Postman | Ofrex | Mattel | Changing jobs | Plaintalk | Revell | Retirement

Mattel Toys.

Every Thursday morning, the sales of the Daily Telegraph shot up, as reps all over England bought their copy for the jobs advertised in there. I saw an advertisement for a representative to sell toys for the famous Mattel, makers of Barbie & Hot wheels! My God, it was mine! I was a kid at heart, wanted to get into selling a product I could enjoy and there it was, staring at me!

I’d tried to be a bit professional & check the company out, luckily that hadn’t worked, otherwise I would have walked away from the job if I had know how they were hated.

I met Peter Woodcock, my future area manager, in the Greyhound Hotel at Leigh. We must have hit it off, I remember him asking if I could take “No” for an answer. I must have looked a little reluctant when I said I could but not too many times! So I had to go to my second interview. For the first time ever, I was tested with an American style exam of questions, Pete said I passed with flying colours! I have no idea how; I didn’t read the paper fully before I got stuck into answering the questions. Nearly made a pig’s ear of it from the start! A big deal was made of the dedication expected, the pay structure & that we got a Mark 1 1.6 Ford Cortina with a radio, as our standard company car! I remember Vic Brudenell trying to scare me with, “If you don’t do the job, I just turn up on your doorstep & sack you, I don’t care about weeping wives & kids” I think I said something about people who can’t drive, shouldn’t be in charge of a bus, or some such drivel. He wanted to know how I could class myself as a good salesman if I could only get 4 orders from 19 calls. I said you should have seen the other guy’s performance, I was a star! What ever I said must have worked. I wanted this job and I guess I sold me first. I came home & told Kath, I felt like I had a rocket strapped to my arse!

It was here that I got my next name! At home I was Alan, in school I had been Prof and in the RAF I was Tich. Now I was introduced to Pat Bird, the company’s secretary, and she took all my details. The next thing was I got business cards printed with the name Frank Lowe, area sales representative. It was out of the question to reprint it, I wasn’t prepared to go through a story about my Mum not wanting to call me Francis, after my grandmothers choice of names, it was all too complicated, so I became Frank for business for the rest of my life.

Mattel was a 100% American company & had employed tactics that worked in the USA but had alienated the entire British toy industry. Great Britain was a quiet backwater of “Mammas & Pappas” shops, quietly making a living selling toys to kids. What you see now is big sheds selling TV advertised lines at “cut prices”, no independent shops, just alliances of toy buying groups, trying to compete with the multiples of this world. That was in its infancy when I joined the Toy Trade.

There were about 4000 separate outlets in GB in the ’70. The whole of England was still serviced by a Reps and their bag of samples, in conjunction with a major toy trade show in Brighton, plus regional shows. Ours in the Northwest, it was in Belle Vue in Manchester. Mattel was so hated in the trade, that a customer called Brian Diggle, in Blackpool, took me by the collar & nearly threw me out of his shop! He claimed his father had been nearly bankrupted by Mattel at the previous Brighton show. (We became good friends later!). For my first trade show at Brighton, we stayed away for three weeks! (my wife never forgot that!) Week one was sales training in the new product, week two was rehearsals & week three was the show itself.  After working for dull boring old Ofrex, the pressure & excitement were unbelievable. We were regaled with the stories about the previous years fiasco, when they upset the entire trade.

The owners of corner shops were called names like Arthur & Doreen, Percy & Elsie. It’s hard to grasp the state of the toy trade then. These owners were from an era of shortages. They had come out of a war, set up toy shops in all parts of a grey Britain, it could just has well have been a shoe shop or greengrocers. They had experienced putting in orders for chalk, skipping ropes and jigsaw puzzles. They weren’t coping very well with the beginnings of new era of affluence. T.V. advertising was an alien concept. The Americans from Mattel had no understanding of this. They were more than 10 years ahead of Great Britain; in 1970 they might as well have come from another planet. The poor unsuspecting customers were made to queue, book an appointment on a sealed stand, stuck in little booths & made to become Gold or silver dealers, given alcohol and made to sign up for three ticks on a sheet of paper, that meant volumes of stock they had never seen in there life before. Slick professional presentations in a hot booth in front of a TV screen. This wasn’t the nice man they were used to, with his trilby hat, showing you the same trike from Triang and offering you a Senior Service cigarette & a cup of tea!  The toys themselves were also pure Americana.

The British company Pedigree had a nice flat chested Sindy doll; Barbie was this huge buxom fashion icon, long before they knew what a fashion icons was & the cult of celebrity wasn't born. Hot wheels cars weren’t accurate Dinky cars; they were mad-hat fast missiles on a plastic track, which just happened to look like cars (American cars at that!).

Based on the American principle, “If you want to attract their attention. Hit them with a big stick, with a nail in it!” I was impressed with the big hotels, proper cars, real expenses and a buzz that went through everyone; it made it all seem such a good deal. I just burned with enthusiasm, couldn’t wait to get out on the road everyday.

