Shipping office services, helpline, consultancy and supply chain security

Friday, 28 September 2012


It is only in the last five or six years that the tie has become a less vital part of a British businessman’s attire, at home or abroad. It has become more acceptable to show up for a meeting in an open necked shirt, still smart but not quite the traditional image. I am personally not a great fan of the tie. That probably dates back to when it was used as a mild instrument of torture and gentle strangulation on the way home from school on the number 7a bus, but in spite of that schoolboy trauma I still think it is very important to wear one from time to time. It isn’t just about impact, professionalism, conformity, respect for those I am about to meet, or any individual thing. For me, it is mainly because a full suit and tie can occasionally have a very positive effect on people’s general perception of who we are.  

I once went on a long tour of the US North East coast, calling in on distributors and agents from Manhattan to Maine. For anyone who hasn’t done that drive in the Fall, make it one of the top ten things to do before you die. The colours of the maples are actually no different to the wonderful Autumn colours that we experience here in the UK. It is the sheer scale of the spectacle that never leaves you. I was driving up to Vermont for a meeting with the VP of Stanley Tools and his production team. We manufactured a very clever but incredibly complex machine for manufacturing different sizes of decorators’paint brushes, and it was my job to sell them one and to prove to them that it would increase output and quality.

It was a high speed woodturning machine that had a rotating turret with multiple centres that gripped the wood to be turned, and the whole thing moved back and forth against cams and high speed rotating blades to create a paint brush shape every few seconds. Everything but the bristles. A true feat of British engineering. I was especially excited about my presentation to the team because it was the first time I had sold such a complex machine by illustrating its key features on video. How times have moved on!

So I was greeted at the door by the VP’s right hand man, who was dressed in a polo shirt and smart(ish) jeans. He introduced me to the VP, who was similarly dressed, and I was escorted into a room with about 25 men in open neck shirts, polo shirts, or t-shirts, and every one of them in denim jeans. “Well…”, I thought, “…I suppose it is a manufacturing plant”. And there was I in my pin striped dark blue three piece suit and tie, looking far too much like a salesman and not nearly enough like an engineer! The presentation went very well and I sold the machine, an £80,000 order even at that time, which would have been about 1993.

About six months later, I accompanied Roger Bowness our tooling engineer to install and commission the machine. I was greeted in the same way on arrival, and we were led into the same presentation room. It wasn’t nearly as friendly an experience, which at first I attributed to the fact that there were a lot of complex engineering principles for them to absorb and understand.  Roger and I got them going, and the machine performed as well as we knew it would. But the slightly unwelcoming atmosphere persisted and I joked that they might not like Roger’s aftershave. When that went down like a lead balloon, I thought it was best to let Roger get on with his part of the job and take a back seat. My curiosity got the better of me in the end, and as we left the building after a very successful  installation, I asked the VP if there had been anything wrong with the way we approached the machine demonstration because I felt his team seemed to be in a subdued mood on this visit. And he just said “You’re British. You wear a suit!” Wow!

After the previous visit where every man and his dog was clad in denim and other forms of casual wear, I thought I would be on pretty safe ground in a smart jacket and trousers and open necked shirt. But no. To my customers it felt like I was a British person trying to dress more like them, trying to fit in, maybe to ingratiate myself. None of that was the case, but it taught me the value of living up to my customers’ perceptions of John the Businessman. Had we all gone for a beer somewhere afterwards, they would have been fine with John the Person changing into casual gear, but not while I was doing my job. Suit and tie only.

Conversely, I worked successfully with a UK engineering client for a number of years until their business was sold on. On my first few visits I was working on behalf of the local Chamber of Commerce, so I was dressed in a suit and tie, and on each occasion was received politely by the company secretary. The company MD barely said a word to me even though their office was open plan, and at times I felt he was downright rude. Then one day I was passing by en route to a stock taking exercise with another client and dropped off some claim forms for the company to fill in. The same guy was very welcoming, and like a completely different person. I was wearing a t-shirt and jeans! We never had a problem after that day.

