MORE ABOUT ROBIN
I joined the Scout Cubs aged 7 years but left three weeks later because I “didn’t want to have to wear a uniform.”
I passed the 11 + exam, but declined, to go to Grammar School with my Dad’s support. This was because it “seemed too snobby”, plus, of course, the uniform!
At 13+ I started going to Redhill Technical School (where, incidentally, I had to wear a uniform!).
It was a single-sex school. There was a commercial section of nubile young typists – but unfortunately, we never got to mix). The learning was intense.
I had a natural gift for Technical Drawing — Door Mouldings and such. When my Dad and I had to go for an Interview with the Careers Master, he remarked on this and suggested it as a Career for me. Somewhat puzzled I ask what the top job was in that line and the bemused Master said “Architect.”
“Right” I responded, much to my Dad’s delight, “That’s what I’ll do!”
The Careers Guy said to my Dad, “Will you need a Grant Mr Grantham?” “Yes,” said my Dad. “Well then,” said Careers Guy, “How about a Year at the local Art School, as Robin is a bit light on Art? He won’t be eligible for a State Grant until he’s eighteen.” I had recently turned my 17th Birthday.
So, I went to the local Reigate Art School. The Head was a legendary figure known as Boss. There was no set curriculum. You saw Boss, who asked what interested you. I replied Sculpture. He said OK, then pretty much wall-to-wall Sculpture, no Painting, but you have to do some Life Drawing. Because that applies to everything, OK?
My first Life class… I walked in and there was a woman sitting there, naked. Not wearing a stitch. No one else seemed to have noticed! They were all pinning paper onto drawing board or setting up easels. I felt like shouting “But she hasn’t got any clothes on!!
One Lunchtime I walked towards the Common Room. It was a hut set in the grounds of the Victorian House that formed the basis of the Art College. From it came the weirdest sounds I had ever heard.
I loved Elvis, Heartbreak Hotel and Hound Dog but this music was out of this world! I wondered if Aliens had landed. It turned out to be Chris Barber’s Jazz Band. I must have led a very sheltered life up until then.
So, I studied Basic Art at Reigate in the infill year. Followed by Architecture at Regent Street Polytechnic, in the heart of London.
I loved Architecture. But after a year I decided that the 5 years or more of time lapse between concept and creation was too long for me.
When I told my Dad, his face dropped. But to his credit, all he said was “If that’s what makes you happy, Robin, that’s all that matters”. He was a good and wise Dad.
There I learnt how to Model in Clay and Carve in Wood and Stone. I also worked in the then-new technique of Direct Plaster — plaster onto scrim and chicken wire. I obtained the National Diploma of Design in Sculpture at the end of the course. After this success, I got myself accepted for a Post Graduate Year. It enabled me to create Welded Sculptures as well as learning how to Cast in Bronze and Aluminium.
I then taught in Comprehensive, Grammar and Art Schools. I coached students in Basic Art, Woodwork to GCSE Level, Wood-Carving and Sculpture.
The Film Biz
After a few years, I got into the Film Business. How did I manage that? Well, I was mates with lots of the Students I taught in Art School. In fact, some of them are my closest friends to this day.
One Summer’s day, we were sitting outside the pub on the River Thames at Lunchtime. One of the Guys said Robin, can I ask your advice, please? I said, of course, Pete, what is it?
He said, Well, I’m trying to decide whether to stay on at Art School for another year and get my Intermediate Diploma. Or whether to go into the Film Business. My old man’s a Makeup Guy.
I said Hmm that sound as though that could be interesting, what’s the money like? He told me and I said Pete, grab the opportunity before it disappears!
Back then the Film Biz was what was known as a Closed Shop. A Catch 22, you couldn’t work without a Union Card, and you couldn’t get a Union ticket unless you had experience. Unless, of course, they decided they wanted you.
When Films became big business in the 1920s, the first Makeup Men were Barbers. They had the knowledge and practice of how to invade other people’s personal space.
As the industry grew the Makeup Men became more professional. Talented ones helped produce Horror Classics like Frankenstein. When more staff became necessary, they “kept it in the family” and took in their Wives.
The Wives were excellent Assistants, but potential Chiefs were lacking. When Tom Smith became Secretary of the Makeup Branch of the Union, he was a breath of fresh air.
