Framed By The Frogs

CHAPTER 9
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All of a sudden things began to happen around me.  I received a phone call from BALPA telling me that someone from Renault had called them, spoken to Colin Sambrook, Head of Resources, and had claimed that my business had abused the BALPA account, that Renault was going to make an example of me and sue me for the return of the discounts.

 

I couldn’t let that go by.  Renault knew exactly what was going on with the account and had known pretty much all along. After all, what was happening had been suggested by a Renault employee, Toby Johnstone. 

So to go behind my back and make allegations like that to BALPA, completely twisting the story to suit themselves, was quite out of order. It was also out of all proportion to what I understood was, in reality, just fall-out from a knockabout spat between two warring Renault dealerships.  I sent an e-mail to Steve Wilson setting out what I had heard and demanding to know what was going on.

 

Steve agreed to meet me to talk about what had happened, but this time it would be at Renault’s HQ in Rickmansworth, just outside North West London, instead of at my place or Renault Croydon. 

In view of the choice of setting well, yes, I know I should have suspected that something really was up with Renault, but I still expected that I would get nothing more than a slap on the wrist and be told to be more careful in future.  I mean, how wrong could I be? Totally wrong, as it turned out.

 

When I arrived at Renault’s HQ I signed in and sat in the waiting area of the reception lobby, which was empty apart from a distinguished looking gentleman, and I waited for Steve Wilson to collect me.  When he came down Steve walked straight past me and introduced himself to the distinguished looking gentleman whom he simply called ‘John’.  Then Steve said his ‘hello’ to me and asked us both to follow him up to a meeting room.

 

As I walked into the room the trap was sprung.  Already in the room were Carolyn Sample and another man.  Steve introduced him to me, he was Renault’s in-house lawyer and Company Secretary, Simon Tippet.  And then Steve introduced the distinguished looking gentleman, Capt. John Rhodes of the Trustees of BALPA, the supervising body for the union.

 

Ambush.  I had walked straight into something that, in my former life as a taxman, I would have happily set up myself on an unsuspecting tax evader.  And I just didn’t see it coming.  Not at all.

 

I was so convinced that Renault would want to sweep everything under the carpet and get on with business as usual that I had walked straight into the trap.  And there was nothing I could do to get out without looking very dumb indeed.  Which I then proceeded to do anyway.

 

Simon Tippet sprang straight in before I could make my excuses and leave.  Simon began by saying that Renault had become concerned about the number of cars being sold through the BALPA account and that there were two possible reasons for it.  Either a genuine process mistake had been made which could be rectified by discussion between the parties, or there had been a misunderstanding about the use of the BALPA account. 

But then Simon added that, if there had actually been a deliberate abuse of the account, Renault would be seeking repayment of the discounts obtained and would take legal proceedings to do so if necessary.

 

OK, now there is a protocol for dealing with awkward situations like this - it's called ‘The Spade Rule’:  When you are in a hole, stop digging, put down the spade, climb out and run before the walls of your self-made grave cave in on you.

 

Well, instead of obeying 'The Spade Rule', keeping my mouth shut, apologising to everyone for wasting their time in calling the meeting and then departing post haste, I proceeded with breathtaking stupidity to pick up the spade and dig as if my only way out of the room lay via Australia , the hard way.

 

In an attempt to regain control I responded to Simon Tippet by saying that it was actually I who had called the meeting after hearing about allegations made about me by someone from Renault in a telephone call to BALPA. I asked Simon if the report about the telephone call was true.  Bad move.

 

Simon Tippet looked at Carolyn Sample and she led off in response by denying that any such thing had been said in a telephone conversation with BALPA.  I was still so off-guard I didn’t have the sense to ask if it had been said in any other circumstances, a shortcoming that I was to rue later.

 

Then Steve followed up with a concern that cars sold through the BALPA account had been offered through the web site that I ran for selling cars to brokers, adding that he was aware that I had cut off Renault’s means of access to the web site.

 

So now I had both a categorical denial of my allegation against Renault and I had to defend an allegation against me.  After all my years of Inland Revenue training I knew that this probably fell into the category of ‘Very Bad Meeting Strategy’. 

As far as agenda control as concerned, it was schoolboy-error level.  I was on the back foot in the meeting and there was nothing I could do.  Feebly I said that I had come to the meeting in a spirit of cooperation and had hoped to be able to resolve the matter but that, in view of the threat of legal proceedings, I now couldn’t possibly comment on the matter without consulting my lawyers.

 

And that was how I answered just about every question put to me by Simon Tippet, Carolyn Sample and Steve Wilson for probably an hour or so until they got the message that they just weren’t going to get any further. But the damage was done; Renault had deliberately set out to humiliate me in front of BALPA and had brought in their own in-house lawyer as well to really turn the screws.

