Underneath the Soap Pans in Apapa.


Capital Proposal

Underneath the soap pans in Apapa we learned about economics and mass production in factories ... and getting the job done.

... and we also learned all about friendships ... a copy of a CP from June 21st 1973 had three signatures of three great heroes ... we had to be heroes to survive and prosper in Apapa there.

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 us how the shambles which was the Apapa Factory was to be sorted out ... wot a team!

We really really started to learn about business and life underneath those steaming soap pans.

Ronnie Archer, Derek Holdsworth and Mike Cowan.

In 1973 Ronnie Archer asked our company to produce a 'five year plan' ... our strategy for seizing the fantastical opportunities available for Unilever after the oil price hike in Africa's most populous country. 

Our business strategy overseas in the 1970s was hatched over convivial pints and could easily be 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 paying the bills and for further investment in goodies

close to aspiring customers discovered and trusted through innovations in decentralised local market development opportunities ... and the Ajegunle market was super special and by no means trivial 

focused on centralised strategic core competences in global big brands 400 FMCG ... we didn't know how to make any money out of miscellaneous products ... it was all about specialisation & scale ... margin & speed ... 

operational excellence from technology & talented folk who chased profits and cut losses ... it was easy to detail the specification but getting it to run on our machines was the difficult bit

continuous innovation from inspired brand acquisitions and business driven R&D ... snake oil was instantly rumbled ... synergies had to be discovered ...

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? ... no one could do it on their own it was always a team effort ... the management job was about sharpening robust tools for hard work at the coal face to keep the patient alive as we did the operation ... inspiration was about 'Mangement by Walking About' and enthusiastically growing the good bits by removing blockages and letting the blood flow.  
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 had to remain firmly in place for the roots of the social club to continue to produce the blossoms in Ajegunle ...

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 ... by pass the blockages to let the blood flow to grow the good bits ... The Unilever Accounts Manual was there to help not to throttle by regulation!

Of course no one said it was easy and these seven bullet point descriptions always sounded a bit glib ... as did all other mantras ... only words - execution, focus, invest in innovation, grow the good bits, chase profits and cut losses ... the trouble was happenings meant different things to different folk? ... team leaders who could buy the beer were needed.

Derek HoldsworthDerek Holdsworth.

Our maverick leader, a man of spectacular presence who made things happen ... simply.

Derek Holdsworth did nothing except drink beer and provide inspired leadership as the focal point of a talented Board and a group of enthused expatriates and brilliant local managers who knew their stuff. Included in the group was MOO, the local Personnel Director and heir to the chair; as good as they come ... with 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 a 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, cold 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 Unilever company ship to deliver directly to the company jetty. The problems of congestion and corruption were simply by passed. This was 'by passing the blockages to let the blood flow' ... 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 we were favoured at all it was only because we enjoyed our social beer and we were often the only two standing when bar shut. However we were a little taken aback as DH's favourite tipple was scotch ... J&B.

Chats over beer unveiled a fascinating history beyond business ... of economics, society, culture & politics.

He who invests time & effort making 'better mouse traps' for stricken folk, pays his bills on time ...

'that's all good good John but will it catch mice'? ...

'and remember it's the 2nd mouse that gets the cheese'!

He who arrogantly claims a 'monopoly of wisdom' immediately invites others to dislodge him from his arrogant perch ... and he who sells 'snake oil' goes bankrupt ...

'don't produce crap, John, folk don't like it'!   

When we asked how they went bankrupt? He replied,

'slowly then quickly' ... 'You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time'.

The powers that be told me their rules and but it was Unilever who decided where to invest.

Folk relentlessly learn, there was no place to hide ... ever never.

Some folk tried to steal but they couldn't steal 'know how' ... 85% of LBN was nationalised @ 1.5 price/earnings ... but we will do OK with our compounding model - sustainable 3% pa 'know how' growth -

1. Due Diligence & Caveat Emptor? - parasites & predators were inevitable!

2. Transparency? - complex adaptive systems were not tractable!

3. Certainty? - mutations were random but differential survival in a hostile competitive environment was far from random!

4. Independent Enquiry? - experimental evidence was peer reviewed by empirical scientists & auditors!

5. Task Force? - personable responsibility ... line incumbents were accountable ... you can't pass the buck to others!

Apapa TangleMy treasured possession from the Chairman was sent on 7/3/75 with a query, 'What is the opposite of Eureka?' ... DH never really understood that we were engineers not a chemists! But he was very familiar with Apapa Tangles, just like Darwin's entangled bank, it just growed like Topsy ... with all the unintended consequences of good intentions.

