Once Works Well was pure technology. Now it seeks merely to divert.
Pansy subjects - Verse! Opera! Domestic trivia! - are now commonplace.
The 300-word limit for posts is retained. The ego is enlarged

Saturday, 8 November 2008

A manufacturer for our times

“So what kind of magazine is it? The shitty kind?” Ivor Tiefenbrun opening the batting when I interviewed him in 1987 about his Glasgow hi-fi systems company, Linn Products. No complaints, it was a dream interview.

Linn is renowned for quality and prices. An LP turntable (they still do them) costs £2000, plus £250 for the power supply. But I was there to find out how products were made. Tiefenbrun’s methods were ambitious and techno-sharp-edge. “Automation as the first step to more automation,” Tiefenbrun said. Getting hold of the stuff wasn’t giving him any joy.

Tilting back, feet on the desk, in jeans and an open-necked shirt (both rare among businessmen then) and wreathed in Gauloise smoke, he railed against suppliers’ poor service and lack of realism. “One quote for the automated handling system was bigger than the budget for the whole new factory. Another company was well down on price but they gazumped us.”

And: “Planning delays eroded our budgets and cost us a fortune. All the state bodies have buggered us about. Some 10% of the building cost is related to fire protection; it’s just a joke.”

A lot of it was too technical – but funny and profane – for general consumption. If he hadn’t been someone with a worldwide reputation he might have been seen as a blowhard. But he often knew more about technology than those supplying it. Later I actually paid to hear him speak about manufacturing at a prestige event organised by the Royal Society of Arts. One memorable sentence: “Those that didn’t know about willies would think it was a good thing to have.”


Plutarch said...

A telling quote. A business man in a collarless shirt was, as you say, unusual in those days. A man who worked for J Walter Thompson in London at about that time, was trying to persuade me of the merits of one his company's clients. He wore a tie. But I was struck by the fact that his boss, whom he introduced me to, didn't, -an ommision which I took to be a mark of seniority.

Sir Hugh said...

My career involved interviewing businessmen and persuading them to use our facilities to finance new plant and equipment. I also had to underwrite the business having a personal acceptance authority of £50k. We had a lot of fun continually updating our list of warning signs for companies and directors who were showing signs of meglomania; here is a selection from the list:
Personalised number plates on Rolls
Company flagpole
Fountain in forecourt
Fish tank in boardroom
Founder's statue in reception
Company yacht/aeroplane
Directors using military titles
Obsession with tax avoidance
Too many bankers
Too friendly with bankers
Personal jewelry (male directors)
Unshaven (two day stubble)
Golf balls on carpet and bag in corner
Director wearing dark glasses in office
Cream summer suit (in winter)
Half rolled up shirt sleeves
Desk on dais
Delay in producing audited accounts
Lots of subsidiary companies (with different year ends)

Barrett Bonden said...

Plutarch: And then there was the choice of car for those in PR. Too lavish and clients might say they had bled to provide the car, too nondescript and clients might query the PRO's success level. The best compromise I was told was a Volvo station wagon.

Sir Hugh: Can't improve on this comprehensive list. However there is one important quote from Tiefenbrun I had to omit. As a potentially high-tech customer he told me he didn't do business with managers who lacked a computer on their desk. These days that would be a very obvious deficiency; then, many managers thought computer keyboards represented lack of status (ie, "only secretaries type".)

Anil P said...

So much character to him. I wonder if we would get folks like him now.

Barrett Bonden said...

Welcome Anil. You're right, he is a remarkable man. After giving me a hard time at the beginning of the interview as I indicate, we got on very well. So much so that when he moved into his new factory, designed by Richard Rogers, he invited me to inspect it.

That's why the tribute I pay to him is appropriate. As a magazine editor I was able to get into many events free. The fact that I paid is proof of what I thought about him.