 

Finally I saw sense and said that there wasn’t any point in continuing the conversation as I was unable to respond to Renault’s questions without legal advice.  Simon Tippet asked for details of my lawyers so that Renault could direct further questions straight to them.  I should have realised at the time just what that meant, but I was so far on the back foot and shell-shocked I just told him that I would e-mail the details and then I left.

 

Carolyn escorted me out of the building.  As we stood on the pavement outside Renault’s HQ and chatted she said that Renault knew that the cars I had sold hadn’t ended up on forecourts (something that Toby Johnstone had already warned me to take care about), and that this was something really in my favour.  Great.  But what we both knew was that this had suddenly turned from being a mutually beneficial vehicle distribution arrangement into an absolute farcical shambles.

 

I had been well and truly set up, with my pants pulled down in front of a very senior representative of BALPA and I had been made to look a complete arse.  But why?  Renault knew what was happening, Renault Croydon knew what was happening, a Renault employee had even proposed the whole thing, so why had I just been put through the wringer?  I got into my car and just sat there seething.  I may have even banged my head on the steering wheel a couple of times as well, just for good measure.

 

But then I snapped out of it and, as I turned the key in the ignition, I said to myself a somewhat coarser version of something that my children used to say when they knew they had gone too far in some horseplay or in-fighting and I had been forced to intervene.

 

‘Don’t mess with Dad.’ they’d say to each other. ‘His memory is long and his vengeance is awesome.’

 

It was probably a line from some superhero comic or TV programme, I don’t know, but they certainly knew when they had gone as far as they should and it was time to pull back and stop misbehaving.

 

But we weren’t talking about my kids misbehaving here.  This was a multi-billion pound global corporation with phenomenal resources and me in its sights and quite obviously no intention of letting go of its end of the very sharp stick being prodded in my direction.

 

And Renault hadn't even had the courtesy to abide by another business protocol, ‘The Escape Rule’: Always give a business opponent an honourable way out of a dispute and only annihilate them if they refuse to take it.

 

OK, so I had forgotten The Spade Rule, but Renault had well and truly broken The Escape Rule.  If Renault had changed its view on using the BALPA account to slide big corporate discounts out to retail customers on the sly then it could simply have called me to a meeting on my own, told me about the change of mind and then withdrawn the BALPA account.  There was no need to invite a representative of BALPA to the meeting without my knowledge and to then humiliate me in front of him, especially when the idea to use the BALPA account came from Renault’s own dealership in the first place.

 

So as I drove out of the car park and past Renault HQ I swore to myself that there would be revenge for that day once I knew what was really going on.  But in the meantime, I had to find out more.  I called Toby.

 

‘So how did the meeting go mate?’ he asked.


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‘You don’t want to know.’ I replied ‘I was well and truly kippered.  There was a lawyer present from Renault and they brought in someone from BALPA as well.’

 

‘Oh shit.’ said Toby.

 

‘Yes, that’s exactly right.  I need to find out more about what’s happened with Renault Birmingham and Renault Croydon.’

 

‘Can’t help you much there, mate.’ Said Toby ‘Pam Hillman [Toby's boss]and Dave Marshall [the corporate sales manager at Renault Birmingham ] have been slagging each other off for years.  Dave’s tried to poach some customers of ours and Pam’s done the same to them.  More than that, I don’t know.’  Then Toby asked me if I had heard of a particular company name.  I said that the name rang a bell with me, but that was all.

 

‘Well’ continued Toby ‘that’s the name of the company account that started all of this.  The cars that went on sale on an independent garage forecourt up North went out under their account.  And now I’ve been told officially to get verification of identity from you for all new orders under the BALPA account.  I’ll ask Pam if she can get anything from Martin about where Renault is going with this, but otherwise I don’t know what we are going to do here mate.’

 

‘Me neither.’  I said, though I already knew I would need to have one more go at reaching some sort of arrangement with Renault before things got really ugly and the lawyers started partying at my expense.

 

‘What about the existing orders?’ I asked.

 

‘No restrictions yet mate, if you are really lucky you might get a few out before they put a stop on things.’  replied Toby.

 

‘OK, let’s see how many cars we can get delivered as soon as possible.’  I said, as I needed to get a half million pounds’ worth of cars that I had on  order with Renault Croydon out to customers before Renault imposed an embargo on deliveries, though it seemed odd that they had, effectively, stopped new orders for cars but not deliveries of existing orders, as Renault knew that none of the existing car orders were for BALPA members anyway.

 

Having said that, I owed Renault that half a million pounds for the cars on consignment and, as some of them were up to six weeks away from delivery, somehow I didn’t think that they would want to jeopardise things and end up with a half a million pounds’ worth of cars sitting unsold in a compound somewhere.  That would be plain dumb, especially as we were in the middle of April now.  The remaining cars would be arriving in May and June, two of the quietest months of the year between the sales peaks in March and September (driven by the high profile changes in vehicle registration numbers in those months).  No, I reckoned that I was probably safe there, but whatever I did I would have to do quickly, just in case.

