In 1956 a booklet, The Pick Knitwear Story, was produced to celebrate the centenary of J.Pick & Sons Ltd., manufacturers of knitwear for men and boys. In 1991 the firm went out of business. Throughout its life it remained under family ownership and control, developing a distinctive character and philosophy, and a particular reputation in the trade and in the city of Leicester. It died during the tenure of the forth and fifth generations. The story, then, is at once typical and unique. We felt it should be told to the end.
Since the aim of the 1956 booklet was celebratory, the tone was optimistic, with the firm portrayed as climbing ever upward towards the glowing mountain tops. But a sharp observer in 1956 must have been in doubt as to whether any perceptible glow was born of sunrise or sunset.
The high peak of prosperity for J.Pick & Sons was not 1956 but 1939, immediately before the Second World War put everything in the freezer for six years. By 1939 large wholesalers in the cities and small wholesalers in country towns dominated the market, supplying thousands of individual retailers with a wide variety of clothing. Most of these wholesalers carried Pick Knitwear.
They carried it because Sydney John Pick was determined that they should. Sydney had been pitched into total control of the company on the sudden breakdown of his father George, at the beginning of the First World War.
George Pick was shrewd, suspicious and parsimonious; he saw information as treasure to be locked in the safe, with the keys to be kept in a secret pocket. Sydney's rations had been thin. Virtually the only aspect of the business in which he had been allowed to grow expert by the time George scuttled off into gloomy retreat was the making of parcels. He could wrap neat, post-office-proof parcels to the end of his life; it was his only achievement as a handyman.
Sydney had physical and mental energy, vision, organising ability, and the resolve to be as unlike his father as possible. He wanted above all to make garments he could be proud of, and to see hem worn in the street. When he did see one worn in the street he collared the wearer and told him who made it, much to the victim's alarm and astonishment.
Sydney had artistic flair which was fostered by friendship with Harry Peach, founder of the pioneering educational equipment supplier, Dryad. Peach was an ebullient and eccentric product of he Arts and Crafts movement, who looked like a professor on a walking tour, and whose detestation of ugly street furniture and crass architecture bore fruit in a book of excoriating photographs which forced readers to recognise vandalism when they saw it. He grew notorious for leaping into graveyards to prevent bewildered workmen from removing 18th Century gravestones, for denouncing printers who used flamboyant or degraded typefaces, or quarrelling with philistines in all walks of life, and for penetrating every corner of Europe in search of artistic treasures. He gave Sydney a taste for art and design, and a taste for travel.
Sydney began to collect pots, water colours and contemporary furniture, relying on his own judgement without reference to fashion or authority. The Leicester Museum and Art Gallery are indebted to him for many of their modern pots - by Bernard Leach, Lucy Rie, William Staite Murray, Heber Matthews, David Leach and others; for a roomful of furniture by the Leicester genius Ernest Gimson; and for some distinguished paintings by Graham Sutherland, John Piper, Christopher Wood, Jacob Epstein, Josef Herman, Edward Ardizzone, Philip Sutton and Christian Rohlfs.
It was Sydney's taste which dictated the design and decoration of Picks' Sale Room and offices. Smart young buyers who saw chrome and steel as a sign of progress despised the place, but there were those who entered this oak-panelled room with its bow-windows, polished oak floors, solid Gimson table, oak-and-glass display cabinets, Dryad chairs, and art nouveau wall lights with a sense of relief and gratitude, as if they had just been rescued from drowning in traffic by a friendly warden.
His artistic flair may have had a common source with his paranormal ability to select the best yarns and to buy at the precise moment before prices went up. Yarn salesmen could never work out how he did it. Neither could he.
In Sydney's view the finest yarn spinner in the country was Beaver of Bingley. He and John Foster Beaver became unlikeley friends - Sydney, a jumping jack who couldn't stay in his box, John Beaver an aldermanic presence who moved through the world with the courteous dignity of an ambassador for imperial Yorkshire. A lifelong walker, who knew every footpath in Leicestershire and discovered with unerring intuition the wildest paces and most intriguing recesses in the entire country, Sydney stayed often at Beaver's summer cottage in the Yorkshire dales, and became a loyal subscriber to The Dalesman. He had a genius for combining business with pleasure. It was a source of bewilderment to his brother Arthur; who was in charge of the export trade, that Sydney managed to visit South Africa more often than he did. Sydney also contrived to vanish each morning to foregather at coffee break in Winn's Turkey Cafe with Rowland Barker of the painting and decorating firm, Roy Pochin of the Granby Street Hardware store, Tarratt of the jewellers, and other Leicester luminaries.
His climbing and caving expeditions; his habit of demonstrating an ability to slide round the backs of chairs without toppling them or touching the floor; his method of testing rope-ladders by hanging them from the factory roof and swarming up; his odd, quirky humour; his startling frankness and total integrity in business dealings, made him an object of wonder and amusement to customers. He would appear unexpectedly in wholesale warehouses like a genie from a bottle, and disappear as abruptly. He had an unassailable confidence that people would be delighted to see him. Sometimes they were; if they weren't he didn't notice. It would come as a surprise to him to know that he upset many applecarts; he also brightened the dullest day.
Sydney decided at the end of the First World War to break free from domination by large wholesalers through the establishment and advertisement of his own brand on a basis sound design and consistent quality. The trade-mark of a pick haft clasped in two hands, the word 'Pick' inscribed on a scroll across the haft, was registered in 1918 and proved effective despite some keen-eyed critic's suggestion that the 'pick' was a mattock. In 1929 the name 'Pick Brand' was registered, and in 1949 the single word 'Pick' enclosed in a circle took its place.
The job of persuading wholesalers to accept the brand was undertaken by agent Freddie Smith, with Sydney's forceful and erratic help. There was a strong resistance. Firms like S. & J. Watts, Wilkinson & Riddell, Bell & Nicolson, and Sparrow Hardwick were interested in marketing their services and reputation, keeping as much control over their outlets as possible, not in pushing the products of individual manufacturers. Retailers were expected to buy from the range they offered, not to demand alternatives of their own choice. For manufacturers to fly over wholesale heads by advertising to the outside world was regarded as impudence.
The status of these and similar firms was formidable. Their solid Victorian buildings, the castles of commerce, dominated central areas of Manchester and Birmingham, their buyers were men of power and influence with heavy gold watch-chains and frontages to match. Any firm which had the cheek to sell even small quantities direct to retail was banished from their books.
Picks had two weapons - the pressure of advertising and an undemonstrative garment marketed under the magic number 777. The genus 'slipover' - a sleeveless pullover with a V neck - was virtually Picks' invention. When London agent Kenneth Bramall saw a knitted waistcoat in a shop window he was struck by the thought, 'Why not a pullover without sleeves to be worn under a jacket?' The description 'slipover' and the number 777 followed. The designation was a gift from Arthur, Sydney's younger brother, who had emerged from the war-time Army with the rank of Captain, and had been accepted into the firm by Sydney on equal terms with himself. Arthur had to find a role, because none was allocated to him, and concentrated his attention on expanding the export trade, with the help of his formidable and upright assistant, Miss Flint, with whom it was unwise to argue - her demeanour was regal and her accent cut like a knife.
777 was knitted from hard-wearing wool yarn in a unique stitch which many manufacturers tried in vain to imitate. They failed because the garments were made on machines designed by the Leicester genius J.C.Moore, machines which by the end of the nineteen-twenties had become almost impossible to obtain. 777 was sold in a wide variety of accommodating colours, and had the useful characteristic of being immediately recognisable.
One of the best-known bandleaders of the day, by rigging out his entire orchestra in 777, woke people up to its charms; slipovers took off and flew without benefit of wings. Labourers in the fields, machine-minders in factories, clerks in offices, paddlers at the sea-side, spectators at football-matches, cue-wielders in billiard saloons, darts-players in pubs, distinguished gentlemen at race-meetings and respectable personages in sober clubs all wore 777. It can still be glimpsed in Television plays set in the 1930s or 40s, employed as an identification mark of the period Wholesalers had to have the number; if they wanted it they must accept a Pick label in the neck.
