The Pietermaritzburg years.
On an October day in 1973, I was driving my frail Vauxhall Viva, from Durban to Pietermaritzburg, when the second coming of Noah’s flood struck. The highway became a torrent and in spite of the valiant efforts of my windscreen wipers, I could barely see the road. I pulled to the left and slowed to a crawl, realizing that I’d be late for my appointment and that the glorious future I’d imagined that morning, was about to disappear into the gloom. My thinking must have been along the lines of ‘Things can’t get worse!’ when, of course, they did. The driver’s side windscreen wiper gave up the unequal struggle and I was reduced to driving by ear. My guardian angel said ‘Do the sensible thing, stop the car and wait for the rain to abate!’, whilst to my left, the devil whispered ‘Bugger it, take a chance!’ – I pressed blindly on.
My trip had been occasioned by a casual chat with a Burroughs engineer in the computer centre at the University of Natal in Durban. One of my final year elective subjects was a new course called Business Data Processing, and one of the assignments was to write an automatic change dispensing program in COBOL. I was fine with the logic of the assignment but the syntax of COBOL had me floored and I spent hours (in the evenings –I was a part time student) in the computer centre, punching and re-punching punch cards and printing out reams of paper littered with error messages. At some point, the Burroughs site engineer took pity on me (or more likely wanted to get me out of the place so that he could shut it down for the night) and lent a hand. During the chat, he mentioned that the Burroughs Pietermaritzburg branch was on the lookout for a sales jock. So there I was on the way to the interview, in the pouring rain, half an hour late for the appointment.
Somehow, I made it to Maritzburg and met with Henk Koning, who sat me in a room and following my ordeal by water, subjected me to ordeal by psycho test. Somehow I made it through the tests and the interview (or perhaps there were no other candidates). A couple of weeks later, I was summoned to Albany House, in Durban, to meet with Warwick Chapman and Herman Knothe and on the first of December 1973 I was officially on the Burroughs payroll.
The PMB branch was in new offices in Greyling Street to go with an entirely new sales team. Henk was the newly appointed BM, replacing Dave Harrington, who had gone off to start an office machines shop with Dave Short. The balance of the sales team were Geoff Lamb, who had just arrived from Uganda, via Zambia, and Trevor Jarvis who had been recruited in the UK.
Henk showed me how to switch on a series C (5000 ?) display calculator and handed me over to Trevor, to show me the ropes (Trevor had started the previous month, so was considered an old hand). The drawback was that Trevor was of a nervous disposition and the thought of making cold calls terrified him. He was however, by my standards, a maestro at the keyboard, so we complimented one another, I had no difficulty making the pitch, and he did the dem. In spite of this dream team, weeks went by and we barely had a bite. I was on the point of despair, when someone on my patch called in enquiring about an adding machine (we had no stock and I had only seen a picture of one in a brochure) so armed with my brochure, and no possibility of being called on to demonstrate, I set out. It seems that their need to add up columns of numbers was greater than my ineptitude as a salesman and by some oddity of nature, I made my first sale. I had sold a picture of a series J.
The balance of the team, as far as I can remember, were Dennis Pennington who headed up CS and Cheryl (?) who looked after admin. The CS team included Pat Smylie, Glen Bavistock, a certain P D Castle, and (I think) Mike Watress, (please don’t be offended if I’ve left out your name – I’m allowed to forget, I’m old).
We also had a couple of wandering minstrels, who came up from Durban to look after the medium system at Alcan. When they were in the office, they would take up a spare desk in the sales room. Amongst this band of vagabonds were Norman Sinclair-Bains, Ed Lord, Alan Gardener and a Welshman called Mike (whose surname escapes me, but was no doubt Jones, Evans, or Williams). Norman, Alan and Mike were all sociable and fell in easily with the banter in the sales room and would join us for a beer at the Thistle on Friday afternoons. But Ed was very reserved and would sit silently in the back of the room, reading the paper. Perhaps it was because I was beginning to wonder if he was capable of speech that I so well remember his first words, which were preceded by a lewd chuckle. It seems he had come across what must have been the first ad in ‘The Witness’ for an escort agency in PMB. He made the call, and after some preliminary mumbling, said “Send us along a couple of your big rude ones!” And the ice was broken.
At some point early in 1974, Trevor and I were dispatched to Johannesburg, to attend the first of our ‘G’ courses, Tom Brown had newly taken up the role as head of training, with Richard (?) as his handlanger. Other names I recall were Mat Winchester, Stuart Watson, Brian Elerby, ? Van Tonder (Bloem), Guy Mauger, and Martin Pengelli, I can picture some of the others, but their names don’t come to mind.