He persuaded the Members that what they needed was fresh blood. Kids from Art School with natural talent…
And so, the door creaked open for me a couple of years later.
Later, when Maggie Thatcher broke the Unions, the Closed Shop evaporated. But then every Producer’s Bimbo Girl-Friend suddenly became a “Makeup Artist”.
From them, I picked up techniques in creating and applying Makeup Prosthetics in Foam Rubber. My experience in modelling and casting proved invaluable in this.
After 10 years a lovely Film Producer called John Dark gave me my big break as a Chief Makeup Artist on “The People That Time Forgot”.
I then worked on some big productions — An American Werewolf in London, several Bonds and the first Star Wars. But I also had periods out of work, when I mini-cabbed to make ends meet.
Big productions are always thrilling, you feel part of movie history. But the work that I am actually the proudest of was made on a tiny Horror Production called Evil Heritage. I had agreed to work on it without any pay. One task was to produce a Nail File in the Eyeball of a live actor, Martin Potter.
When I was making up John Thaw for the first time he asked in conversation “So, what have you been up to, Robbie”? In the Film Biz, most people felt they had to keep up appearances. Many would have glossed over the previous six months dearth of film work and said, “Last thing I did was a Bond, John.”
But after I was caught nicking sweets from a shop as a 12-year-old schoolboy I made a promise to myself to always be honest. So instead I answered, “Mini-cabbing, John”. “Oh”, he said, “is that a new TV Series, I haven’t heard of it”?
That bout of honesty endeared me to John and he asked for me on every subsequent Series.
You can find a list of many of the Productions I worked on in the International Movie Database IMDb.
I saw an advert in the Sunday Times Colour Supplement in 1980. It was for something called a “Programmable Computer“. I had always had a soft spot for modern technology, so I sent off for one.
Alan Turing had conceived the Universal Turing Machine completely in his head, back in 1936. A fantastic achievement! As well as hastening the end of WWII, this man helped shape our modern world to an unbelievable extent. We all owe him a huge debt of thanks.
I had heard that “Computers” had played chess matches against Humans. Back then, the Grand Masters always won. But Computers had impressed me that they could even play chess.
The Deep Blue Computer defeated the reigning World Champion Gary Kasparov in 1997. It won by 3 games to 2, with one game drawn, a narrow, but historic, victory.
Sir Clive Sinclair made a claim about his ZX80. It was, he said, the first ‘programmable computer’, available in the UK for under a £100.
So, when I got mine, I plugged everything in according to the instructions. My TV acted as a screen. I saw a faint flashing cursor and typed “Can you play Chess?” I pressed Enter and sat back waiting with bated breath.
To my surprise and disappointment, the computer responded with “Syntax Error”. “Hmmm, there’s more to this than I thought!”. That led to a quest to “make computers do what I wanted them to do, not what they wanted to do”.
It still irks me to this day when my computer tries to take over. telling me I need Administrator Approval, etc. before I can do something.
Bitten by the computer bug, over the next decade or so I taught myself to program in Sinclair SUPERBasic. Later I took a Distance Learning Course in ‘C’ Programming. It was from Computeach International Ltd., at my own expense. I passed all three sections — one with a Regular Pass, one with Distinction and the third one with 100%.
The 100% was for a program designed to check the output from 6 printing presses. They used 5 different kind of paper and 5 different types of ink. So, there were 150 different individual combinations of press, paper and ink to check. This would stand me in good stead later in my working career.
No one, it seemed managed to actually leave the film Industry for good. Many had tried but after a while, they got an offer and the lure of the money dragged them back. I had told John Thaw of my plans the year before and he had wished me good luck.
He asked for me anyway, on the pre-penultimate series of “Morse”, in case I’d changed my mind. But when the offer came in, I then took the plunge and turned it down.
As Bob Dylan once said, “It’s a poor man that can’t change horses in mid-stream”.
Work I -SITEL
I had secured myself a job at SITEL Ltd in Kingston-upon-Thames. I was to support the fledgeling Microsoft Network. An exciting new vista opened up before me.
Up until that time, Microsoft hadn’t thought the Internet had much future. But they realised their mistake and MSN was their response. This was in the very earliest days of the popularity of the Internet.
