This is part six of my Dad’s story.
Twice Lost, a personal memoir by Harry Milner Howard
Chapter Six – Alkrington and Moffats
During our first few years we had a good time but managed to save enough money to apply for a licence to have a house built. Eventually we moved into our house in Worcester Rd, Alkrington, Middleton, and we stayed there for fifteen years. At work we were both concerned that the textile industry was faltering and the number of staff was getting smaller. It was 1957 and you could buy plain calico from India cheaper than we could make it in our own mills thirty miles away and gradually mills started to close down. With the two of us in the same failing business we decided one of us should get another job and Irene soon got one with the National Coal Board. Twelve months later things were getting pretty bad at Bronnert’s so I decided that now was the time to move. The problem was what could I do? I’d only been in the textile business and the army since leaving school, but decided to go into the television business. I enrolled at a technical college three nights a week for T.V. Engineering which comprised of T.V. Maintenance, Electricity and Magnetism, Maths, and for some reason, English. It was a City and Guilds course and I passed my first year exams. However I found that I couldn’t get into the trade unless I was in the Union, and I couldn’t get into the Union unless I’d done an apprenticeship, so I left. At that time we had Pam and Jack Warner as neighbours. I was talking to Pam about my job problem and she said “You should be a salesman”. I was rather taken aback by this suggestion and didn’t think I was a sales type of person. Inside I was quite shy and reserved though I could put on a front when necessary, but not all the time. However there was nothing else and things were getting worse at Bronnert’s. I wrote for dozens and dozens of jobs and I either got no reply or a reply saying they were looking for experienced salesmen (in those days there was no such thing as a salesperson!). At long last I got one reply that invited me for an interview. I ended up having four interviews, the last with the company chairman, J.B.Collins, known as JB. He was a man and a half, not only in size but in his attitude and how he dealt with people. He offered me the job, which I accepted and I started on £8 per week with a small commission and good incentives known as ‘spiffs’.
The firm was A.T.Moffat Ltd. I was so naive about the confectionery business that I started looking out for Moffat sweets. It turned out to be a wholesaler owned by Trebor Sweets Ltd that had recently been set up by JB. My first job was teaching a saleslady to drive. She had been walking and using the bus so this was my chance to learn the trade. The driving was O.K. but the selling was a shambles. I knew nothing about selling but my own intuition told me that this was not the way to sell or the way for me to learn so I stored this away in my memory for future use. One week into the job and was already planning the future for me and the company! I soon got a feeling that I was going to like the job and the firm and I also made up my mind that at thirty five I had wasted twenty years of my life in the wrong business and fighting a war, so if I was going to make anything of myself I had to do it quickly. On the Thursday before Easter 1957 I very nearly changed my mind about a selling career. I arrived at the office just before 8am. JB was already there. He always arrived very early, something I always remembered and did during my career. I hadn’t been out on my own yet and JB said “There’s a car for you outside”. I went out to see the car and it was crammed tight with Easter eggs. They were mainly Terry’s, quite expensive and not the easiest to sell. They gave me my calls for the day and off I went. The last words I heard from JB were “Don’t bring any of those eggs back”. I would have loved to have gone home to show Irene my new car but no, I had a job to do. I had every confidence. By 4.30pm I hadn’t sold a single egg. I had one more call to make, a Mrs Warsop in Cadishead near Warrington. I went into her shop and must have looked pretty depressed. She said “Who are you and what do you want?”. I explained that I had come for her order and that it was my first day out. She said “Don’t look so depressed, you should always smile when you approach a customer”. I told her about the Easter eggs situation, she gave me a knowing smile and said “Bring them all in love”. I couldn’t believe my ears. I was thirty five and she must have been sixty, but I fell in love with her and will never forget her. When I got back to the office they were all waiting for me. I found out later that the calls I had been given which would also make up half my new round, had been given to me by all the other salesmen under instructions from JB So they gave me their worst calls, small orders and late payers, in today’s parlance, the pits. So when I returned I’m sure they thought I would still have a car full of eggs. JB said “Well, what happened, have you sold all the eggs?”, and I replied casually “Of course”! I learnt a lot that day, particularly to never give up.
