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The brewer’s assistant

Our retreat from Galway and Riomhaire Teoranta cannot have been that hasty, as we would have had to terminate the lease on the cottage at Gortdrishagh and arrange for the ferry to get two cars, loaded to the gunwales with stuff, from Dun Laoghaire to Liverpool. Audrey was also going to have to open a house that had been empty for nine months. More importantly, we had to get the boys back into Elmridge Junior School.

So it was about two weeks after initially speaking to Alan Wightman, who had been appointed the replacement Sperry regional director, that I met him in the Altrincham office. I was really lucky. He had an immediate, two-year project assignment for me. The Sperry Corporation (our name at the time) was introducing the role of account manager into Europe, and Alan was keen that I take this role at Bass Charrington. Alan was a big, energetic man who was quickly promoted from salesman to regional director in order to replace Alan Campbell.

Alan Wightman had done superb work with Bass Charrington, reputedly the largest brewery group and pub operator in Europe, selling them a real-time order processing and stock control system. Being in Galway, I had missed the excitement of the sale and submission of tender, but was told that the sales clincher had been a film (this was long before videos) taken to show a Bass Charrington order-processing clerk, with telephonist earphones and mouthpiece, sitting at a visual display terminal, ringing the pub for its regular weekly order:

‘Good morning, Mr Lloyd. This is Jackie from Bass Charrington. I am calling to ask for your order this week. If it helps, your order last week was [read from the screen]. Shall we restock the Black Bull this week with the same order? … How did the cider special go last week? Shall we include five crates of the dry cider? … Our specials this week are [read from the screen] … Can I put you down for an extra crate of the Johnnie Walker whisky and an extra crate of the Old Ruby port?’

The film as a concept demonstration was super. If I had been on the Bass Charrington selection panel, with lots of ready cash, I would have bought as well. The viewer also heard Mr Lloyd’s replies, and needless to say the order clerk was very pretty and was wearing a short skirt at the terminal as she confirmed Mr Lloyd’s order. Our filmstar was Merilyn McHard, one of several outstanding young sales ladies taken on specifically to sell Sperry card punches.

Alan showed me the film in his office when he asked me to take the Bass job. That same afternoon, he drove me down to West Bromwich to introduce me to John Henderson, the Bass Charrington Computer Centre director, and I was off and running.

The new account manager role was an extension of the Sperry matrix management philosophy and the mixed discipline team I joined, comprised of approximately 25 persons, including software engineers and the on-site customer engineers in the computer sites at West Bromwich and Glasgow. Alan Wightman retained a lively interest in the sales situation. The West Bromwich staff was drawn from the Midlands Birmingham regional office and the Glasgow staff from the Scottish branch office. This arrangement worked perfectly, although the Bass project would occasionally lose staff needed for other quick jobs, in which instance it was a simple case of negotiation with the requesting manager. An informal ledger of man-days owed one way or the other worked well. My appointment was at the time when the hardware had been installed in the West Bromwich office. It was running some of the programs from the Honeywell 200 computer system it was partly replacing. The project to that date had been concentrating on converting the Honeywell written code to run on the Sperry 1110. Having reached that point in the plan, the second Sperry 1110 system was to be delivered and installed in the Bass offices in Glasgow. Alan admitted the software development was stalled, hence the company’s decision to appoint an account manager.

During the drive to West Bromwich, Alan and I worked through an incentive plan for a UK account manager. Alan wanted the available money to be allocated at his discretion. I negotiated for a scheme that had both a qualitative and a quantitative element. We agreed on an annual basic £1,000 to be available on a discretionary basis from the regional director – was the account manager doing a good job from his perspective? — and £1,000, divided into 10 parcels of £100, would be paid subject to the number of warranted complaints to senior Sperry management about the performance of Sperry on the project, team behaviour, and/or complaints about the account manager. In other words, a Bass complaint might cost me £100. The mathematics was simple. I would tell the Bass management about the plan and suggest any concerns be addressed with me over a lunch and that recourse to Sperry management should only happen if the project team did not react sensibly to the situation.

I was quickly brought up to speed by Vijay Avasti, the Sperry real-time programming manager, who was based in the Bass office at West Bromwich. This was not going to be an easy project. We did not have a written system specification. But Bass knew what it wanted: it was recorded on film. I did not meet any of the Bass clerical staff for a few months, but I knew instinctively that none of them would be as young, pretty, or as personable as Merilyn McHard. The Sperry 1110s were the first of that model to be installed in the UK, the largest of the systems available from the company at that time. The system included a new communications/symbiont processor, the programmable forerunner of what we have come to know as a file server. As the name implies, it took the processing responsibility for communicating with terminals and printing from the main processor. This saved a huge processing load from the main processor, as it would present complete terminal messages where previously every terminal character would have prompted an interrupt in the main processor and a delay to any jobs being run. The plan was that Bass would share the database between the two processing centres. The Sperry world was watching to see how we handled the split database. This was to be another first.

