Authors: Alan Sugar
Tags: #Business & Economics, #Economic History
It was working with Mr Allen that once again prompted a new business venture. I'd become something of an expert in cosmetics and toiletries, as a result of selling them. Some of the girls at the youth club I went to in Stamford Hill were very impressed at my knowledge of Rimmel Coty, Yardley, Lancome, Helena Rubinstein and Chanel, not to mention the full colour range of L'Oreal hair dyes. Yes, it
Walthamstow, but believe it or not they had the clientele for that stuff.
Thinking about the Cream of Cactus advertising campaign at school had sparked my interest in the cosmetics industry. I must have driven Mr Allen nuts, I was so inquisitive. At that time, a 'Flaming Red' Rimmel lipstick would sell for 1s 6d, but the Lancome equivalent was 4s 6d - three times the price!
'Tell me, Mr Allen, these look the same to me - why is one 1s 6d and the other 4s 6d?'
Advertising,' he said. 'They're both made of the same stuff. There
no technical justification, apart from a flasher wind-up case.'
As well as absorbing how people would buy stuff based on the prestige of the brand and the advertising, I was fascinated by what the cosmetic products were actually made of. Take hair lacquer, for example. It was effectively industrial alcohol with something called shellac dissolved into it, the theory being that as soon as it was sprayed onto a warmish surface, the alcohol would evaporate, leaving the shellac to hold the hair in place - quite simple, when you think about it.
A bit of trivia. Ladies may sometimes wonder why they get that cold sensation when the hair lacquer touches their neck. This is because the heat from the body evaporates the alcohol, giving the cooling effect. The same principle applies in an old army trick I once heard about: apparently, in Africa during the war, soldiers put their bottles of beer in a bowl of petrol and left it exposed in the baking sun. As the petrol evaporated, the effect was to take the heat out of the beer. Earth-shattering stuff, right?
I called a meeting with my friends Steve Pomeroy and Geoff Salt and told them that cosmetics was a bit of a mug's game, and that perhaps we should start a little business making shampoo and hair lacquer. Steve's family's business was lemonade, so they knew where to buy bottles and labels. I could source the ingredients to make the hair lacquer and the shampoo - a soap detergent with a little bit of perfume in it.
Having convinced the two lads we should enter into business, we slung fifty quid each into the pot and formed a brand name - Galste - made up of our three names: Geoff, Alan and Steve.
I found a fellow by the name of Sidney Summers in Tottenham who was a wholesale supplier to hairdressing salons. From him, we bought gallon drums of shampoo, hair lacquer and some green, gooey setting lotion. Then we designed a small label that Steve had printed and we set up a bottling plant in the basement of Steve's house in Clapton.
Unfortunately, the bottle openings were rather small, so I had to make a sort of pipette to fill them up. On top of that, the setting lotion was so thick and gooey that we had a lot of trouble getting it into the bottles. I got
lumbered with sorting out the technical problems, but after hours of sweating and cursing, I eventually succeeded.
Armed with three products in our range, the next task was to go off and sell them. Geoff, who claimed to be a good salesman, had the task of calling on chemist's shops and other general stores to see if he could get any orders. Steve was considered the expert on supplies and manufacture, but I was the one who had to sort out the filling of the bottles, so come to think of it, he wasn't really tasked with anything!
I asked Mr Allen to stock some of the bottles on a sale-or-return basis. He always chuckled when he heard about my ventures and was happy to agree. Naturally, when people came into the shop, I would recommend
shampoo and hair lacquer, and managed to persuade a few punters to part with their cash. Unfortunately, Geoff and Steve weren't as enterprising as I was, and after a couple of weeks or so they had zero sales.
One Saturday night when we were out, we discussed the project and decided we would try to sell the stuff in East Street market, off Walworth Road in south London. The next morning, Steve took his firm's van and we drove to the market, laden with all this gear. We found the market inspector - affectionately known by market traders as 'The Toby' - and asked him if we could take a stall on a casual basis, as we weren't licensed.
