Nearly 50 years ago, two books informed my business life. The Waste Makers
by Vance Packard and Do You Sincerely Want to be Rich?
by Charles Raw. The first explained how modern industrial growth was based on making products that would not last. The second was about how a sharp salesman called Bernard Cornfeld built a financial empire based on sand.
As a result, my mindset was always one of caution, constantly looking for possible problems and avoiding risk. My business partners had to be blue chip and clients the same. For a while my hero was Alfred P Sloan, who as well as building General Motors (GM) into the biggest corporation the world had ever seen, came up with the extraordinary 'What is good for GM is good for America' philosophy. He also pioneered the planned obsolescence concept that Vance Packard had spotted.
My business life was marked by steady if not stellar growth. And if you believe that, you will believe anything. In reality, I lurched from crisis to crisis as my uneducated approach was matched by carefully selected partners who proved to be rather less capable than expected. My first took me into partnership, instantly went on holiday, and left a drawerful of unanswered letters and bills. Later, he decided he did not want a partnership but total control of the company. We parted on bad terms.
After a few solo years, I found a new partner in London and we embarked on a love-hate relationship that was clearly all his fault. My impeccable mindset made me work crazily long hours for clients and ignore our business. Stupidly, he kept a beady eye on the bottom line and did as little as possible for as few clients as decency would allow. We might not have stayed together but being taken over meant we were able to remain friends for the rest of his life.
And how did things work out for those key figures in my inspirational books? Vance Packard wrote a brilliant series of books describing the changing impact of American enterprise on managers, the threats to privacy from new technology, and finally, that preoccupation with money, power, status and sex was ignoring the needs of future generations. He died worrying about humanity. Bernard Cornfeld went to prison, was acquitted and clung on to enough money to live out a luxurious lifestyle in California, befriending everyone from Elizabeth Taylor to Warren Beatty. He died of MRSA in London, obsessed by health foods and vitamins, but unworried.
I wish I had picked two different books.
I have reached an age when I can no longer reach for a Black and Decker let alone climb up a stepladder – but I'm not complaining. It happens to everyone who lives long enough. But one then needs to find a handyman and that is when things start getting complicated.
I have a bedroom with a single window and bay window on the same wall, which is fairly common in terraced Edwardian houses. When I bought it, the previous owner, a DIY man, had fitted along that wall a wooden pelmet – they were fashionable then. It is innocuous and has stayed there. But my house guests keep pulling the curtains off the rail and I decided I would get new rails installed with cords they could pull. But who to do it?
There are companies galore online who fit curtain rails but only if you are buying their curtains. The Street Whatsapp, which usually comes to the rescue, only came up with one name and number of someone they had used and that was obsolete. I tried one of those Check a Trade sites where you advertise your job but nobody wanted to know, partly, it seemed, because the site charges the tradesman for getting the job if their quote is accepted by me. I tried the company who provide my garden maintenance and weekly house cleaner service as they allegedly have a handyman on tap but they want details of the job in advance rather than – and a call-out fee is perfectly acceptable – send him or her to look at the windows and quote.
After a lot of searching, I have found a company who will, for a fee, come and measure the windows properly and then revise their quote which they made on the basis of the measurements I had given them. The job quote is acceptable since I can relate it to what I paid John Lewis to do a couple of bay windows some 10 years back. Their site has appreciative quotes from past customers although that is to be expected and one has to take on trust that the result will be good but I don't have to pay for that until it is completed.
The palaver involved seems endless and I still have to get that wooden pelmet taken down and disposed of. It might once have provided firewood but house fires do not exist and it certainly cannot go on a bonfire in the garden as I would probably burn the street down. When we had a corner shop, I could have put a card up in the window seeking the elusive handyman and one would almost certainly have appeared. Unfortunately, the internet 'window' is seen by the wrong people – they are unlikely to be, as the shop window card reader would have been, somebody local and therefore interested.
Back in 1997, Labour told us in song that things could only get better. It may not be their fault since there have been other governments since but sadly they have not
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