The prosperity of 1939 could not have been achieved without efficient organisation in the factory. Since neither Sydney nor Arthur had any knowledge of machinery, or production expertise, they would have been helpless without the driving energy of Joseph 'Jie' Clarke, whose recruitment had its comic side. Two knitwear practitioners fron Hawick, both named Clarke, responded to a trade advertisement for factory manager. The directors decided on Clarke number one; a secretary, understandably confused, sent the notice of appointment to Clarke number two.
Clarke was a knowledgeable rough diamond and a disciplinarian. The story has it that he would stand at the factory entrance at 8a.m. and any employee who came panting up the street at 8.01 saw the gate slam shut in his face. The latecomer was not admitted until 2 p.m., and lost a morning's pay. Clarke kept a beady eye on everyone and everything, bustling into each corner of a building rich in corners; skulking became a lost art. Since Clarke knew every machine and every process as thoroughly as the user of it, he was a difficult man to argue with. From 1937 he was backed and balanced by the phlegmatic and resourceful Ted Drake, as chief Mechanic.
Sydney found Clarke invaluable because although he himself had little patience and no tact, he was not psychologically fitted for confrontation, and had no detailed knowledge of the work force. He could not live with unpleasantness, and slid away from disputes like water. It was Clarke's job to dismiss people or tell them off. Sydney was on these occasions absent without leave.
Since Sydney and Arthur were opposites - the quick, intuitive Sydney had no use for prolonged discussion and disquisition, whereas the analytical Arthur liked to follow a trail step by step to a neat conclusion - and since the interests of home trade and export often clashed, smart employees would seek to play off one against the other, only to find Clarke's barrel-like form standing in the way.
A succession of formidable forewomen who protected their girls like mother-hens formed the bulkiest barrier Clarke had to face; in the end, because Clarke had a sense of justice and did not punish the innocent, respect grew mutual. Clarke died in 1948, and for many years no one of equal calibre was found to replace him. The tradition of forceful forewomen lived on.
Not all these forewomen were looked on with affection by their charges. Miss Scott, the redoubtable ruler of the Making-Up Department - tall, commanding, upright, severe, and much praised by management - was apt to dole out work in quantities so small that machinists would be left waiting for supplies. Waiting time was money lost. Until the Second World War it was general practice in the trade for machinists to pay for their own needles. At Picks, too, during the thirties there was no mechanic in the Making-Up Department If a machine broke down the operator must sit idle until a savior arrived from Singers. Again, waiting time was money lost.
Some mere males were of similar stature to the forewomen. 'Lol Hewitt had been Arthur's Sergeant-Major during the War, looking after a stiff young officer with tact and efficiency, and together with regimental comrades Steve French and his brother, accompanied him to Picks' when the war ended. His experiences in France were the touchstone by which he judged events thereafter. Hewitt never forgot those men who showed their true nature in time of crisis, and had many stories to tell about them. One that stays in my mind concerns a man we will call Tom, whose courage and resource in the leadership of night patrols resulted on several occasions in promotion to non-commissioned rank; on each occasion he got drunk, insulted an officer, or both, and was busted back to the ranks. This didn't count with fellow-soldiers. He was the one they went to for help and advice, and whenever a bombardment began, green recruits and broken men were sent to hold onto his coat. They stood round him like animals round a tree until the bombardment was over. After the war he disappeared into a warehouse and no one noticed him any more.
There was something of this quality in Hewitt himself, who was in charge of the Stock Department, with special responsibility for Export. Home Trade was in the hands of Arthur Collier, a character whose vagaries were notorious throughout the factory. It was noticeable that Hewitt avoided confrontations with Collier, who had good days, bad days, and worse days. A deep sense that life had cheated him brought on black moods, and at these times he moved in a gloomy cloud of his own making. He could be sunny and free, or elusive as a cat, vanishing down box-lined alleys to hide his order sheets in secret recesses. His papers were always neat, and his knowledge of stock formidable, but he hated to reveal it. To chase orders for one customer when Collier wanted to send them to another was wasted effort. In later years Mr Lewis, the benevolent progress chaser, found him entirely mysterious; he would prepare a report with information carefully compiled from diligent research, only to find that Collier had whipped the goods away and despatched to a customer not on Lewis's list. Collier's brain was always working on a scheme of his own, usually to improve a department for which he had no responsibility. His part in the Great Stanley Adventure will be described later.
Both Hewitt and Collier were cricketers who played a notable part in the successes of Picks' team during the nineteen-thirties, Hewitt as a slow bowler of accuracy and guile, Collier as a studious bat. Hewitt was the ideal partner for Charlie Hogg, who although only of medium height and slight build generated surprising and alarming pace. Hogg became foreman of a knitting department and in 1943, while on fire-watching duty, startled the whole factory by falling down the lift-shaft, and not merely surviving but recovering well enough to return to work. It's typical of Hewitt that when the team was revived during the nineteen-sixties to play evening matches against village sides, he not only arranged games with his homeland Dunton Bassett, which had the finest, flattest pitch in the county, but he umpired with judicious calm, and on one occasion was even persuaded to play although in his sixties and suffering from a heart condition. Collier, on the other hand, lay low. Ken Wood, the factory manager, was as enthusiastic a participant in 1965 as in 1935, though not as quick on his feet. His father had at one time been Captain of Leicestershire, so he had a lot to live down.
The revived team had the services of Martin Goodson from the Production Office, star batsman of the Nomads, a premier Leicester club side; he brought along friends to fill gaps in time of need. Guesting Nomads were frequently quizzed by suspicious village hitters whose stumps had been disarranged with "Where do you work at Picks?" to which these accomplished diplomats would reply, "Oh, I'm in accounting", or "Sales is my line." David Gutteridge from the Button suppliers down the road was a regular, too - a fast bowler who insisted on bowling innocuous off-spin for Picks, I suppose on the grounds that a conscript must enjoy himself somehow.
When the cricket team was revived yet again in the 1980s Loe Hewitt was no longer there. He would have helped if he could.
Both Hewitt and Sid Goodman, foreman of the Winding Room, were among the rare breed of individuals who reflect on, and learn from, experience. Sid told you what he thought with vigour and directness, but always with such good humour and lack of malice that it was hard work to take offence.
Mr Gray is a more complicated study. Initially employed as cost accountant he sat in Arthur's office entering figures in ledgers (their exchanges are difficult to imagine) and moved almost imperceptibly into the position of production manager. Gray knew more about figures than about production, with the unfortunate result that delivery dates were calculated on the basis of each machine's theoretical capacity, little attention being given to life's tricks and vagaries - machine breakdown, knitter's flu, shortage of yarn, the necessity for samples, or the operations of mischievous spirits. By the late Forties a traffic jam of M25 proportions clogged up the system and a whole season fell into limbo. For six months no new orders were taken while the machines raced in pursuit of the old ones. In a period of stringent shortage, customers accepted the situation with as much grace as they could muster. After all, Stafford Cripps was at the time telling even those who wore braces that they must tighten their belts.
The assiduous and methodical Gray had another disconcerting characteristic - the more fully he explained his meaning the less people understood him. Questioners were led into a maize of subordinate clauses from which there was no escape. The result was that no one asked questions any more; Gray's figures lived on in an abstract realm which denizens of the real world never entered.
When Gray made his voluble farewells, a Production Office was set up staffed by T.S. Finney and Jessie Pearson, contrasting characters who between them performed a variety of jobs which after their day it took five people to cope with, and then not so well.
Finney was an enthusiast for statistics, flowers and football; he applied the statistics to football, maintaining a detailed record of the yo-yo adventures of Leicester City between First and Second Divisions of the League, eventually compiling a history of the Club accompanied by a wealth of elaborate charts, diagrams and tables which may be hiding in the Filbert Street files to this day. His records of production in the factory were equally punctilious, and his method of loading the machines took more account of reality than had Gray's. He kept track of yarns used, and when the time was ripe approached Sidney with a request for bulk purchase. Since Sidney would only buy when inspiration struck, Finney had to wait biting his nails as he watched the stock shrink to nothing; but at last the inner voice would speak, and the deal was done. Finney could record the result in that flamboyant script so elegant and impressive that to query the veracity of its theories would be like quarrelling with the Book of Kells.
