1979 dawned. I was 23 and cheesed off. I had been to one of the most prestigious universities in the country. I had lived a life of complete freedom. I had got a good degree and I could be off travelling the world and doing post graduate research into the way the electronic materials behave. I could have been at the cutting edge of research with people of my own age. Instead of which I was living with my parents in Walsall. I was working as office manager for the family company which was turning over some small amounts. My horizons had shrunk to claustrophobic proportions. The intellectual challenge was zero.
All my friends were somewhere else in the UK. If I wanted a drink at night (which I did) then I had to drink alone. At home my interests were unfathomable to my parents. They couldn't understand the desire for freedom.
At work I was a freak to everyone else. I had joined the junior chamber of commerce. I was 23 the other members were 30ish, happy with Walsall and married. They were friendly enough, just from the planet married Walsall. I remember being down at the pub with them. They were discussing their wive's wishes foe Christmas presents. Ankle bracelets it appeared were in and they discussed at length the size of the chain, how much they cost, where to get them and what style they should be. I tried to show some interest I really did. It was like a dog trying to be interested in Beethoven.
Then I began to discover an organisation called Rotaract. The junior version of Rotary. It turned out that there actually were one or two people who came from somewhere this side of Mars. Neil (who was one of them) and I agreed that it would be really cool to go skiing. He looked in all the brochures and chose a place called Hoch Solden, in Austria. Hoch Solden
We jetted out to this village from Manchester. It turned out that Hoch means high as in very very high. In fact the big coach dropped us off and then a minibus drove us, up and up and up. Hairpin followed hairpin followed hairpin as the minibus struggled it's way up a road covered in snow. I was convinced imminent death would follow but it didn't and we arrived at this fantastic village perched high up a mountain. I had never heard complete silence before. It was breathtaking.
It was also literally breathtaking climbing stairs or moving. The hotel was spotless and my room wonderful and incredibly silent. Ski school started on the Monday so we hired some ski bikes and had a wonderful time shooting down the mountain. When the ski school started it turned out that the location wasn't ideal for beginners. So we skied down and then walked up. Skied down, walked up. This went on until lunch when we went back to the hotel, had lunch and did it again all afternoon. We had some real laughs and bonded well as a group.
After a week of this kind of activity in the incredibly clear air I felt fantastic. We could ski after a fashion, use ski lifts and generally get round the mountain. I discovered Sauna. I discovered they were used mixed and naked. I discovered gluwein. I discovered apres ski. I discovered fondue.
After a dream like week we jetted back to Manchester to discover there was a petrol shortage on and it was foggy.
I got back home feeling superb. I knew my car hadn't got any petrol worth talking about in it. So I decided to drive back up the motorway to the service station which I'd just past on my way down from Manchester. My father said no. I was disbelieving. I knew there was petrol to be had. I could get it. He forbad it. I argued rationally, he was irrational. It became I am right you are wrong. I fumed and stormed out. I was 23 and I'd live my life my way.
I got up early and cycled (cycled!) round all the closed estate agents in Walsall looking for a house. On the Monday I bought the local rag, found a flat that looked on paper decent. I visited it that night and agreed to pay the asking price of £12,000.00 there and then. It was the first flat I'd seen and I didn't bother to look at any more. I just had to get out. My level of knowledge was shown when I asked if it was possible to sunbathe on the roof and they said it was pitched.
Unfortunately property transactions take time to go through and so it wasn't until May that I actually got possession of what actually was quite a nice flat. As luck would have it the neighbours were quiet or none existent and the views up to Barr Beacon over open fields were quite nice. I'd actually done quite a decent deal, completely by luck.
Couzens and Akers
At the beginning of May there was a contact from a friend of a friend about a building services company that was for sale. It was a long established company that was in trouble, they wanted out. The company was Couzens and Akers ( pronounced cousins and acres) a company that had been formed in 1918, by two guys called Mr Couzens and Mr Akers.
As time had progressed they had done building installations throughout Birmingham. They had worked on the huge Big Top development in Birmingham. Over time the Mr Akers had gone on to do other things until it was run only by Mr Couzens. Mr Couzens died in about 1976 and the burden fell on Gilbert Couzens his son to run the organisation. Gilbert was 54 and had never run anything in his life.
He lived an idyllic life in Stratford and had been supported by the company all his life. His style of management was to motor in from Stratford in his Aston Martin in time for lunch. Have lunch, sign a few cheques and thus exhausted motor home again. This behaviour had resulted in the company being effectively run by the accountant lady, a formidable battle axe called Miss Hands.
