As mentioned in a previous contribution, I joined FRI in November 1976 when there was still a small operation at Newhaven, before it became part of the bigger YTEC team at Redhill from January 1978 onwards.
Mike Dewey asked me to take on a remarkable variety of roles, many of which overlapped. In approximate chronological order they included:-
- operating injection moulding machines
- assisting with the design of injection moulds (at least I had prior experience of using a drawing board – about the only overlap with my student days learning to be an industrial designer)
- supervising the construction of temperature controllers for injection moulding hot runner systems
- marketing the Instrumented Falling Weight Impact Machine (this also involved coding both Commodore 64s and BBC Acorns)
- preparing a variety of product development and process development feasibility studies
- assisting with running the thermal conductivity testing laboratory when the manager was on extended sick leave
- advising the Technical Director of a leading UK cartridge heater manufacturer how to make better cartridge heaters (if I’d known the phrase ‘imposter syndrome’ at the time I would have fully identified)
- assisting Mike with marketing and promoting the company (an ongoing role lasting nearly two years).
Mike had also instigated a ‘year out’ for me to research superplastic aluminium alloys at the University of Birmingham. I knew nothing about metallurgy when I arrived. But my roles at Yarsley had already given me experience of ‘boning up’ rapidly on new-to-me areas of technology.
Then, about 1984, Mike asked me to go on a week-long training course so that I could become part of the new quality assurance ‘division’ based at YTEC. This was when ISO9000 was still in the future and ‘BS5750’ was the buzzword. For the remainder of my time with YTEC I was mostly involved with developing the QA business.
I enjoyed the variety and companionship of working for YTEC. But I was not happy in the Home Counties. For at lot of people that wouldn’t be a problem. But for me it was. So I had long been looking for a move. All this diversity arguably made an excellent CV. But only for jobs with independent R&D organisations branching out into QA! I’d had an interview at RAPRA in Shropshire but I wasn’t greatly impressed and, seemingly, feelings were mutual as I wasn’t offered a job. But by the middle of 1986 PERA in Melton Mowbray wanted assistance with their marketing operations. This fulfilled my primary aim of leaving the Home Counties, so appeared to be a good move. Appearances can sometimes be deceptive. And sometimes downright wrong. In this case very, very wrong for all involved. I left PERA the following February.
The one good thing about this episode was that PERA had funded my move from Surrey to north Leicestershire. And I was already feeling happier back in the county where my family originated from and where I’d spent my junior school days. So I wanted a job which allowed me to stay in my new home. And one that made enough money to pay the substantial new mortgage that went with the new home. Clearly I couldn’t be too fussy.
So I answered an advert in the back of Plastics and Rubber Weekly for a sales representative. The company was called O’Conners and run by the son of the founder. In a factory at Whitstable in Kent they produced colour compounds of commodity thermoplastics. Not exactly high tech. Indeed to be honest I thought of the boss as having more than a little of a ‘barrow boy’ ethos – and his style of dress was at the ‘spiv’ end of formal, complete with diamond tie-pin. But we got on well enough.
After three months I was at home one Sunday afternoon and the phone rang. I have forgotten the name of the chap now, but he introduced himself as the sales manager of Victor Industrial Plastics. ‘We have just bought O’Connor’s. Could you come to our factory and offices in Cricklewood tomorrow morning so we can get to know each other?’
This sales manager and the managing director recognised that I had more technical know-how than anyone not working on the shop floor, themselves included. But I was, frankly, a bad fit for a very successful colour compounding company. After three months I was ‘paid off’ in an amicable way. It was a relief to me as I really had not enjoyed doing a demanding sales job rather badly.
Another advert in the back of PRW, another job interview, and another change in direction. Cricklewood features again, but only in the past tense. A large injection moulding company, Stadium, had sold their extensive site in Cricklewood and taken up government grants to become the first injection moulding company on Teesside. This made sense as one of their major customers was Black and Decker at Spennymoor and the then-new Nissan factory at Sunderland was looking for suppliers. However, quite intentionally, the management had cancelled contracts to supply smaller customers in the London area. They wanted to take advantage of the labour available on Teesside and obtain contracts which required assembly as well as moulding.