Jessie Pearson printed the work tickets, which accompanied each dozen of goods round the factory, on a rotary, and increasingly rickety, Banda machine, and entered progress in a series of vast, shiny, loose-leafed folders thumbed daily by seekers for some missing dozen of a number ordered by a single eccentric customer; which had vanished beneath a forgotten pile of seconds in a lost room. A designated segment of every ticket was snipped off when a particular dozen left a given department, and was then carried to Jessie, who stamped the book with a bang. She resembled a perky, predatory bird. Her queries were sharp and her answers decisive. You filed your wits before entering the Production Office.
In 1939 there were over three hundred employees servicing a full order book, and profits were vigorous, Sydney and Arthur may not have cared to admit it - and Sydney simply spent the money as it came, often distributing it with embarrassing generosity - but they were prosperous citizens accustomed to their status.
The Second World War put trade into a strait-jacket and then changed everything. Priority in production was given to pullovers for the Services. All the many thousands of these excellent garments had the brand label sown unobtrusively into the seam. Any spare capacity was rationed by quota among existing customers, and 'seconds' were divided on the same basis. This arrangement had some disconcerting effects. The buyer for a company then operating as a small wholesaler came in and requested 'seconds'. Sydney explained that to allow 'seconds' to a new customer would be unfair to those already entitled to a quota. The buyer said that after the war Picks would require go-ahead purchasers of a different kind and if he got support now he would return the compliment then. Sydney stuck to his guns. The buyer stumped out looking thunderous. By the Sixties this firm was one of the biggest operators in the country. Picks never got an order from them no matter hard they tried.
Goods were in short supply well into the nineteen-fifties, and orders came easily. Almost unnoticed, trading conditions and the market shivered and shifted into new patterns. Skilled workers under wartime direction of labour had moved into other industries and didn't return. Wholesalers who had paced self-importantly into the war remained in the Fifties complacent but depleted. Their customers were squeezed from the High Street as retail chains and Mail Order grew everywhere and flourished like an invasion of Triffids. Yet wholesalers continued to eschew adventure and bought only safe sellers. Some stuck rigidly to 777 and the wool cotton garments which workmen had worn before the war; these had become quaint and old-fashioned even by the mid thirties.
Picks' strength lay in its variety of machinery. Whatever was in demand they had a machine which would make it. But this was a weakness, too. If demand took off they did not have a bank of machines of a given type to fulfil it. Goods were oversold and deliveries suffered. Follow-up sampling became impossible, and development fell behind. Because some stitches and weights were bound at any time to be out of favour; other machines lay idle.
Many machines were veterans, including those which rattled off 777 year after year. Their inventor, J.C.Moore, was a genius who never made the same machine twice. The next one as always an improvement on the first, with modifications which prevented any two from being interchangeable. When Moore died at the end of the nineteen-twenties, Picks bought the business, standardised the machinery as far as possible, and closed it down. New machines of various types were continually being bought, but not enough of any category to create a fully productive plant. Besides, the garments made on the most ancient machines continued to sell the best.
The Moores required skilled and experienced operators, but once you got used to them you could make good money. 777 was so popular with customers that knitters worked shifts. It was noticeable that women knitters worked as a team while the men did not. Pay was calculated on dozens. As a result, if towards the end of a shift a male knitter knew he would not complete a dozen, he knocked off rather than hand over two bodies to the next shift.
The women worked differently. The early-shift knitter would work through until knocking-off time. If she managed only two bodies, the late-shift knitter would complete the dozen, and pay her for the two bodies. The two women achieved the same pay week after week.
Moore's was not the only business bought by Picks. In the early nineteen-fifties, Ferriman's, the firm which made needles for the Moore machines, ceased trading. Picks bought the business, built a factory in the grounds and continued to produce the needles which would otherwise have been unobtainable, selling them to other manufacturers in equal need.
In 1957 J.Pick & Sons had three directors - Sydney, Arthur and David Pick. David was Sydney's elder son, a trained engineer who joined the firm on leaving the wartime Merchant Navy. As was normal in the Pick family, no function was defined for him. He had to discover one for himself. He worked with two Leicester machine manufacturers, the pioneering Wildts, and the larger Mellor Bromley; the knowledge gained proved invaluable. As a practical man he found no difficulty in arriving at an accommodation with that other practical man, the renowned curmudgeon and factory manager, J. Clarke. It was high time that a director of the company understood machinery and could organise its use and purchase. His presence changed the feel of the place. David established relationships, too, with spinners and customers.
His greatest interest outside the business was in building and racing motor cars in time-trials and hill-climbs, accompanied as back-up by the long suffering Jock Bailey, the much-needed mechanic in the making-up department. Jock rolled his eyes and muttered a lot, but was proud of the 'special' and its bursts of prowess, despite himself.
David grew ever more convinced that the firm needed a boost in the sales department. It was at his instigation that his younger brother, John, for ten years a professional writer living in Scotland, was called into the business. Aware of the reputation of family companies for employing relatives of dubious competence rather than trained executives, John went to a Leicester consultant for a crash course in sales management. His tutor was a round rumbustious operator named Jackson, who was armed with the powerful conviction that anyone can learn anything if he puts his mind to it, and the endearing characteristic of admitting ignorance where it existed. He didn't waste time with theoretical lectures, but set his new pupil a series of definite tasks to extract from the company the information necessary for an analysis of its true market position to be made.
The result was sobering. Either the wholesale trade must be induced to stock a wider range of Pick Knitwear and sell it more imaginatively, or Picks must find new outlets. Both courses of action meant revolutionising the thought processes not only of wholesale customers themselves, but of the agents responsible for selling to the wholesale in the first place.
The most important of these agents was that same Freddie Smith who had spear-headed the establishment of the brand. Smith, with the help of his step-son, Brian Cleaver, covered the whole of England and Wales except London, Leeds, Manchester, and Liverpool. No one without Smith's dedication and enthusiasm could have managed such a vast and unwieldy territory, burning up the roads from Messrs. Goldstone in Hull to George Jelbart in Marazion; from Caplan in Sheffield to J.T. Morgan in Swansea; from William Dixon in Nottingham to the depths of Kent, pulling in the grand panjandrums of Birmingham on the way.
As a young man Smith had the fear of the Devil drummed into him by powerful wholesale buyers, who loomed behind him in his dreams. He was convinced that if he were seen sneaking into a retail establishment, the bricks of disapproval would tumble on him from a great height, and his business would lie buried in the rubble.
This intrepid salesman, who bearded Draculas in their dens to belabour them with gossip, argument, demonstration, flattery and tales of strange deeds, hardly dared to enter a shop to buy a shirt without posting a look-out on the corner. Since Brian was the look-out he had been infected by the same fear-virus.
Smith was a warm, bustling man with a rolling walk, a florid face, an engaging smile, and a Bentley. He had his own way of folding and packing samples, of presenting the range, of approaching a customer, of finalising a sale, and of securing repeats. He relished the world and the people therein, and shook the tree of knowledge for its fruit. When he sailed into a room prospective victims would glance hastily round for a way of escape, but in vain. Smith had invariably cut off the exit with a movement that Nureyev would have been proud of, and backed the fugitive with amiable deftness against the wall.
In the factory he would flourish some other manufacturer's garment which he swore was selling like magic chocolates, and if Picks would only make its equivalent at once or sooner we could all retire as millionaires by Christmas. Or, on the contrary, he would report that Pumpkin and Whiffle were marketing an embroidered upside-down waistcoat which Picks didn't have the making-up machinery to match, and were flooding the trade to such an extent that we had better start practising the violin so that we could scrape a living playing to fish queues.