The available telecommunications links between the two centres would be stretched by the requirement to keep the database synchronised between the two centres. In the event that one centre was not available for any reason, the other had to take the full processing load of both. We would also need a switching mechanism to transfer the southern sales order clerks to connect to the Glasgow computer centre if West Bromwich was not available, and vice versa. This was all leading-edge stuff at the time.

The technical teams in place were excellent, but they had long been in report mode on what was such a visible project to both Bass and Sperry. My role was simple: to relieve them of that obligation so that they could get on with the job at which they were best. The first task was to get a written specification of the system that was agreed on by both parties. Without this we would never get a sign-off that the project was complete. This was still being finalised 18 months into my time with the project, alongside with the development, which was going really well. I have to admit that I exacerbated the development task through the fascination Alan Wightman and I had for the new intelligent terminal that Sperry had introduced: the Universal Terminal System (UTS) 400. The UTS 400 was programmable (the forerunner of the PC that was to appear three years later) via the Microprocessor Control Program (MCP) language, and had its own in-built storage — a seven-inch diskette, if memory serves me correctly.

Figure 6.1

Figure 6.1: Here I pretend to understand the UTS 400, beyond which is pictured the standard (non-intelligent) UTS 200 terminal.

Source: Author’s collection.

Figure 6.2

Figure 6.2: An unrealistic juxtapositioning of the UTS 400 next to the beer tap in the office.

Source: Author’s collection.

The potential of the UTS 400 took us towards a PC-style operation and would be of value in ensuring that the sales order clerks would always be able to function. (We did not know that Bill Gates was also working with MCP language at this time in Seattle.) Bass accepted our recommendation that the system be developed to use the potential of the UTS 400. For a while we had a continual stream of visitors to see how we were getting on with the new terminals, the new mainframes, and the communication processors.

There was another reason, perhaps, that we were able to encourage visitors. The Bass clerical staff, across the company, had the same facility made available to them as their co-workers on the brewing side of the business: beer on tap in the office. At West Bromwich, a barrel of beer on tap was accessible in our team office. Bill Huntley was the Midlands regional director at the time and Alan Stevens was the sales manager. They would request regular update meetings at Bass, normally in the late afternoon, and, fortified by Bass Bitter, the meeting would be a good start to an evening out. The Midlands engineering manager was another frequent visitor to see how his team was getting on with the new equipment, and somehow his meetings tended to move from the computer room to the development office.

My day-to-day contact was John Henderson, the Bass Computer Centre director. We did not actually meet on a daily basis, as I was spending quite a lot of time in Glasgow. We made a habit of meeting every Wednesday morning to discuss matters of mutual interest and if it so happened that we were still talking at lunch time, we would continue over lunch. These meetings were not minuted, but were invaluable and covered all the common interest aspects of the project. John was under pressure from Harry Burton, the Bass data processing director, who was based at the Burton Brewery in Shropshire, some 30 miles from West Bromwich. Harry Burton had been one of the original Bass decision makers for the project, but he and his technical support team were, because of geography, out of the loop. Vijay Avasti and I made sure that we kept them abreast of progress and solicited their input about development direction.

One of the innovations Alan Wightman had introduced during the sales process was a Bass–Sperry golf day. As the Sperry account manager, it fell to me to organise an annual golf day and competition. The venues were easily arranged, as Bass owned a number of the best courses. In 1977, we played Turnberry, two days before the British Open Golf Championship. The course was magnificent. The opportunity to play at such a venue was too good for Sperry management, and we had far too many folk wanting to play than we could cater for. We played 10-a-side and the ideal result would be a win by five-and-a-half games to four-and-a-half to either team. Team selection was difficult, as I had telexes reminding me of everyone’s willingness to participate. The after match dinner was infamously boozy, and it seemed that also appealed as much as the athletic component of our day.

Driving off first as captain of the Sperry team, on a championship course with the other players watching, was more than off-putting. I had played some social golf in Ireland, on the best courses with the Gaeltarra Eireann Golf Society, but it was still a relief to get my first drive down the fairway. It mattered not that I took another 19 shots to get on that first green. I was determined to have a good day. Bass was generous on such days and had refreshment stops at the sixth and twelfth greens. No player or supporter was going to be allowed to end the round thirsty. The last I heard, the Bass Charrington company, which has now evolved into the InterContinental Hotels Group and Mitchells & Butlers (reverting to a name from history), are still using Unisys point-of-sale technologies.

