Underneath the Soap Pans in Apapa.
A copy of a CP from June 21st 1973 had three signatures of three great men.
The powers that be in the OSC and Financial Division commended this CP for an Acma 752 powder packet filling machine as a model for a good writing practice ... not many people know that! We wrote the Technical Appendix. And Stan Idell put it all together.
In between beer drinks in 1972 there were three guys who showed me how the shambles which was the Apapa Factory was to be sorted out ... wot a team!
We really started to learn about business, economics and life underneath the soap pans in Apapa.
In 1973 Ronnie Archer asked our company to produce a 'five year plan', our strategy for seizing the opportunities available for Unilever after the oil price hike.
Our business strategy overseas in the 1970s was hatched over convivial pints and can be simplistically summarised ... all very familiar and almost trite ... but every word was significant ... and we all knew it was execution that mattered -
profitable projects which created long term sustainable income streams for further investment in goodies
close to aspiring customers discovered and trusted through decentralised local marketing opportunities
focused on centralised strategic core competences in global big brands 400 FMCG
operational excellence from technology & talented folk which chased profits and cut losses
continuous innovation from inspired brand acquisitions and business driven R&D
a social networking club which cemented
& glued in place a company culture which
recruited, developed and retained nothing but the best beer drinkers ...
such was Unilever's most important competitive advantage ... it was beer
which secured specialisations, scale and financial clout?
The FT in 2016 described Unilever’s culture as always intensely 'collegial' -
'collective responsibility shared by each of a group of colleagues, with minimal supervision from above. Marked by camaraderie; good will among colleagues; friendly and respectful'.
Every year or so the words changed as different folk had a different go but the cement remained firmly in place as the roots of the social club continued to produce the blossoms ...
The bullet points -
exciting innovation - cost saving salamis & snake oil were not alternatives to continuous successful innovation, which was the only answer to mature markets and boring commoditization ...
sticking to the knitting - focus on core specialisations was blurred as 'miscellaneous' brands hung around, making everything lethargically moribund ...
fearful execution - casts of thousands were enmeshed in risk averse & indulgent analysis paralysis which was indecisive bureaucratic kluge ...
competing fiefdoms - unfathomable responsibility & accountability of multiple management groups, staff functions & conflicting supply chain interdependencies & rivalries made cronies and men of the system ...
bureaucratic despotism - command & control strategies imposed layer upon layer of top down management hierarchies when efficiency demanded bottom up experiments ...
not invented here - 'risk off' jealousies led to desperate manufacturing & supply chain obsolescence and stagnation ...
keep it simple stoopid - staggering complexity of too many brands & too many people endlessly eroded efficiency ...
Of course no one said it was easy and these seven bullet point descriptions always sounded a bit glib & trite ... as did all other mantras - execution; focus, invest in innovation, grow the good bits, chase profits and cut losses ... the trouble was happenings meant different things to different folk?
Our maverick leader, a man of spectacular presence who made things happen ... simply.
Derek Holdsworth did nothing except become the focal point of a talented Board, expatriate group and local managers. Included in the group was MOO, the local Personnel Director and heir to the chair; as good as they come. And a fine group of technical managers who were capable ... when given the chance under challenging conditions so soon after a civil war.
Derek Holdsworth could raise spirits by being there and raising a glass ... he had a blue & yellow paint catalogue and booze ups every Friday in his bar in the Boadroom. He met the store manager every morning at 9pm and Mrs Pam Pam would enquire around lunch time on Friday whether or not you would be free to have a drink with the Chairman at 4pm?
What better way to round off a hectic week of trauma underneath the soap pans than a relaxing Star with our leader.
The Chairman also focused intently on the big things; the most pressing problem for the company was congestion at the Apapa Port and continuity of supplies of imported materials to the factory. It was his decision to promptly charter a company ship to deliver directly to the company jetty. The problems of congestion and corruption were simply by passed. This was chasing profits and not absorbing resources cutting losses ... and we had a drink to celebrate every time the 'Lagos Palm' hoved to just outside the Board Room window.
Derek Holdsworth taught by example and for some reason he took me under his wing and taught me about the business of business. If I was favoured at all it was only because I enjoyed my beer and we were often the only two standing when bar shut. However his favourite tipple was scotch ... J&B.
My treasure possession from the Chairman was sent on 7/3/75 with a query, 'What is the opposite of Eureka' ... DH never really understood that I was an engineer not a chemist!
He was distinguished by one arm and a magnificent pair of sideburns ... we enjoyed imitating the latter for the gross amusement of the locals!
We recalled probably the most pertinent of all advice which came from a meeting with DH & MJC about business strategy,
'some happenings are beyond our control, but remember the ancient principle of 'force majeure' (from the Napoleonic Code) is no excuse for 'negligence' (from the English Common Law) ... so redouble your efforts and get on with what works'.
Later MJC referred to our efforts as 'sticking to the knitting' ... a reference to a bestselling book 'In Search of Excellence' from 1982.