Kenneth Bramall, the London agent, was a figure from another world. Kenneth had married Gladys, the younger of Sydney and Arthur's two sisters, and a stunning beauty in her youth. The perfect picture of a man about town, with neat moustache, brisk walk, rolled umbrella stylishly flourished, long dark overcoat and jaunty homberg, that would in Smith's rough world seem like a cricketer at a baseball match.
One day, for example, he went to collect a promised order from the buyer at the London Co-operative Wholesale Society, a gentleman fully aware of his own importance and inclined to make his suitors wait. The appointment had been arranged for 10.30 a.m. At 10.50 there was no sign of intelligent life, and no encouraging word had emerged from the inner sanctum. Kenneth began to fume and seethe like a human kettle rattling its lid as he marched up and down furiously brollying the air. He blew his valve suddenly and clattered off down the stairs to stay himself with flagons; smarmy diplomacy had to be employed to get him to mount them again.
There was sometimes a bewildered air about the cheerful and convivial Kenneth, as if he suspected the existence of some road through the world which he had never found. He had expected to be made a Director of J.Pick & Sons, but in this as in much else was disappointed. He suffered continually from misfortunes large and small, typified by the occasion of the customers' party. The furniture of the City Office was rearranged, extra chairs brought in, food and wine carefully calculated and organised, the guest list pored over in hours of sober thought. The night before the great day of celebration Kenneth fell ill with a gastric attack and could only watch, bilious and subdued, while the unsympathetic hordes guzzled his wine and tucked into his food. On the whole Kenneth's charm gained him as many orders as his touchiness lost.
By contrast his assistant and successor, the dare-devil mini-driver John Evans, would cheerfully have sold dress shirts to Eskimos, and was prepared to dive into forbidden establishments with the zeal of a man who wanted to own a yacht (He did in fact own one for a time, but had to sell it.) He viewed wholesalers as dinosaurs waiting for the flood. The buyers of the great retail chains and mail order catalogues, however, were regarded with awe, and he was disposed to believe customers rather than manufacturers, which caused bewilderment from time to time.
James Renton, of Manchester, was courteous, tweed-suited, steady and discreet. His idea of selling was to have a chat with a congenial acquaintance. If the acquaintance proved not to be congenial after all, he bore the encounter with patient politeness. He saw clearly enough that the world was changing and would have moved in a suitable direction if he had known which directon this was.
In Glasgow, where the Whitelaw family bore the agency burden, pacing the Victorian streets in a succession of traditional bowler hats, there were already maverick companies claiming wholesale status while selling direct to the public from premises which sported film-set staircases, tinkling fountains, tropical fish drifting and darting in frond-decorated tanks, draped statues in tasteful poses, and elaborate tableaux of merchandise arranged like the furniture of Aladdin's cave. To these institutions the trade turned a discreetly astigmatic eye.
Belfast, by contrast, was a nest of small wholesalers serving modest country towns and rural shops, whose buyers saw the twice-yearly arrival of Picks' range as the signal for a leisurely social celebration, making pilgrimage to the office of agent Thomas Heaney, whose most valuable asset was his wife Jean, who entertained them with coffee and conversation. The tales told were in the true Irish tradition, cut down or spun out according to the time of day, always with a mordant bite. Typical was buyer Mahaffey's saga of the Sweep tickets.
It was his custom to purchase a handful of these to dispense among chosen customers. At the end of a selling trip through Scotland he found himself left with only one ticket, and this had been promised faithfully to his daughter. The final customer would not accept no for an answer, and so pestered and badgered and besieged Mahaffey that at last he parted with the ticket, sacrificing his daughter on the altar of trade relations. The customer won a fortune, offered Mahaffey no part of it, and out of embarrassment or guilt was conveniently elsewhere whenever his benefactor called.
In Leeds the amiable and voluble Mr Bretherick who, as a result of having been Lord Mayor of his distinguished city, was able and willing to deliver a suitable speech on any occasion, held court among customers so few in number that rhetoric outweighed orders.
As it happened, Osborne-Peacock, Picks' advertising agency, had made their own analysis of the situation, and come up with a plan for 1958. Television had not yet scooped the pool, and extensive coverage in the Press still carried weight. Picks were to choose eight numbers from their frill range of thirty or more, and present them in brochures and window displays, backed by a seriesof half-pages in the Daily Express, then by far the biggest selling newspaper in the country. On the strength of this campaign, retailers in specific areas were to be approached direct for orders to be invoiced through wholesalers of their choice. The wholesalers themselves were to be induced to carry all eight numbers in anticipation of sales through the Express.
This programme came as a torch in the night for Picks' long-serving, india-rubber designer Nick Hawthorne, whose morale had been sapped by the continual production of two full ranges each year only to find the same few sellers plodding staidly on while anything dashing or exuberant was received with suety indifference.
Range selection meetings were a torment to Hawthorne and most others who attended them - marathon affairs which formed a complicated pattern. Sydney wanted garments he could be proud of; John wanted garments which would sell; Arthur wanted garments which would sell in South Africa, and thought Export was neglected; David wanted garments which would employ the whole factory without overloading any particular machine group; Hawthorne wanted a bit of appreciation and a quiet life, He got neither, and grew used to covering disappointment with a display of nonchalance and levity, until the factory came to accept him at face value, underestimating his talent, resource and achievement. The 1958 campaign was Hawthorne's Last Throw; its failure to change the world convinced him that he would better off running an antique shop in the West Country, and a few years later he left.
The sight of Freddie Smith darting with guilty zeal into a retail outfitter's on Shrewsbury High Street, and James Renton marching solemnly up to a draper's counter in Barrow-in-Furness had its comic side, but the experience was salutary and educational to both.
Wholesale customers were content to accept any aid that might be given, but made no real effort to co-operate in a sales campaign. They tended to choose their normal quota of Pick Knitwear from among the eight advertised numbers, but had no intention of increasing their stock or extending their range. They sat back and waited for the Daily Express to clear their shelves - which on the whole it failed to do. They received the gift of orders gained from retail outlets with equanimity, but did nothing to follow up new business or occupy the ground gained.
Retailers themselves showed a marked reluctance to associate with wholesale suppliers they had abandoned years before, and those who had never dealt with the wholesale weren't going to start now. For Picks, then, it was an obvious case of change or die.
The first experiment was to take aboard a salesman to call directly on as wide a range of retailers as possible, showing the goods and gathering information about needs and preferences. Any orders obtained were channelled through a dormant company owned by Picks. It was soon as clear as Cornish light that those wholesale customers most likely to survive were specialists in sportswear, young fashion, or 'customer's customer' trading. The salesman produced fat files and well-organised reports which were read with interest, but sold very little knitwear. After some months he soared away to higher things.
One of the realisations which forced Picks into drastic action was that the better the class of retailer, the less likely he was to buy from a range prepared to suit the wholesale, most of whose business was with drapers in the smaller towns. The effort to find ways into the retail without alienating those wholesale customers whose orders were still worthwhile, led down strange alleys and up narrow staircases. It had long been accepted that objections would not be made to dealing with outfitting chains Foster Brothers of Birmingham and Bradleys of Chester. Foster Brothers, though, were difficult to please, and Bradleys moving slowly and steadily downhill.
Firms like Greenwoods and Austin Reed, and stores like Selfridges and C. & A. were targeted, and a way into Meakers, the solid outfitting chain, was discovered by John Evans through an eccentric one-man band with the intriguing title of Heknows Wholesale. The master-mind of this peculiar company operated from a wheelchair with the aid of a grey haired secretary, and had the habit of peering at garments through a magnifying glass, an exercise which produced no startling insights into their quality. Other oddities included specialist suppliers with a route into retail co-operative societies which by-passed the CWS, and interesting companies with offices in other companies' buildings.
A further option was to service West End stores with an entirely separate and exclusive range distributed through a cover organisation. The first requirement was a designer with a reputation in high fashion. Negotiations began with Digby Morton. The garments were to be made and the exercise entirely funded by Picks, and marketed through a joint enterprise, Digby Morton Knitwear.