As I recall it, the principal objective of the course was to teach us a bunch of handy acronyms which we could write out on crib sheets and pull out in moments of sales stress. One of these useful epithets was ‘PAYSOFF’, what it stood for, I’ve long forgotten but I’m sure that in some way it paid off. The other key message that Tom left with us was always “Always – Ask for the Order”. I also recall (it may have been on a later G course) Werner re-subjecting me to ordeal by syntax, as he tried to reveal the mysteries of COBOL. My memories of the Summit Club stretch to beery nights, David Bowie’s ‘Sorrow’ playing in the background (https://youtu.be/FMM3V9ajIC8) and the strong smell of chlorine which pervaded the entrance hall of that fine establishment. I also remember that someone side swiped my car, which I’d parked in a side street overnight. So my first experience of Burroughs training was a costly one, as I also managed to get a speeding ticket in Harrismith on my way home.
Back in the field, armed with my new found sales skills, I visited the far flung edges of my sales empire, travelling down to Kokstad and Matatiele, a four hour drive from PMB. Jack Yudelman and Son in Matat, (a wholesaler who supplied the trading stores of the Transkei and Lesotho, with everything from baby food to coffins) was – or so I’d been told – a prime prospect. They did their invoicing on an L2000 and had a couple of F’s. The boss was a character of note, an old school trader, rejoicing in the name of Issy Ovsiovitz. Henk thought they’d be good for a back-up L2000 and sent me down for a recie. But when I got there, Issy was in no mood for either chit chat or the prospect of entertaining a second L2. He went on the attack, bombarding me with expletives about our service, explaining to me exactly where I could put the L2 (I didn’t have the balls to ask how his suggestion could be physically achieved, as I feared he may attempt a demonstration). He assured me that he’d never buy another thing from Burroughs and ejected me (almost bodily) from his office.
Back in my car, I searched through my G3 acronyms, but it seems this situation had not been catered for and I left Matat despondent. On the way home I stopped in Kokstad for petrol and decided not let a sales opportunity go by and went into the motor dealer’s office and asked how they processed their accounts, after some promising early words, I shot out to the car, brushed up on my trusty acronyms, took out a brochure of a P1000 (or at least a photocopy of one) and a sales contract (18 a – was it?), I left Kokstad with an order for a P1000 and a song in my heart – my encounter with Issy a distant memory. In Kokstad I’d learned that one of the key points of success in sales is being at the right place at the right time.
In the months that followed, I learned two more important lessons:-
The first was when I was invited to a gathering of newly departed Burroughs old boys, amongst whom were Dave Harrington, Dave Short, Ken Braum, Percy Stafford, Peter Lowis?? and a couple of others. As the new kid on the block I wondered why these veterans of the business should all have left in short order, and wondered if there something I should know about Burroughs! One of them explained that they had all come through the Sensimatic era and could not keep up with the new emerging technologies. I determined right away never to become too invested in any technology, and to make my career about people.
The second lesson was about the psychology of a sale. Geo Carter & sons (a florist and nurseryman) had an old Sensimatic which had reached pensionable age, they had called for a quote, but had also called in NCR. I did the best I could at preparing a professional proposal and, bearing in mind the competitors at the door, I’d made sure that the price was the best I could squeeze. I polished my demonstration skills and invited them in (I’d got one of my CS colleagues to replicate their panel on the shiny new demo machine and if I recall, he had added an additional balance (or was it register?) to add “the wow factor”). They came in late in the day and were duly impressed by the dem and when I got their operator to do the postings, I knew I had her on my side. But as soon as we got to price, I could feel the atmosphere change. They said the NCR price was better. Whilst I fumbled frantically through my PAYSOFF cards, Henk came in to see how things were going. “It’s impossible,” he said, with absolute conviction “NCR can never compete with us on price!” He went through the quote, pen in hand and to my astonishment came up with a new price (bearing in mind he’d given me the original price). The new price was substantially better than NCR offer and they signed. Henk ordered celebratory drinks and we passed a congenial hour quaffing beers. As we did ( as a bye the bye) Henk asked what they thought of the additional balance feature and allowed them to convince themselves that it was indispensable, and well worth the additional R250 (or whatever) he added to the order. He then turned to the operator and asked what she thought of the side table – much more convenient for stacking ledger cards etc. –she loved it – a steal at R175 etc. etc. until by the time they left, in a very jovial mood, they’d signed for more than my original quote (bearing in mind that my original quote had included all the add on features that Henk sold them). The lesson was; always understand what the client wants (not needs) and make sure you give it to him. They wanted to buy from Burroughs and they wanted a good deal, Henk gave them both.
