CHAPTER 3 – MY BUSINESS CAREER
I soon got a job with the General Post Office – the GPO as it was known in those days. I worked for the telecommunications division installing telephone lines and equipment into businesses and homes. I did this for 14 years until all of my children, which now included my son, John (who was born in 1947), had all grown into young adults. When he was a child my mother used to refer to John as the “waif” because he was so thin. But by the time he was 15, John had grown into a strapping 6 feet tall young man.
By 1957, we had moved to Seven Kings in Essex and I had become a businessman operating a local garage. At the start, I did not even have a driver’s license. Shell soon became one of my suppliers and I had a friendly business relationship with their local representative, John Withers, a cultured gentleman. Thus, my trading relationship with Shell stretches back almost 50 years.
In 1959 I had my first experience in sales promotion when I obtained a Green Shield Trading Stamp franchise and was astonished at the increase in petrol sales that they generated, just as the charismatic Green Shield representative, Ronald Coleman, had promised. About 6 feet tall of swarthy complexion and head always adorned with a pork-pie hat, Ronald had the “gift of the gab” in spades. I told him a favourite joke, which ended with a punch line of how Martians make love – by digging a finger gently in another Martians chest. From that day forth this became his greeting and parting gesture whenever I met him.
All of my children joined the family business immediately each of them left school. With their help the business thrived and grew. Lynne and Jessie both left in the mid 1960’s after marrying young men working at the garage. I had an honest hard working partner, Bill East, for several years. He was a fine man and a good reliable business partner. We eventually parted on an amicable basis.
John and I expanded the businesses even further and soon operated a chain of petrol stations, with automatic car wash sites, and a new car dealership.
Having a successful high street business depended to a great deal on promotion schemes. Fortunately, we found that we had a natural flair for devising new sales promotion ideas. In 1967, we created a petrol sales promotion called Freeline Football. We managed to sell the idea to Petrofina and Cleveland Petroleum. It was operated across the UK in several hundred petrol filling stations. The bank note printers, Thomas De La Rue, supplied the computer generated game pieces, the first in the world. We struck up a friendship with two extremely bright De La Rue managers, Roy Rochford, their sales executive, and Ron Thompson, the technical manager, who was also a mathematician and computer programmer (not a common occupation in those days).
We also had a flair for trading in commercial properties – petrol stations, car wash sites, exhaust centres, even a 6 acre site in Exeter on which we obtained detailed planning consent for a motel with 160 bedrooms. We bought and sold property to Chevron, Conoco (Jet), Heron and Kwik-Fit. We succeeded in obtaining planning permission for new petrol stations by using a degree of ingenuity. Permission was routinely refused on safety grounds because of increased traffic flow into the main road from access points to the site. Because automatic car wash machines were at that time new to the UK, planning authorities were keen to see them introduced. We therefore applied initially for permission to install a pair of automatic car wash machines and when granted permission, charged only 10p per wash. The low cost created long queues of cars often stretching down the main road. After receiving continuous complaints from the Police, the planning authorities were relieved to grant permission for a petrol station in place of a car wash centre. Instead of increasing traffic flow, as would normally apply, it had the opposite effect, thereby eliminating at a stroke the normal main objection to granting planning consent.
For the first time in my life we had money and a comfortable existence. My brother Bob also had a successful business and was able to indulge in regular holidays. A mutual good friend, Freddy King, another successful and very likeable businessman, mentioned to me that he was leaving on a cruise to the Canary Islands with Bob the following day on the “Black Prince”. I found out from the Fred Olson line when the ship would be docking in Tenerife and went there by plane with John. At that time Tenerife was an exotic sub-tropical holiday destination, which had not been spoilt by massive over-development.
Thus when Bob and Fred came down the gangway, they had the misfortune to meet a pushy local tradesman wearing a Mexican hat who was determined to sell trinkets to them – “Senor”, “Senor” was the repeated refrain! Fred said “go-away”, “go-away” (or words to that effect) and became increasingly angry at this demented Spaniard before Bob realised that it was his older brother pulling a Beadle-like stunt years before Beadle. Bob bowed down to me like a slave. We had a wonderful holiday despite the fact that dear Freddy King (who sadly is no longer with us) walked straight through a plate glass window in a five star hotel, the San Felipe, in Puerto De La Cruz. Freddy King ended up with a leg in plaster. With Fred confined in the back seat of a rental car driven by John, this resulted in a hilarious ride up a bumpy mountain road halfway up Mount Teide, the magnificent 12,200-foot snow-capped dormant volcano that dominates the island. Poor Fred continually either hit his head on the roof of the car or bumped his injured leg which he was forced to keep straight.
