by Andrew Foote
We spent the remainder of the evening talking to Joe. His ideas and input were, to say the least, inspirational. Things nobody else has thought of questioning were something that he'd been thinking about.
"Have you thought about packaging? I wondered if a simple cellophane bag sealed with a folded printed card. Your customer can see what their buying and all the information is on the card. Simple, easy to pack and therefore, cost efficient."
Jus looked as if he'd been hit by a hammer.
"Well I'd never even considered it! I suppose I was more concerned with other things but latterly, production rather than marketing. Any other thoughts Joe?"
"Actually yes. Colours. What colours are you going to make them in?"
"Is that important? Red, yellow blue or green? What's the issue here?"
"Not green. If someone drops it in long grass then they won't be able to find it and rather than buy another, they'll be angry and not bother. Got to have pink. The ladies and girls love it! Purple. For gay guys it's the colour of choice!"
"Gay? What the fuck is gay Joe?"
"Ahh. Sorry blokes. Gay guys are people like you, you know, guys who are really like in to each other? Purple is like a badge. Kate told me. I never meant to be………….."
"No, no it's cool. I'd just never heard of it, that's all. Beats being called a queer or a homo! I'll have to remember that!"
I thought for a moment.
"I wonder how indestructible this P4R2 actually is. The reason I want to know is that if it's sort of 'dog-proof' then we could make balls in the same colours as the Strong-arm and sell them as an added extra. If it is that your average pooch could chew his way through it then maybe we have another talk with Professor Standish to see if he can come up with something more durable."
Jus laughed at this remark.
"Why not just include one with the device and bump the price up?"
"Because by selling them separately we can keep the cost down for the Strong-arm, charge a bit more for the ball so our profit margin is higher but people won't feel as if they're being ripped off, Slycology!"
"You devious sod Alex! I like it!"
"Guys?" said Joe, "I did have one other idea but you might think it's a bit like running before we're even walking."
Jus nudged him playfully in the ribs.
"Spill it Joe. It's your party as well."
"Well the other day we had a visitor in our garden in the shape of next doors cat. The little bastard had caught a bird and I don't mind that so much if it intended to eat it but all it wanted to do was play with the poor thing. It was sooo cruel so I thought why not have an early warning system for birds. Make a collar with a bell on it so no matter how stealthy the cat was, the bell would alert the bird and allow it to fly off. One very pissed off cat, one very relieved bird who lives to fly another day!"
I was dumbfounded!
"Hold that thought Joe 'cos you've just given me another idea. Do you have to regularly treat your Lab for fleas like we have to with the Springers?"
"Pretty regularly like every three or four weeks. Why?"
"Make a collar that's impregnated with the same chemical that we use to de-flea them and maybe it will prevent them getting infested in the first place."
Jus stood up and shared the remaining wine between us.
"Both great ideas but we're not even in production with the Strong-arm yet but maybe we should have a word with Tim and at least apply for patents. That way once we're up and running, hopefully profitable we can explore those ideas as well."
We all agreed that this was the way to go and on finishing his drink, Joe said his good-byes and headed home.
"Bloody-hell Alex! We open a bottle of wine with one idea on the table and by the time that bottle's empty we have four ideas and all of them good ones!"
"Tell me boyfriend, are you making a case for increasing our wine consumption?"
The days that followed saw us pursuing the same routine of intensive studying in the mornings, dog-walking and working at the mill in the afternoons followed by revising for our exams in the evenings.
We had put our ideas to my Dad who wrote technical documentation for each of them before submitting them for patent. Professor Standish promised to supply us with a prototype ball made from a tougher material than the Strong-arm and also one that was guaranteed non-toxic.
The flea collar proved to be a more testing venture but again the good Professor told us he'd ask for help from the Chemistry department in formulating a safe but effective flea repellent.
The following Monday our studies came to an abrupt halt. Our machine had arrived together with the service engineer who was charged with its installation, commissioning and operator training.
My Dad thought it best if we skipped a mornings studies to introduce ourselves and iron out any small issues that might arise so at ten o'clock Jus and I walked up to the mill, my Dad having already followed the truck earlier.
We walked in through the door to find Joe in deep and animated conversation with the engineer but on seeing us said,
"Whoa people! Here come the boss-men!"
The engineer looked at us.
"They're a bit young to be the directors aren't they? I thought Mr Greening was the main man."
"Nah! He's number three. The lad with the long blond hair, he's Alexis, the Managing Director and the one with the tidy black hair is Justin and he's the Technical Director."
"Oh sorry! Nice to meet you both. My name is Mike. Mike Burrows and I'll be the one making things happen. I do have a few questions regarding the installation though.
I notice you have a good, clean supply of compressed air and a sizable air receiver and your factory is wired for three-phase electrics but for the life of me I cannot find the incoming cable."
Jus answered him.
"That's because we're still waiting for the Electricity Board to connect us but that doesn't pose a problem because we have our own supply so if you'd like to follow me, I'll show you."
We followed Jus through a door which had been set into a studding wall to separate off the production area from the power station and our massive alternator.
