Birth of a Salesman - And it's not a play by Arthur Miller.
It was 1975 and my first visit to Soho Foundry, Birmingham, Head Office of W & T Avery Limited weighing machine manufacturers. Soho Foundry, built in 1796 during the industrial revolution by Matthew Boulton and James Watt, has been called the cradle of the industrial revolution. It was here they manufactured steam engines in the first factory of its kind in the world. Engines for the SS Great Eastern had been built at Soho. For a short time the factory had been a mint where large copper two penny pieces with raised rim known as cartwheels were coined. Averys bought the site in 1895.
As I arrived, a uniformed commissionaire directed me through the main gate to the reception. It was a big imposing entrance. Inside the gate, a road led into the works. A row of cottages stood on the right, built to house the foundry workers, centuries before. Two hundred years before my arrival another hopeful job seeker had arrived at Soho. William Murdock had walked 300 miles from Cornwall to ask for a job as a pattern maker. He got the job and moved into one of the cottages. Murdock went on to invent the ‘gasometer’ at Soho Foundry and his cottage was one of the first homes in the world to be lit by gas. Going through that gated archway was like stepping through a time portal.
Soho Foundry Main Gate. The weighbridge is still inside the gate but no longer in use. William Murdock’s house can just be seen on the right. Copyright Oosoom.
‘Mr. Watkins. I’m Mr. Scott,’ said an immaculately dressed man as he held out his hand. John Scott was an ex military man and it showed in his posture. He looked fit. I followed as he marched smartly into one of the buildings, along a dimly lit corridor and into a small room. The walls were covered with cream tiles. They reminded me of a public convenience. A second, older man was seated at a desk.
‘I’m Mr. Caswell. Sit down,’ stuttered the man without glancing up from the desk. Reg Caswell was Avery’s Sales Recruitment and Training Manager and the man who was going to interview me. Reg Caswell was in his sixties and wore a dark suit. His hair, like the suit, was black, thinning and greasy. He opened a packet of cigarettes and lit one, using the stub of the previous cigarette. As he did so, Mr. Scott seated himself alongside the older man.
The interview began with a few pleasantries. I was being put at ease and began to relax. Mr. Caswell punctuated his comments with animated gestures and, as he got into his stride, his stutter grew less pronounced. I listened as he explained that the Managing Director, a close friend of his, had once been a trainee salesman. The Directors of the overseas subsidiaries across the globe had all started their careers as trainee salesman and, if I was good enough, I too would one day be in a senior position. My interviewer was selling the job to me and he did it well. I was hooked, seduced by the glittering future he offered. Then the tone of the interview changed as Reg Caswell focused on me.
I had rather more hair in those days.
I don’t remember many of the questions until Mr. Caswell leaned forward and pushed the ashtray towards me.
‘Mr. Watkins, you want to be a salesman?’ he stammered. I nodded. ‘Sell me this ashtray,’ he added and handed it to me.
The instruction caught me off guard. What on earth was he expecting me to say? I fumbled for a response.
‘This ashtray holds lots of ash so you won’t have to empty it very often. It’s heavy and will double as a paperweight,’ I added. I glanced towards Mr. Scott hoping for help. He sat motionless.
‘Go on,’ said Mr. Caswell.
‘Because it’s cut glass it will add status to your desk. Your colleagues will look up to you. This ashtray is extra safe because the slots will hold the burning cigarettes securely. They won’t drop onto your papers and start a fire. This ashtray is made in Britain so you are helping our economy,’ my voice trailed away. I had run out of things to say.
Mr. Caswell took the ashtray from me and stubbed out his cigarette. ‘Is that all Mr. Watkins? Is there nothing you want to ask me?’ he asked.
I couldn’t think of anything else.
‘Thank you for coming. We will let you know our decision in writing,’ said Reg Caswell and stood up. My interview was over. I walked towards the door.
‘I’ll show you the way out,’ said Mr. Scott.
I knew I had failed some kind of test and the job was slipping out of my grasp.
‘What did I do wrong?’ I asked.
‘You didn’t sell the ashtray,’ replied Mr. Caswell.
‘I did. I told you everything I could think of,’ I replied.
‘You were meant to sell the ashtray, not describe it. You never once attempted to close the sale,’ said Reg Caswell.
‘Mr. Caswell, I didn’t come here to sell ashtrays. I came for a job as a weighing
machine salesman and your advert said training would be given. You train me and I’ll sell scales for you.’
‘How hungry are you? How much do you want the job Mr. Watkins?’ asked Reg Caswell.
‘When can I start?’ I replied.
Mr. Scott stood in the open doorway. He was grinning.
‘We’ll consider your application and let you know by letter,’ answered Mr. Caswell and lit another cigarette.
The letter, offering me a position, came a few days later.