In 1979, John and I founded a sales promotion agency with my brother Bob and a brilliant Chartered Accountant - Don Redhead. Due to his glasses and the shape of his face, Don looks a bit like a wise owl. Because of his first name and our family surname name, we called the agency Don Marketing. Both he and I are excitable by nature, which made for some interesting creative sessions, but we got on very well. The mathematical skills of Don and Bob proved invaluable. All four of us also found that we had a talent for devising ideas. With all due modesty, I doubt that a better creative team for new promotional games has ever existed.
We were all totally besotted by the whole process of devising new ideas and time would count for nothing when we became immersed in a creative session. I remember on one occasion that we got into a creative discussion while the four of us were travelling in a car to a meeting at Rochford-Thompson in Newbury, Berkshire – a security print company set up by our old friends, Roy Rochford and Ron Thompson (with financial backing from the Pink Floyd pop group).
By the time that we took a breath, we had driven some 50 miles past our intended destination. Roy and Ron were justifiably proud of the fact that HRH Princess Margaret (now deceased) had performed the opening ceremony at their new impressive premises, which printed chequebooks for various banks. They soon had to start a nightshift to supply our games. One of the things that we all had in common was the love of a good joke. We soon reached the stage with Roy, Ron, and their good-natured co-director, Vince Gordon, that only punch lines were needed to get everyone falling about laughing – we dispensed with the preamble of actually telling the joke. Great days…
Many of the ideas were years before their time. For example, John and Don put a unique idea to the board of NBC Television in New York, chaired by Mike Wineblatt, the then President of NBC Entertainment. They were so excited at our proposal for an interactive promotional game played whilst watching a TV show that they subsequently sent a team to London headed up by a senior Vice President, Steve Sohmer, to check out our company. They met with a number of our clients including Guinness and Nabisco and were evidently happy with what they heard because they entered into a contract with us. Unfortunately our plans with NBC were thwarted by Federal regulations, which were not relaxed until many years later.
Roger Sotherton joined Don Marketing in 1979 as National Sales Manager and soon became an indispensable member of staff. Roger was an awkward cuss, an extremely stubborn person to deal with – he certainly could not be described as a “yes” man, but he had a flair for the technical side of producing games, which proved to be an additional bonus. When he once visited the Grand Canyon, an Indian from the local reservation who was plying his trade in beads and suchlike to the hoards of tourists mistook Roger for Chuck Norris (before Chuck had a beard). That gives you a very rough description of what he looks like. It’s a shame, but I suppose someone has to look like Chuck Norris.
We initially specialised in devising and supplying promotional games for independent petrol retailers and soon had games on the forecourts of many major brands including Esso, Texaco, Mobil, Fina, Elf and Jet. BP retained our services as a promotional consultant. We later supplied several promotional games to Jet and Texaco. We also devised promotions across the retail spectrum for major brands, such as Cinzano, Guinness, Carling Black Label, Carlsberg, Schweppes, Argos, Terry’s, Osram, Knorr, Coca-Cola and many more.
Our "Space Invaders" game for "Shredded Wheat" in 1981 featured on 6 million packs. Dudley George, the Shredded Wheat brand manager, advised us that the concept had generated the largest participation ever achieved in a Shredded Wheat promotion. He also said that he had received a letter from Rear Admiral Sir "Sandy" Woodward, the Commander of the Falklands Invasion Force, praising the game, which apparently had been hugely popular with his naval forces and as such, helped to keep their minds occupied at a time of high tension.
We also devised the “Great Guinness Challenge”, an exciting scratch card game that ran in over 25,000 pubs and clubs throughout the UK. The game cards were printed in the USA using computer controlled ink-jet technology, which allowed us to print a different combination of questions and answers on every one of 10 million cards. Earnest Saunders, the then Chairman of Guinness, subsequently credited the award winning promotion with turning around the fortunes of Guinness, a brand which had been having a hard time. The game had boosted sales of Draught Guinness by 30% - an astonishing achievement. Unsurprisingly, Guinness became a regular customer for our services.
The Guinness connection also paid dividends in another respect. John Chambers, the Promotions Manager from Guinness’s advertising agency, Allen, Brady & Marsh, took up our invitation to become Managing Director of Don Marketing. John had a great record of accomplishment and was a much-respected individual in the advertising and sales promotion profession. A university graduate, he had spent several years at Nestle as a Brand Manager, before becoming Advertising & Services Manager of Rank Hovis McDougal Foods. He was a member of the Management Committee of The Institute of Sales Promotion, and twice Chairman of the ISP Awards Committee. He also served as a member of the Sales Promotion Sub-Committee of the Advertising Standards Authority. Highly presentable, articulate, ambitious, and well-connected, John Chambers quickly became a real asset in building our company. My son took over my role as Chairman and I took more of a back seat role.
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