Today is Blue Monday by all accounts. Talk about talking yourself into a depression! But there was some sad news I learned of yesterday.
My former boss, M.D. of CAD/CAM software company Licom Systems, Sandy Livingstone, passed away last Wednesday night. He hadn’t been well for the last few months, but it still came as a bit of a shock. It was Sandy who is largely responsible (and guilty!) for me ending up making the living I am today doing what I am doing.
Sandy was a bit of a character to put it mildly – a generous person and a great boss. They broke the mould when they made him, which, given the nature of the business he ended up leading, would be an appropriate metaphor.
It’s worth giving a bit of background on him. From what I remember him saying and the information I can find in the Webosphere, he spent his first six years living in Franco’s Spain before moving to Scotland. He graduated from Glasgow University in Mechanical Engineering and then worked in England, initially designing and testing parts for rocket and jet engine systems and then eventually as Senior Lecturer in Mechanical Engineering at Lanchester Polytechnic (now Coventry University). In 1984 he founded Licom Systems, initially selling third-party software, then going on to develop its own CAD/CAM software (Acam then Alphacam).
He was in the reserve army from 1969-1983, attached to a Special Forces regiment for six years and then headed a Signals Troop for eight years, when, as he put it “I got too old for parachuting at night and sleeping in snow-filled ditches”. He was a competitor for four years in an army pentathlon competition (CIOR), which was held across all the NATO countries in turn, and went on to become team coach and manager for the UK team.
I first met him when I worked for a translation agency based in Leamington. We had been tasked with translating the help files for the Alphacam software into one or two foreign languages. As a translation agency, part of our remit was to check the translations (often performed by sub-contracted translators) for completeness and accuracy. It would have been around 1996 I suppose and the World Wide Web and PCs in general for the average business were still in their infancy. Having submitted some work to Licom, we were asked to call them to discuss some of the work we had done. Not to put too fine a point on it, we (or rather our translator) had ruined the help files (I won’t go into details, as it’s quite boring). In any case, we had failed to spot a key problem in the files we supplied and it was our responsibility to put it right.
My then boss and I went to Licom to meet Sandy, and we were quite taken aback by this tall, deep-voiced, moustached, and well-dressed businessman, who was very welcoming and yet gave the impression that you didn’t want to get on the wrong side of him. We had expected a bit of a bollocking, which would have been well-deserved, but instead, he took time out to explain to us how help files were built and where we had gone wrong. Not once did he raise his voice, but he calmly took us through the process whilst puffing away on his cigar. We left the office quite awestruck by the impression he, and the office, which was based in a beautiful old Victorian house (the old cathedral provost’s house in a leafy suburb of Coventry), had made on us. Once we’d fixed everything and the job was delivered, I had no more dealings with Licom in that job.
A couple of years later, I was working for IBM and suddenly received an external call from a Charles Wilby from Licom (one of the then directors). He had seen my CV on my website, and thought I had the perfect skills set they were looking for to fill the job of Language Support Manager at Licom, which was to be the task of managing the translation process of Alphacam’s software, help files, and associated documentation. It was a job which Sandy himself had done up to that point, but which was now taking up too much of his time. I was settled in at IBM by this time, and wasn’t particularly interested in moving to a new job, but said I’d pop in on at Licom’s office on the way home from work to discuss the role. I would be in casual clothes though (IBM had a smart casual policy).
I arrived at the office and had more of a very pleasant chat than an interview with the three directors. I could tell they were interested and I was certainly interested in the position, but I was wary of moving from an employer like IBM to a small software company, so when they brought up the subject of remuneration, I gave a figure quite significantly above my then salary. They didn’t bat an eyelid. I then raised the fact that IBM (in those days at least – I don’t know whether this still applies) paid a month’s salary in advance. Again, that wasn’t a problem. He arranged it so I received a month’s extra pay to cover the transitional period. And so, within a relatively short period, I handed in my notice at IBM (they couldn’t match the salary increase, and I didn’t expect them to, given the difference in roles) and started work at Licom.
On my first day at Licom, Sandy met me and showed me around the place. he showed me the dining room with the large table (which doubled as a meeting room) and explained that he was quite insistent that staff took a full hour for lunch and got away from their desks. Lunches at Licom were incredible. They laid on a full cooked meal (at no cost), complete with wine and a cheeseboard, cooked by the two lovely and friendly housekeepers, Jean and Jeanette. The building was beautiful, the garden just as much so, the place had character, and the staff were all nice, friendly people. It soon became clear that people didn’t tend to leave the place if they didn’t have to. Visitors were always very strongly impressed by the place. Staff turnover was minimal.
