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Birth of a Salesman

September 25, 2016

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. Finally in 1978 there is a winter of discontent when, because of strikes encouraged by left wing politicians, the dead go un-buried, rubbish lies rotting in the streets and Britain is slowly choking to death. It ends when the labour government loses control and is turfed out.

 

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 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 managing 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.

Avery had manufactured their first ‘load-cell’ weighbridge in 1963 and, in 1971, the company launched the ‘Avery 1750’, the first retail electronic scale using microprocessors, but the business still had a vast range of mechanical scales in its sales catalogue. Despite the technological lead, Averys failed to capitalize on its dominant position.

In 1979, GEC launched a hostile takeover bid. After a valiant defence by the board, the longest in stock market history, GEC acquired Averys and things began to change. Under the new management, the workforce contracted, assets were sold off and new products hurriedly introduced, but the surgery was too late; the world had moved on and the old Averys structure would be swept away by a series of rationalisations, mergers and acquisitions. In 1981, I reluctantly resigned from Averys to join Tokyo Electric Company, a Japanese scale manufacturer and open a distribution network in the UK. The timing was good and just three of us sold £1.2m of scales within a year. It was the right move for me and I never regretted it.

I learned a great deal during my time at Averys, much of which had been put to good use over the years. Many of the sales techniques and tips I have picked up are included in these pages. I don’t claim any are original, I’ve always been willing to learn from others, but I do know they work. One of my favourite expressions ‘Button the Sale With Benefits’ comes from a training film made in the 1930s and is as true today as it was then.

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 been 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. I owe a big thanks to my old boss Alan Matthews for pointing out some errors, to Dave Riches for his input and to my proof readers Dave Simkins and Graham Watkins (my cousin). Nearly four decades have passed since then and if my memory fails me in some minor detail, or I ruffle a few feathers, I apologise. The facts I recall are, generally, accurate. I have not set out to discredit or harm anyone and the opinions I have expressed of others are entirely my own. I also need to thank Andrew Lound, the Museum Curator at Avery Weigh-Tronix for his generous help in allowing me to ferret through museum archives and permission to reproduce images from the Avery Weigh-Tronix collection. 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 it entertaining.

Graham Watkins

Birth of a Salesman

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