My recollections of a former boss

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.

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, MD 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 metaphore.

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 Mechnical 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 for the average business was still in its 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. 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, with 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 insistant 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. 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 dream to work there, and of course all good things must come to an end.

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).

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, 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.

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What’s New and 2010 in review

Hello 2011! Can’t say I’ll miss 2010. The year was pretty bad for many members of our extended family, friends, and acquaintances. A lot of people we care about lost loved ones.

For close family it’s been ok. Tristan continues to grow up faster than a two-year old should, and he’s really started to show signs of a wicked sense of humour and is constantly working on ways to try to psychologically outmaneuver us. His big sisters have both been great with him. They’re both doing well at school. Murron is now well into year 8 and still enjoying school life. Philippa is in year 5 and still finds things a breeze at her school, to the point where I think I’m going to have to request that she is given harder tasks. Philippa also took up playing the trombone last term, but her teacher failed to turn up for five of her lessons, which we thought was a bit lousy – must have speaks with the school.

I suppose the highlight of the year for me in terms of adventures was my motorbike trip with my mate in September around Europe, which allowed me to revisit places I’d lived and worked in Switzerland twenty years ago, as well as taking in some pretty spectacular scenery (and some bloody awful weather on a couple of occasions) from the seat of my motorbike.

We had just the right balance of great motorcycling, stress, spectacular scenery, falling-out, meeting new people, and just a few days to escape normal family life and behave like we were twenty years younger. Of course, I was really missing Emma and the kids by the time we headed home. I don’t know how Ewan and Charlie coped being away from their families for so long!

Musically, it’s been a mixed year too. There was some unpleasantness in July when tensions seemingly arose out of nowhere within my covers band, Ministry Of Beaver, and I was put in a position where I had to choose between two friends. In the end, I had no other basis on which to make a decision other than to be objective in terms of availability, and in the process, I played a part in upsetting someone who’d become a good friend and who went on to react very badly towards the situation. It is not nice to see friends suddenly turn on each other and become sworn enemies. It is worse to feel like one is ‘caught in the middle’. It is worse still to read very bitter correspondence between said friends, knowing that there was no possible future reconciliation, musical or otherwise. In the event, the band reverted to the line-up I had initially joined and things seem to have got back to normal within the band. I’m still sad whenever I think that I will probably never work alongside individuals with whom I’ve formed a musical bond.

On that note (and a more positive one), it was nice to re-establish links with former BAiT bass player, Andy and to meet up with him and other former BAIT member, Chris with a view to more original songwriting. It’s early days still and I’m still not convinced we have an overall master plan (perhaps that’s the way I like it), but it’s good to be working on new original stuff with old mates again. From my perspective, it’s sad that my friend and former keyboard player Nick can’t be involved, but the fact is that he’s now happily settled with his wife and kids in Norfolk. “Life moves on…” as the BAiT song goes…

Professionally, it’s been a steady year. I’ve continued to develop web applications within our company and am fortunate to work with some great people in the Marketing Team. I’ve very much settled into working from home now, having done so for a year and a half or so. On the one hand, I do miss the people and friends I made; on the other, I don’t have the commute, travel costs, and office politics. I also find working from home far more productive. I know that some people can’t cope with it, but I’ve settled in fine and I find I get much more done. I don’t have the ‘water cooler’ conversations, the office room chats, the meetings, or the phone call disturbances, which used to consume quite a substantial amount of time. In essence, I found working in an office far less conducive to work than home. I still have my Friday lunchtime down the pub to meet up with an old work friend (the other regulars having found employment during the course of the year which prevents them from making the Friday lunchtime slot), so I’ve managed to hold onto some semblance of seeing people during the working week outside the family.

We even got a slight rise towards the end of the year (we did have a bigger pay cut a couple of years ago), but it was unexpected and therefore to be welcomed. I was also surprised to receive a company award for outstanding achievement, thanks to my American boss who’d put my name forward for the award. Nice to be recognised like that, although I maintain that it’s really down to working in a great team of people. That may sound ‘cheesy’ to our British sensibilities, but I’m sincere.

Well, Christmas is all but over (although officially it’s still Christmas until 5th January). It’s been a pleasant enough Christmas this year. We’ve hardly left the house at all and have probably had the usual share of naughty food and drink. The kids bought me ‘The Fry Chronicles’ – Stephen Fry’s second volume of his autobiography, and I read that through pretty rapidly and then decided that I wanted to read the first volume, Moab Is My Washpot.

I think I may have made the leap to electronic books now. Having read Dickens’ A Tale Of Two Cities on my iPod Touch a few months ago, I bought Moab Is My Washpot in Kindle format and downloaded the Kindle client for iPod/iPhone. I’m working my way through it at the moment.

We’ve had Emma’s mum and her step-dad here since New Year’s Eve and had a good time with them. We had a very pleasant meal out with them today – a carvery at The Jailhouse in the centre of Nuneaton – the first time I’ve visited the place, although Emma’s been there before when her mum’s been down and they’ve done the girlie shopping thing. Very nice place – highly recommended.

Well, it’s time for me to enjoy a quick single malt Scotch whisky before retiring for the evening. I have a very nice 15-year-old Dalwhinnie with my name on it upstairs (from a brewery we visited on a family holiday in 1983). And to think I thought I’d been put off whisky forever after a drinking binge in Potsdam in 1992 involving too many Polish people and too much whisky! Cheers!