Sydney, now in his seventies, made no objection to this bypassing of the Brand; any project based on quality of design would receive his support.
The problems were many and various. Digby Morton was accustomed to the studio production of prototypes which could be run up on sewing machines and adjusted by the judicious application of pins, and so on and on until you got them right. Inspired guesses could take form within hours. But Picks had to knit, cut, make up and finish a dozen garments to establish cost at each alteration, and to repeat the process indefinitely was simply uneconomic.
Again, Morton had little idea what could or could not be achieved on knitting machines or by the making-up processes available in the factory. Internal designers and mechanics strove with varying degrees of success to adapt his ideas to reality and to gain his approval of the result, with inevitable frustrations on both sides. The ideas themselves were original and lively; if the finished garments were not as elegant as Morton would have liked, a range of ten numbers gave genuine pleasure to both sides in the end.
A launch was held on the top floor of the London Hilton to which buyers of the most prestigious stores were invited. They watched with studied indifference while the numbers were paraded, ate and drank all that was on offer and bought little or nothing. Most were used to the more delicate make-up of women's knitwear and cut-and-sew garments did not appeal. In retrospect it is plain that publicity and marketing were inadequate and the experiment abandoned too soon.
The use of outside designers continued. There was always an in-house designer involved in day-to-day work, but at different times Road Paterson and John Carr Doughty acted as advisors. When jersey fabric waistcoats and cardigans were fashionable it became obvious that specialised cutting was necessary to assure a proper fit, and a tailor's cutter named Kirsch was cajoled into giving lessons in how it should be done.
While Digby Morton strove to adapt to Picks and the mass market, a deliberate assault was being made on the Mail Order. John Evans, to the uneasy astonishment of Kenneth Bramall, struck gold with Freeman's Catalogue in London, Renton with Oxendale in Manchester, and Smith with Empire Stores in Bradford. It took a year or two for the problems involved in servicing the Mail Order to sink in. A big wholesaler at the height of his power might place an order for 100 dozen of a particular number. A Mail Order Catalogue could add a nought to the end of that. But instead of setting a firm date for delivery of the entire quantity, with payment to follow, all dates except the date for an initial consignment were in effect provisional; goods were to be made and stocked until called for. If the glossy photographs of smiling heroes in golden sunshine didn't make customers reach for their pens, then goods were called in slowly or not at all. The manufacturer must not only pay for holding stock but struggle at the end of the season to get undelivered garments accepted.
On the other hand, if a number sold like revelations about Royal misdemeanours, the manufacturer was expected to supply at the speed of Rumplestiltskin - and what if several numbers sold well from the same catalogues? It was plain that you couldn't afford to service two big catalogues in one season, while to deal with small catalogues was much trouble for low return. The effort to expand at home was vital nonetheless, because the export trade had been hit hard amidships by the ever higher tariffs being imposed in South Africa, and the eventual ban on trade with South Africa after the D'Oliveira affair. Picks' largest single overseas market dwindled away to nothing, and efforts to compensate by increased trade elsewhere were only marginally successful.
IN fact it was neither Digby Morton nor the Mail Order which changed Picks' fortunes but the technical innovations of Ted Tomaka, and the sudden competitive fever among fibre producers.
Tomaka was a Polish exile who after grim wartime experiences qualified at Leicester College of Art and Technology (where he later taught) and joined Picks' in 1949. A restless, questing spirit with a passion for change and improvement, he began in 1955 to experiment with undyed textured filament yarns for use in men's knitwear.
By the end of the decade the producers of nylon, terylene and other synthetic fibres were seeking outlets for their production and men's knitwear was an unploughed field. When Tomaka's experiments became known he was a target for attention. The producers were eager to aid with development and to finance ventures in joint advertising and promotion.
The first fruit from this forest of effort was a slipover in Banlonised (crimped) terylene designed and produced by Tomaka and rushed into the range as no. 6636 during the season 1960/1. It may well have been the first men's knitted outwear garment in a synthetic fibre generally available in the United Kingdom, and it sold prodigiously.
James Renton took a sample into a friendly outfitter's directly opposite his office in Piccadilly, Manchester. The proprietor put 6636 into his window and a man marched in off the street and demanded a garment in every colour on the swatch. On the strength of that Renton sold it to outfitting wholesaler Parry, Sons & Hanson, and 6636 sailed away to the Prosperous Isles.
The attractions were obvious: complete machine washability at a time when wool garments had to be 'hand-washed in luke-warm water'; sharpness in stitch; and clear bright colours which sang out in a shop window.
But there was, literally, a snag. The fibre was so strong that, if caught, a thread would stretch without breaking, causing an unsightly loop. Of course the thread could be carefully drawn back from inside (and this trick was continually being performed with returned garments in the factory) but how many wearers had the patience for such delicate manoeuvres? Whatever the problem, 6636 was a runaway winner; a pullover and cardigan which followed in a less snaggable stitch sold with equal facility. Within months several groups of machinery were fully occupied with synthetic production.
From Ban-Lon Terylene Picks moved into textured Bry-nylon, the fruit of the I.C.I. Courtaulds collaboration which established British Nylon Spinners. When this collaboration broke down in the 1970s, the two giants embarked on competitive campaigns of take-over to protect and expand their markets, swallowing up spinners and manufacturers with wild abandon. The mad dash ended with the over-stretched Courtaulds tottering on the edge of a precipice, barely knowing which firms they owned and which they didn't.
Garments in Courtelle and Acrilan were added to the range and gradually the percentage of synthetic as against wool yarns increased to the point of total victory. The inflated price of wool at that time helped to make it an unequal contest. The Wool Marketing Board fought back by developing and sponsoring machine-washable yarns, and Picks not only co-operated in the campaign but in 1965 took a leap into the manufacture of full-fashioned knitwear for the first time, investing in a fabulously expensive sixteen-head eight-gauge machine brought from S. & A. Monk, to produce classic pullovers in machine-washable wool, ending with five machines, four with 12 heads and one 16-head machine designed to produce fully fashioned schoolwear. This was a gamble because the chosen gauge meant the production of a heavier garment than was normal at the time. David and Tomaka aimed to offer something that no one else could rival. It took a year or two to establish a niche in the full-fashioned market and to recoup the initial heavy outlay. Much to everyone's surprise the schoolwear machine became the busiest, supplying in bulk to both Tesco and British Home Stores. When Picks closed down, one quality controller confessed he had no idea where he could find as good a garment at as low a price.
The use of false-twist nylon yarns led to drastic modifications and developments in the organisation and running of the factory, and the new requirements of fully-fashioned production changed methods once again.
Many worsted yarns had in the past been delivered undyed and sent out in batches to be dyed, but the early synthetic fibres required more complicated treatment, being knitted into blanks and sent out as bodies, necks and sleeves for scouring, bulking, heat-setting and dyeing. This involved an increase not only in record-keeping and quality control, but in transport, packing, storage and lifting, consequently in opportunities for mishaps and delay. There was difficulty in dye-matching necks with bodies, and any mismatch caused overdue orders and customer outrage.
A new system of knitting and shift-working was introduced for full-fashioned knitters, and an entire plant of making-up machines, for cup-seaming, linking and trimming had to be installed.
These extra problems gave gremlins their opportunity to pop out of every nook and cranny. Deliveries, which had been notoriously bad, became even worse. Something had to be done beyond counting up to ten and concocting ingenious answers to telephone complaints.
IT was the fashion of the day to call in consultants, and Picks followed the fashion, asking a famous and highly-expensive company to examine and improve the process of production control and administration. In 1959 they produced a preliminary report which made revealing comments: Overheads were too high, profit margin too low. As for deliveries, the consultants pointed out that no allowances were made for capacity limitations except in knitting, while variations in throughput could vary between two weeks and two months. Top management, too, was so involved in detail that no time was left for solving major problems. The fact that Picks' employees knew this already is not surprising: it's from employees that consultants get most of their information. But the report compelled management to face issues and take action.