LAGOS PALM Cargo Ship
Builder: Swan, Hunter & Wigham Richardson Ltd
Dimensions: 473.6 x 63.3 x 25.1ft
Engines: Oil engine, Doxford type, 2SCSA, 6cyl, 7500bhp
07/1961 Palm Line Ltd, London
1984 Broken up
Iraq - business nationalised on arrival.
Nigeria - 'Get your civil war over with and I will come back and teach you how to make wealth'.
Nigeria - back to rescue the company, and it worked.
Argentina - meat business.
Japan - died in service.
Derek Holdsworth and Mike Cowan executed strategies by delegating to reliable troops. Clear explanations of business strategy and the rest was motivation.
Many of the locals were first rate and Sam summed it all up, 'I would walk through walls for that man'!
Business leaders who had clean desks and gazed out of windows thinking about problems every which way to discover options which might work.
Reminiscing in 2008, as we expected MJC hit the nail on the head and summed it all up when he recalled an empty office with black coffee or more likely the bar in the club with a convivial pint -
'We were in 'business' not 'industry', we would spend hours putting everything on the table and looking at it from every angle, every which way, honing and revising our plans and then we just agreed on an option and got on with it'.
'We never knew how to make money out of bits of 'miscellaneous products' when the accountants shared out Unilever's enormous 'indirects'. The European & North American problem was that we did not innovate fast enough in all product groups to avoid mature markets going ex growth and meanwhile overseas emerging markets were burgeoning and required serious investment. Invest in 'nothing but the best', nobody told me to compromise'.
'Unilever's growth and innovative success always tended to come from propitious acquisitions rather than Research Division, the purveyors of snake oil ... and even our track record on acquisitions was mixed'.
'There was no effective R&D to speak of. The product had become a commodity. Anyone could set up a factory and buy the know-how to formulate just as cheaply as us. Raw Materials were bought at common international market prices by everyone. We struggled for market leadership with 3 'national' competitors and myriad of local operators, selling their DOBs at rock bottom prices. What they lost to us in scale they more than gained through lower overheads.
You must have come across this type of situation in your studies; I came across it frequently at Harvard, and we never developed a realistic solution.
There were of course the snake-oil men in research who promised all sorts of miracles including using URL expertise to improve our buying decisions. But buying raw materials is like buying stocks and shares; no matter how good your intelligence, there are very few who beat the market, and they are the first to admit it's just luck. The sensible ones make their fortune and quit before they lose it'!
We still have these studious emails ... MJC should have written a book ... he did however urge us to consider a new project -
'It's a pity the Geoffrey Jones book stopped in 1990 and didn't cover the later period. Perhaps you should write a sequel ... you've got the right grasp, and access to many people. I'm sure Research loved you - you knew what you were doing!
But Mike knew that energy and time denuded progress in later years ... which was perhaps just as well ...
Xenophanes - ‘The Gods did not reveal, from the beginning, all things to us, but in the course of time through seeking we may learn & know things better. But as for certain truth no man knows it, nor shall he know it, neither of the Gods nor yet of all things that I speak. For even if by chance he were to utter The Final Truth, he would himself not know it: for all is but a woven web of guesses.’
Everybody needed a mate to drink with and help to chew the cud. And Stan Idell could write Capital Proposals. He was a golfer who made the Surrey Captain of Captains in 2014.
Stan & Vera had 5 grand kids aged 28 to 19, Alyson with 3 and Fiona 2.
After Apapa, Stan moved to The Philippines and then Kenya, a lousy 9-5 company. This confirmed the problem of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Kenya had nothing like the quality of the local Nigerians. And nothing like the DH, MJC, RP expatriate quality ... everybody needed a mentor ... we were 'lucky' we had MJC.
1982 Financial Division.
Stan was Overseas Controller feeding the OSC businesses with young whiz kids as part of their 'career development' and giving indigenous whizz kids experience in Head Office as they were 'Unileverised'.
The OSC was central to Unilever's success as Europe & North America were basket cases. The OSC succumbed to politics and was split 3 ways into regional groups ... amongst an inevitable power grab. Continual political intrigue including 'That Soddin' Book' which involved a right of reply.
Overseas Circuit changed as overseas jobs became secondments for career development with return tickets to the fold. The last OTOs jobs went to the Chile TD & the Ghana TD. Frazer Sedcole wrestled with the UAC problem and integrated UAC into the OSC. Patrick Egan split the OSC it into 3 Regional Managements.
Stan's last project was Project Ivory to rationalise the Management Accounts for coordination and Financial Accounts for Unilever. Retired at 57 in 1994 for a years golf leave.
Our old drinking mate Stan enjoyed a very personal experience about drinking ordinary beer and driving. Of course driving was never an option when drinking convivial pints as such distractions turned the beer sour. Occasionally some of us have been known to forget the delicious nature of the convivial pint and have brushes with the law from time to time, especially on the way home, after a 'social beer' with friends had deteriorated. Stan told a sobering story -
'Yesterday I went out for the evening with friends and
had several drinks, followed by some rather nice brandy. Although feeling
jolly, I had the sense to know that I may be slightly over the limit and not
to drive my car.
That's when I did something that I've never done before - I took a Black Cab home.
Sure enough, on the way home there was a police road block, but since it was a Black Cab they waved us through and I soon arrived home safely without incident.