Hardly anyone had an email address back then. This was when I got my first one — I was exhilarated to be a part of the new technology.
I was given a black Rucksack with an MSN Logo on it, which I carried with pride.
I used it for years and years until it finally fell apart. So I then I had a reproduction of the logo embroidered on my brand new Rucksack. I still smile when I look at it.
It was during this time that I was first given access to Microsoft Office. I began to familiarise myself with Excel — Functions, Conditional Formatting, etc. and started delving into Microsoft’s VBA (Visual Basic for Applications) Macros.
Security was so tight at SITEL that the MSN Team had to have an electronic card to get into the building. Once inside, we need yet another card to get into the glass-walled ‘fishbowl’ where we all worked.
During my time there, I worked on all aspects of the MSN Support program. This included Frontline, BackOffice, Billing, Tech Support and Team Management. Billing included weekly Phone Conferences with Microsoft Executives in the States.
I really did feel I was at the cutting edge of the enthralling new technology.
That was when I began to dream that one day, I might have my own website.
Work II -Mobile Direct
I went to work in another sexy technology — mobile phones.
It was at Mobile Direct in Isleworth, before the Mobile phone explosion erupted. I started as a Sales Team Manager guiding a Team of 13 youngsters. Once the business started to grow, I moved on to help set up the new Customer Service Department.
The Company was innovative. The Direct part meant if you phoned in your order before 4 pm you got your brand-new Nokia 5160 the next day.
This was something that I took on board.
I realised that NEXT DAY DELIVERY was an important part of the Company’s appeal.
Their Delivery Partner was a Courier Company. Somehow, they managed to NOT deliver about 15% of all orders by the next day. This led to disappointed and often angry Customers jamming the C S Phones lines.
I did some research and made a suggestion, which Management implemented. They switched distribution to Royal Mail Special Delivery. The numbers of orders delivered as promised rose from 85% to about 98.5%,
But the Warehouse was despatching some orders with incorrect or incomplete addresses.
The Terms of their Contract meant that for Mobile Direct to lodge a Claim, they had to email many details to the Warehouse Management within 24 hours.
They were held all over the place though, so this deadline was far too short.
I talked to the IT Department and learnt how to access details that were held on the Company’s Mainframe Computer.
I then took it upon myself to create a macro I called Claim-For-Me. It collated all the information from unfulfilled orders, from all the disparate sources.
At the click of a button, it emailed everything to the warehouse and lodged a Claim. They estimated it saved the Company over £40,000 a year.
NOW THAT’S WHAT I CALL SHOWING THE COMPUTER WHO’s BOSS!
After a few years, the Mobile bubble burst. Supermarkets began stacking mobiles high and selling them at low prices. Mobile Direct made all its Staff’s Jobs Redundant and folded.
I was on the Dole for several months. I Temped in the Honda Post Room and a Car Leasing Company called LeasePlan in Slough.
Work III -LeasePlan
After a bit, I landed a full-time job at LeasePlan UK. It was a reputable Company that provides Cars to Company Car Drivers. Many of them worked for Blue Chip Companies, such as Diageo (Guinness), Royal Mail and Barclays Bank.
I got the job on the strength of his Excel skills. My first Manager was looking for a way of automating the management of the Compaq Account.
At the time the country was in the middle of a Recession. Compaq Computers had stopped supplying their Driver’s with New Leased Vehicles. They recycled the existing ones until they came to the end of their Leased life and got sold off at Auction. LeasePlan had an enviable reputation for maintaining their vehicles well, so, they were in great demand.
Compaq held the available Vehicles in a nearby Car Pool. Drivers would call me, the Compaq Agent at LeasePlan and ask for a Test Drive of a particular vehicle. I would email the Security at the Carpool who would release the car for a couple of days to the Named Driver. They would then decide to take it or return it and try another.
The problem was in keeping the Available List current. I solved this by creating a couple of spreadsheets with macros. One was a Master List of All Vehicles. The other was a subset of those cars Currently Available.
As soon as a Driver booked a Test Drive the macros transferred the car from Available back to the Master List. So, when a Driver called and asked me for the Available List, I could email it to them straight away. I could guarantee it was up-to-date.