Eventually he found us a spot at the end of the market strip, as one of the traders hadn't bothered to turn up. I can picture it now: a large stall with just three products on it! It didn't look very inviting and was made worse by the fact that all three of us were manning such a sparsely populated stall. We didn't sell much that Sunday, and when the market closed just after lunchtime, we went home with our tails between our legs.
I persevered for two or three more weeks with little success. I decided to spruce the stall up a bit by selling other products. We turned to Steve's uncle, who used to make household cleaning materials such as bleach and pine disinfectant - similar to Dettol. We laid out the stall nicely, with all the products lined up beautifully, including the bottles of pine disinfectant, bleach and toilet cleaner. However, as these were not well-known brands, the move wasn't that successful.
One day, out of sheer frustration and laziness, I decided I wasn't going to bother spending time setting the stall up neatly, so we just chucked the whole lot on in one big pile. This created some excitement amongst the shoppers, who thought that there were bargains to be had. People delved in looking for buried treasure and the stuff started to sell like wildfire.
Messrs Salt and Pomeroy lost interest in getting up at six o'clock on
Sunday mornings, so I ended up being the only one to go to the market. Having passed my car driving test by then, I'd borrow Malcolm Cross's van and take his brother Ronald along with me as a stall boy.
We'd chuck all the stuff on the stall and a crowd would gather round as usual. One lady stepped up and asked for six bottles of the shampoo. This was like manna from heaven to me.
'There you go, ladies and gentlemen,' I said. 'There's a lady who's bought our shampoo and now she's back. Look at that - you can't get a better testimony than that. Good stuff, isn't it, dear?'
'Oh,' she said, 'it's not for me - I use it to wash my dog!'
You've never seen so many people disperse so quickly. Ronald was in hysterics.
In the end, we dissolved the business because of the lack of interest of my two partners. I was left with a pile of unsold stock, which I kept in the bicycle shed I had at the flats.
Back at the Department of Science and Education, one of the topics of conversation was the impending death of Winston Churchill, who'd had a stroke. It had been dragging on for days, if not weeks, and we were hearing regular updates on the news. To liven up the office one day, I popped into the typing pool and, with a look of surprise on my face, said to the girls, 'Have you heard the latest news about Churchill?'
'No,' they said. 'What is it? Has he died?'
'No,' I said with a deadpan face.
all right, but his doctor's dead.' I cracked up laughing at this and they all joined in. It was most likely the highlight of their week - that's how boring it was there.
Sadly, Winston Churchill did die a few days later. I believe his funeral was a national holiday - any excuse for a day off at the Civil Service, right?
We also had a couple of days off when the department moved from Curzon Street to a new location at Richmond Terrace, roughly opposite Downing Street. While helping to settle in after the move, I decided to explore the new building. In certain areas, I found drawings pinned up on the wall which looked remarkably like aeroplanes or missiles. I'm not suggesting it was some Secret Service type of place, but it looked rather interesting to me. I asked Miss Mayer whether we were merging with the science part of the Department of Education and Science and, more to the point, whether I could get myself into a department where I could do something more interesting than compile educational statistics. 'Mind your own business,' was the reply. 'And get on and do what you're told to do.'
That was the final straw. I realised this place really wasn't for me. I looked around at some of the people there, particularly the older ones, and thought to myself that I didn't want to end up like these robots, pushing a load of boring paper around.
I started looking for another job and saw a promising newspaper advert for a trainee cost accountant with a statistics background. The firm was Richard Thomas & Baldwins, an iron and steel manufacturer located on the corner of Gower Street and Euston Road.
The first obstacle I had to overcome was telling my father I was leaving my Civil Service job. His mentality was that you didn't leave your job. You worked for a company and you got grandfathered in' - for ever. He wasn't happy that I was flipping jobs so quickly, but I brought him round by explaining that I'd now attained experience in statistics which, if I got this new job, would eventually allow me to become a qualified cost accountant.
