My Biggest Mistake: Naim Attallah

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The Independent Online
NAIM ATTALLAH, 61, is deputy chairman and group chief executive of Asprey, and managing director of Watches of Switzerland, Mappin & Webb and Asprey SA Geneva. He became a bank manager before leaving the business in 1973 to become a consultant and impresario. The following year he co-produced The Slipper and the Rose with David Frost, and in 1982 was executive producer of Brimstone and Treacle. He owns Quartet books, The Women's Press and Robin Clark, and is the author of two books, Women and Singular Encounters.

MY BIGGEST mistake was to delegate tasks without supervising their execution. In 1973, I gave up a lucrative career in the City to start up on my own. Since my early childhood I had wanted to be involved in the arts, so I borrowed pounds 10,000 from the bank and formed my company, Namara.

One day I was asked by Yorkshire Television to be the consultant for a trilogy called The Arab Experience.

While filming in Egypt, they used some local street musicians. I was highly impressed with the music, and it occurred to me that if I could Westernise it a bit, we might get an LP out of it.

Then I heard a musician called David Fanshawe who had been out in the African bush. He was chanting to the rhythm of drums, and I thought, 'That's my man'.

I commissioned him to record the music I wanted, then arranged a deal with EMI. The advance alone meant I wasn't out of pocket, and the album was fairly successful. Unfortunately it went to my head. I didn't realise it was just beginner's luck.

Next we went to Bahrain and filmed The Arabian Fantasy, a musical that we sold to the BBC. Again it was relatively successful; I thought I had the magic hand, I just couldn't lose.

Then I came up with the most preposterous idea of putting The Arabian Fantasy on at the Albert Hall. Everyone said I was crazy to think I could fill the place, but it made me more determined than ever.

I am often criticised for not delegating, but in this instance I left the stage management to others while I concentrated on ticket sales.

On the night, my wife and I dressed up and sat in the box to watch the show for the first time.

As soon as it started, I realised that although the Albert Hall was full, I had filled it with the wrong people.

My contacts in those days were in the City. They weren't part of the younger set, they were relatively old. And they were not expecting to see a man chanting like a lunatic to way-out music, surrounded by dancing girls.

I could tell the audience didn't like it, and I didn't know where to put my face. It was supposed to be my night of triumph. It was a disaster. It wasn't anybody's fault: there was a lot of talent involved, but it was incoherent.

During the interval my wife refused to leave the box, and when the performance resumed the Albert Hall was half-empty.

Next day the critics tore me apart. The show was described as vulgar, amateurish. One said he had heard people in the bar during the interval saying, 'My God, it's awful'.

That mistake haunts me to this day, because every time I have an argument with my wife she says, 'Why don't you go and book the Albert Hall and give us one of your performances?' Year after year, she taunts me with it]

Obviously I learnt a great deal. First, if you delegate, you must be involved. I should have been there, watching rehearsals, having my say.

I also learnt that success does not come easily. Your objective in life must be to come as near to perfection as possible. It's very difficult if you are dabbling in something you don't understand, and in those days I had no experience.

Most important of all, I learnt that the worst thing that can happen to one isn't loss of money - because that is replaceable - it's loss of credibility. I could never do anything mediocre again.

(Photograph omitted)