I hope I am not wearing down my readers, with this unusually long series on my exploits in the world of sales. Judging by figures for the posts, enthusiasm has dimmed somewhat since Part One. There is one more to go after this, and that will take me up to the Ambulance Service. No more selling stories to come after that, I promise.
As I have previously told you, I needed a job, as the shop was not paying enough to save for a future. I saw one advertised locally, and had an idea that I could get it, if I gave a good interview. It was back to sausages and pies, something I at least knew a lot about. My first employer in that field had now been swallowed up, and had become part of the brand leader, who had been my second employer. There was a new number two now, all these years later, and they were looking for staff, to cope with an ever-expanding market.
Bowyers traded on a countryside theme, with a manufacturing base in the West Country. Their distinctive brown and cream livery was becoming a familiar sight in the London area though, and aggressively threatening the dominance of the leading giant. They were advertising for supervisors based in a depot in Battersea, and if I got the job, it would be a step up.
The place was a little shabby, a portakabin in a large fenced yard, and a loading bay. Twelve delivery trucks operated from there, covering all of West, and South-West London; a huge area, ranging from Westminster down to Croydon, and all the way out to Heathrow Airport. There would be two teams, and a supervisor for each, the whole thing overseen by an area manager, responsible for three sites.
At the interview, I could immediately tell that they wanted me. I had already worked for the two largest companies operating similar sales, and there was not much I didn’t know about all the potential scams, and fiddles. The salary was more than generous, and could be almost doubled by successfully hitting team sales targets. I would be expected to turn up very early, no later than 4am, and watch the loading of the vans, as well as dealing with the orders for the next day.
Any complaints from customers about my team, would have to come to me to deal with, and I would also sort out time off, lateness, and sickness.
When someone went sick, or took annual holiday, I would have to step in, and do their round as well as my own job. The hours were long, and would include some Saturdays. The job was confrontational in nature, so expected to be difficult, and stressful. That was why it paid so much. Still, I was only 25 years old, not yet married, and fit and healthy, so was confident that I could rise to any challenge. I got the job, and started the following week.
The deliveries arrived at the depot from the West Country, during the night. The driver would open up, off-load the entire lorry, then lock up and return home. By the time we arrived, we were faced with hundreds of stacks of pies, sausages, and cooked meats of all types, piled to the rafters in the small depot. They were supposed to be stacked in some approximation of each van round that had ordered them, but were often mixed up, or just dropped at random.
This instigated a free-for-all, as twelve driver/salesmen, two supervisors, and occasionally even the area manager, struggled to get it all into some semblance of order. The staff seemed friendly enough, at least at first. The idea of supervisors was a new one, and they didn’t really know what to expect. There was a closed shop in operation for the union USDAW, and it was hoped that we would join. I later did so, although I was aware that this could lead to problems.
My team was a mixed bag of individuals. I had a couple of loners, some fast-talking whizz-kids, and one man who was obviously not up to the job, and looked it. The shop steward was on my team too, a laconic, sarcastic man in his forties, who exuded an air of ‘seen it all, done it all’. By 7am, they were all loaded, and away. The other supervisor, a man even younger than I was and a trained butcher, suggested breakfast, so we drove to a nearby cafe for a ‘full English’. We were already worn out, both had pounding headaches, and the day had only just started.
Once back, we had to check the allocated stocks against what was delivered, and prepare the order for the next day, based on assumptions of what might be left over, and kept in the large refrigerated store. We quickly discovered huge differences between what was supposedly delivered overnight, and what had gone out on the vans a few hours earlier. As we had managed to check most of the orders first thing, we could only conclude that the sales staff had contrived to alter their paperwork, to show shortages that did not exist.
When we nervously rang this information through, the factory manager seemed remarkably unconcerned, and simply booked everything as ‘short-delivered’. He even suggested that we should write off some non-existent ‘damages’, to give us some extra flexibility with the shortages. The fact that it was obvious that our twelve staff had stolen almost £1,000 worth of goods, was shrugged off. It was too hard to prove, and not worth the effort of trying to establish who the culprits were.
Sales were on the up, and the profits rising accordingly. Sacking staff, and having disputes with the Union about dishonesty, would not bode well for a continued supply chain, and loss of deliveries would have meant our larger customers might have changed to the opposition. We were amazed. They had employed the supervisors and area manager to stop this kind of thing happening, then didn’t want us to actually do anything about it.
What happened next, was worthy of a Brian Rix farce, or a Mike Leigh play. Every morning, we would arrive early, put the stacks into the correct order, and watch the staff load. They would be checked off as we did this, to ensure that there were no shortages. In the meantime, staff already checked would load goods into other vans, who would then have too much stock. By the time we had it all sorted out, half the vans were short, once again. If we delayed the departure on the rounds for extensive re-checks, customers would complain in their droves, and the salesmen would get off late as well.
The whole culture of the company was to accept this wholesale theft, at the same time urging the supervisory staff to do more to stop it. I began to feel as if I was in an amateur dramatics production, running from one side of the depot to the other, as staff slid goods around, behind my back. There was only one thing left to do, only one course of action open to us.
We joined them.