Once again I was in a job where my experience of industrial design and injection moulding were needed. It turned out that what was also needed was the ability to drive 60,000 miles in a year as weekly trips to Hartlepool to drop off drawings and samples had to be fitted around customer meetings in Slough, visiting a mouldmaker in Kent, collecting drawings from a customer in Llanelli, and checking out specialist packaging suppliers in Rochdale. Not to mention meetings with prospective customers who could be anywhere from Yorkshire to the south coast. Oh, and fortnightly visits to my girlfriend in Horsham. Frankly, I enjoyed rising to the challenges.
The role was essentially one of business development rather than clinching orders as the Sales Director did the ‘deals’. But after I’d been there nine months we’d set up enough deals to double the turnover of the company. The production manager was starting to get twitchy about meeting delivery schedules. No more ‘deals’ were needed. So neither was I. We parted very amicably. And, in one of those ‘you couldn’t make it up moments’ the company who had offered me a job just a few days after I’d accepted the Stadium position was hiring again. So I quickly found myself going to Stafford to be interviewed again by the team running EMS Grilon.
Which meant I was back flogging bags of granules. But this time not just polystyrene with pretty pigment. Proper engineering thermoplastics. Some nylon 6. A lot more nylon 12 (the application was the ‘Suzie coils’ which connect the brakes on an artic trailer with the cab) which sold for about ten times the price of nylon 6 or 66. Also a novel nylon which could be blow-moulded and inserted into cans. This ‘bag in a can’ packaging was used to dispense Gillette shaving gel and avoided the need for aerosol propellants. And during the five years I worked for EMS they launched various grades and blends of amorphous nylon, some of which had very impressive impact properties. Plastic nails were one of the products these grades made possible. Alongside the nylon business EMS were supplying PET to fibre optic cable manufacturers and I took the lead with this application.
Rather a wide range of technical expertise needed to be understood and passed between the experts at the HQ in Switzerland and the customers. I had finally found a job that was a good match for my rather heterodox skill set. I was still living in the same house in north Leicestershire and now doing a ‘mere’ 35,000 miles a year – all in a succession of Vauxhall Cavaliers and Vectras.
Some of my happiest memories of my time with EMS are of the annual sales conferences. These took place at the factory located in a very scenic part of south-east Switzerland close to the town of Chur. Needless to say our Swiss colleagues looked after us well – especially in the evenings when we were taken to some of the best restaurants in the region. My own culinary aspirations increased greatly as a result, although the necessary skills lagged behind.
I do remember lying in the bath once and thinking ‘What would I do if my Premium Bonds came up with a really big win?’ The initial and obvious thought was that I could give up work. But a moment’s reflection was that I’d miss all the fun so I might keep the job on for a year. That’s how good EMS was! And if that sounds like I’m trying to do down Yarsley then that’s not the case. There was only one thing fundamentally wrong with working for Yarsley and that was living in the Home Counties.
All was going well at EMS until one day it wasn’t. Without saying anything to the sales team the UK management had been resisting a ‘strategic’ change the parent company wanted to impose. Someone with a very specific background needed to be recruited. And there wasn’t any money to increase the payroll. Someone had to go. So quite out the blue I found myself once again reading the back pages of PRW. And who was looking for a technical sales rep? Buss Waeschle UK at Cheadle Hulme. I was back with the compounding end of industry again. But now selling Buss Ko-Kneaders to companies needing to produce compounds that much cheaper twin-screw extruders struggle to process. Historically Buss had supplied the PVC industry, but the cost of Buss kneaders was, by then, well outside the budgets of such low-margin operations. Buss’ main business had moved to the powder coating sector, although the cable industry also needed Buss equipment to process elastomers with very high carbon black content.