The company had 3 divisions the plumbing, the electrics and the heating. All three sets of tradesmen had their own terms and conditions of employment. Each with it's own union conditions. Couzens and Akers in total had a work force of about 50 people. They had taken on the heating at BBC Pebble Mill premises and it had depleted all of their reserves. The bank was in deep and didn't like it. Over the course of a couple of days I drafted a contract for sale which focused mainly on the value of shares. I think the sale price was something like 50,000 to be paid in three instalments, one immediately, one in one months time and the final in 3 months. We signed and had a glass of champagne and we owned the company. Gilbert Couzens took me to the Midland Hotel and bought some sandwiches before driving off into the sunset.
We had saved the company! My father and I were the heroes, right. Wrong. We were the scurvy pains that prevented the employees getting their redundancy cheques. Miss Hands was on holiday when the deal was done. When she came back she did not hesitate, her first words to my father were "You'll get no co-operation from me." So we made her redundant.
I was now faced with running the accounts department. After all that was what I did wasn't it. Our main company had a computer system which ran all of the accounts, including the wages. I decided that I would reprogram it to run Couzens and Akers. The payroll was a pig. It involved 3 different holiday pay schemes, 3 different types of expenses and 3 different pension schemes plus multiple voluntary deduction schemes such as the Birmingham Saturday Hospital Fund. However no one told me that computers couldn't be programmed over the weekend and I rewrote all of the accounts software over a week.
Couzens and Akers premises were in a cul de sac in Aston. So I spent a lot of time driving to and fro from Walsall where our head office was. A journey of about 10 miles which would take about 15 minutes. They banked with Barclays at Aston Cross. Within a day of owning the company I was loaning it money like it was going out of fashion. On day 1 I loaned it £100K and on day 2 another £100K. Within the week it was into us for half a million. Half a mill in 1979 money is like 5 mill in 2011 money!
This was getting serious. I'd stemmed the cash flow bleed and we started to try to collect some cash in and make the thing fly. To say that we were hated was an understatement. People were barely civil. I had rows with my accounts staff on an ongoing basis. I began to feel trapped. I developed a pain in my stomach which just wouldn't go. I began to lose weight. It felt that there was no way out. I couldn't make the thing fly. My father took to rebuilding the offices by hand as his contribution to improving morale.
In November we agreed to close the thing and glory be on December the 18th it closed. We sold the premises fairly easily, repaid the loans and walked away with injured pride but no losses. It could have been so so much worse.
Cash In Hand
I mentioned the bank was at Aston Cross. Not the best area, even then. We had of course to pay redundancy pay. One of our employees came to collect his final payment. I'll call him Fred. I handed Fred his cheque and he said that he didn't have a bank account and he wanted cash. The payment was to be £5,000. In 1979 this was a lot of money.
I called his bluff, put him in my car and we drove to the bank. I cashed the cheque, got his signature and gave him the cash in five pound notes. He stuffed the notes into his pockets and rolled down the road happy as Larry. Somehow he didn't get mugged. I saw him a few days later wearing a superb cashmere overcoat, happy and drunk.
I decided I needed a holiday. I had no friends to go away with. So being of independent thought I found a company that did solo activity holidays. I booked a week of canoeing lessons in the English Channel which sounded really groovy. I drove down on the Sunday and checked in to my hotel.
I went for a lonely drink. However with my fellow holiday makers I attended to get my lessons. It turned out that I was the oldest person (23) by far. The instructors were 18 and the remainder of the "guests" were aged around 10. Intellectual conversation was hard to find.
Folkestone in summer on your own has to be one of the most depressing experiences you can endure. The canoeing was great everything else was awful.
For something to do on the Wednesday afternoon I drove up to see Canterbury cathedral. It seems incredible but I actually took 2 ten year olds with me who had decided they wanted to come. Today I'd have been arrested for doing something like that. I took to going for a bath at 9.00pm followed by bed at 10.00pm. At least it passed the time.
On the Friday for a laugh the instructors tipped me into the sea. 20 minutes in the sea and I was hypothermic. I got back to my car and was shaking so badly I couldn't put the key in the lock. I got the engine started and then pumped heat at max into the car. Gradually I stopped shaking. I got back to the hotel and they said I was too late for tea. Thoroughly cheesed off I packed and left. Thirty minutes later I realised I still had my passport in their safe. I turned round got my passport and drove - straight into a traffic jam on the M1. I got home at 2.00am Saturday. Some holiday.
One of my friends who had left the area was a great guy called Peter Craddock. We'd toured Europe together. I'd bought him a blow up bottle of Guiness for Christmas. We'd gone chasing girls round discos together. I got a phone call saying he was ill. He had leukaemia. He was 24. He died in 5 days. I still give silly amounts to leukaemia collections