Out of the Camp

Out of the Camp Ch. 13 – Scrapyard Mentor

Tommy, my landlord, told me one day that it was good that I was starting a business before I was 30, because as you get older it gets harder. You take on responsibilities and that leads to you being less flexible. He told me, “You just watch, now that you’ve started and once you become established, opportunities will come along and take you and your business in a direction that you never foresaw and would never have thought of yourself.” I’m paraphrasing him but the man was a prophet; within the space of a few weeks of arriving here, it was already happening. I was about to start selling ship’s TV antennas imported from Germany to fishing boats and later, offshore industry supply vessels. Following up on the lead I received from the Dutch skipper a day or two earlier, I wrote to FTE Maximal in Muhlacker, Germany, hoping that someone might speak English, and was relieved to receive a reply in the mail a couple of weeks later also in English, if a little stilted. They told me that they already had a sole agent in the UK and that the import agent would be happy to assist me. They were based in South London and were called Tape Recorder Spares, Ltd. which I thought was a bit weird but hey, it’s just a name.

It seems in no time at all I was buying the aerials and having them shipped to Peterhead. I honestly don’t remember now how I generated the initial sales but within a couple of months I had supplied and fitted them on several fishing boats. Now, to understand how this works, you have to have hung around the harbor for a while chatting to skippers and crew about what’s going on, who’s doing well, where are the fish, who’s catching them until you realize that that’s where the fishermen get their news. Before too long I was receiving orders for the aerial from skippers who’d been told about them by other skippers. Nobody wanted to be left behind and besides, having this new technology on your boat bestowed on you serious bragging rights. I even got a call from the owner of a local hotel asking me to come and install one on his roof. I told him that’s not what they’re designed for, but he didn’t care because they looked so futuristic, he wanted to be the first in town to have one on his house; and he was! Further, I think he remained the only one in town to ever put one on his roof. Within a few months he’d had it taken down and replaced by a conventional TV aerial. Rather than have me make the switch, he called a competitor from up the coast in Buckie to drive the 90km to Peterhead to do it for him. I guess he was too embarrassed, or proud, to have me do it, because I did warn him that they weren’t meant to be put on houses. I’ve no idea what happened to the unit. He certainly didn’t ask for a refund!

These aerials (antennae) work because they don’t need to be pointed at the TV transmitter. What’s inside the waterproof “mushroom” are three copper rings (the aerials) attached to a microchip (signal amplifier) which, in turn is attached to the co-axial cable that goes down to the power supply unit attached to the TV. So, when a ship is at sea and changes course, a normal aerial would have to be turned to point at the transmitter. These aerials are omnidirectional and will receive the signal irrespective of which way the boat turns, and they work well at sea because there are no obstacles or buildings which would reflect or ‘bounce’ the signal that the aerial would pick up creating ‘ghosts’ in the picture. For this reason, they often don’t work well when the vessel is in harbor or port because of buildings or metal objects such as cranes in the vicinity causing the signal to bounce off resulting in a ghost on the picture. This was the problem with the hotel owner’s installation; he lived on the edge of town and was surrounded by hills which also reflect the signal, multiple hills give multiple ‘ghosts’ and it’s worse still when it rains resulting in the hillsides get wet. 

Coincidentally, in addition to the unexpected boost the ship’s aerial gave the business, another unexpected factor in giving us an additional ‘bump’ was the local erection and activation of a small relay TV transmitter to serve the Peterhead area. The main transmitter for the region is located at Durris, 77 km away, and several areas in and around Peterhead had reception problems which the new transmitter was designed to address. Fortunately for us this required existing aerials to be turned or replaced in order to take advantage of the new transmitter. This, of course, generated another stream of work that no one had anticipated.  Meanwhile, my primary client continued to keep me busy with a variety of work which now also included fishing boats and I had also started doing installations for the local Radio Rentals branch. In addition, a couple of furniture stores in the town who also sold televisions, had recently started sending us the occasional installation. I had hired my first employee in the midst of this activity, and she was a local elderly, retired office manager whose experience I now don’t remember after all these decades. Give me a break!  

Anyway, Mrs. Fleet was her name and she turned out to be a competent office manager and hit the ground running so to speak, got the hang of the business very quickly and started taking calls, booking appointments and getting a basic book-keeping system set up. When I was in and out of the office over the next week or two, I’d almost always walk in on her deep in conversation on the phone with a friend. I worried about this at first, but she seemed to be doing the work, so I let it go and focused on running of the business. She had even found me another client, Murray Mackie, Ltd., the main TV and audio dealer in Fraserburgh a neighboring fishing town 27km up the coast. She apparently had a friend there who was related to someone who worked in the store. Mrs Fleet was born and raised in Peterhead and seemed to know everybody, not only in the town but also the neighboring villages and countryside for miles around. Murray Mackie turned out to be the name of the owner of the business, and he showed up unannounced one day and fortunately I happened to be there to meet him.