Bass Charrington was not the only brewer in the Sperry stable. We also provided the computer system to Robinsons Brewery in Stockport and the John Smith’s Brewery in Tadcaster. They both allowed the local office to buy drinks at wholesale prices, so it was not really a surprise when John Henderson asked if I and the Sperry project team wanted to avail of Bass wholesale drink prices at Christmas time. We did. It was a nice gesture from Bass. The following year, we had the same offer and this time I faxed the wholesale price list to team members in Glasgow and members working from the Birmingham office. I thought no more about it, until sometime in February 1977 when I was summoned to John Henderson’s office to be told that the Sperry project office was the highest spending Bass wholesale outlet in the UK that Christmas period. We were awarded a nice cuckoo clock with Bass badging as a memento, one that perhaps we should not have earned. It was actually embarrassing. I did some research, but stopped short when I learned that Bill Read, the UK managing director, had ordered big on behalf of the company and himself, and that the order was in the tens of crates for spirits and fortified wines. Better to take the award and keep my head down. The splendid clock is still in the UK on the wall of the living room of my brother-in-law and his wife in Kirkleatham, Yorkshire, and is much admired.

If I had an average week, it was to fly to Glasgow on Monday morning to visit the computer centre, which was housed in the Tennent Caledonian Brewery. Coincidentally, that computer centre was managed by Bill Glasgow. Bill was a bit crusty, but he had taken hard knocks and ran a disciplined computer site. His operations manager was Sandy McNeill, and he and I became friends. Sandy would later join Sperry International Division as an operations consultant, and we shared an apartment in Singapore for a time when Sandy came to town for an assignment with Singapore Telecom.

I expected to stay overnight on the Monday to be able to brief the Sperry Glasgow management on the project’s progress, as it was their people we were using as the on-site engineering team. I flew back to Altrincham on the Tuesday evening. Wednesday morning would see me on the road early, on the M6 Manchester to Birmingham Motorway, to be in West Bromwich to meet with Mr Henderson at 9.00 am. Most weeks I would stay two nights in West Bromwich before venturing back on the motorway to be home for the weekend.

Travelling that motorway twice a week was by far the most harrowing aspect of the Bass project. The three-lane motorway had a designated slow lane, fast lane, and an overtaking lane with a top speed limit of 70 mph. The average speed, however, was l00 mph. If you were travelling even the slow lane at 70 mph you would be hooted and bullied onto the hard shoulder by the sheer volume and speed of the traffic that tailgated you until you got out of the way. Where practical, I would take the A roads, which would be marginally less stressful. I upgraded my car to the biggest Alfa Romeo just to have the grunt under the bonnet to survive undertaking that trip on a regular basis. My programmer pal David Miller was not so fortunate. He called in at our house on his way home after an accident in his Toyota Celica on the M6. His car was a write-off, but the Volvo that was involved was fine. The next time we saw David he was driving his own Volvo. The M6 really was that bad.

More often than not, one evening a week in Birmingham I would have a few drinks with Alan Stevens — of the infamous stutter — who by now was sales manager in the Birmingham office. His wife, Jean, was not well, and we would spend the later part of the evening over a nightcap at Alan’s home so he was there if Jean required attention.

Figure 6.3

Figure 6.3: Some of the team at the Bass Charrington Computer Centre at West Bromwich.

Source: Author’s collection. A photograph commissioned for the Sperry publication Punchline.

Figure 6.4

Figure 6.4: In the Glasgow Computer Centre, chief engineer Ken O’Brien and Walter Dixon follow the wiring diagram for the new 0770 printer system — 2,000 lines per minute.

Source: Author’s collection. A photograph commissioned for the Sperry publication Punchline.

Alan Stevens asked if I would also take responsibility for the Queen Elizabeth Hospital account in Birmingham. This was not an arduous task. It was a highly proficient installation, one of three hospital projects funded by the UK Government to explore the uses of computer technologies in hospitals. The Queen Elizabeth Hospital had been wired so that access was available for a computer terminal on a trolley, via a plug in the ward wall. The demonstration proved that the average in-hospital stay period could be reduced from seven days to five if the doctor could have patient history and test results instantly available. The demonstration also proved that any patient was likely to receive incorrect medication during their hospital stay. Funding for the project was discontinued after the trial period, which was a huge disappointment.

Towards the start of my Bass appointment, I had written a paper and formulated a presentation for in-house Sperry use that I called ‘A View from the Other Side’. As impartially as possible, I reviewed the difficulties I had encountered as a Sperry customer, as the manager of the Riomhaire Teoranta computer service bureau in the 18 months preceding my joining the Bass project. Alan Wightman asked me to present this twice within the Northern region and I unwittingly generated a deal of personal antagonism from colleagues for whom the company could do no wrong. Alan was concerned that my message be heard in the UK head office, but that I not be exposed to prejudicing my career. My paper and presentation was sent to Terry Duffy, the technical director, and he and I had a couple of conversations. My biggest concern had been the lack of relevant application software that we could easily use to generate revenue. The tyranny of distance from support staff was also a concern. This initiative was rewarded by my being asked, at the conclusion of the successful two-year Bass assignment, to return to Ireland again. I was keen. My wife was not. I was able to negotiate a deal whereby I was given set targets that did not carry a time constraint.

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