Once the supervisors were ‘cooperating’, we might just as well have had a machine that printed banknotes. The opportunity to write off imaginary ‘spoiled’ goods was enormous. With tiny adjustments on the paperwork, whole loads could be shown as ‘not received’. Nobody cared, no matter what the cost involved, as the profits were so substantial. Ruined and damaged food was also tax deductible, as it could obviously not be sold, and in theory, went to be fed to pigs.
In practice, it had all been sold anyway, as it was never damaged or ruined in the first place. Every day, day in, day out, we wrote off thousands of pounds worth of stock, as either unsaleable, or never received. The rewards were immense. Some salesmen drove Range Rover cars, and lived in houses with land, stables, and horses for their children. Others were less greedy, and chose to do their round quickly, and finish early. The earliest rounds were done by 10.30am, and even the latest returnees were away by 4pm. The longer they stayed out, the greater the rewards, both in actual salary, but also in unofficial earnings. Some men had more customers ‘off the books’ than they did on them.
And we still made the sales, smashing all targets, no matter how high. In the week before I got married, in December 1977, I earned more money than I did in a month, thirty-five years later, in 2012.
This massive income enabled me to do lots of things. After less than a year working there, we moved to a house in Wimbledon Park. We owned two cars, both fairly new, and top of the range, and had at least two holidays a year. My wife was able to give up her job, and return to college to train to be a University Lecturer. I used to have so much cash in my pocket, it made my trousers uncomfortable.
Most of us hardly touched our actual wages, which were still more than three times a good average salary in those days. They went into the bank, paid the mortgage and direct debits, keeping it all above board.
Everything else was paid for in cash, lots of cash. But it came at a price, as it always does. The hours necessary to make all this work, were phenomenal. I was up at three, and rarely home until five. Hours of heavy work, perhaps covering a round in between too; followed by paperwork, hassles on the telephone, and making sure all the discrepancies were covered up. I was always tired, in fact shattered would be a better description. My colleague, the other supervisor, had a sickness situation on his team, so spent most of his time having to cover a large round.
This took him twice as long as anyone else, because he was using the opportunity to shift vast amounts of ‘unofficial’ products. It was worth it financially, but it really was relentless.
In case you thought I had forgotten the actual job, I had not. This was busier then ever. The largest supermarkets, you know their names, made ever more demands on us, sometimes insisting on three deliveries a day in the busy seasons, which were Easter, Christmas, and most of the summer. If the salesmen were back and finished for the day, they would not go out again; they had a union agreement forbidding them to do so. As a member of the same union, I could not ask them to do anything contravening local agreements. My eagerness to participate in the union had indeed come back to haunt me.
It was left to me, and sometimes my colleague, or even the area manager, to get out there, with a small van loaded to the limit, with whatever they insisted that they were short of.
We were getting off later and later, having to eat our own products on the move, and paying for all that money with great chunks of our home life. And the fiddling in the shops was still going on too, that never stopped. At times, the combination of conning the company out of goods, followed by pinching stuff supposedly left in supermarkets, left us with so much money, it was too difficult to actually get it. We just had nowhere left, no outlets remained to take all the extra stock. Ironically, when this happened, we really did have to write it off.
In the whirlwind of all this fiddling and deceit, it was sometimes easy to take your eye off the ball, and forget your actual role as a supervisor. This was brought home to me one morning. The man who I suspected was not up to the job, and who I had noticed on my first day, was deteriorating rapidly. His sales were always low anyway, as there were no supermarkets of any size, on his Central London round.
We would simply invent cash sales that never actually happened, financing them from the huge slush fund available to us. This would keep his target secure, and accordingly, we would all qualify for bonuses. If he was ever off sick, or on holiday, I would do his round, make up half the sales, and still be finished by 10am, back to do my own job for the rest of the day.
One morning, I got a call from his last customer, asking why he hadn’t been in. I made up a story about breakdowns, and set out to look for him. Following his normal route, I eventually found his van, in a back street in Pimlico. As first, I thought he was dead at the wheel, but I soon discovered he was flat out drunk, slumped in the driving seat. He was lucky it was me that found him, and not the Police. I had always suspected that he liked a drink, but never noticed that he had gone this far. I got him back to the depot, and arranged collection of the spare van, sorting him a lift home at the same time.
I was shaken, as I realised that I had let him down, too busy chasing the cash. He had all sorts of problems in his life, but never felt able to approach me.
Not for the first time in my life, I realised that if all us had made a fraction of the effort actually doing our job, instead of putting all our efforts into ducking and diving, things would be a lot different. There was already talk of our company going the way of others, and reverting to a telesales service, with next day delivery. The bigger shops wanted us to deliver direct to their own warehouse, at greatly reduced prices, and they would sort it out from there.
The cash bubble looked as if it was soon to burst, and it was all feeling very stale, with lots of deja-vu to boot. I started to look around for a job to move to. I was cautious, as I would be taking a huge drop in pay, even on a good salary. I would want a new company car, so I could sell mine, and a nice sales area near the centre, to avoid staying out overnight.
One evening, I looked at the paper, and saw an advertisement for a sales representative for Bulmer’s, the leading manufacturer of cider in the UK. They wanted the Central London area covered, and offered a new car, and the usual salary package. Time to move on, to bid farewell to the sausages and pies yet again.
This time for ever, as it turned out.