His shop had given us two or three installations and he wanted to come and check us out. By this time, I was actually in danger of becoming overwhelmed by the work if I didn’t get proactive, so the next major move was to hire another installer and put an additional vehicle on the road. It’s funny looking back and remembering the number of times people in business or family friends experienced in management had said to me that as things developed, my real problems would emerge when I started hiring people. Well, I was about to get a crash course in personnel management. I placed an ad in the local Peterhead paper, The Buchan Observer and received a few responses. To describe my conversations with these people as job interviews would be something of a stretch, and that’s putting it mildly. I had no idea what I was doing and hired one of the applicants based on I don’t know what. I didn’t take up references, had no idea where he’d worked in the past, just that he said he’d done aerials before. Anyway, I took him out with me the first week and he seemed know something of what was involved, could assemble and erect an aerial both strapped to a chimney and also mounted on a wall and, he could handle an extension ladder.

It didn’t take long for the phone calls to start. In the space of four days I received complaints about muddy boot marks on a carpet, poor reception from a brand new installation, broken roof tiles, and damage to an antique bookcase. He was, of course, gone by the end of the week at which time, I was still following up with the angry customers. Tommy, my landlord, came to the rescue with the roof repair. He had a guy working for him who did roofs and so that was quickly taken care of. The damaged bookcase was another story. When I visited the customer in his big house, I saw that the bookcase was over six feet tall and probably eight feet long, made of heavy oak and flush-mounted against an outside wall. A large TV was sitting in the centre and although it wasn’t immediately apparent, this is where the damage had been done. Because it was impossible to move the bookcase and there was no gap between it and the wall, our resourceful and intrepid Mr. Fixit had gone outside and drilled through the wall, and into the back of the bookcase causing it to splinter and crack. Fortunately, he measured the distances accurately and the drill had come through directly behind the TV so the damage couldn’t be seen unless you moved the TV to one side. I apologized profusely to the customer and asked him what he wanted me to do as it was difficult to see how it could be repaired without major disruption to the living room. He told me not to worry about it but not to bother sending him a bill for the aerial installation as I’d have a long wait if I did.

At Mrs. Fleet’s suggestion, instead of looking for a replacement for “Action Man” – she had a quit, earthy wit and a dry sense of humour. She suggested that I hire a young kid and train him how to do the job properly. I took her advice and hired a 16-year called Bruce who was the son of the manager of the local, and at that time only, supermarket in Peterhead. He turned out to be a nice kid, a quick learner, albeit with a funny haircut but with the singular qualification of having introduced me to Steely Dan. I had been faithful to the promise I made myself when I left London, that of cutting myself off from music so that I wouldn’t get distracted. We had an eight- track player in the van (anyone remember those?) and we used to play Steely Dan all the time. Today, whenever I hear a Steely Dan number, I smile and am taken back to those early, fateful days in Peterhead.

Well, in addition to the staffing problems I’d been wrestling with, I’d finally managed to find the family a place to live. The kids were driving Mary’s parents crazy and they wanted them gone and so, of course, Mary had been on the phone every other day asking me what was taking so long. I’d been there more than two months, and the housing shortage showed no signs of improving. It was literally impossible to find anything in the town and the only place I could find available for rent was an old, a very old! crofter’s cottage on the side of Stirling Hill, three miles outside the town. According to the owner, a road haulier, the building was close to 400 years old. In terms of the condition, it was much like the rooms I was running the business from, with the exception that these walls were three feet thick and made from huge granite rocks cemented together! The cottage had two rooms and a lean-to that doubled as an entryway and a kitchenette. It was about four feet square with a postage stamp-sized sink and similar size stove top. The toilet was in an outhouse across a muddy yard with no lighting. Looking back now I can’t image how we survived it all. I guess when you’re young you can handle most things.

Another little side-occupation I was invested in was doing my own PR, and one consequence of this one day, was our receiving a visit from two guys from the Aberdeen Evening Express who showed up to interview me and to take some pictures. The following day there was an article published with a picture of me standing beside my van holding one of the ‘magic mushroom’ aerials. The following morning, I received a phone call from a guy who’d recently been discharged from the Royal Air Force base, RAF Buchan, which was a few miles north of Peterhead. He was an electronics and communications technician and was looking for a job. His call couldn’t have been better timed as another problem had recently arisen, and the odds were that he’d have the skills and expertise to help us with it.

Images.

(1) Stopover at my parents in Hyvots, Edinburgh after picking up the family from Manchester, on our way to Peterhead. (2) Two Star Offshore Supply Vessels berthed at Aberdeen Service Co. (ASCO) Base, Peterhead, each bearing Domestic TV Seahawk Model Antennas. (3) Another supply vessel at the ASCO Base with the Seahawk mounted above the bridge. (4) Two Aeranamics vehicles at the company’s Windmill Street, Peterhead base.

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