At some point, I learned the source of Issy’s unhappiness. It seems he was a perennially tardy payer and Denis Pennington had insisted on COD for service calls. I also learned that their creditor’s machine was on its last legs and I girded my loins for a second visit to the lion’s den. As it happens Issy was not in when I got down to Matat and I was able to spend some time with the machine operators and find out what they really needed. I’d also taken the precaution of taking along a creditor’s program which I demonstrated on the L2. The girls were duly impressed, but pointed out some additional features they needed. When Issy returned – even though I got a less hostile reception, he refused to entertain the matter of increasing his dependence on us.
Back at the office, I pulled out my trusty ‘Memory Mod’ and tweeked the demo to include the missing features. I also learned from the FE who looked after the site, that there was rumour of some hanky panky between Issy and the creditor’s clerk. I called her and suggested that she should persuade Issy to bring her up the Pmb to see the new system, as I couldn’t show them all the features on the L2. The ruse worked, they came up for the weekend and on a Sunday morning I got my first L 4000 order (only a cad would speculate on how Issy may have been rewarded).
By the end of the year I had managed to flog another L2 and an L5 to Backhouse Printers.
Our office Christmas party was held at Dennis Pennington’s house that year (generously sponsored by Burroughs at I would guess R2 a head). Dennis was probably a decade older than the rest of the crew, and was of a serious disposition with had an old school approach to management, which it seems he had acquired from his wife, who ran the home along austere lines, giving Dennis little latitude. Her eagle eye at the party proved an effective restraint to any boisterous behaviour. Until at about eleven, there was a mighty roar and two pink figures dashed through the throng and dive bombed into the pool. Somehow a certain Mr Castle had persuaded Dennis to break all the rules and streak. The lights were immediately turned to bright, the music killed and the offenders dosed with extra strong black coffee and even blacker looks, as the party broke up. As I recall Dennis’s head and arm were still in plaster at Easter time.
The other highlight of the year end was that I was awarded the princely accolade of Trainee of the year by Tom (following a recount insisted upon by Henk).
At some stage during 1975, Peter Dodds and I think Clive Carr released the C7000 (was it?) programmable calculator at an event held at the Royal Hotel in Durban. I have a notion that some other products were released at the same time, because I remember being very impressed by Norman Edwards’ 35mm slide presentation, and thinking that if I wanted to succeed in this business, I’d need to get my presentation skills up to that level.
I mention the C7000, because it fitted in well with my patch (which included Provincial government, the University, the Parks Board and organizations such as SAPPI) and the capacity to not only program the unit, but store standard formulae on the mag stripe cards, proved very popular and it sold like proverbial hot cakes. I became quite expert at dealing with the limited memory capacity and writing fairly complex applications (often requiring the swapping of mag cards half way through). I began to see wider applications in using data generated by other devices. In one case a client had an electronic weigh bridge, they used the data generated by the scale to do a string of calculations. I figured that if an interface could built between the scale and the C7000, we could automate the process and I began fantasizing about selling a C7000 to every scale user in the country. My chosen technical accomplice in this venture was Paul Castle. Paul had been building up courage to start sky diving at the time and had been trying to persuade me to join him. He said as a quid pro quo for attempting to build the interface, I would have to jump out of an aeroplane. Needless to say, the interface never happened and my dreams were dashed, along with Paul’s leg, which I think he managed to break on his first jump.
By 1976, I’d become determined to add a ‘real’ computer to my repertoire and targeted Nagel’s Department store and Somta tools, with the aim of selling two B700’s. In both cases I made excellent progress with the right people in the organizations and by the last quarter of the year they were both ‘A’ prospects, requiring only board approval for the deals to go through. Nagels was part of the Greatermans group and in early December I was invited, by the store’s GM (who assured me it was a done deal), to attend the board meeting and present our proposal. On the appointed day, I donned my best suit plucked a rose from the garden for my button hole and set off fresh faced and sweaty palmed, to knock their socks off. I sat outside the board room for an hour and then the meeting broke up. The sheepish and downcast GM broke the news that all computer related decisions were taken by head office and the B700 was not part of their strategy. About a week later Somta tools were due to have their board meeting, when the FD called me to say he had heard adverse reports about the performance of the B700 and the accounting package (can’t recall what it was called) from some sites in the East Rand (NCR had been doing their homework) and they had decided to shelve the project. It certainly wasn’t my jolliest Christmas, but it sent me a clear message that if I was to succeed and sell more sophisticated equipment, I’d need to leave Pmb, the market was just too small.
Early in 1977 I relocated to the new Durban office in Nedbank Plaza on the corner of West Street and Point Road.