My friend and good colleague Ken Butterworth smiled: ‘Isn’t it great, Pete, for once all our customers are coming to us instead us visiting them!’
‘Yes, Ken, we’ve done a good job – if I say so myself!’ ‘It’s bloody bonza mate!’ Ken enthused.
We had just finished setting up our exhibition stand in the large town hall and were admiring a job well done. It was a very attractive modular-type display stand which I had brought with me in my station wagon.
When assembled, it was approximately four metres wide, by 2.30 metres high and it displayed our attractive range of floor coverings. Attached to the stand’s surface were wire pockets with our glossy literature and technical data for handing out to visiting retailers, architects and interior designers.
We had a comfortable set of chairs and a table set up for easy interaction and there was a camp fridge, well-stocked with beer, hidden behind the display as some of our customers did expect hospitality – that kind of hospitality!
It was a large hall that was taken up by this Interior Design Trade Fair and other companies, competitors and manufacturers of furniture, plus other interior items were also represented. Wherever I looked, I could see display stands in various stages of completion.
The place was humming and there was a prevailing atmosphere of feverish setting-up and of getting everything ready for the visitors.
And, of course, there was an air of expectation as business deals would be discussed and finalised at this occasion. From all over Victoria retailers were expected to visit us – some with their families, treating the whole event as an outing.
‘Hello Peter!’ sounded a familiar voice. Spinning around, there was my boss Declan Doherty, calm, suave and elegant.
‘The whole setup looks nice – you two have done a great job. The entire display looks very attractive! I guess it is already opening time, here come the first of our customers.’ He nodded toward the entrance with an expectant smile.
A group of people approached our stand. They were Ken’s customers and he had a very specific way of greeting them: ‘Oh no, here come the shadiest characters I have ever seen! What are you doing here?’ The group of five grinned back: ‘Hello Ken, how are you! Great to see you here!’ This was followed with a lot of slapping on the back, as sure sign that they knew each other very well.
‘You look thirsty!’ Ken stated. This was confirmed by a vigorous nodding and, in order not to break up this idyll, I went behind the stand to fetch the beer cans and drinking glasses.
Ken had this wonderful rapport with his customers. First he talked about how long he has known them, then he told them funny stories and soon there was laughter bursting from the group as if they were at a wine tasting.
My own customers were somehow different. Perhaps I made them that way?
There was Ben Sneddon, the architect, whom I had invited to see our newest products on display.
‘Hello Peter,’ he would greet me. ‘Good to see you. My, your stand looks great.!’ Such a compliment is always welcome and it improved my feeling of well-being.
Is that the new non-slip flooring you mentioned on your last visit?’ He pointed at a display panel. ‘Yes, Ben,’ and away I went, telling him all about these new type of floorings and explained their outstanding features and benefits to the end user. Ben accepted some technical literature and I promised to visit him with a new catalogue which included colour charts and some sample squares of this new material.
‘Peter, ‘Declan approached me again,’ I think you had better stand at the entrance to welcome the people you know and direct them to our stand. I shall stay here with Ken and talk to them!’
That is a good strategy’, I thought, standing at the entrance with my indispensible clipboard, handing out leaflets and welcoming everybody as I knew most of the visitors. And even if I did not personally call on them as they were Ken’s customers, I had somehow met with them at previous occasions.
Naturally, I greeted my own customers and clients with the greatest respect and an air of formality which was appreciated by them. My colleague Ken’s customers, on the other hand, could be recognised by a wide grin and their first enquiry was always ‘Where can I find Ken?’ or ‘Is Ken here?’
‘Where can I find Winnie the Pooh?’ This question stunned me and the old feeling of unreality came over me. Looking into the man’s face, I could read nothing. It was a very leathery face, full of lived-in lines and large, rather sad eyes, devoid of any humorous twinkle.
‘I beg your pardon?’ Could I have heard wrong?
‘Ah wanna see Winnie the Pooh!’ Again, this face betrayed nothing and now the mouth was firmly closed and his thin lips had a rather bitter expression.
It was as if he had been told to ask this question, I sensed. I could only helplessly look around and from our exhibition stand, not far away, my colleague Ken noticed and approached us quickly.
‘What’s the matter, Pete?’ His compassion was touching.
‘This gentleman wants to know where Winnie the Pooh is’, I whispered, expecting some show of incredulity, if only raised eyebrows, but there was none.