So you have to be careful. Think carefully about how your customers expect you to be. Dress for your role on the day, but if you are ever in doubt, stay smart. 

Monday, 24 September 2012


I visited India for a ten day business trip back in 1996. It was my first experience of the Indian market, and combined visits to a number of key customers, helping our distributors with an exhibition, a small amount of sightseeing, and the obligatory indescribably horrible tummy bug!
The journey started with a flight into Bombay that arrived in the early hours in November temperatures in the late ‘20s, and involved a scrum for a cab that would take me around the corner to the Connaught Hotel. I spent the next three days being guided around the city by Shanti Mansabdar, who ensured that I enjoyed just about every travel experience short of climbing onto a bus through the window on a busy roundabout! It was fun, if not as productive as I had hoped.
And so to New Delhi, where I was met at the airport by Sonny Roy and taken straight to the Park Hotel near to the Defense Colony where he and his family lived. As our distributors in Delhi they had taken stand space at an exhibition which can best be described as an outdoor Ideal Home exhibition, where they showed off their range of metal furniture alongside images of our fantastic woodworking machinery, and provided a curtained-off area for ‘Mr. John’ to meet and greet customers and talk to them about why they should place orders with us.
It was our first time exhibiting in India and I was there for a full six days, during which time the family Roy had arranged a good number of meetings with potential customers.  We were adjacent to the British Pavilion where British companies who actually knew what they were doing had taken exhibition space. But actually it was far more pleasant being in the great outdoors and watching the throngs of visitors passing by, with all the colour and bustle that you would expect of an exhibition in a busy capital city.
The Roys had two sons, the appropriately named Kubla and Chotu who occupied a position at entirely the other end of the temper scale, and who remains to this day the coolest person I have ever met in all of my travels. Directly opposite our stand and adjacent to one of the main thoroughfares was a stand manned by a group of religious fundamentalists who had come down from the hills around Delhi for their annual recruitment drive.
Every day they played their music and videos and drew huge crowds to listen to their words of wisdom, but also every day the volume got louder and louder, to the point where Kubla went across to ask them politely to keep the music at a reasonable volume so that it didn’t disturb exhibitors on nearby stands. That didn’t work too well, and resulted in them doing the opposite to what he had asked. Kubla then spent the best part of the day with steam visibly coming out of his ears, and getting slowly more wound up. We left the site at about 10pm when he again approached them politely to request that they would turn down the volume for the days that followed.
Well they didn’t do that either, and their noise became louder and louder and more intrusive until Kubla started to really lose it, and stormed across to threaten that if they persisted in playing their music at excessive volume, he would have no option but to destroy their equipment! And guess what? It got worse again, and Kubla finally cracked and carried out his threat, flinging their one video recorder, the source of their deafening output, onto the ground.

Within seconds, a group of 40 or 50 rather determined looking and extremely loud, bearded men in white surrounded our stand threatening among other heinous things to burn down our stand! Realising the clear and present danger, Chotu, who had been coolly encouraging customers to buy his range of metal furniture amid the din, decided to step in and mediate before his brother became the victim of a lynching. And who knows what would have happened to Johnny English?

A calm descended within seconds as Chotu offered to go and look at the equipment with a view to repairing it, and the throng followed him across the thoroughfare as disciples would follow their Messiah. He spent about 15 minutes there and returned with the damaged video recorder while Kubla was banished by his father to the safety of the Defense Colony.  An hour later, Chotu returned their equipment to them repaired and fully functional, and the rumpus resumed for the final few days of the exhibition.
It was an odd experience because in the whole of the time that our stand was in mortal danger, I felt quite calm. It was like watching a film with Chotu in the lead role as peacemaker and general good guy. It was truly fascinating to watch the transformation of this unruly mob into a respectful, appreciative, and much calmer group of co-exhibitors. I still reckon to this day that he must have had a spare video recorder hidden somewhere in the curtained-off area in anticipation. And Sonny Roy apologised to ‘Mr. John’ for his other son’s fiery temperament! A fabulous family.

