It’s the British Grand Prix week and thoughts turn to Silverstone. I joined Cellnet, the predecessor to O2, in 1986 and I’ve been to most of the British GP ever since, entertaining clients for Cellnet (first at Brands Hatch) and then with BT. I’m not involved now, though we might still be catching up with some old friends who’ll be popping in as our UK home is so close to the circuit. I’ve got lots of memories of the w/e itself and might be writing more on that as the week progresses. But one of my earliest memories at Siverstone was a mid-season F3 meeting that proved to be a real challenge.
I think I’ve mentioned in the ‘blunter’ blog that we sponsored an F3 team in the early days of Cellnet. A number of great drivers appeared for the team – Damon Hill who went on to become F1 World Champion of course, but also Martin Donnelly, who made F1 too but who suffered enormous injuries in a big smash and never really drove again; David Hunt, brother to James; Paul Warwick, brother to Derek and so on. I’d been a peripheral player as far as the whole Cellnet hospitality thing was concerned. My first boss B had cast a large shadow and the Marketing team was largely his creation. But following his departure I’d taken over more control and the team was beginning to change. But one event cemented things for me in terms of responsibility.
In those days we had a quite stunning hospitality centre based on 2 articulated lorries supporting a central canvassed dining area. One of the lorries acted as a kitchen and food prep area, the other as a bar, serving point. We had a permanent crew of around 5 guys to man the facility and every weekend at an F3 meeting we’d entertain 30 or so key business guests and their partners (the so called Service Providers who ‘owned’ the cellular customers in those days). This was a major facility – as good as anything on the F1 circuit at the time and for several years it couldn’t be equalled. But things were beginning to change. I was fed up always seeing the same guys and their wives invited to the events who’d get pissed with us at the weekend and then give Vodaphone the lion’s share of their business during the week. We were too forgiving of them and it annoyed me. But nobody said anything to change things. We were the party guys and Vodaphone cleaned up the business. I hated it. Then came the day when the world changed.
For once the marketing team had taken a different view on who to invite to an event. We used to have a quarterly customer magazine called ‘Selection’ I think which went to every customer. The centre-fold map was a tangible opportunity to update them on the network rollout. My good friend C edited it and it was a bloody decent consumer mag given the budget C received. When we’d got to a base of around 100k customers (sounds miniscule now) the mag had to be dropped because it was absorbing so much of the overall marketing budget. But when we had around the 50k customer base the hospitality team did a special offer insert for customers to spend a day with Cellnet. There were 4 choices and one of these was to spend a day at the Cellnet unit at a forthcoming F3 meeting at Silverstone with full hospitality. I know our guys assumed that very few people would bother to turn up with their tear out voucher to the event. I recall they’d assumed a typical redemption rate of maybe no more than 1% for a customer offer. So at most 500 guests. This was way beyond our ability to manage but everybody told me that this was a very best redemption rate that hardly ever was achieved. Perhaps 100 people at most was the expectation. I was so green that I took all this at face value. Even 100 would be challenging when we were used to entertaining no more than 50 or 60 people including staff and guests. Everybody said it’d rain at Silverstone because it always did and we’d be lucky to have 50 customers turn up. Umm…
The boss of the unit was ‘A’. He was a good guy but had seen the days of the no-expense-spared hospitality programme go and I was beginning to try and get a better return on the investment, which he thought was wrong. Anyway the day dawned for the event. Remember that there was no limit on numbers – any customer who turned up with his entry voucher would have to be fed, watered and entertained and there was no process for registration in advance to validate the extent of interest. I had misgivings about the lack of grasp for the scale of demand – how much food/booze was ‘A’ ordering, how would we seat 100 guests if all the expected demand turned out to be true etc? It turned out to be a beautiful summer’s day. Our team were doing well at the time and at 10am when the unit formally opened for breakfast for the troops and early arrivers (this normally meant just one petrol-head SP and his poor wife) there were already around 50 people waiting outside the unit. Inside another hour we had around 250 in the unit – coffees, soft drinks, most of the booze all gone. By lunchtime we had over 500 people in the unit and on its viewing gallery with around 2000 people queuing outside, and they kept on coming and coming.
In one sense it was a great success – Cellnet reaching out to its client base. But we were swamped. ‘A’ resigned by mid-morning but I couldn’t accept that as we had a lot of customers to feed etc and we needed all hands to the pump. ‘A’ always carried a float – I asked what this was, a few thousand quid. I asked all the staff to chip in whatever cash they were carrying too. ‘A’ was despatched to go and withdraw some more funds from wherever. The hospitality team were in pieces so I just stood up in front of the guests, apologised for the over-crowding and told them all our food was gone but that we’d find a way to feed them but it might take some time. With a few of the guys we went off to all the concessions stands around the circuit and said we’d buy all the fish and chips, burgers, kebabs etc they could produce and all their soft drinks. Cash at end of the day.
We ran a shuttle service all afternoon back and forth to the Happy Nosher and his pals. We spent £000s but everyone got fed – some several times over – but we didn’t care. We had people with us till late into the night – we couldn’t get rid of them even once the food had eventually run out because there was a kind of Dunkirk spirit about the whole day. I can’t remember for sure but I think our drivers actually did ok on the day but it didn’t matter, we had them both in the unit for hours relaying the story of the race, their ambitions, racing heroes – anything, to the vast audience in and outside our unit on Copse corner. There might have been 3000 customers there at its peak.
It was the day I came of age as a boss. After this nothing would be impossible. It signalled the end of the old team and the beginning of my own first real team. ‘A’ didn’t really last long after this, he’d seen a vision of the future which was not like the old days. I wasn’t unhappy, the times they were a-changing in the mobile industry. But, as mad as it was, I loved that day. It was a defining moment for me and it all happened at Silverstone all those years ago. Are there days/events that have shaped your career similarly? – I’d love to hear about them.