‘Hello there,’ I heard him closing in on the man. Putting an arm on his shoulder they turned around and walked away. And as they did so, I noticed that there was a little boy holding on to this mountain of a man.
After a while, Ken returned and explained to me: ‘There are more halls and theatres in this building and in one of them they’re staging something for children.’ This was said in a matter of fact, and not for the first time I admired Ken for his sheer presence and ability to cope with unusual situations.
My managing director, Declan, joined me at the entrance as he, too, now wanted to welcome visitors and direct them to our stand. A group of men, women and two children tried to walk past us, and into our hall when Declan felt the need to be folksy.
‘Good afternoon all and welcome!’ Elegantly handing them brochures of ours he spread his bonhomie, ’Our stand is over there and, please, help yourselves to drinks.’
‘But we want to see Winnie the Pooh!’ It sounded like a reprimand and Declan stiffened somewhat. ‘I beg your pardon?’
‘Winnie the Pooh!’ A gruff voice demanded.
‘Yes, that’s right!’ I cut in with an understanding nod. ‘This play is in one of the other theatres in the same building. It surely has a poster outside its door.’
‘My dear fellow,’ Declan’s voice sounded suddenly more plumby than usual, ‘you seem to know everything!’ he stated admiringly. Which I confirmed with a self-assured nod!
In general this exhibition went well and all the firms there were very happy with their results. They had met with many of customers, even with those who were not easily accessible to the representative when calling.
Feeling magnanimous, Declan explained to me: ‘We are having a bit of a get-together when this exhibition is over. It gives us a bit of time to get to know our customers better. There is a nice pub across the street and I have arranged for a spare room to be reserved for us. So you may invite whomever you wish.’ He smiled at me encouragingly and I smiled back – rather forced, because in reality this was a planned booze-up and therefore a torture for a teetotaller like myself!
On such occasions, everybody is friendly enough at the beginning. There are a lot of pleasantries and business being discussed which is, of course, is always welcome.
Later, I always noticed that what people said was often exaggerated or strange. This was followed by more talk that doesn’t make sense to me and I was always in an unreal world where everything was warped. It ended with a situation where I was out of touch with everybody and had nobody I could converse with!
Respected business men, upright members of their communities, would slide into dirty talk, others told lies or, worse for me, started to tell me how good they were and what they said to a customer, what their customer replied and what they said back.
Do you follow me? Such events were always a kind of purgatory for me. If you are a Catholic you will know what I mean.
And then, as a refinement of this torture, there was always a small group of people that refuse to take their leave. Standing in a circle, beer glass in their hand, they have such a good time slurring their words and guffawing in unison, with no concern for their hard-working hosts who deserve a night’s rest after a long hard day.
Myself, I had to go on a country trip the following day and therefore leave home very early.
It was past midnight when Declan whispered into my ear: ‘They are not leaving Peter - I’ve tried everything!’ He himself was unaffected by all that drinking, or perhaps I should say impervious; standing there, elegant and suave in his Armani suit, a very successful company director, and yet helpless since he did not know these people that well. How do you tell people it is time to go when they are immune to polite hints?
Myself, I felt worn out but elated to hear from him that the end of all this drinking was near.
‘Since they are mostly Ken’s customers, I think we should ask him about the best way to close this er…..meeting. He will know how to handle them!’
With trepidation, I carefully extricated Ken from the centre of the crowd and, when out of hearing and as diplomatically as we could, Declan and I broached the subject of closing the meeting,
‘Is that what you want?’ Ken’s reddish face showed no sentiment, only his eyes bulged a little bit and his shoulders shrugged momentarily.
He spun around and facing the circle of hard-line boozers he shouted the immortal words: ‘Piss- off you bastards, the lot of you! Go on – go home.’
This was greeted by loud and lasting laughter, with some of the lads bent double. But they got their hint and began staggering slowly to the exit.
Whilst I was standing, shocked and transmogrified, at the door, a large beefy retailer from one of Victoria’s backwoods shook my hand warmly, swaying back and forth, and assuring me what a ‘bloody good bloke’ Ken was.
And another one managed to slur: ‘What a great evening…my two floor layers over there are very happy with your company!’ And he pointed a heavy sausage finger in a vague direction across the room. I tried to recognise his two floor layers but could only see one fellow leaning against the wall, pale and trying to steady himself..
Within a few minutes the room was empty, a situation we could have achieved sooner if Declan and I had confided earlier in Ken’s unique diplomacy!