Lucy, my first Manager at LeasePlan was so impressed that she bought me a mug
I don’t think of myself as a genius of course. But I will always remember Lucy with affection and her lovely, confidence-boosting gesture.
Another of LeasePlan’s Blue-Chip Clients was Hewlett-Packard. Known as HP, they took over Compaq. A Senior Manager called Maria recruited me to help her manage the transition.
Subsequently I became a founder Member of her newly-formed Data Management Team. We were a tight-knit, highly-motivated team of five individuals.
I was an integral part of the Team over the next eight years. We used IBMs powerful Business Intelligence Cognos Software. We programmed it to filter meaningful Info from mountains of Data to form cogent Reports.
Both Internal (LeasePlan) an External (Client) Customers requested all sorts of reports. Such things as
- ‘How many of my Fleet are due a Service within the next month?’.
- ‘What are all the vehicles in my Fleet, with full details?’.
- What are all the Details we will need to calculate exactly how much every one of our Drivers will be liable for in Benefit in Kind Tax (BIK or P11D) on the 5th of April?
P11D is the name of the ubiquitous Government Form that has become synonymous with its subject, rather like a P45.
This very word “P11D” elicited groans at LeasePlan. This was because of all its myriad of subtle complexities.
Benefit in Kind tax is due on anything an employee receives instead of wages. So, for example, if a Farm Worker gets a dozen eggs or a rent-free cottage, it is fair that they should pay tax on them. In exactly the same way as if they had got the value in a salary.
Sounds straightforward enough, but the devil, as they say, is in the detail. The C02 Emissions from the Car Exhaust play a large part in deciding the Income Tax the Driver is liable for.
A Driver who chose a Low-Emissions car would save on tax, but one who chose a gas-guzzling monster would pay lots.
But what if they had a different, Hired Car for a Month, while their regular one was in the garage, being repaired? If their regular car was a Jag and the replacement VW Polo surely, they are due some remission. True, but EXACTLY how much?
Well, that depends on precisely how long he was actually in the Hire Car for. Different rules apply if it is under or over 5 days, different rules again under or over 30 days. What if the recorded end date was even before the start date? Plus, many, many more.
All the time under the eagle-eyes of often powerful individuals ready to scream if they had to pay a single £ over the top. Same if it was under — “Now I have to find MORE money!”
In short, it was a nightmare.
I helped bring some sanity to this craziness with a Macro I called FORMAT-BIK. It was many thousands of lines of code and I often had to amend and develop it.
It formatted a raw report that came out of LPs Mainframe Computer. ‘Raw’ means it was full of Typos and Incorrect Data Entries. Things like ‘100’ instead of ’10’, ‘Jhon’ instead of ‘John’ — does that mean they are two different Drivers? The number of different checks it had to do were vast and complex.
I was grateful for the training I had received from Computeach. It had given me the confidence to tackle huge complex projects like this.
Here is the splash screen from my program.
Amanda was the team colleague who was our BIK Expert.
I spent one entire day, seconded to work one-to-one with Director Matt. He tasked me with using my VLookUp skills to help him manipulate huge spreadsheets of data. At the end of the day, together, we had managed to filter out all the Information that he needed.
I also created many bespoke Macros, some at Senior Managers’ and Directors’ Requests. So much so that I became known as ‘Mr Macro’. One of my most pervasive was KPIs — Key Performance Indicators.
Every Monday, Team Managers would fill in one of my Spreadsheets with current data. Everything that related to their Team’s Performance over the previous week.
Such things as the Average Number of Seconds to Answer Phone Calls. That was for the entire Team over the preceding week.
(Yes seconds — LeasePlan was a Company of highly-motivated people).
Number of Queries: Outstanding Under 24 hours, Outstanding Over 24 hours, etc.
The Macro coloured the statistics in Traffic-Light Colours.
The Managers suggested the criteria themselves together with their Senior Manager and me.
For instance, Phone Response Time under 5 seconds was a Green, 5 to 10 seconds Amber and over 10 seconds got a red.
On Monday afternoons the Senior Managers would review the results. They clicked a button on their own spreadsheets. Within seconds they would have two Summaries in front of them.
The first was All their Teams’ Performances side by side. They could see, by the predominance of Green in one Team’s Results that they were doing well. Whereas lots of Amber and Red in another’s might be a cause for concern.
