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My Biggest Mistake: John Roskalns

MY BIGGEST mistake was being flattered by the idea of becoming a director without realising what responsibilities it entailed.

It was 1976 when I joined the board of a small company that made all sorts of terracotta products. I was 22 and felt very important. The chairman was a chartered accountant, so he looked after the financial side of the business. As general manager, I had enough to do dealing with sales and marketing.

It isn't easy trying to make terracotta in the UK because of the climate. That's why it is usually manufactured in Spain, where it is easier to dry the product before firing it.

We were selling to stores such as Habitat, so it was important to get it right. Unfortunately, the production problems meant that our target sales figures were not achieved. And even with my limited experience it was fairly obvious that we were not able to fund the business sensibly.

We struggled through the next nine months, during which I became increasingly concerned. Eventually, in a very stormy meeting with the chairman, I made it clear that we could not continue letting customers down.

He responded by saying it was time for us to part company. I was out there and then; I had to leave the company car, everything.

Six months later, by which time I was working at Charnos, I got a call from the Inland Revenue saying it wanted to come and talk to me. It claimed that considerable amounts of tax that had been deducted from salaries had not been paid over. The Inland Revenue doesn't mess about: it promptly issued a writ against me for pounds 18,000. Luckily, I had kept copies at home of all the minutes from the board meetings. They demonstrated that I had been told by the chairman that I must spend my time on sales and marketing and that he was looking after the business side.

I issued a counter-writ defending myself. As a result, the Inland Revenue withdrew its claim against me and pursued the chairman instead. The outstanding sums were eventually recovered.

I had been so impressed with the idea of running a company that it never seemed important to me to find out about its finances. I never realised that if anything went wrong when it came to the Inland Revenue or preferential creditors I could be personally liable.

Looking back, I was extremely lucky. Many people have been bankrupted by making the same mistake.

The moral is: if you're offered a directorship you should first get your hands on all the figures for the last three years. You have to make sure you are involved enough in the company to know what is going on.

It was a very good lesson to learn at such an early age. It gave me such a fright that I spent a lot of time and effort learning how to understand balance sheets so that I would never get into that corner again.

I still come across a lot of people - both young and old - who believe that being on the board is somehow glamorous, without realising the responsibilities involved.

The fact is, whether you are an executive director or a non-executive director, you must stand by those responsibilities. Otherwise you will be brought to book.

The managing director of Debut worked in a variety of businesses before joining the Lycra clothing maker as sales and marketing director in 1985. It turns over pounds 4.5m and is in the Independent on Sunday's survey of leading private companies.

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