Or don’t believe everything you read or hear, as my grandmother used to say.
We were selling car recovery equipment. We had become the major supplier in the UK and were now looking to extend our markets into Europe. At this moment, we were in France.
France is not an easy country to sell mechanical equipment into. The market is split into two. The Southerner largely do not come to Paris to buy and, conversely, the Northerners do not come South.
We had good competition in France too: Jige run by Jean Georges and the Fiaults, both Northern companies. In addition, we had Spanish company that made simple, effective but inexpensive equipment. To protect the guilty, let me call it Ramos; and it was run by Antonio. As by name, he could have doubled as a Spanish waiter; but he was a pleasant, amusing fellow about 35 years old. A lot of challenging, competitive comment would pass between us as we met at different shows. In the end, I’m afraid, he had the last laugh. A big laugh.
We were actively looking at a way to sell into Southern France when we heard this rumour. There was to be one of those marvellous French Foires or Fairs in Bordeaux: ‘Foire Internationale de Bordeaux, Bordeaux. Le plus grand rendez vous du Sud Ouest.’ It was to be held at the huge Parc des Expositions de Bordeaux Lac. What was more the Fiault brothers would be there. If they were there we must be on to a winner. Bordeaux (avec les vins) would be fun too. So we booked our stand, a cheap hotel, we loaded our demonstration vehicle and, at due date, we were off.
(A small aside here. We used to get our vehicles on loan from a large Ford dealer in the area. We got to know the Commercial Vehicle Sales Manager there very well. After some time he changed his job and subsequently we met up with him. We asked him what was the big difference in his new job. He said, I suspect half in truth, that for the first time he could now tell the truth when he met with customers!)
And so we arrived. La Foire was amazing, thousands of people, thousands of everything. There were meats from the Ardennes, fruits from the Drome, wine from the Var. And there stands representing the far flung colonies of French Africa: tie dyed fabrics from the Cote d’Ivoire, carvings from Senegal and so on. There was every type of face and there was every type and colour of clothing. There was laughing and singing. There was everything…..except. Except there wasn’t much in the way or vehicle recovery equipment there, only Fiault and Ramos.
We sat in Les Halles des Expositions for 10 days, for 10 whole days, intermittently though periods of long silence or while people sang and danced about us. Just about no-one was interested in car recovery equipment. Occasionally we spoke to the Fiaults, occasionally to Antonio. Once we had lunch with Antonio and a long term woman friend. That was about it. Otherwise we wandered about the stands: a baguette or two with dried ham from the Ardennes; I even bought a tie-dyed cotton wall hanging of Don Quixote de la Mancha on his trusted steed, Rocinante.
Nights in Bordeaux were not good for our health either. My work colleague, Tony, was like a ‘kid away from school’. Everything had to be tried. There was plenty of it. The show ended late so we ate late. Bordeaux wine tends to be expensive, so the cheaper end is the younger end; and the younger end, after a few long nights, starts eating holes in your stomach.
The 10 days came and went. We hadn’t gained a single lead for a future sale. We were lucky to sell the demonstration system cheaply off the stand at the end. And we were both thoroughly liverish and exhausted.
On the last day, I went to one of the Fiault brothers. Had they sold anything? NO. Why had they come here? Because Ramos and Antonio had come here.
So I went to see Antonio. Had he sold anything? No. Just about nothing. Well, why had he come here? He smiled. His answer went something like this. “You see, Philippe, I have a lover here in Bordeaux. I like her very much. The only way I can come and spend time with her for a few days is to come to this Foire. Then my wife is happy I am away.” It must have been the young woman he had introduced us too.
I don’t know what the sales message is that comes out of this experience and story. It was an expensive ‘liaison’ whichever way you look at it. Antonio was also closer to the order than we were..
My grandmother clearly knew a thing or two. I can now just about laugh about this ‘Bordeaux Episode’ in my life!