"God Almighty! Now that is impressive! How many watts does that kick out?"
"Two gigawatt peaking at four give or take a few watts."
"Is it clean? I mean there's no underlying DC voltage?"
"Not so much as a spike. That's a pure sine wave alternator and on top of that, Tim installed some very beefy smoothing capacitors on each of the phases just to play safe."
"Well Justin, they say that there's a first time for everything and I can honestly say this is a real first for me! May I ask what's powering it?"
"Water. This place is an old water mill so Tim and Joe restored the wheel, re-diverted the mill stream and there you have it. Enough power to supply most of Caversham."
"So why bother getting a feed from the National Grid? You've more than enough capacity as it is."
"Two reasons. One is that we can sell over capacity back to the Electricity Company and secondly we need a backup if we have a dry summer and there's not enough water flow to turn the wheel."
"Ingenious! I love it already!"
We left my Dad, Joe and the engineer to site the machine and begin the installation and headed back towards the house but we were waylaid by a guy in a van who stopped us and asked for directions.
"Any idea where Mapledurham Mill is boys?"
Jus and I looked at each other before I replied.
"Yes. If you go over the brow of this hill you'll see it down in the valley on your left. You can't miss it. Why are you going there? I ask because we own it and I don't recall expecting any deliveries."
"I'm not really delivering mate. I'm going to install telephone and telex lines."
"Oh, okay. When you get there ask for either Tim or Joe. Doubtless they know what's going on 'cos I'm damned if I do!"
We continued our walk home, rather annoyed that we hadn't been told about being connected to the telephone system let alone a telex machine.
"This has all the hallmarks of my Dad. He gets an idea in his head and runs with it never bothering to tell anyone and especially as we're not exactly flush with cash. This must be costing a bundle."
I was still muttering on about this when we got back to the house, our conversation overheard by Sir George.
"I have a confession to make boys. I'd been meaning to tell you but with everything that's been going on, it slipped my mind.
I was the one who organised the telephones and telex machine. You can't be expected, or even young Joseph for that matter, to keep running to and fro the house just to use the telephone. It is essential that any business is directly contactable so this is my gift to the company. For the first twelve months of trading, I will pay the line and equipment rental plus the telephone bills. If after that time you're still trading then it will become the company's responsibility."
"But Granddad, you've done so much already. You've sold us the Mill for a pittance, loaned the money for the injection moulder and now this. It's too generous!"
"Not so Justin. The Mill was going to fall into disrepair unless something was done with it. Someone now is and as such it's been saved for posterity. What use was it to me anyway? Pardon the expression but it would've become a millstone round my neck!
As for the money for the machine. As you so rightly pointed out, it is a loan and one that is tied up legally and until such time as it is discharged, I hold title to the machine. No gift this. A straight forward business deal.
Now let me tell you about the telephones……………."
It turned out we were to have three lines, four including the telex system and to begin with, the main line would go to a phone beside the injection moulder. That way, Joe wouldn't have to keep stopping the machine to take or make calls and if we happened to be in the office, he could redirect them.
Sir George's vision of the future was that we would become so busy that we'd need the services of at least one fulltime secretary and at that point the phones could be swapped around with one of them taking all incoming calls.
At six in the evening my Dad reappeared.
"Telephones are working and the telex machine arrives in the morning. The same man will fit and test it oh, and by the way! Your number is…………Mapledurham 555!! Quite a coupe! The others are just random numbers that will be there if two or more of you are on the line at the same time. 555 is the only number your customers or suppliers need to know as it will swap between the others automatically."
"Joe's up to speed with all of this then Dad?"
"Oh God yes! I tell you, he's technically very astute. You'd better be nice to him because if you make a success of this, you will be needing a good, reliable and loyal works manager and for my money? He's your man."
Three days later and our machine was ready for the first trial production run. I think the entire combined households, Joe and Mike the service engineer were there to witness it.
We began with one-offs to ensure the product was good enough to market then ramped up the production speed to thirty units per hour, not as many as we could achieve but enough for the purposes of testing the system but as Joe rightly pointed out, he was only one guy and to go any faster would cause him problems. Still, two hundred and forty units per eight hour shift was pretty good going. We still had to overcome the packaging issue. Joe couldn't be expected to do it, we were busy with our education and that meant my Mum and Dad's time was all but used up so short term, Sir George and Lady Eleanor volunteered to pitch in.
We discovered that Mike had a dog so we gave both him and Joe a freebee on the understanding that any enquiries were directed back to us in the event they came across any interest.
The packaging was much as Joe had visualised. A long, clear rectangular cellophane bag secured with a folded cardboard label. The front of the label showed the product name 'Armstrong's Strong-Arm' and a cartoon-type image of a boy and a girl out playing with their dog together with the claim that using the 'Strong-Arm' it was possible to throw a ball over three times the distance than by using normal 'arm-power'. The reverse showed the Company name, telephone and telex numbers and references to Reading University's Faculty of Science for their help in its development, all brightly coloured to attract the eyes of prospective purchasers!