The result was that energetic, inventive and abstruse Mr Stanley took up residence. He pursued facts and figures with tireless eloquence and good-humour, articulating his findings with such astonishing verbal dexterity and arcane vocabulary that prospective victims fled at his approach, hiding away in toilets and cupboards till the danger had passed. Once captured, they deflated like leaky balloons into a stunned vacancy of silence.
Stanley entered into the spirit of his almost legendary role in the factory, and even survived with impressive sang-froid the strange events which took place during the 1964 Works Outing. This yearly ritual included on that occasion a trip by motor launch down the Thames in glorious June weather. Some of his more frequent quarry spent too much time swallowing Dutch courage in the bar, and mutinous murmurs rose to a threatening clamour. The revolutionaries advanced in an unsteady throng upon the unsuspecting Stanley where he lolled astern, with the declared intent of tossing him in the river. Only a combination of his obvious amiability and impressive, Rugby-playing bulk dissuaded them from attempting this diabolical act, and the episode ended with tuneless songs and pleasantries.
The plan which Stanley eventually produced was a masterpiece of detailed theory embodied in a main document of fifty pages together with separate supplements, one for every individual involved in any aspect of administration from Sales Office to Packing Department. Each step in each operation was broken down into paragraphs marked 1, 2, 3 with sub-sections and so on towards infinity. The paragraphs were as clear as a motor manual, but translation into practice proved to be a stumbling progress over shin-breaking obstacles.
Nothing daunted Stanley, who explained and expounded and expatiated until heads were bowed and breathing ceased, leaving his listeners like abandoned zombies in a graveyard. The fact was that no one fully understood the implementation of his system except Arthur Collier. Collier understood perfectly. To him it was a matter of simple common-sense. You followed the script precisely as written and efficiency followed as day followed night. He regarded the bemused and confused who faltered and fell by the wayside as dim-wits, backsliders, or traitors, and long after Stanley's system had slipped through modifications into limbo, Collier applied it in his own domain like the high-priest of a forgotten religion fulfilling the rites laid down from time immemorial.
Stanley was much missed by all and sometimes by sundry when he left, but the collapse of the system forced the hasty convening of a desperation committee which devised a more primitive version of the Stanley engine which served to keep the show on the road.
The resulting situation gave the firm's accountant his chance of glory. Mr Morley was by training a cost accountant, but by inclination a devisor of systems and a computer buff, before computers were in a state to justify buffage. They were then in their steam age and furious to expand and conquer the world.
In one respect at least he resembled the late lamented Mr Gray. The more he explained the less he was understood. Why did costings vary so wildly from garment to garment? Why were adjustments always upward and never down? Why was such a stupefying percentage of cost piled on overheads? How did it happen that those garments carefully designed to be reasonable in price always ended up the most expensive? Explanations always led to further questions and the further questions into a bog from which no rescue was possible except by way of Morley's often repeated aphorism that the price of a garment is what you choose to charge for it.
At any rate he was tenacious, methodical and determined that the building should be filled with computers. A procession of brief-cased exponents of machines and systems filed through the doors and entered into secret conclave with Morley in a secluded office. Experiments led to snags and snags to further confabulations and confabulations to further experiments and experiments to snags and so on and on. The directors had grown complacent, imagining that nothing serious could emerge from such a stumbling progress through the jungle, when Morley appeared like Merlin with a wand, claiming discovery of a system which would solve every problem of production control that anyone had ever confronted.
Much discussion and impenetrable explanation was followed by the arrival of two huge green cabinets which took up an imposing position in the production office, making menials of all human beings present. The green monsters devoured all the information which the menials obediently fed them, got terrible indigestion and ceased to function: More confabulations, explanations, modifications and forced feeding. The monsters shuddered, gargled, and had a nervous breakdown. A few months later both cabinets sat silent and lifeless, like baleful impostors discovered claiming someone else's rightful inheritance. One proved capable of exercising its electronic muscles on yarn stock control. The other departed as scrap metal.
Morley wore a long face for a while, but his innocent belief in electric miracles remained unaffected, even in the face of David's explosive cry that two old men with quill pens would have done a better job. Years later, first a small personal computer was employed to print work tickets with piece rates attached, and the ancient Banda machine formerly worked by the redoubtable Jessie Pearson went into retirement. Second, another computer sidled in to calculate wage slips. Third, in 1990 a state-of-the-artful magic box took total control, capable not only of printing tickets, but of monitoring all the operations performed in production. The day of old men with quill pens had gone for ever. But by that time Mr Morley was exploring the Dorset countryside from a caravan, operating on a pension not awarded to the noble Banda.
David was more and more given to uttering explosive cries. In 1961 he had become Managing Director, and found himself increasingly involved not merely with insoluble internal problems, but with the cumbersome apparatus of trade politics and administration, acting as Chairman of the mens and women's outerwear section of the Hosiery Manufacturers' Association for twenty-five years, as a council member of the Hosiery Trades Training and Research Association, as well as supporting the Chamber of Commerce, the Knitting Industries Federation and the C.B.I. The activities or inactivities of Governments of various hues brought on explosions, protests, letters to the Press, letters to M.Ps, and Ministers, and other manifestations of acute discomfort. The replies received were often mellifluous but rarely rewarding.
While all these upheavals were taking place the British Government was making application to join the Common Market. Manufacturers who failed to prepare for the Flood could well be drowned. At Picks' initiative a consortium was set up with two other companies - Benjamin Russell of Leicester, and Cooper and Roe of Nottingham. Their ranges overlapped only at the edges, and it was agreed that joint funding was the only way to defray the costs of selling in Europe, and shared representation the only way to make the employment of a salesman worth while.
The joint organisation worked with surprising fluency, and all the firms found the relationship positively enjoyable. A salesman based in Belgium began work, and immediately difficulties hurried to join a queue. The ranges as they stood were not suited to European markets. Not one of the three companies was used to receiving orders in retail quantities spread over a wide variety of numbers. What's worse, to be asked for endless minor modifications - an alternative neck, a colour not on the swatch, a longer garment, an extra size and so on merely to sell half a dozen pullovers would have been enough to drive a tortoise into decline. It was a relief when General de Gaulle said 'Non'. But not to the Belgian representative. No Common Market, no consortium. He couldn't profitably be kept on in the circumstances, and was understandably upset. This wouldn't have been so bad if he had been one of those Europeans already deeply suspicious of perfidious Albion, but on the contrary he was a confirmed Anglophile who felt betrayed, and the whole affair was profoundly distressing. Another attempt in 1976 to establish an export group never took to the air.
In 1965 a Staff Pension Fund was set up and accountants advised dividing the company into two - J.Pick & Sons Ltd, as trading company, and J.Pick & Sons (Properties) Ltd as owners of the building Many years later accountants suggested that the process should be reversed, but natural lethargy prevented it. That was an inspired laziness, for when the trading company died in 1991 the property remained intact to shelter the encampment of Receivers and to let out territory floor by floor to the wide variety of characters still soldiering on through the recession.
It was also in 1965 that the Polish adventure began. The Poles had a ravenous appetite for a boys' pullover in Shawflex terylene, known as 979.
Dealing with their State buying organisation was like entering a novel by John le Carre. Every six months a buying mission arrived from Poland and took up residence in the Embassy. Their methods resembled those used by interrogators - the nice one followed by the nasty one followed by the serious one. First, the victims were kept waiting in an ante-room. Then a polite and personable lady welcomed them into a large reception area, and examined the garments with cries of appreciation. So this was the buyer? How delightful, how civilised!
She disappeared, and in blew a male tornado with flinty face and flying hair, who flung samples to all points of the compass with roars of "That's rubbish!" or "I can get that cheaper in Germany," or "Too small! Too large! Wrong sleeves! Wrong stitch! No-good! Useless!" and so on. He vanished as suddenly as he had arrived and in his place a business-like individual in a sober suit selected two or three garments and discussed quantities, sizes and delivery dates before demanding abruptly a specific price which would allow no profit at all.
