to the right of Attila the Hun, recommended me to read & review the Sunday newspapers on Radio Lancashire. If there were 6 people listening, I reckon we were doing well. Got up very early, did a lot of reading and was on air for less than 20 minutes. I do remember a local Pizza restaurant owner being there. She made the remark that they shouldn’t have unknown people on, like us. What they needed were personalities. I think she could see the start of the world of the celebrity coming. I was still wearing my bifocals; I was so short-sighted about the future. I thought she was wrong. What the world needed was the opinion of the common man! Wrong again Frank, the common man was still on the Clapham omnibus, probably talking to himself!
My dad turned 80. It didn’t improve nor mellow him. He still talked to me, like I was still 14. He railed against the world all his life.I didn’t know it but in 1988, my life was going to turn around.