I had originally been taken on with a view to me helping out in the IT department at the time alongside my main job, but in the end, I was too busy with my main task and a dedicated second IT staff member was recruited. As it transpired, I had pretty much exhausted my tasks on the language translation side of things within the first three or four months of me being there and I was short of things to do. This coincided with the marketing person leaving (he produced the company brochures and website). Sandy asked me if I’d be interested in taking on part of the marketing role, and I accepted on the provision that I could later turn it down. I took to the website side of things pretty quickly and then stepped into web application development by getting my hands dirty. I was less convinced by the role of producing brochures, as I learnt pretty quickly that you can’t please all of the people all of the time, so I dropped that task eventually (having picked up some useful DTP skills on the way) and we brought in an outside agency to produce the brochures. Sandy was completely fine with that.
When my father-in-law died, just a short time after I hard started working there, Sandy told me to go and spend time with my wife’s family. There was no concern about absence and no pay or holiday entitlement deducted for the week or so I was away.
Business-wise, Sandy was a shrewd businessman. He didn’t suffer fools gladly and would call a spade a spade. He encouraged open dialogue at work and was very open to ideas, and even threw ideas out to us at lunchtimes as a sounding board. He had a lot of respect for the views of his staff, and would take them on board in any decisions he made. He had Valerie (one of the directors) to keep him in check occasionally – a task which she seemed to relish! It was quite funny watching them argue things out sometimes, but at least they were happy to do so in front of the staff – perhaps in case anyone had anything to add!
On a typical Friday afternoon, just after lunch, and if the support department was quiet, Sandy would put a call out on the phone system, announcing, “This is your captain speaking. Abandon ship!” Then he would actually walk around the office saying, “haven’t you got families to go home to?” and tell everyone to go home. In a typical year, staff received a substantial Christmas bonus in their November pay packet (equivalent to nearly one month’s pay). Christmas parties were laid on for staff and families and children’s entertainers were called in to keep the kids happy. I remember seeing Sandy’s smile when he saw how much the families were enjoying it. It was a wonderful to work there.
My other memories of him are the smell of his cigar smoke (God, he loved his cigars in the days when you could smoke in an office), his fondness for Gin and Tonic, and his booming bass singing voice and occasional spectacular cough. He had a way of clearing his nasal passages which was strangely a bit of a trademark too (in an endearing way).
But of course all good things must come to an end.
When Sandy was on the verge of retiring, he looked into possible buyers for the company. In the end it was my current employer which bought the company back in 2001. Sandy remained on as Chairman for several months after the takeover in an advisory capacity, but finally bowed out. In the intervening period, staff morale plummeted as, slowly but surely things started to change and all the luxuries we were used to were withdrawn. Looking back, it would be easy to blame my current employer, and many did, but in all fairness, Licom was somewhere very special, with an informal character and a modus operandi which broke many more traditional business rules and didn’t fit in with the larger corporate approach to business. It wasn’t the fault of the new owners, but the tensions were palpable at the start. The changes were painful for many and some concluded that the ‘good times’ had come to an end and jumped ship.
Finally, the Coventry office was closed down during the recent recession and many talented people were made redundant. I can only imagine how Sandy felt about that, as I saw him rarely once he had retired. The last time I saw him, I took a CD around to his house. He had asked me to help him prepare a CD of his choices of music for his funeral. I was happy to oblige, albeit in a sad task. He offered to pay me for my time, but there was no way that was going to happen after he had treated us all so well. Sandy’s employees had a sense of loyalty to him and to the company. It was a pure demonstration for me of how to run a company: treat your staff well, make their working environment pleasant and relaxed and they’ll repay you with loyalty, hard-work, and a willingness to go the extra mile.
He was a special man who had a deep impact on many peoples’ lives and the comments I’ve heard from fellow former Licom colleagues indicate that this is a view which was shared by many.
I drank a toast to him last night in the form of a nice single malt Dalwhinnie, although he would have much preferred me to have had a cigar and a Gin & Tonic! My thoughts are with Maggie, his wife, and his daughter and family.