Colin's Cornucopia

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Chapter 16


The following morning Bob came back with his boss and introduced him to us. We all took an instant dislike to him but our predicament caused us all to reserve judgement. We needed his help. We all sat and stood in our small office to for a preliminary discussion. He sat on a desk and placed his feet on a chair on which other people had to sit. In factories, shoes inevitably get filthy with dirty oil residues and his action was insulting. But we were in no position to protest. Our only alternative was bankruptcy.

He told us he had been diagnosed with leukaemia a few years earlier and had lost his family business as a result. He had recovered completely and then had retired but had come out of retirement to keep himself out of his wife’s kitchen. He had a vision of building a business based upon motor sports, in which he was a keen amateur competitor. He introduced us to another small company in the sector with more complementary products and we had there-way discussions aimed at amalgamating the three companies.

I made friends with the proprietor of the third company and started visiting him regularly and doing sub-contract production work for him. He turned out to be a thoroughly disorganised but dedicated genius who lived, ate, breathed and slept motor sport and his business. He came into work every morning and lined up a desk full of powerful tablets that he needed to keep himself alive.

I split my time between the various plants and tried to help this genius bring some order to what rapidly became an integrated business. He had been designing and building cars by the seat of his pants for years with some success and a number of unsatisfied customers. His products tended to perform well, but his consistency and ability to produce on time were close to zero. We were sure that if we could get those factors right we would have a series of winning, and very profitable, products.

As a Chartered Engineer with well over 30 years professional experience I was well placed to achieve this. I started rationalising his production drawings and developed my own spread-sheet to check his gear designs. I rapidly found there were serious errors in his calculation methods, but kept the matter to myself. I was well aware of the difficulties in challenging another engineer’s methods. I knew perfectly well he would take it very personally and see it as both an insult and a challenge to his authority. The simple fact was that his designs worked well, they just didn’t work the way he thought they did. I let the matter rest while steadily incorporating the correct data into new and revised designs.

We were designing a completely new gearbox when I incorporated some fairly obvious minor design changes into a cover plate. These would have made manufacturing much easier and improved reliability as well as reducing cost. He didn’t like the changes and complained to the boss. That was when I found out that nobody in the whole organisation had the faintest idea what it takes to become a Chartered Engineer. They all thought they could do my job better than me. Not one of them even bothered to examine my changes. They simply took his side and I was ordered to do the design exactly as he ordered. It was immediately apparent to me that I had no future in such an organisation. They were not the slightest bit interested in good design. Politics were much more important.

All of this work had taken us about 14 months and they had changed plans several times along the way. The first intention had been to retain the building in Lord Street as a technical centre. Accordingly we spent several thousand pound fitting out the rear of the factory as an office. This was done to a good standard and I was charged me with the task saying “Make it so that he will feel welcome”. "He" was an extremely complex person and everybody at this time spent a lot of time pandering to him. In retrospect I think he was as near as you can get to being insane and remain a reasonably viable working adult.

The office was completed within about six weeks and exactly to the cost I had previously estimated. Soon after it was finished I discovered that the plans had changed and we were going to abandon the Lord Street premises. The boss called a meeting to tell the CWW workforce of the change of plans and I asked them to assemble in the new office. As they were filing in each man stopped and wiped his feet on the mat at the doorway. This was a normal human courtesy as the dirt inevitable upon working safety boots could play havoc with the highly polished floor of the new office. The boss stood and watched impatiently and then shouted” Don’t bother wiping your feet. It doesn’t matter any more”. It clearly mattered to me as I owned the building and its quality was vital to me. He was sending a subtle message to the workforce that effectively said “He doesn’t matter a shit”. It was one of the nastiest little episodes I have ever encountered.

Another factor was that the other two partners had been at school together and although they had never been close friends it made a bond between them that did not exist with me. I was 60 years old by this time so I just kept my head down and waited. It was perfectly obvious that we were never going to make a sensible organisation but the eventual outcome somewhat surprised me.

Early in this sage I had contacted an old acquaintance who had started and managed for a long time the company upon which we had based most of our recent growth. He had been head-hunted by a transmissions company who led the motor sport industry by such a large margin that their profits were considered obscene even by the proprietors themselves. They were simply the best by a very large margin and charged accordingly. Despite the obvious attraction of working for this company this man had always had a hankering to work for himself. He negotiated a release with his employer and worked for us three days a week and for them the other two.

He had many extremely good contacts throughout the industry but he could not use them directly because that would have conflicted with his other loyalty and he was, next to myself, the most honest man I have ever met. He was given the title of Managing Director and concentrated his efforts on quality. That is, getting the products right for the market and at the right price. He insisted on a very high quality standard for his products, which was the key to the success of his other employer. In racing, cost doesn’t matter. There is no point at all in saving a few pounds and coming second. You have to win.

He and I always got on well but our relationship always remained at arms length. I have never had a close friendship with a work colleague other than John in Canada. When the crunch came the new managing director remained neutral but I was a little disappointed that he allowed politics to triumph over common sense and good engineering practice.

It was the first week back after new year 2000 that it came like a bolt out of the blue. The first meeting of the newly constituted board of the new company was held one evening at five o’clock. The board members were the boss and hsi friend, one of Barry’s employees and my daughter Mandy and nephew John. I had been advocating a number of technical actions and hoped they would be discussed and perhaps even acted upon. The only agenda item was the sacking of my brother and I. I have not to this day found out why, but it is clear there were many lies and much shit passed around about us. I had, as usual, been keeping my head down and busting my guts to try and do the technical work necessary to make the new company work. My brother had been doing his bit on the factory floor.

I later became apparent that the boss had discovered that most of the sales prospects of the third company were pie in the sky. The market was extremely difficult as we had found the previous year and our sales were rapidly diminishing. The boss had come to the conclusion we were not going to be the successful company he had hoped. Just why he chose to attempt to alleviate his problems by sacking the two most experienced production engineers in his team is not clear. The MD later told me he was very surprised. But the friend had stuck the knives in with lies and that was the decision forced upon the “board” by the boss.

It cost him around £250,000 to get rid of us and we did nothing to make things easy for him but we knew it was par for the course. I had four acquaintances in similar businesses that sold out when we did and they all suffered the same fate. We left the company on the 29th February 2000. This leap day will occur only once in 400 years and I think that is appropriate to the magnitude of the vicious act that we suffered at the hands of teh boss and his friend. Things went downhill from there and I have never spoken to my nephew since and it took around two years before I spoke to my daughter again.

Our vindication came much more quickly than I could ever have expected. the friend left the company under very unfavourable and acrimonious terms within three months. The MD phoned me shortly after to tell me that he had also left. They had manufactured a set of drive shafts that had minor faults. He had demanded that they be scrapped out in accordance with his policy of only producing genuinely first-class products. I do not know the technical details and cannot judge whether or not my company would have tried to sell these products. I suspect the reality is that we would never have produced them with this fault.

Our production system had been carefully honed to detect and correct such faults in good time. But nobody in the new organisation had the technical expertise and guts to recognise the benefits of our thorough, and sometimes inconvenient, production methods. Our products were made first class by industrious attention to detail and damned hard work. The new owners thought that they could achieve it by rote. They were utterly wrong. The boss insisted the suspect products be shipped. The MD quit instantly.

So the whole edifice had been reduced to nothing in not much more than a year. The main mistake they made was in believing that they did not need the expertise of two of the best engineers in the business. Just why the boss made this disastrous decision I shall probably never know. His loss.


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