 

And anyway, Toby’s reference to ‘Martin’ meant Martin Hillman.  Now Martin Hillman was the husband of Pam Hillman, Toby’s boss, and he was one of the senior people in the Corporate Sales Department at Renault HQ, a longstanding Renault employee whom I had met few times.  If anyone could get more info on what was going on, it would be him.

 

So I left it for just a few days and then contacted Steve Wilson to set up another meeting, but just with Renault and not BALPA.  Hopefully without the obvious inhibitions of having a BALPA representative present we could get to the bottom of what was really going on and work out some way of getting things back to normal.

 

The second meeting took place about a week after the first one and from the outset it was clear that attitudes at Renault had hardened rather than softened.  Instead of a friendly discussion about how the misunderstanding had arisen and how it could be rectified, the meeting was another question and answer session, with a secretary taking notes of everything that was said.

 

Something had changed at Renault’s HQ, but no one was letting on what was behind it all, and there was even a pretence that the company’s attitude had always been hard-line with anyone selling cars outside the terms of an account agreement, which I knew was untrue, not least after my SteerFast days and with the information I had about what had gone on there through one of its suppliers, good old Renault Birmingham.

 

You see, Renault Birmingham wasn’t averse to putting cars through a client account and then paying a commission for the privilege.  My former business partner Dopplegänger had colluded with Dave Marshall on this, I even had copies of e-mails between them listing the cars involved and the commission to be paid.  But when I hinted about this to Carolyn as part of my scene setting at the opening of the meeting, I got a very curious response. 

Carolyn asked just what was it that made me think that Renault didn’t know all about this anyway, so if I was intending to use the information to bargain my way out of the situation it wouldn’t do me any good, I should just hand it over anyway.

 

And that was an absolute killer.  So Renault knew what was going on in its dealer network, and if Renault Croydon and Renault Birmingham were already up to no good then maybe it was even happening all over its dealer network, yet Renault wasn’t at all concerned about that.  Instead Renault would ignore the big fish, protect its own people and go after the minnow.  Me.

 

Presumably Renault thought I was an easier target.  After all, I was just a small-time car broker.  Hmmm.  So Renault would protect its own people but throw me to the wolves. 

 

There was little point in spinning out the meeting and so, after giving a further round of non-committal responses to questions from Steve, I packed up my briefcase and left.  This time there was no reassuring conversation with Carolyn on the way to the car park.  I could see that the entente cordiale which had previously existed between Renault and me was on life support, and the relationship was probably carrying a ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ notice as well.

 

In fact, how dead the relationship had become didn’t take long to become apparent, as within a few days I had a call from another vehicle supplier.  It was a heads up from them about something that had gone on after a recent meeting of the Association of Car Fleet Operators.  'AFCO' is a lobby body for the interests of corporate fleet managers.  Typically at these events ACFO would invite representatives of the motor manufacturers to give presentations to its members on new products and topical issues.

 

My contact told me that, after this particular ACFO regional meeting, Carolyn Sample had approached a representative of his brand and tried to find out as much as possible about their dealings with me, repeating the allegations that had been made to BALPA about the BALPA account in order to broach the subject.

 

So, not content with ruining my relationship with BALPA, it seemed that Renault was now out to deliberately sabotage my business through shutting down my dealings with other car brands.  The word ‘vindictive’ didn’t even begin to cover this.  I was livid and called Toby and asked him if he knew anything more about what was happening.  The response I got was scary.

 

Toby said ‘Hang on.’ then I heard the background noise of doors opening and closing and then road traffic as Toby walked out of the dealership.  Then he said that he had been expressly forbidden to speak to me anymore.  Not a word.

 

Despite that, Toby promised to let me know if any information came his way, but said that now Steve Wilson and Carolyn Sample wouldn’t tell him what was going on and he was being kept in the dark, presumably as Renault knew how matey we had become over the last 12 months.

 

Toby said I could liaise with Pam Hillman about the last few cars to be delivered (I’d managed to get about 50 cars out pretty sharpish after the last meeting with Renault), but that otherwise he could not talk officially to me again.

 

Toby asked me to call him only on his private mobile phone number in future, as he wasn’t sure whether the numbers for calls to and from his Renault Croydon mobile phone were being monitored by Renault, which seemed right off the scale of paranoia, but by now who was I to say what was normal in the increasingly strange world of dealing with Renault? 

 

But this was to be only the beginning.  Because then an e-mail arrived from a firm of hotshot West London lawyers acting on behalf of Renault, a firm called Iliffes (pronounced Ifors) Booth Bennett, or IBB Law, a name with which I was, before long, to become very familiar.

 

IBB Law said that Renault believed that my company had made improper use of the BALPA account and that, unless I could prove otherwise, Renault wanted its money back.  And they gave me one week to come up with the proof, or legal proceedings would be commenced to recover the cash.

 

Shit.  Somebody get me a lawyer.  And bloody quick.


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