It was the early 1980s, I was thirty four and out of work. A few years earlier I’d left the family business to find out what life was like on the outside, and I ran a start up retail company that was initially successful. But by year three sales were less impressive, and I was out pretty much overnight. Not wanting to go back, tail between legs, to work with my family, I stubbornly stuck it out, waiting for something else to come along. And it did.
Liverpool had been the site of the first National Garden Festival in the UK, a government initiative to regenerate inner cities. It was open for one summer only, bringing in over three million visitors. Then the land alongside the Mersey river was leased by a developer whose plan was to build and run a permanent theme park on the site, on the lines of Disney World.
I pitched for a contract to set up and run the eight gift shops to be scattered across the park, and was given the job. Amazed at my good fortune, I was quickly immersed in a whole new world, almost entirely male, which was no surprise in those days. The site seemed massive, the architects had bold plans, and construction was already behind schedule.
I spent four days a week In Liverpool, all of which started with an onsite meeting at seven, the air thick with cigarette smoke, where the construction team laid out the plan for the day. I had to know which of my shops would come online when, so that I could get them stocked up and ready to roll. I spent a lot of my days running across the site from one shop to another, and boy did I cover some miles.
The developer was a tall, rotund and genial Liverpudlian, pretty laid back in his management style, but tough when it came to the crunch. The architects and construction company were hard at work, but it soon became clear that in almost every other quarter it was pretty much a question of making it up as we went along – management had no previous theme park experience.
There were meetings to decide on stuff no one had got round to thinking about, which is how I came to be responsible for uniforms. The boss smiled at me and said “you’d be good at that.” Erm… right, OK. There were to be ninety onsite staff, boys and girls in their teens and twenties, and a management team of forty.
I found a manufacturer, and a cheerful, custom made design was approved for the kids. But I had to tell the boss that as HR hadn’t hired any of them in time to meet the deadline for manufacture I’d no idea what to order. Guess he said, and get on with it. Crikey. So – finger in the air, probably seventy percent boys and thirty percent girls, each in a mix of sizes. Then I nervously watched the stream of kids arriving for interviews over the next couple of weeks.
It turned out to be a pretty good guess, saved by a bright spark who suggested hiring a seamstress to be there with her machine when the uniforms were handed out. As it got to the point where there was nothing left that fitted the last dozen or so, she set to work taking apart the remaining garments and re-working them into something the right size for each of them.
I was not so lucky with the management suits. These were to be tailor made and I’d measured each of the staff. Delivery was eleventh hour, and I paced the entrance, eventually phoning the company, who then tracked the van. The uniforms had been packed in boxes that had originally held TVs, as they clearly stated on the outside. Two stops before us they’d been swiped from the van whilst the driver was getting a signature.
We were so close to opening, everyone was frantically busy across the site. I raced to Marks and Spencers, a UK department store, and asked for help. They were brilliant, and in an hour we’d sorted out a smart blazer and trousers for the guys and a lovely suit for the women, in the right colours, and I was back on site. I needed everyone’s sizes, and all my measurements were at home, two hours away.
It must have been really funny to watch. We all had radios, big clunky things, and I was shouting for each manager to give me their size, and for the guys their inside leg measurements. Getting little response, and in fairness it was my crisis not theirs, I remember yelling “come in, come in, answer me for God’s sake, your uniforms have been stolen and I’m trying to get you something to wear!” Some wag replied “must I divulge my inside leg over the airwaves?” And in deadly earnest I was shouting “If you want to have anything to put on it, YES, NOW!
Marks and Spencers saved the day by calling in all items they hadn’t got in stock from other stores overnight, and on opening day everyone was in uniform, and my eight shops were up and running. It was a lovely, sunny day in May, crowds filled the park, and our Environment minister Michael Heseltine gave a rousing speech to our future success. We were all exhausted, but triumphant.
