Birth of a Salesman
In 1975 the United Kingdom had been in the European Union for two years. The labour government under Prime Minister Harold Wilson struggles to deal with a violent mainland bombing campaign being carried out by the IRA. Trade unions, led by shop stewards such as British Leyland’s ‘Red Robbo’, are destroying the economy with wild-cat strikes. Unemployment is rising and the bank base rate has reached an eye watering 15%, leaving many families unable to pay the interest on their mortgages. It would go even higher in following years. Oil prices have soared and, with inflation running at 24%, the highest rate since the First World War, civil unrest is a nightly television news item. Hundreds of football hooligans are arrested for fighting on the first day of the football league season. Margaret Thatcher takes over from Edward Heath to become leader of the Conservative opposition while clashes between Icelandic and British vessels signal the start of the third cod war.
This was the Britain that I found when I finished my time as a Marine Engineer Cadet. Recently married and wanting to stay close to my new bride, I was looking for a new career. I had tried various jobs. I had driven catering wagons at Luton Airport, worked as a sales clerk in an engineering factory and, at one particularly low point, served behind the bar of a working men’s club.
One day I saw an advertisement in a national newspaper, ‘Wanted ambitious young men to train as weighing machine salesmen’. The advert had been placed by W. & T. Avery Limited, the biggest scale manufacturer in Britain and, arguably, in the world. When I responded to that advertisement I had no comprehension of how it would change my life. The training that Avery gave me was archaic in style but it was effective. To join W. & T. Avery Limited or Averys as everyone called the company, was to join a group of people convinced that they were an elite and invincible force. I entered a world steeped in history and tradition and absorbed the culture enthusiastically. Averys was an institution and it felt good to be part of it.
Eventually, as I progressed through the ranks, I saw things differently. The directors leading the company were sitting astride a huge organisation with a net asset value of £68m. This included foundries, workshops and an infrastructure that was capital intensive, out of date and bloated with personnel. It has been estimated that the service organisation was repairing and testing 50,000 scales worldwide each working day. The company had built a formidable monopoly throughout the British Empire. Like the empire, a cold wind of change would shortly engulf the business. The cast iron mechanical scales Averys had made for over two hundred years were about to be made obsolete by electronic scales that were cheaper, more reliable and did not need frequent servicing. Although the directors believed they were able to manage the change, they had grown remote from the marketing issues of the day. They had a flawed vision for the future and the company was getting left behind, overtaken by more astute, leaner competitors. To be charitable, Averys, like other traditional industries, faced a huge problem; how to quickly convert an established service based engineering company to suit the needs of a changing world.
In 1949, Arthur Miller wrote the play ‘Death of a Salesman’ depicting the sad, ugly end of Willy Lowman, a failed, burnt-out salesman who kills himself for the life insurance. It’s a miserable, depressing story. If Miller had written about Willy Lowman starting his career the story would have been very different. Instead of being jaded, tired and bitter, Willy Lowman would have been a different character. He would have believed what he was told and a willing advocate for his company. I was bright eyed, energetic and enthusiastic when I joined Averys and that is why this book is called ‘Birth of a Salesman’, dealing, as it does, with the early part of my business career.
The world you will discover in these pages no longer exists; market forces, economics and technology have all contributed to its destruction. Today, small shops struggle to compete. Pre-packed produce is the norm; coal merchants are rarely seen on the streets and people make their purchases on the internet. Whole industries, that once used scales, have been swept away. Once, things had to be serviced regularly. Now, they are used and often discarded when they go wrong.
Most of the events I have related are drawn from my own experiences, but I have also included some episodes recounted to me by colleagues, which help to illustrate the age we were living in; an age when people were expected to know their place. Nearly four decades have passed since then and if my memory fails me in some details I apologise. Is the world better now? Absolutely, but, even though they were difficult times, I enjoyed myself immensely.
This is a personal story of a seminal part of my life but, by writing it, I realised it is also a snapshot of an ever changing world; something you might find in a dusty old suitcase and wonder about. I hope you find the rest of the story entertaining.