MY FIRST responsible job was as a production manager at a fish processing factory in Grimsby. I was only 28, but Associated Fisheries, which owned the factory, had picked me to turn it round.
At the time, it was losing several hundred thousand pounds a year. I had been trained in every part of the industry and was used to coming home every evening reeking of fish. I set about improving the factory's fortunes with a will.
I had immense autonomy and quickly learned that the trick was to balance the buying according to the production plan, prices and raw materials.
I would also trade fish. When people used to wake me in the middle of the night to sell me 10 tons of Dutch plaice, I would simply wake someone else and sell the fish on to them.
We used to get all sorts of people coming round the factory and one day the group export manager turned up with a party of Italian chaps. We brought them to the fish market, where a load of squid had just been landed and this clearly excited the Italian interest.
The export manager asked me what the squid would be used for. Fish bait, I told him. He then talked to the Italians and announced that he could sell any amount of squid to Italy - for eating - at a vast profit to us.
I was enthused. The next time a big load of squid was landed, I went back and bought the lot - somewhere around 15 tons of it. I stopped all other buying for the day and went back to the factory.
The foreman, far older than I, asked why I was back so early. I told him, and said that he should clear everything else so that we could pack the squid.
'Oh dear,' he clucked, 'what have you done?' I was a bit put out and assured him vigorously over the excellence of the deal.
The squid started to arrive and the factory workers leapt upon it, soon building a mountain on one side and a tiny pile on the other. The foreman said that they were sorting it.
I said - looking at the small pile - that if we were only rejecting that much, we were going to do very well. He said that we were not. The small pile was the one we were selling to Italy; the mountain was the rejects.
'Didn't you know that you can't sell anything over there that is over two inches long?' he asked. Apparently, big squid are too rubbery to eat.
I had to sell virtually all of it as frozen fish bait for less than I paid for it: I lost the whole cost of running the factory for that day.
I owe a lot to squid. It was my biggest mistake, but since that first well-intentioned management bungle I have learned that if you buy right, you sell right. It is a simple precept that I have carried with me ever since.
Indeed, it was why Wardle Storeys has stayed away from acquisitions for the past few years. At the end of the 1980s, the market was far too bullish. More than that, it was becoming clear to us - we supply more than 100 sectors of industry - that we were going into recession.
This tests weak managements and throws up genuine opportunities. Given that the success of acquisitions depends on timing and price, I felt that we had time on our side, particularly since we were cash-rich.
This policy has stood us in good stead. I see good opportunities to buy right, but I can still detect an overlarge squid at a very considerable distance. I have done my buying of those.
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