Everything started to unravel from then on. That early summer was mostly chilly, often with misty drizzle blowing in from the river, and I had to order sweaters for all the kids, who were shivering. After the high of opening day visitor numbers were low, and the few who came wandered like lost souls from one mostly empty attraction to the next. Senior management paced the site smiling, saying it’s early days, it’ll pick up.
But it didn’t, and with hindsight it wasn’t hard to see why. On the whole it was not slick, professional and well executed. Everyone had done their job but with far too short a lead time to do anything other than run at it full tilt, and the result was a cobbled together jumble on a rather bare and unwelcoming site. Another year at least in preparation and it could have been much better. Inexperience was blindingly obvious.
But we couldn’t see that then, immersed in the thick of it. My shops were quiet, the merchandise hardly moving. Every week management would come up with some different attraction, pulled together at speed, a vintage car rally, Hawaiian hula dancing, the kids never knew what was coming next. But they were cheerful, cocky, up for anything, even rather bedraggled looking grass skirts and garlands of plastic flowers!
It became obvious that those of us on contract weren’t being paid, and neither were my merchandise suppliers, I was getting angry phone calls. I might have cut my losses and left, but I couldn’t just abandon my team, and I felt if I was present there was a better chance of being paid. We were assured that more funds were being pulled in, there were backers, it was just taking a little time. But morale was crumbling.
Liverpool was far from the vibrant city it is now, and in the early eighties had been in serious decline for some time. The famous docks stood idle, many manufacturing plants had closed, unemployment was at 20%, and there had been serious riots. Derelict buildings and industrial wasteland were common, and it was a rough, tough place to be. Liverpudlians were street wise, bold, bare faced chancers, and who could blame them.
For me, fresh from the country, it was a pretty hair raising experience and I had a lot to learn. I’d interviewed and chosen my own team to run the shops, bright kids who didn’t hesitate to question anything. Surveying the stock in his shop one of them pointed at something saying “Hey, wotcha buy them for, they’ll never sell”. There were plenty of times when my confidence was severely tested.
I’d also hired a manager for daily patrol between shops who’d been a detective in the local police force. He’d left, he said, as his wife didn’t like the hours. I thought at least he’d be sharp eyed, and he was intelligent. Then one day I got a radio message from one of the shops saying their till had been robbed, and they couldn’t find the manager. Neither could I.
When the police came and asked for a list of employees they smiled at his name. Yes he was ex CID, but he hadn’t left, there was no wife, he’d done time for fraud, and he’d have scarpered knowing that even though he wasn’t the thief he’d be the chief suspect. Years later, walking down a busy street in London, I recognised him. “Hello again!” he said as he passed, grinning broadly, leaving me open mouthed.
I stayed in a hotel whilst on site, and my jewellery was stolen whilst I was in the bath. My car was parked on a city street and someone crashed into it, and disappeared of course. And during five months of running round the site I’d lost nine kilos, or twenty pounds, and my clothes were falling off me. I took all the good ones to a tailor to be altered and when I went to collect he was gone, and listed as a missing person. Life in the city.
Emergency management meetings continued pretty much daily, for hours. It was impossible to get to see the boss. Eventually it was well known that there was little hope, so much money was owed it seemed unreal. So we were all stunned, and furious, when one of senior management asked for an ice bucket to be sent into the meetings room, with ice of course. There was very nearly a riot.
A few days later it was all over. The site manager came to see each of us and said the business was insolvent and closing down, I’m sorry, you won’t be paid. He told me to leave there and then, but I refused. I wanted to box up whatever was left in each of the shops with my team, and finish the job I’d begun with such excitement six months earlier. And I did.
Yes, it was an unmitigated disaster, and I was broke, but driving home for the last time, numb and weary, I knew I’d miss it. The people mostly of course, their fast talking, sharp edged humour, and the outspoken, in your face manner I’d come to enjoy. There was such wit, they thought on their feet in an instant, and nothing ever got them down for long. We’d laughed so much, I’d learned and grown so much, and although I couldn’t see it then, I came to understand that it was an experience worth so much more than everything I’d lost. My failures have so often turned out to be my greatest strength.