Friday, 14 September 2012


I am glad to say that most of my international exhibition experiences have been pretty good ones. Good organisation. Great stand designs. Exceptional interpreters. Fabulous staff. Great business. But there are some things that you simply can’t plan for, and this is the story of the one that got away!

We had committed to taking several new woodworking machines to the IWF show in Atlanta (International Woodworking Fair), two of them weighing over a ton and each of them requiring setting up for demonstration.  We had booked a reasonable sized stand, relatively close to two of the distributors’ stands, and had contracted an exhibition specialist to set up the stand so that when my colleague and I arrived we would need just to check the machines and get ready to sell.

Kevin and I were originally just going to get off the plane from Manchester and have a few drinks in preparation for the following day, but something told us we had to go to the exhibition hall just to see how the stand had been put together. We arrived in our hall at about 2pm local time and finally had our ‘few drinks’ at 3am the following morning. We were lucky enough to find a bar that sold cans of  Boddingtons adjacent to the exhibition site!

On arrival at the exhibition hall we found four crates located on an otherwise empty stand. Nothing at all had been set up for us. We had no toolkit. We had not booked forklift drivers. We had no idea where to store the crates when we finally prised them open. Our contractors were nowhere to be seen, and to top it all it was 90+ degrees in the hall because they only switched the air conditioning on for the show itself!  

There was no point is wasting our breath getting angry. Our choice was to find a way to set everything up ourselves, or abandon the exhibition and sue the contractors for the wasted time, travel and accommodation expenses.  So we begged enough tools from one of our distributors to take the crates apart and set up these complex machines, for which we had to rob one of the technical guys from another distributor who knew what he was doing.

We had to pay forklift drivers large numbers of dollars to interrupt their tight schedules to remove the crates and to help set the machinery into their demonstration positions.  And we worked our socks off in sweltering, airless conditions for the next 12 hours. The two of us took in a pint of water every half hour just to stay hydrated and finally left the stand in good order shortly after 2:30am the following morning. I think we may have had a couple of sandwiches in all of that time.

Finding a bar had become essential by that time, and finding one with Boddingtons, albeit in cans, was like having our prayers answered. So we slipped quite a few of those down and then realised that our cab ride back to the hotel would take 30 minutes, and that we would have to leave the hotel again through Altanta’s morning rush hour by about 7am to get back to the exhibition stand for an 08:30 start. We each had three hours sleep but somehow got through the following day without either of us expiring.

We had an incredibly busy and successful few days and were lucky that our distributors were prepared to take our machinery into their showrooms rather than have to arrange for their shipment back to the UK. We had averted near disaster by knowing enough incredibly helpful people, and we got the show on the road. It goes without saying that we sued the company who failed to do what they had been contracted to do.

The only thing that Kevin and I could have done differently was to arrive a couple of days earlier. We thought that everything had been planned out to the ‘nth’ degree and that we had done everything possible to ensure that everything would be set up for us when we arrived.

  1. Make sure you know enough people to get you out of a scrape if you happen to inadvertently find yourself in one.
  2. We should have worked more closely with our distributors to use local set up companies rather than rely on someone we contracted back in the UK.
  3. Make sure there is a good bar open all hours close by any venue where you suspect this kind of thing is ever going to happen to you!

Friday, 7 September 2012



My European History degree thesis was on the continuance of business with Hitler’s Germany during World War Two. It taught me that business generally continues even in the most difficult political circumstances, although its ethics can often be called into question. 