DH 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 inactivity and 'negligence' (from the English Common Law) ... so redouble your efforts and get on with what works'.

Business leaders had clean desks and gazed out of windows thinking about problems, up down, in out, every which way to discover options to try which might work ... which by passed the blockages and let the blood flow to grow the good bits. 

Launched: 16/03/1961
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 - 'the business was nationalised on my arrival so I left'.

Nigeria - 'Get your civil war over with and I will come back and teach you how to make money'.

Philippines -

Nigeria - 'back to rescue the company, and we start with painting the stores' ... it worked.

Argentina - 'shouting louder didn't work it was a meaty business'.

Japan - died in service.

Mike Cowan.

Later MJC referred to our efforts as, 

'sticking to the knitting'

... a reference to an old best selling book 'In Search of Excellence' from 1982 ... but for Mike it was all about execution - 

'by pass the blockages to let the blood flow to grow the good bits'

... get on with the job ... there was no secret ... it wasn't rocket science ... just nous and beer.  

Derek Holdsworth and Mike Cowan executed strategies by delegating to reliable troops ... when the chips were down don't suffer fools gladly ... and Ross Peterson, Marketing Director was also full of proper business nous. Clear pursuit 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'!

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 at the club with a convivial pint of Star -

'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' ... after 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 (commoditisation) and meanwhile overseas emerging markets were burgeoning and required serious investment. Invest in 'nothing but the best available', 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 ... as expected'.

'There was no effective R&D to speak of. The products became commodities. Anyone could set up a factory and buy the technology 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 was no alternative to continuous innovation.

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 were easily wasted in later years ... whenever we forgot the Unilever Knitting ... and the convivial pints.  

Stan IdellStan Idell

Everybody needed a mate to drink with and help to chew the cud. Stan Idell could not only drink beer he could write Capital Proposals. He was also a golfer who made the Surrey Captain of Captains in 2014. In 1972 he was our Chief Accountant, next door neighbour and confidante .... a founder member of the Dakar Road Gang.

In 2017 we caught up again with Stan who shared 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. 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!

There were endless examples of his penchant for stories which always seemed to be better if taken with a Star or two -

The Power of Beer & Deep Thinking. What deep thinkers we beer drinkers are ... after heavy lawn mowing I sat down and had a beer. The day was beautiful, and the drink started some deep thinking. My wife joined me and asked me what I was doing. I said 'nothing'. I didn't say 'just thinking' because she would have said 'about what'. At that point I would have had to explain that men are deep thinkers about various topics which would then lead to other questions far more taxing than lawn mowing.
So I just thought some more about an age old question: Is giving birth more painful than getting kicked in the nuts?
Women always maintain that giving birth is way more painful than a guy getting kicked in the nuts.
Well, after another beer, and some more thinking, I arrived at an answer to that question.
Getting kicked in the nuts is clearly more painful than having a baby; and the reason for my conclusion?
A year or so after giving birth, a woman will often say, 'It might be nice to have another child'.
On the other hand, you never hear a guy say, 'You know, I think I'd like another kick in the nuts'.
I rest my case. Time for another beer?
But beer was not always instantly available.
Occasionally shortages of Star caused apoplexy in Dakar Road which could be alleviated only by 'the most important man in Apapa’. He was the store manager at the Kingsway Stores. When beer was in short supply, it was he who determined who got beer and who went dry. You also had to return a crate with 12 empty bottles to get your supply. I remember when anyone was leaving there was a always a market in empty beer bottles and crates!  

Stan & Vera had 5 grand kids aged 28 to 19, Alyson with 3 and Fiona with 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.

Catarina WeiserFritz Weiser

Fritz Weiser was a hero and a good friend. Encouragements and conversations with Fritz, and his marketing guru Ross Peterson, helped enormously with our quest for Brand Development ... production quantity in the factory was only half our problem and inseparable from ginormous product quality issues exposed by competitors up the Ikorodu Road in Ikeja ... Patterson Zochonis (an operation at the time run by an old cricketing pal of mine from Chester Boughton Hall CC; Davis Evans). Against all the inevitable & unforeseeable 'Lagos odds' we managed to relaunch & reposition the quality of most of our brand portfolio - Key bar soap, Sunlight tablets, Lux toilet soap, Omo detergent, Astral body cream, Close Up toothpaste, Tree Top fruit drinks ...

The Weiser 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 conversation –
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.

 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.’

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