The Second Summary plotted each Teams Progress Throughout the Year. This could show the influence of a new Manager on a Team. Changes to work surroundings sometimes featured too.
Their use became universal throughout the whole of the Frontline Third Floor at Slough. They were so popular that I was asked to produce a version for one of LPs Subsidiaries, Fleetline at Milton Keynes. They catered for Clients with medium-sized Fleets of about a hundred. The Clients of LeasePlan UK at Slough had Fleets in the thousands.
I am a firm believer in the creative and intuitive use of statistics in Management.
During my time at LP, I felt privileged to receive LeasePlan’s Training and Experience.
Their Training is legendary and it covers a multitude of Subjects. Participation is usually voluntary. Subjects range from Negotiation to Volume Related Bonuses. from Word to How to Make Your Point in Meetings.
I became part of this, I was recognised as a ‘Best Practitioner’ in Excel. We were the first points of contact for queries throughout the 600 or so employees of LP UK. I taught all sorts of staff from Seasoned Directors to newly-recruited Frontline Executives. I helped de-mystify such things as Functions and VLookUp Tables.
The most enjoyable training I received was in First-Class Customer Service. This was as formulated by Mary Gober.
The essence of her philosophy is to be upbeat. To avoid such negative words as ‘can’t and ‘unfortunately’. Even ‘no problem!’, if you think about it is a combination of two negatives.
One of Mary Gober’s tenets is a Positive First Response. I was in the Royal Horticultural Society Gardens at Wisley’s Plant Shop. I asked if there was a toilet in the building?
The response was ‘No there isn’t, but there is one next door’. This may seem fine at first. The Shop Assistant was answering my direct question and telling the literal truth. What more could you ask for?
Well, the brain starts to interpret the sounds as soon as they fall on our ears. So, your first reaction to ‘No there isn’t’ is ‘Oh, no!’.
It is not until the brain has processed the fourth word that hope starts to rise.
How much better would it have been if the negative part of the response had been unspoken?
Something like ‘Yes, there’s one straight ahead, if you go out that door and turn left!’.
The influence of a Positive First Response is both subtle and powerful.
Another thing she emphasises is that a Complaint is like a Nugget of Gold! How come?
Statisticians have demonstrated that Residual Customer Loyalty averages round about 9%. That is to say that under a tenth of all BT’s Customers are with them, because they always have been. The same goes for most other Big Banks and Utility Companies.
BUT and it is a huge one, if a Customer Complains and two things happen
- A Company Representative sorts the complaint out to the Customers satisfaction AND
- They do so in a matter of hours or at most days
THEN something happens that many of us had not considered. The Customer’s Loyalty towards the Company rises.
Think about it. If you are someone who depends on his car. A Travelling Salesperson perhaps. You have a problem with your car that your Garage were supposed to have fixed already. You take it back to them, down-hearted. They sort it out while you wait and don’t charge you anything.
How are you feeling towards that Company changed?
For the better, huh?
In that situation, Customer Loyalty sky-rockets to an amazing 90%!
So, the next time YOU receive a complaint don’t sigh and resign yourself. Grab it as a Golden Nugget of an opportunity!
LeasePlan have a Special Scheme. It allows any employee to gift Flowers, Champagne or Chocolates to a Customer. The employees reciprocated the trust shown in them by Management. The Scheme is never abused.
They have shown that Mary Gober’s Customer Service Philosophy has all sorts of benefits. These include
- Staff Morale,
- Reduced Staff Turnover,
- Increased Customer Satisfaction as well as
- Increased Sales.
I am also a firm believer in positive Customer Service and Your-Mirror’s Motto is
We Commit Ourselves to Treat our Customers as we would like Others to Treat Us.
I carried on working four years beyond my official retirement age. It did wonders for my State Pension.
For Relaxation, I enjoy Photography, Writing Blog Posts for Your-Mirror, Cooking. Making Excel Macros, some Gardening and DJ-ing online three days a week as DJ Nibz.
You can hear me on Muddy’s Music Café Radio on Wednesday mornings from 10 am to 12 midday gmt and bst. I spin Top 40 tunes from right now to back to the ’70s there.
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You can contact me preferably by using the On Reflection Feedback Form at the foot of every page of Your-Mirror. O, if you prefer, at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org