I spent several years from 2004 advising a UK manufacturer of incinerators whose enquiries were coming from all over the world, including George Bush’s  axis of evil, except for North Korea: Gaddafi’s Libya, Ahmedinijad’s Iran, and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Countries in different levels of turmoil but still with a need to trade. The Libyan order was supplied with the help of a well connected British consultant who spent half his life there. The Iranian order was completed through a Greek consultant just before sanctions were increased on Iran. The Letter of Credit (LC) costs were exhorbitant, mainly because the payment had to be routed through a London based Iranian bank. But the Iraq project was more soundly based, and this is the story.

My client had just acquired a UK competitor, and as part of the acquisition they inherited a $350,000 USD for 20 standard incinerator units for the Ministry of Health in Iraq. It was potentially very profitable business and they were both excited by it and at the same time daunted. It took a couple of meetings for them to produce the LC that applied to the order. It was from the Trade Bank of Iraq, owned by JP Morgan, and was stacked entirely in favour of the buyer – the Ministry of Health in Baghdad. These were the key terms of the contract and LC:

·         80% payment to be made on delivery of all 20 units to Baghdad, overland from Amman port in Jordan and to include all insurance.
·         20% payment to be deferred ‘until all units were installed and in use’ at some indeterminate time in the future.
·         A 10% bid bond was required just to take part in the tendering process
·         A 20% performance bond was required to ensure that any equipment supplied would perform to standard, and would also be paid/refunded either partially or in whole at some indeterminate time in the future
·         No British manufacturing plates were to be visible on any machine in case they were captured and destroyed by insurgents.

All of the risk was for my client, who stood to lose all $350,000 if anything went wrong in transit, or if payments failed to materialise. The LC had been arranged by an intermediary in Baghdad who has since proved  to be one of the most honourable people I have ever known. Of course we had no way of knowing that back then, but I advised my client that we could not accept the LC on those terms. The manufacturer was clearly nervous about losing a large and profitable order, but I persuaded them that it had to be re-negotiated so that we could reduce their exposure to risk.
So I picked up the phone to the intermediary, and told him that as the LC as it stood was unworkable we needed to find an alternative arrangement, either a complete set of amendments to the LC or by agreeing a deal that would enable us to cancel the LC. We declined to pay either the bid bond or the performance bond. I know that his LC charges in Baghdad were likely to be very high, and immediately suggested that the LC would cost us both unnecessarily. He accepted that, and agreed the following schedule:

·         The 20 incinerators would be sent in three shipments: the first containing four units, and the second and third each containing eight. 
·         Each payment would be by telegraphic transfer into my client’s bank.
·         50% of the value of the first four units would be paid before shipment from my client’s factory, with the balance payable when the shipment reached Amman in Jordan, plus the 50% deposit for shipment two. The deal was repeated for each of the following shipments.
·         The intermediary arranged overland delivery and insurance from Amman to Baghdad and the installation of each machine.
·         The maximum financial exposure to my client at any one time was $70,000 USD .

All payments were made on time. All shipments arrived in Baghdad on time and the incinerators were distributed around various hospitals in the city. Orders are still being received from the same source, but that fact that my client could demonstrate they had units on the ground in Baghdad  encouraged further orders from both the British and US military.

The situation in Baghdad during that time was extremely dangerous, to the point where the intermediary had to send his British wife to live in Jordan until things calmed down. Their lives had been shattered by the war but they found a way to manage in those very difficult circumstances. He was especially pleased to be championing the supply of British goods into Iraq because the war years had led to the importation of what he regarded as sub-standard products from many different parts of the world. During his youth the Iraqis liked to buy British because it had a quality stamp to it, and a certain prestige. So the incinerator story is a success story for both British manufacturing and British exporting!

The lessons learned?

1.       If a deal looks wrong, you can normally change it. Business is about negotiation.
2.       Business is also about risk. Sometimes a business deal is about minimising the degree of risk rather than taking no risk at all. This was a calculated risk that paid off.
3.       People do business with people. The intermediary is a regular visitor to the UK and my client had the good fortune to get to know him and his family, just as he became familiar with the quality of their machines.
4.       British quality is globally recognised and we should be shouting it from the rooftops!