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Thursday, August 1, 2013

Change at work, John Ruskin, Hot Air and Mel Smith.

It is all change at work; after 33 years the founder of Grass Roots has stepped down and the largest shareholder, WPP has taken control. With billings of £44 billion, WPP have 165,000 employees in 110 countries in over 350 different companies. Founded by current CEO, Sir Martin Sorrell, the group has grown to be the world leader in marketing communications services. At Grass Roots we are just a tiny part of that but we have great ambitions to grow and I believe this will accelerate in the next few years. Next week sees the start of our new CEO, Richard Bandell, there is another new Group Director due to be announced soon, and it is clear that we will be seeing a lot of change in the months to come. As a shareholder, this is exciting news; as an employee it brings some anxiety as change always does. My colleague Julie White, celebrated her 30th year at Grass Roots last week and it is my turn in a couple of years if I make it! 

Prior to Grass Roots I worked for a year at KPMG in The City. My father wisely advised me to ‘get a proper job’ so I did but accountancy was not for me, particularly after I had had a taste (for two summers in a row) of Grass Roots and the exciting fast paced business that we were in the early days. At Grass Roots in 1980 and 1981 I worked in a castle at a commercial vehicle launch, I organised the arrival of the Coldstream Guards, I had been sent to London to buy army uniforms for 50 beautiful models; and when someone needed something for a client programme they would often chuck me the keys to their car and asked me to go and sort it. Maybe that’s when I started to love great cars.... 

Before KPMG and Grass Roots, I tended to fill my summer and Christmas holidays with whatever work I could find to earn a bit of money: I worked for the Post Office delivering letters in Whetstone in North London. There was quite a lot of snow on the ground one Christmas and it was very cold and I remember two things. An elderly lady said I must be cold when I delivered her post, and she asked if I wanted to come in and have a warm drink, and back at the depot, I mentioned how bloody cold it was and one of the Union Reps asked if I wanted to make that comment officially and we would organise some industrial action! One summer I worked at an advertising agency off Baker Street. My main memory here was that my boss was going through a nasty divorce and the mood in the office was pretty influenced by his mood which was very black at times. In some ways the job that had the greatest influence on me was working on the production line at a company in Friern Barnet that made music centres. These were basically wooden cabinets that had integrated record players, cassettes players and speakers. At the time they were sold in John Lewis and other places. My friend and I went to see the management (having consulted the other workers) to ask for higher pay if we produced a higher number of units per day. They refused so we went on a go slow and produced far fewer than before. They went bust not much later. But this would probably have happened anyway as technology was moving away from these old cabinet stereos. So don’t blame me!

Next I would like to talk about John Ruskin, whose house, Brantwood, we visited recently on the banks of Coniston Water in the Lake District. Wikipedia describes him as “the leading English art critic of the Victorian era, also an art patron, draughtsman, watercolourist, a prominent social thinker and philanthropist. He wrote on subjects ranging from geology to architecture, myth to ornithology, literature to education, and botany to political economy”. What struck me was the diversity of his talent, the long period of time over which he influenced the world and his extraordinary vision. In art he championed and promoted Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites, who became his friends. In economics he argued for a minimum wage and for a welfare state: Clement Attlee (who formed the first Labour government which created the NHS) acknowledged his debt to Ruskin. Marcel Proust much admired Ruskin and translated his work into French. Leo Tolstoy described him as “one of the most remarkable men not only of England and of our generation, but of all countries and times” and Mahatma Gandhi talked about the “magic spell” that Ruskin’s work cast on him. And Ruskin College in Oxford, which was originally intended for ‘working men’ was named after him. Interest in Ruskin’s legacy appears to have increased in the 21st century. If you get the chance to visit Brantwood, do. Not only will you learn about Ruskin, but you can see some of his work and his lovely house set in one of the most beautiful spots in the Lake District.

John Ruskin by John Everett Millais at The Ashmolean Museum

A couple of weeks ago we finally managed to get up in a Hot Air Balloon. My sons bought me a ticket for my 50th birthday last year and the three of us were available, the weather was good and the balloon was ready to fly! Quite a difficult trio of circumstances to get to co-incide I can promise you. As I left the office to drive to the launch site and meet my sons, our Legal Counsel asked if I would like him to update my will. Genevieve had been begging us not to go because she was so worried. Needless to say it was a textbook take-off flight and landing. The balloon companies are not given permission to fly unless the weather conditions are perfect and the pilots are very experienced. We really enjoyed inflating the balloon and then gently and beautifully lifting off the ground and floating at 200 metres. It is magic! The Oxfordshire countryside is stunning from the air with Oxford City spires as the backdrop and the John Radcliffe hospital never far from sight as if it were a reminder to take it easy! Mid-flight, Justin our pilot picked up a camera, fiddled with it and chucked it overboard to our gasps and amazement. A moment later, the camera re-appeared, suspended on some wires and ready to photograph us! The picture we bought was pretty good! We had a perfect landing in a farmer’s field some 10 miles from where we took off. The lady farmer appeared a minute later in her 4x4 to see if everyone was all right, exchanged a few words with the pilot and crewman and then left us to pack up the balloon. Following a glass of champagne, we jumped in the Landover which took us back to the launch site. I really enjoyed the experience and will be happy to take another flight in the future.

I took this picture as we flew over Oxford

It was sad to hear that the comedian Mel Smith died after a long bout of poor health at the age of just 60.  I remember well the revolution that ‘Not the Nine o’clock News’ caused when it first aired.  I was still at school and one of my friends had an early video recorder (we were very jealous) and we used to go to his house to watch them.  Mel Smith was one of the stars along with Rowan Atkinson, Griff Rees Jones and Pamela Stephenson.  It was a new different type of humour, following on from the mould breaking shows Monty Python and Faulty Towers.  The other programme I will remember him most for was ‘Alas Smith and Jones’ where he did a brilliant face to face with Griff Rees Jones.  The two of them went on to create TalkTalk without which we may never have had their productions Di Ali G show, I’m Alan Partridge and many more.  I will watch Mel’s shows again.  It requires a very special talent to make millions of people laugh and laugh.

“There is no wealth but life.” John Ruskin

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