To establish any sort of relationship with any of these accomplished actors proved impossible because next time round the whole cast had changed. Which one was the chief buyer, anyway? Who was actually in charge? The one who announced himself as such probably wasn't. Were any of them in charge? Was the whole thing a charade, the whole plot and denouement worked out before they set off from Warsaw? John le Carre might have known, but he wasn't on the payroll.
If on the first occasion you allowed the price to be forced down you were done for, because on the second occasion it would be forced down further on the specious grounds that the order was larger or the balance of sizes more favourable, and so on - all this despite the fact the general costs had gone up. Either it was deeply engrained in their psyche that all companies in the degenerate Capitalist West unreasonably inflated their profits in order to swindle honest innocents behind the Iron Curtain, or they pretended that it was. If ever you rang the factory to check margins or request clarification some minion was listening on another phone. To work out codes of communication was a waste of time because no reduction in price, no order.
Finally, they invariably claimed loss or damage or short delivery on each consignment. This ploy was neutralised by persuading the Chamber of Commerce to supply witnesses who checked every item as it was packed, signing an affidavit to that effect. Over the years it is doubtful if Picks' made any profit by trading with this ingenious organisation.
In the factory the long-serving and amiable manager Ken Wood retired with an air of modest relief, and the cyclonic Tomaka took his place. The results were revolutionary. In the cutting room circular power-operated knives shaping layered fabric replaced the magical dexterity of girls wielding hand-shears. In the making-up department serried ranks of sewing machines on long communal benches gave way to separate tables each with its own power-unit, and so without singing, gossip and the social exchanges which were the main reason why many of the women came to work.
Then conveyor belts eliminated the formerly zigzag progress of errant dozens about the enormous room; some indefinable atmosphere of conviviality was lost.
As the Seventies chased away the Beatles, seismic changes in the trading world forced new thinking of a different kind. Kenneth Bramell had died some years before, and John Evans found himself at the hub of all Picks' increasingly centralised business. Smith's England agency, and those in Manchester, Leeds, Glasgow and Aberdeen went into an ever swifter spiral of decline. The wholesale trade faded and vanished. Smith decided to retire, leaving Brian Cleaver to swim alone against the tide.
John Pick left the factory to return to writing in 1970, although remaining chairman of the Works Council and making frequent guest appearances to fill gaps between departing and arriving sales managers. There was no solidity in this position until Mr Woodroffe took over the job and stayed until the bitter end.
The choice was stark - sell to the great retail and supermarket chains or fade away into the sunset. One prestigious chain was not on the cards, because when their experts visited the factory and explained precisely what they wanted, Tomaka remarked briskly, "You don't know what you're talking about, do you?" to the suppressed amusement of the Pick representatives present.
Evans flew about seeking the Promised Land. Picks' first order from a supermarket chain was a revelation. Whereas the Mail Order might place 1,000 dozen of a particular number, to the supermarket chains 3,000 dozen would be routine. But not only were the problems of stock-holding and storage the same as with Mail Order, quantities being held, and called in only as required, there was regulation and interference at every stage. The garment chosen was designed as much by the store buyer as by the manufacturer, and in-house designers became mere journeymen.
The yarn to be used, the dimensions for each size, the method of making up and finishing were all laid down. Whether justly or not, Picks saw this as a decline in standards, and the sense of pride in the garments was reduced.
By the middle of the decade there was no longer any point in issuing a range. Even smaller customers insisted on exclusive design to their own perception of fashion trends, which varied from place to place.
Sampling became a permanent feature of life instead of an explosion twice a year. The brand was virtually dead long before 1985, when 777 eventually passed into limbo.
In times of difficulty, which rolled round with increasing frequency and severity, the rule seemed to apply that the larger the customer, the more slowly he tended to pay. Overdrafts grew bloated, the bank loomed ever more ominously in the shadows.
Sydney disliked and distrusted this new world of the nineteen seventies. He no longer had any choice which yarn to buy, and lost interest in the subject. His friends in the trade had departed to an even stranger world, the quality of goods displeased him, the death of the brand was a personal blow, the cut-throat atmosphere, and lack of personal contact, took the fun out of life. When David on one occasion returned from London with a fat order, Sydney's only response was to ask, "Do we really need to take it?" The answer had to be "Yes".
The legs which had vigorously carried Sydney into all the wildernesses and intriguing recesses of the countryside had began to fail him. He found himself confined to a wheel-chair placed in the Sale Room, where he could watch the passing show. For a notoriously impatient man whose departures were as abrupt and sudden as his arrivals, he was astonishingly patient with his condition. He enjoyed visits from designers, buyers, and fugitives of whatever kind, occasionally calling out to fleeting figures in the corridor for news, information, or with requests to be transported to the toilet, to the Museum to view its latest acquisitions, or to see where they had hidden his gifts, or into the country to find green hills.
Mr Holmes, the cleaner, was assigned to look after him and take him wherever he wanted to go, which he did with a consideration and tenderness well beyond the call of duty - all the more impressive since he was famous for running an unwelcome visitor down the steps into the street, where the intruder vanished at high speed.
It was typical of Sydney that when he collapsed and the hastily summoned doctor told him that he had suffered a stroke he replied emphatically, "Nonsense!" - and died the same night, in July 1973.
Arthur's role, too, had been eroded by the decline of the export trade. He played no part in dealing with the Poles, and efforts to increase business elsewhere had only partial success. That it had any was often the result of dedicated work by Audrey Burbank in the Sales Office. It is worth mentioning that Audrey Burbank of Export and Pauline Spong of Home Trade helped each other as friends. Efficiency experts rarely take such personal relationships into account, but where people like and respect each other work gets done, and where they don't, it doesn't. Arthur himself died in 1976. It is a mercy that he and Sidney both departed before the firm faded into history.
Ironically, the area which proved most receptive to Pick Knitwear was not the Common Market but Scandinavia. In the late eighties an agent, Jim Hambly, was appointed for Norway, Sweden and Finland and, although a septuagenarian, he proved to be an enthusiast as fit as a flea. When Mr Woodroffe, the sales manager, volunteered for a trip to Finland he found himself outrun and outlasted by a non-stop action man. They arrived in a snowstorm and set off immediately to drive 100 miles through blizzards to confront astonished customers. Hambly found in the Jonas Hoegland supermarkets of Norway a solid outlet for ladies' fully fashioned pullovers - a new venture for Picks.
The year before Arthur's death, David's daughter Alison joined the firm, and showed herself from the start to be a highly versatile all-rounder, moving from packing to progress-chasing to Accountant's assistant, and then collector of costings and general trouble-shooter, ending as a Director and Company Secretary. She might be found - or lost - in any part of the factory at any time. This ubiquitous activity gave her a closer relationship with employees at every level than any other member of the family, and she retained it long after the factory closed. It was at her instigation that a party for ex-employees is held every year in the Sale Room.
That giants like Tesco, Littlewoods, Woolworth's and C & A were customers simplified life in one way - big production runs always help - but in other ways complicated it. Servicing two price-conscious heavyweights simultaneously doesn't make for restful nights or heavy profits.
Small firms at the sharp end of fashion rose like rockets, flashed a few lights, and went bust, making extravagant claims on design time, and showing weird mutability in requirements. Again, profit was minimal.
To survive in the fashion industry you must not only revel in contrast and sail happily over waves of change, but gain the ability to shrink and stretch like Alice in Wonderland. In the Sixties, Picks had some three hundred customers, mostly small. Orders had to be bulked up for issue, as no single order was of financial consequence in itself; but if one customer did not order, another might, and the machines could keep on turning. By 1975 the number of customers was seventy-six, and by 1985, only twenty. The loss of any one of these twenty large customers could mean disaster, and they were all fickle.