The local pet shop in Caversham reluctantly agreed to take a stock of twenty items, four of each colour, red, blue, yellow, pink and purple but refused to pay up front but once he'd sold them, would settle up at the agreed price of 15/- each but doubted they would attract much interest.
All of us, Joe, Mike, Jus and I carried them every time we walked our respective animals and very soon the interest picked up.
One lady with her children admitted they didn't own a dog but the kids wanted one each to play with so we directed them towards the pet shop and within a week we had a call asking for more stock but this time he was willing to pay in advance having been overwhelmed by the demand.
Things at the Mill were frantic and one night we had Joe come to the boat. He looked awful!
"I'm knackered blokes! These sixteen-hour days are too much and I seriously need some help. Sir George and Lady Eleanor mean well but they listen to some classical music programme on the radio and they seem to kinda go to sleep almost! What I need is young blood, play some pirate radio station with loud pop music and get them fired up. I can produce but then I find myself spending the next seven or eight hours catching up on the packaging. I really need help guys!"
"Shit Joe? I'm sorry! Too busy revising for exams to notice but you take a few days off and chill. We're about done with studying now, the exams are next week so we'll take over and try and clear the backlog."
"Alexis, I happy to stick around and do an eight hour run, it's getting on top of the packing that's difficult."
"Thanks Joe but at least take tomorrow off. That will buy us time to do shit-loads of packing and then we can think about people to employ to ease your burden. That said, do you have anyone in mind?"
"Well………..yes but it isn't right to push people on you who you don't know. You've got to make your own judgements."
"Like we know loads of people who might fit in. C'mon Joe? You know what we need so let us have your opinion. You have people you'd like to have working with you?"
"Yeah a few. Kirstin is a bit of a lezzie but she's strong and reliable so she'd be great as my assistant, Matthew is thick as pig-shit but would survive on the packaging and then there's the bloody telephone! Got to have someone in that office!"
"Got anyone in mind for that then?"
"Yes but it's a bit cheeky!"
"You already are friends with Kate but I did tell you about my other sister. She's a year older than me and isn't a genius but then neither is she stupid, just…..normal really. She's done secretarial collage but she's struggling to find decent work. A good organiser, great telephone manner, mustard typist and I know she'd give her right arm to have the same opportunity as you guys have given me."
"Not much of an opportunity, working you sixteen hours a day on a salary Joe!! Ask them for interview. I'll have words with my Dad and see how the budget is fixed."
"You're doing okay considering the business has only really been live for two months but then again, neither of you are drawing a salary from it so yes, so long as you're happy to continue that way, three moderately paid staff would be fine but first, increase Joe's salary. He has been your backbone and it needs to be recognised. To do this you should promote him. He needs to be seen as a player so the title of production manager might be appropriate. What are your thoughts?"
Jus was the decision maker.
"He has put everything he has into this so I agree Tim. He has to be rewarded and if it is that we have more employees then they must have a senior figure to look to, one who's on site on a daily basis which neither Alex or I can promise. It has my vote"
I was quick to agree.
"I'll second that. Apart from anything else, it gives Joe a leadership position but I still think the interview process should be ours otherwise it might look like an old friends network."
My Dad was kind of in agreement but with a caution.
"Yes, you should see them but it's Joe who has to work with them and if they're his people of choice then they've all passed the first interview stage. All you have to do is ratify it so long as you've no serious concerns. I will guide whoever is to be the secretary through their duties and I suggest you leave Joe to sort out his people on the shop floor. It reinforces his authority and shows everyone that he has your trust and full backing."
"It all seems to be happening too fast Dad. It makes me nervous."
"I don't know about 'too fast'. It is happening quickly but everyone told you that you have a good and original product so better this way than it being sluggish. Unless I'm very much mistaken, you'll have to be ready to expand over the next few months. At the present we're only going through one outlet, a small shop in Caversham. What do you think will happen one we go country-wide or maybe think about exporting?"
Jus actually looked a bit scared.
"We'll never cope. One machine might spit out what, fifty units an hour? That wouldn't be anywhere near enough if we get the same interest just in the south of England let alone country-wide and we've got to pay my Granddad back before we could ever consider buying another system. It just isn't feasible."
"What position do I hold within the company Justin?"
"Financial Director. Why do you ask?"
"Leave the finances to me. If it is we have to expand due to a full to overflowing order book then we will find the money.
Next week I'm making the first payment to your Granddad. It's ahead of time and will be substantially more than the minimum amount we agreed and that still leaves us with a decent amount in the bank.
The other thing you must remember is we are already selling our electrical over-capacity to the National Grid and that I will bank separately and it is this I'll suggest you use to buy new plant and machinery. You will not be using day-to-day profits, you'll need that to pay extra staff but neither will you be saddling yourself with debt. You, or rather the Company will own all the assets outright so if, God forbid everything went tits-up, you have those assets as a buffer."
"It's still scary!"
"Think on this Justin. Where would we be if everyone who came up with a really good idea told themselves it was too much of a risk to pursue it? I'll tell you where we'd be! We'd be still living in a cave somewhere banging rocks together! C'mon Justin? What's the worst that could happen?"
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