I did get the job and the pay was a bit more, about PS10 or PS11 a week. I was planted in a small office with ten much older men, all of whom were either qualified or trying to qualify as cost accountants. These guys ended up doing me the biggest favour of my life, as I'll explain shortly.
The function of this department was to produce a weekly report on the output of the factory in Wales for the directors. My job was to get the daily output figures from the blast furnace and put this information into a format which would become part of the directors' report. Each day, a chap called Alun, who had a strong Welsh accent, used to phone me from the factory and read me the output figures.
The lads in the department warmed to me because I was forever messing around and telling a few jokes here and there. One of the things I did was put on a Welsh accent whenever I spoke to Alun at the plant. One day he called up and said, 'Hello, is that you, Alan?'
I replied in a Welsh accent, 'Yes, it is me, Alun - this is also Alan.'
'Where has that Welsh accent come from?' he asked.
I explained to him that when in Rome, you do as the Romans. I said it was to show my devotion to the firm, and that having dealt with so many Welsh people within the company, a bit of the accent had rubbed off on me. Anyway, I told him not to let it bother him and to carry on giving me the daily figures.
He was obviously a bit thick. 'Righto, Alan,' he said. Are you ready?'
'Pig iron, 17.4 tons.'
'Righto, Alun. Pig iron, 17.4 tons.'
'Sinter, 2.6 tons.'
'Righto, 2.6 tons, sinter. Thank you, Alun,' I said. 'I'll speak to you tomorrow.'
'Hang on, don't you want to hear about the slag?'
I waited a moment, raised my voice and said, 'Alun, I'm fed up listening to you moan about your wife.'
As the words came out of my mouth, I knew I was in trouble.
He went bloody mad. 'How dare you talk about my wife like that? I'll have you know I've been married to Glynis for eight years. She's a wonderful lady. You have no right to call her that. Admittedly, we have no children at the moment . . .' and he carried on ranting and raving. 'I'm going to complain about you, speaking in a Welsh accent and insulting my wife . . .'
'It's a joke, it's a joke . . .'
'You London spivs, you're all the bloody same. You don't know what life is like down here in Wales . . .'
'Okay, son, okay, don't worry, speak to you tomorrow, see you.'
My little joke flew around the office. Unfortunately, it didn't take long for word to get back to the powers that be and I was bang in trouble. I was told that the chief accountant had received a complaint and I was to report to his office the next morning.
I prepared a little speech overnight explaining that it was just a joke and that we East End boys, well, we make jokes like this. It wasn't meant in any nasty way; it's just what we chirpy chappies do.
I knocked on the boss's door at nine o'clock and he told me to come in. It was a bit like standing in front of your dad and knowing he's going to tell you off for doing something naughty, but realising that he's struggling not to laugh. Such was the demeanour of Mr Jones, the chief accountant, and I suppose I must have picked up on this. The nervous feeling in my stomach subsided and I felt a bit more relaxed.
He said to me, 'Mr Sugar, I've had a complaint from the plant.'
Blow me down, I did it again. In the corner of his room was a large rubber plant. I pointed to it and said, 'Haven't you been watering it, sir?'
He was not amused and launched into a tirade. 'To get on in this firm, you have to stop being a joker. This is a serious business. You've upset one of the people down in the plant. You've got to understand that these people are different from Londoners. They take things very seriously down there and you've insulted the gentleman and his wife.'
'I'm very sorry,' I answered. 'What would you like me to do? All I can do is apologise. I'll write him a note; I'll do anything you want me to do.'
'Well, if you write him a note, we'll call the matter closed. But I don't want to hear any more complaints about you.'
The other guys in the office were eager to know what had happened. When I told them about the plant joke, they all put their heads in their hands. 'You didn't! You didn't say that, did you? You're a bloody nutter!'