And then there were the ‘odd balls’. My first sale for Buss was a small machine which was needed to make peppermints. A short-lived brand called ‘Curiously Strong Mints’. This is not as surprising as you might think as two much larger (and much older) Buss kneaders worked night and day in York converting icing sugar into Polo mints. Back then, in the mid-1990s, Buss kneaders were used elsewhere in the food industry for bread doughs, pasta making, digestive biscuits, chocolate and even pet food. I remember quoting for a machine to produce two tonnes an hour of bread dough which would be converted into breadcrumbs. It needed to sit alongside two existing lines of similar capacity. Yes, six tonnes an hour of breadcrumbs were needed by the 1990s UK food industry – presumably for fishfingers, scampi and what I always deem ‘the dreaded breaded plaice’. But Buss equipment – even second-hand – was beyond their budget.
Alongside the seriously expensive compounding equipment, the UK division of Buss acted as UK agent for a German mixing machine manufacturer called Mixaco. Their equipment was typically used for premixing materials before they were compounded, though occasionally (as in the toner industry) they were also used after the compounding stage. Over eight years I kept up a steady supply of orders for the German factory. The most unusual – and one of the highest value – being for a manufacturer of glazes for the ceramics industry. And not just any old glazes – these were the ones which had real gold in them for putting the gold rim and such like on top-of-the-range china.
There was an ongoing ‘personality issue’ with a key colleague at Buss UK which meant I was never in love with this job. In essence, he thought he did his job exceptionally well while the rest of knew he was exceptionally bad. But we worked together for eight years, even though it could hardly be said we sung from the same hymn sheet. Had they been football teams not senior management teams then EMS – both in the UK and in Switzerland – would have been playing in a much higher league than that of Buss.
I joined Buss towards the end of 1993. Over the next few years it became clearer and clearer that international manufacturing companies were, almost without exception, stopping investing in UK production facilities. Buss’s UK operations needed to downsize to a spare-parts and maintenance operation. So, soon after the start of the new millennium, my role was assimilated by the rest of the team.
To be honest I felt a sense of relief as I drove back from the meeting when I was offered generous redundancy terms. Only in hindsight did I fully understand what was happening. At that time I knew I was struggling with long-distance driving and feeling much more tired than might be expected. Which shouldn’t have been the case as most years with Buss I did around 30,000 miles – enough, but nothing exceptional.
I decided I no longer wanted to be on the road doing marketing and sales. But what could I do instead? I took a blank sheet of paper and started writing out all the work-related skills and expertise. The list came about halfway down the left-hand side of an A4 sheet. On the right I started a second list of all the things I was good at which had not been part of my roles at Buss or EMS. I quickly got to the bottom of the page, turned over and continued rapidly filling up the second side. What was it I was competent at? Various skills associated with writing and publishing. For the previous ten years my hobby had been writing, editing, typesetting and promoting booklets and a quarterly magazine. The subject matter straddled history, archaeology and folklore. And along the way I’d made friends with a number of accomplished writers.
So, a new millennium and a new career. I became a self-employed book publisher. And, twenty-two years later I still am. Although for the last five years only a part-time one. I now know that the undue tiredness in the latter days of working for Buss was because of lung damage caused by driving when HGVs belched out particulates. I now have to avoid motorways, busy dual carriageways and urban congestion. But I can still drive around the many quiet country lanes surrounding my current home, close to the tripoint of Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire. And I can still sit at a computer to write, edit manuscripts, typeset, compile videos and all such related activities.
During the first three years of building the publishing business up I also had time to research and write a number of books. I was assisted and encouraged by a number of people, among them historians who used to appear fairly regularly on TV. They reassured me that I was indeed good at researching and my writing idiom was engaging. This was reassurance I greatly needed and appreciated. But when did I first hone those skills? Sitting at a desk in Redhill preparing feasibility studies, instruction manuals for novel test equipment, and whatever other diverse projects Mike Dewey thought I could accomplish. The resulting ‘jack of many trades’ CV set me up for two enjoyable careers spanning both technology and the humanities. My thanks to all former colleagues who were part of that ‘making Bob better’ phase of my life.
If you want more details of my publishing activities then visit www.hoap.co.uk where much of my writing is now available as free PDFs, along with books by other authors. There is also a link to my YouTube channel which, so far, is mostly about Leicestershire local history.
FRHG Ref: V889