My Biggest Mistake: Michael Day

Michael Day, 46, is chairman of The Huge Cheese Company, and Britain's only Prevot of the Guilde des Fromagers. His career began in a meat paste factory, then after three miserable years in a merchant bank he was persuaded by his father in 1974 to take over the running of Harvey and Brockless, a cheese delivery firm in Sussex. In 1982 the firm was sold and he set up The Huge Cheese Company, which today has a turnover of pounds 2m, supplying more than 300 top restaurants, hotels and corporate dining rooms including the Ritz, the Savoy and the Inter-Continental Group.

MY BIGGEST mistake was about six years ago, when I took a trip to the Netherlands to see if we could sell to the Dutch Prime Minister, Ruud Lubbers.

We were already supplying Margaret Thatcher and President Mitterrand, and I thought it would be fun if we could sell to all the European leaders.

My girlfriend, whom I had met on a blind date at a Masters of Cheese dinner in Switzerland, worked in the Dutch parliament, and she had set up a meeting with the Prime Minister's secretary. So I boarded a plane with 30lb of Cheddar and 25lb of Stilton and went to The Hague.

I had to wait outside the parliament building for quite a long time, and since I was only in the Netherlands for the weekend I was growing a bit impatient.

About half an hour went by and still nobody came. The whole trip seemed futile and I was extremely irritated. Eventually somebody came and took us upstairs. He led us into a spectacular octagonal room overlooking a small lake, and we chatted over a cup of coffee.

I was still thinking this was a big waste of a Saturday morning, wondering who this clot in front of me was and why he had made me wait, when after about five minutes, he said 'What is it you actually want?'

Assuming that he was Ruud Lubbers's secretary, I gave him some cheese as a backhander and asked him to see that the Prime Minister was given the rest.

At this point, my girlfriend said 'This is the Prime Minister.' I carried on explaining that we were supplying Margaret Thatcher and President Mitterrand, when it suddenly sank in.

With a terrible flush of embarrassment, I realised I had made a complete idiot of myself. I leapt to my feet, said 'Sir, how do you do?', and started stuttering.

It just seemed so extraordinary that the three of us were sitting around having a cup of coffee on a Saturday morning, when most prime ministers would be busy running the government or having important people to see.

He obviously regarded it as a bit of light relief and just laughed. I think he quite enjoyed not being recognised, and then seeing my embarrassment.

I realised he was mortal, like the rest of us, and he certainly had a sense of humour. I have been a fan of Lubbers ever since.

After we left I was slightly hysterical. If I was going to try to sell cheese to him, I should have made sure I recognised the man. I should have done more research, been better prepared.

But in some ways, being naive and unaware of his status made it easier. I felt less intimidated, because he was such a natural, relaxed person. If I had known who I was going to meet, I would have felt much more stressed.

I wasn't in awe of him because I thought he was the secretary, therefore we were able to talk as equals. In fact, because of the positioning of my cheeses throughout Europe, I was probably quite arrogant.

But while it made me feel humble and foolish, and determined not to be quite so disorganised next time, it has not really changed the way I do business.

Most important people find spontaneity quite refreshing. You can usually make them laugh by not behaving in a subservient way.

I don't mean to be impertinent, but I think a little bit of enterprise gets you a lot further than just following in line with everybody else.

(Photograph omitted)

A 1930 image of the Karl Albrecht Spiritousen and Lebensmittel shop, Essen. The shop was opened by Karl and Theo Albrecht’s mother; the brothers later founded Aldi
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