This was a real surprise as I had never driven a Black Cab before, I don't know where I got it from, it's now wedged sideways in my garage and I haven’t got a bloody clue what to do with it!
Fritz Weiser was a hero and a good friend.
A family from East Prussia walked away from the Russian advance in 194? with nothing but their carry bags and eventually making it to West Berlin. At 8 years old in 194? he was sent by his perspicacious family to live with an Aunt in Hertfordshire. He buckled down, passed his 11+ and became Head Boy at ?? Grammar School. National Service followed he was proud to obtain his Short Service Commission in the Army. Spectacular success!
Unlike some other expatriates in Unilever who had British citizenship for 'convenience', Fritz was committed and proud, insisting on 'W' for Weiser. Unilever chose wisely!
Fritz started Unilever life in Export in 196? and in those days the promotion ladder was into the OSC. He was hoping for a post in Malawi but was called in by Edgar Graham and offered Zaire. Fritz never understood why he accepted! Alf Coathup was not TD in Zaire when the Weisers were there; that was Julien Bischoff who briefly came to Lagos around 1976. But all was not lost as in Zaire he met Birgitte and they married in Denmark during the first leave. They transferred to Brazil for 2 years; Catarina was born there and NeNe (Karin) was born in Denmark during leave just before arriving in Nigeria in December 1972. Fritz & Birgitte produced a couple of lovely daughters, who were led astray by our two wags although there was some attempt at coeducation underneath the stairs at 6B. Son Christopher was born in Lagos town and went on to Ellesmere College with Jonathan.
St Lucia with Unilever Export Ltd was good but Zaire was Avalon at this time for Fritz, Alf Coathup had made his mark there and it was a place where young bachelors and young nurses met. Fritz was working for the 'Brothers' and Birgitte for 'Danish Red Cross'. Things happened, they married and Fritz ran foul of the authorities when he refused to stop his car after an incident on a country road, an injured party was the son of a senior army officer and this was deemed an anti Zairean offence and Fritz was duly deported.
Zaire's loss was Brazil's gain.
RA explained how Nigeria, together with South Africa, Brazil, India, kept Unilever afloat during the 1970s as Europe and North America went bottom up. Fritz was a valuable resource as a paid up member of the Overseas Circuit and MJC tried to engineer an expatriate work permit for the job as Planning Coordinator, which was of overwhelming importance to the factory and fraught with local difficulties. After the Nigerian success, like his mates & neighbours Stan Idell & john p he became embroiled in the Unilever indigenisation policy and the job creation schemes for unseated African Traders back home.
As the 'Overseas Circuit' collapsed UAC adopted employment policies involving completely different term of employment, UAC staff and Coast staff. The Overseas Committee opted for 'return tickets' and secondments for 'career development'.
UAC also tried diversification and a job in Iran was short lived as the company was foolishly nationalised. Next was a misguided attempt by UAC to purchase Office Equipment businesses (there were other follies in Garden Centres and specialty Chemicals).
Fritz left Unilever in 19?? as the Overseas Circuit disintegrated.
Tate & Lyle, Graylands Consultancy ...
Fritz always said that golf helped survival in Nigeria and certainly when he returned later with Tate & Lyle he was on his own and golf took up all his spare time.
After Apapa there was a 'wasted' year spent in Tehran with nothing doing. Next was Marketing Division in London before moving to Manchester where UAC, having been the jewel in the Unilever crown for a time in the past, was slipping fast.
The last time we saw The Weisers was in 1989 when we shared a beer watching the cricket on the college square. Fritz & Birgitte seemed to be everywhere all at once, back to Nigeria with Tate & Lyle, with his own Graylands Consultancy at 'Graylands', 43 Strines Road, Marple, then a move to Strines House in Marple and then Birch Vale and then off to France. Birgitte had worked for the Danish Red Cross in Zaire (and not 'Medecins sans Frontieres' as we errored) and as a Practice Nurse at a GP's in Wilmslow for many years. We wondered if they were still drinking beer in France or maybe they had succumbed to the wine?
We caught up with Fritz again in 2015 and he reckoned our memories of Apapa were not only clearer than his but also dearer, but he succinctly summed up his time in Nigeria where there was a great esprit de corps amongst friends -
Whilst with Tate & Lyle in Lagos I had reason to
visit Levers. On leaving the compound a message arrived at the gatepost;
would I wait for a certain German engineer. I did so. There followed this
Are you Mr Weiser? Yes.
Were you with Lever in the early 1970s? Yes.
Did you live in Dakar Road? Yes.
I am so happy to meet you. Every Sunday we are served a special salad, Mrs Weiser’s salad, by your old steward. He speaks of you and your family constantly.
It was for me what made Nigeria different from all the other countries I have worked in.
Catarina told us the tragic news, Birgitte died 7 years ago now. Still hard to believe. She had breast cancer. So so sorry to hear. We had no idea. We last saw her at Ellesmere College 26 years ago. They moved to France together and both just loved it out there. So stayed! A great girl always full of fun. We are sad. john p.
RIP Birgitte 2008.
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