After Easter I started on my own with half a journey of lousy calls which I gradually built up. I was shy naturally so I would sit in the car before I went into a shop and would put on an act and become Harry the Salesman. After a while it became easier and easier until eventually I became that person. I realised from the start that I would not get noticed or make enough money on commission because the calls were poor and the target figure was too high, so I concentrated on getting noticed and making money on Incentives. These were special lines that were being pushed and you made money every time you sold them. There was a list put up every week saying how much each salesman had made on Incentives and my goal was to be top of the list, not only to make money but to be noticed. It was not long before I was at the top most weeks. Now it can be told how I did it. If I was being given a Shilling (12d) for every jar of a certain line sold I would offer the retailer out of my own pocket, so instead of selling one or two and earning two shillings I might sell twelve and earn twelve shillings, six for me and six for the customer. This would also help my overall turnover and commission. Another example is when we had a new line, jars of Choc Stix. For every jar we sold we earned a Shilling. So what I did was every customer who hadn’t ordered a jar I put one on the order anyway. It was known as ‘sticking on’ I sold about one hundred and stuck another hundred on so I made about ten pounds. Only three customers sent them back. When I went round the next time if a customer said they’d had one but hadn’t ordered it I would smile and apologise and say I’d been in trouble from my last customer because he’d ordered one but not received it and I must have put it on the wrong order! All would be forgiven and as it turned out they were very popular and I got repeat orders for most of the two hundred I’d ‘sold”. So this helped keep me on top of the incentive list and helped to keep me in the limelight when JB visited the branch. After about twelve months I was top salesman, but unfortunately my immediate boss was not too keen on my ambitious attitude. I think he thought I was after his job, which I was! There was a vacancy for a sales supervisor and he promoted someone else instead of me. I and other people thought he was the wrong man for the job so I asked to speak to my boss and told him what I thought. He asked me who I thought the right person for the job was and I said “Me”! I got nowhere and that evening I said to Irene that I thought I had made a mistake and hadn’t done myself any good. However the next time JB visited, some six weeks later, he told my boss to make me his second in command. So I was promoted to Sales Supervisor. The hardest thing had been done, now I must make a success of it. I had been working long and hard as a salesman, but now I was going to work harder. I had made a decision that now I’d made the first step into management I would never try to be liked, that didn’t matter, but I was going to do my damnedest to be respected. I considered my boss weak and worried about his job so fairly soon I started looking for other opportunities within the company. This came when a new managing director was appointed who believed in training. I felt the same and had been talking about training for a while but it had fallen on deaf ears. So I contacted the new M.D. and said I was interested. He sent me on a few outside courses and gave me permission to buy the training materials I needed then asked me to write the training manual for our group. I did this and he agreed with it apart from a few minor alterations and then he made me Group Sales Training Manager. I was responsible for training sales- managers and salesmen in all our twenty four branches all over the country including Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. For the next eighteen months my life was spent travelling and training everyone in the organisation to use the same techniques so that they could move from branch to branch and slot into the system. I developed my own catch phrases like ‘Stickability’ – never giving up, ‘Beans up the nose’ – setting up objections, and ‘Let the balloon go down’ – overcoming objections, and I became known as ‘Stickability Howard’ . There were many more, ‘Water flows downhill’, ‘You can’t nail jelly to the wall’, all old sayings, but when I first said them they caused quite a stir.
One day I was in the Swinton district of Manchester and went into a bank during lunchtime. I turned to leave when in came Stoney Knowles. He was a policemen and had recently moved from Cumbria to Manchester. When he looked at me I could see the shock on his face, in fact he went white as if I was a ghost. All he could say was “Is it Harry Howard?” All these years he believed I had been killed at Salerno. After assuring him that I wasn’t a ghost and that I had only been wounded we had so much to talk about. We exchanged addresses and phone numbers and made an arrangement to meet in a pub to reminisce. However the bank manager had been listening to our conversation and was quite impressed by this story and he phoned the Manchester Evening News and told them what had happened. They said they would like to print our story and so Stoney, the reporter and I met. When I’d met up with Stoney in Africa I’d been queuing up for Christmas dinner. As you got to the cook he would give you some Hardtack (biscuits) and a tin of Bully Beef and say “You and the man behind you”. I turned round and it was Stoney. Well after living in Manchester for a few years he moved back to Cumbria. He phoned me every Christmas eve, slightly inebriated, and would reminisce about the war and especially the Christmas dinner of Hardtack and Bully Beef. He always said that if he didn’t phone he would be dead. He had been phoning me for about ten years when his wife phoned me to say that Stoney had been taken to hospital and that it was serious. I got in my car and drove to Cumberland and on the way I bought some hard biscuits and a tin of Bully Beef. I was allowed in the hospital out of visiting hours. I went to see him, handed him the ‘Christmas Dinner’ and said “You and the man behind you”. He was very ill but you should have seen his smile. He tried to tell the story to every nurse or doctor that passed by. A short time later Stoney died.
After two years I had had my fill of training so I trained another person to take over and looked for more experience elsewhere. The new Managing Director actually wanted me to take over all the training for the whole group – not only for sales, but also for admin, office , warehouse staff, everything. I turned it down, he always said a good trainer was worth three branch managers but my ambition had always been to manage a branch. There was many times when I thought about setting up my own wholesale business, but that would have meant starting again, and I was doing all right now. A new opportunity came when there was a vacancy for an assistant to a regional manager who covered the northern part of the country including Ireland. I took the job and although I was an assistant I had all the authority of the regional manager behind me. It was mainly a trouble shooting job. If there were problems anywhere in the region I was sent out to sort it out. For example if there were problems with managers or staff straying off the straight and narrow I went to find out what was going on and offer advice on how to overcome the problem. Many times I had to suggest that someone be dismissed, managers as well as staff, and on more than one occasion I had to bring the police in. Court proceedings would follow and often included customers who were working hand in glove with our staff. This made things very difficult and I had to get the big bosses involved such as JB. During this period I managed different branches all over the northern region and eventually I was appointed to manage the Yorkshire company. I hesitated at first as I really wanted the Manchester branch, however that was not possible and the Chairman, JB, explained to me that the person running the Yorkshire company was an old friend of mine, he’d been my supervisor when I first joined the firm, and that the pressure was getting too much for him. In fact he was on the verge of a nervous breakdown and in the M.D.’s words the business was going down the Swanee. I went over several times to have a look at the company and meet the staff and took Irene over, and eventually we decided to move. This was a marvellous decision.