My early days were full of enthusiasm & hard work. Much of which was regaining the trust of lots of accounts that wanted to reject anything to do with Mattel. Because of the number of shops we had by today’s standards, we had lots of reps and very small areas. Everything was handwritten. We were knee deep in paper, memos and personal books full of recorded details. There were lots of reps with different ideas on keeping figures. All the way from old guys with filing cabinets to the, “written on a fag packet”, order takers. The P.C. was unknown, it wasn’t until 1977 that Microsoft, (via Bill Gates) plus Apple (via Steve Wozniak & his mate Steve Jobs,) started selling truly personal computers to the American public. Reps record keeping depended on each guy. I was keen on keeping good records only because my memory was awful. The hours spent selling was not much more than the hours spent recording it. Pencil was used a lot, because you could make alterations. Just listing stuff was a nightmare. There were boxes of customer wallets stuffed with paper, with every detail of addresses, both delivery & invoice, phone numbers, buyers names & later on, some even had fax machines (really modern was that!). You needed to keep them in some sort of order. Whether you kept them listed by area, call cycle or customer name, was up to you. You had to find ways of sorting who your customers were, when, where & how often you called on them, what they had ordered & what actions you had taken, and it was all done by hand. Each order was written out in full with various copies and quantities marked in boxes. If head office wanted a report from each rep on how many of a certain item he had sold or if he stocked a particular range of toys, it took ages to handball the information. A bigger nightmare was forecasting what you thought you could sell. I was hopeless at that (right up to the end! You had to fill in “call sheets” (or lie sheets, would be a more accurate term) to send in daily, weekly & monthly. It was more efficient & more professional at Mattel, than it had been at Ofrex. You also had more real information to pass over. I can remember getting in trouble for not filling in daily call sheets with Ofrex; no one had read them for months! It wasn’t like that at Mattel, we were interested & motivated and it felt like a real job, doing proper organised sales. Don’t forget, I was really naïve & thought all this hard work was all going to pay results in the end.

I think that the kids were so pleased their dad sold toys! We managed to keep their toys separate from “Dad’s Samples”. They earned a few brownie points at school, when they were allowed to take in a favourite toy, on special occasions.

I used to think that seeing how kids played with toys was useful information to send back to H.O. How stupid! The toys had been designed, built, advertised and we had a warehouse full of them. Just selling the stuff would have been more appreciated. Having a conscience was not a pre-requisite of being a salesman. I never managed to shake that off. I tried to be up front, reliable and a good rep for the company & the customer. I felt we had lost trust and wanted to get the trade to see that dealing with me & my company was going to benefit us all. The American way was different. They needed bigger revenue and more profit from England. They didn’t accept the reasons that GB was not the USA. Accounts began to close down, so many companies selling so much stock, they would sell a little throughout the year & then large organisations like Woolworth, department stores & later on, the cut price wars began stocking just for Christmas.

It was a slow change over. I can’t remember any real bad sudden changes but it stuck in my mind the time of Vertibird. The reps were struggling to keep their own accounts buying. One of the things that would help was if something as just going to the normal shop trade, the so-called Mammas & Pappas. It was a complex toy that flew off batteries. It really required demonstration. Vertibird was a helicopter on a fixed wire, which could be controlled. Forwards, backwards, up, down & hover. I can still recall it being stated that this wouldn’t go out cut price, as there wasn’t enough margin & it needed showing in store. We all sold it & guess what? It ended up being cut. I knew by then these people already ordered and that H.O. knew it and I was unconsciously giving false information to my buyers. Customers in the early ASDA branches were animals! They would rip open boxes & destroy toys. Mind you the boxes were also displayed with the elegance of stacked bake beans!

A salesman only has himself to sell and they took the product they believed in. It was still a long way off, but the writing as on the wall & the age of independent toy stockists was coming to an end.

Don’t get me wrong. I had no foresight, no knowledge of future trends; I was still trying to operate in the ways of older reps. I continued for years in various sales jobs. Trying to do the job I knew best, it was just that things change all the time and I wasn’t changing with them.

About 1971 we move to our new home in Croston village, a place that was mentioned in the Doomsday book. It wasn’t a tourist place yet. It was mainly a farming community. We got a bigger normal house with no pushed in bedroom walls, unlike Higher Walton. It had a garage & would see us through many years as a good family home. These quite ordinary houses that were built were referred to as “millionaires row”. We got the kids into the excellent local school & they both prospered well. After Andy’s set back with ITA he started to catch up. The village was lovely. Still had sweet shops, butchers and the ubiquitous Spar shop hadn’t arrived yet. The village had it had its own train station. For once I made a location decision. Croston was in the middle of everywhere. It was easy to get away from. It had great motorway links and central for all the cities of the North West.

Next, no settled job.