Throughout these years a bread-and-butter breakfast was provided by the Ministry of Defence. That the original Army pullover had been produced largely as the result of tests and experiments carried out by Picks didn't guarantee continuity of orders. The same was true of other garments. Ted Tomaka, in consultation with the Ministry Clothing Centre at Colchester, developed the durable Commando sweater, and Picks were involved from the start with the special white Divers' pullover for the Navy. Many companies tried in vain to get this order, but couldn't produce the garment to correct specification. Technicians at Picks came to the conclusion that the complicated jobs were pushed their way, and the easy ones went elsewhere.
The Army may change its tanks with the times, but on clothing moves like an arthritic tortoise. For years they insisted on ordering swim-trunks made of wool despite being told continually that nylon would be better. The very year Picks scrapped the machine for the job, the Army made a great leap forward and demanded nylon.
Each contract had to be tendered for separately and anew. The lowest tender won, so there was always a temptation to quote a price too low fully to cover overheads just to keep the machines turning. Although Picks' record with Government contracts was consistently good, at the end it was a failure by M.o.D. to speed up the processing of a contract which put the last full stop to the Pick story.
The recession of the late seventies and early eighties hit the knitwear industry in sensitive places. Large customers, instead of supporting long-serving suppliers, grew tougher; meaner; and less co-operative. Prices had to be held down although costs rose. C & A orders became irregular, famine following glut without warning. British Home Stores employed chief buyers with ever more stringent requirements, and profit was marginal on any order received.
The combination of annual wage increases, regardless of ability to pay, and under-cutting by low cost imports, had a drastic effect. David's continual efforts to persuade the Hosiery Manufacturers' Association to lobby Government more forcefully to curb these imports, and his similar assaults on Government direct, failed to move mountains.
In 1981, although the order book looked fat, the cash was not flowing. After eighty years with one bank, Picks had transferred their account to another, and the new bank grew jumpy, demanding more collateral, which the directors were not willing to grant. Ownership of the building, after all, was the only protection the family had. The company auditors took fright, and joined the bank in advising voluntary liquidation. Shareholders were divided, but at a special meeting decided by an overwhelming majority to continue trading, largely from a sense of responsibility to employees, working directors, and the traditions of the firm. As a result, John Pick resigned as a director. The attempted remedy was a radical restructuring plan. David set out to sell the fully-fashioned machinery of which the company had been so proud. Through personal contacts he obtained a higher price than auditors' valuation, and the money gained was used to pay off the bank overdraft. The affair damaged relationships with both bank and auditors, and eventually both were jettisoned.
Staff and work force were cut by 40%. The responsibilities of supervisors were redistributed and tightened, and production concentrated in one section of the factory. Denis James, for many years in charge of supplies, had proven an indefatigable chaser of delinquent payers, slow providers, and directors who wouldn't sign order forms. He became from then on an equally indefatigable collector of rents, and remained so for J.Pick & sons (Properties) Ltd, when all that survived of the family business was the building and its varied denizens.
The eruption of the Falklands War in 1982 brought in hefty orders for hefty pullovers for Commandos to yomp in. From then on sales policy took a sharp turn away from supermarkets. The outfitting chain, Greenwoods, became the largest single customer, but a great many smaller ones sailed in and sailed out. These gentlemen had to be quick-change artists nifty on their feet at a time when desperate efforts were being made through fashion changes to overcome reluctance to buy. This meant an outburst of sampling madness, machines being reset to sample some requested line without any guarantee of a worthwhile order at the end of a long day. The versatile SPJ machines had been computerised to allow a pattern-tape to be read by the machine, and a change which had formerly taken half a day could be made in thirty minutes. This had the unfortunate effect of making buyers expect miracles on demand. Frank Rhodes, chief mechanic, began to wear a permanent expression of outrage. There was rarely a crock of gold at the end of the rainbow, and the cost of rainbow-chasing proved crippling.
Customers demanded more for less. One insisted, for example, on a specially embroidered short pullover in ridiculously small quantities, and stipulated that it should be delivered by 1 a.m. on a given date. He was very cross when it arrived at the airport at 12.45; he had calculated on compensation for late delivery. This kind of thing led to fireworks as packers and stockmen set light to well-dried tempers.
Bank controls grew increasingly tight; it was only by exercising rigorous internal restraint, and keeping close liaison with the local manager that survival was possible. Directors had for many years limited their own salaries to a point where they would not have dared to confess them to other manufacturers for fear of causing hysterics.
By the end of the nineteen-eighties orders were so difficult to extract from cautious buyers haunted by their own bank managers that only a hypnotist with a magic wand could have managed it. The Ministry of Defence was often the sole bulwark between raging waves and sinking ship. No appeal or negotiation could persuade them to take the helpful step of accelerating a contract already tendered for. In 1991 the situation was placed squarely before the bank. The response was to offer the service of a 'company doctor', with the prudent provision that the firm must undertake to accept his findings whatever they might be. The findings were unequivocal. There was no alternative but to enter receivership.
It's worth noting that the industry itself supplied to Government earlier in the year a list of 143 companies and knitting units of larger organisations, most of them in the Leicester area, which had closed during the preceding two years, with the loss of over 5,000 jobs. Government shed no tears on receipt of this information.
Every firm is a community, whether or not it is conscious of the fact. Relationships within a community depend on a multitude of factors, large and small, in continually shifting conditions. A culture is established by traditions of which people working in a company may or may not be fully aware. It would be surprising if J.Pick & Sons had not established such a culture over nearly 140 years. Sydney Pick's philosophy of making good garments in the expectation that those who bought them would identify the brand, and buy again, worked throughout the nineteen-thirties. The rise of the supermarkets, government by accountants, and the death of the brand, changed all that. Yet a sense that this philosophy should be applied wherever possible, even at a time when retailer and not manufacturer decided design and quality, lingered on, making Picks appear to some customers both old-fashioned and naive. One buyer; used to more sophisticated approaches, kicked their modest Christmas present of a chest of tea under the desk with the cryptic comment, "Picks are not business people."
Management style was cautious and conservative, with bursts of creativity, innovation and adventure, and in later years a perennial reluctance to make up the directorial mind. There are constraints on the way management behaves which may be peculiar to long-established family companies: a constant sense of responsibility to employees, and to the final customer; the man who wore the garment, rather than simply to shareholders, prevented the ruthless action to maximise profits at times when outside consultants might have advised it. Picks stuck to the rules, with a continual awareness that everyone in the firm was an individual, not a robot. Quarrels, disagreements and feuds added spice to life, and things never went like clockwork. Most of those employed there acquired some sort of affection for the place, reluctant or otherwise. Some of the loudest grumblers lasted longest. Mothers, daughters, and granddaughters worked at Picks long after such staunch associations had become anachronistic. At the ex-employees reunion in 1997, three of those present were ladies over ninety with memories as sharp as flint, willing to contemplate a working life at Picks if allowed their time again. On one notorious occasion a disgruntled employee left on Friday to go to a better-paid job; on Tuesday he was back for his old one.
Customers found the firm an odd and intriguing mixture, arousing irritation, wonder, impatience and respect.
Finally, I still have Pick garments made when the brand flourished some thirty years ago, and wear them regularly. They are in sound order, look good, and I'm proud of them.
J.Pick & Sons Ltd. avoided many of the problems which beset family companies. Two partners in a retail chain came in once to announce that they were closing down. Why? Because the family shareholding had, through inheritance, spread like bindweed and all the shareholders wanted to interfere in the running of the firm. Steering a course had grown too difficult. This didn't happen at Picks.
Again, a famous company made an offer for Picks, which was refused. A few months later the company concerned went into receivership. So it goes. Picks weathered the storms and survived over more generations than most competing private companies -whether through luck, judgement, or obstinacy I can't be sure -at a time when the knitwear industry was being decimated by low-cost imports, recession, high interest rates, and Government policies which favoured services against manufacturing.
History regrets nothing, it just goes on. Leicester has seen many companies and several industries rise and rise, then slip into oblivion. Yet there is something about J.Pick & Sons which those who worked there obdurately insist was special.
© J. B. Pick 1997
HTML version compiled by Dave Pick 1998/2005
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