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Reaction: working with Eric Sulley

BDN’s Industry Greats profile on Eric Sulley and Bruno Tagliaferri’s reflections on his time at Honda (BDN, May) brought back many fond, interesting and daunting memories for me.
I worked daily with Eric at Honda during the late 1970s and early 1980s when I had probably my most challenging and intriguing times in employment. A character, a teacher and one of the best salesmen our industry has ever seen, with a style never to be repeated!

At well over 6ft tall and always smartly dressed, Eric dominated any occasion and was the centre of attention wherever we went. Dealer visits, business lunches, agency meetings, evening occasions, shows and the memorable annual Honda seminars. He was ready and normally on the ball for every occasion. Yes, he liked his Bollinger Champagne and yes, he was a pain in the butt at times, and yes, he was controversial in some eyes, but he got the job done with panache and he met the company brief required of him in the 1970s. In the 1980s he probably went a bit too far when times and the market were changing quickly. Those changes caught him, and many others, out!

Up until around 1982, Honda couldn’t do much wrong. Big sales, big market share and big profits were made, and it was up to each subsidiary (Honda UK in this case) to spend the profits on its own growth. Advertising, promotions and entertainment were the order of the day. It was big business. At this time Honda UK had more than 850 dealers, compared to around 60 today!

I was only in my mid-20s at the start of my time with Honda and Eric, so it was a bit of an eye-opener at times, and trouble did seem to follow us from event to event. Eric didn’t actually drink as much as some would have you believe, if you watched him carefully just a glass or two of Bollinger would send him over the top and, at times, he would fall asleep during an evening meal! But, after a quick power nap, he was ready to go again, just when everyone around him was knackered!

Eric did have a habit, after a drink and during evening meals, of making promises that he couldn’t deliver. He would then say to me in the morning; “Rog, I committed an indiscretion last night, can you get me out of it”. Most of the time it was a relatively easy task, until he met his match in actress Liz Fraser (of Carry On films fame) when, at a London restaurant, he promised her a new Honda Prelude sports car! After trying to get her to see that his promise was made after too much vino, she refused all my excuses and threatened to go to the Sunday papers if the car wasn’t delivered. After many weeks of wrangling with her and her solicitor, I managed to broker a deal where she paid a contribution towards the car and carried out a free celebrity showroom opening.

Later she invited me to an evening meal to thank me and brought along an actress friend, none other than Joanna Lumley! My work was more than rewarded! Towards the end of the meal Eric and a few mates strolled into the restaurant. A bit worse for wear, he joined us and asked Liz if she was happy with her car? Liz replied that the deal had been done and she had paid her contribution and the car was hers. To which Eric replied; “Paid? You shouldn’t have paid; you should have had the car for free.” At which I lost my temper with Eric and threw my glass of drink all over him. Of course, I was immediately sacked, but re-employed the next morning in the cold light of day. After many entertaining evenings I was often sacked by Eric and re-employed the next morning, it became a regular thing at which we both later laughed.

It was a weekly occurrence to invite a dealer or two to Chiswick for lunch, whereupon Eric and I would take our guests to Oscars Restaurant in Kew, and still be there for an evening meal! The time was well spent sorting out dealer issues and moving on to sealing a deal. These were the days of ‘hand-shake’ deals. Fifty plus bike orders were common. By the end of the evening meal the order had been phoned backed to Chiswick and processed through to shipping. Today, it would probably take days of admin to close such a deal.

The annual Honda dealer seminars to launch new product deserve a book in their own right! The glitzy showbiz events cost a fortune, worked well in taking orders, but often caused some sort of drama! A famous early 1980s one at Wembley Conference Centre was when we created a 60ft spaceship on stage and, to the theme tune from the film Close Encounters, opened its doors for Eric (wearing a stetson hat) to exit in front of a 500-plus audience to the intro music of Dallas. Alongside him was Miss Great Britain (Diana May) and a flock of dancing girls adorning twenty or more, new bike models.

Much drama often followed the regional seminars. We finished one at a hotel in Southampton and after blowing the electrics throughout the entire hotel with our mechanical rigs, we then went to a restaurant for a late meal. Later, Eric and I walked back to the hotel, after agreeing to leave early the following morning for a long drive to the next roadshow. On arrival in Newcastle, we went to our hotel in Gosforth and were met by the CID, who took us to separate rooms for interview under caution. It turned out that while we were in the Southampton restaurant a young lady had been murdered in the car park, and we were the only clients dining at that time! The murderer was later caught.

As well as blowing the hotel electrics in Southampton, we also caused a full evacuation at a Nottingham hotel after setting off the fire alarm. There were many other disasters along the way. On stage, and after a swift drink to calm the nerves, Eric would often forget which new model was coming out next, misquote the model number and name and give the wrong spec. It became known as part of the show and added to the entertainment! Each seminar launch was followed by lavish drinks and food for the dealers and other guests. Some readers of this will remember those annual seminars well!

Back to the late 1970s and the arrival of the low-cost Honda Express moped and the need to sell it in volume. As was often the case, Eric was ballsy, he believed TV advertising was needed and against his Japanese colleagues’ full agreement he went ahead. The ad agency at the time (Cunningham Hurst) came up with the idea of using Twiggy and of course Eric loved it and immediately commissioned the filming of what was to be the most expensive single model ad campaign in the industry. It was a huge success and got much admiration from Tokyo head office. Arriving at the filming day for the TV ad we found that Twiggy wasn’t too confident about riding the bike, so I had to spend two-hours teaching her. Of course I could have done it in 20-minutes! My role was tough at times!

Cunningham Hurst remained the ad agency for Honda UK for many years and also handled the Honda car account. But by the early 1980s it was time for a change and many of the top London ad agencies were hungry for the account. A round of agency pitches was required, and after attending all of them with Eric, we finally ended up at the offices of ABM (Allen, Brady & Marsh) one of the country’s leading agencies. Its pitch was out of this world, with Peter Marsh on his knees personally singing their proposed TV commercial and having the road outside of their offices closed to allow the band of the Royal Marines to march past and play Eric’s favourite tune as a finale! They had researched that Eric was an ex-Royal Marine. Of course, they won the account.

By the early 1980s Honda had taken over the Isle of Man for TT week with bike shows in the Villa Marina, functions at the Castletown Golf Links Hotel (sadly now derelict), firework displays on Douglas seafront and many other activities, thus allowing Eric to rename the place Honda Island! Although he never really got to grips with racing, Eric always attended the annual TT occasion with great enthusiasm.

Dealer sales competition holidays was another of Eric’s great annual promotions. The top 50 or 100 dealers, often with wives, were treated to lavish holidays in Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, the Seychelles and many other exotic locations. Some years it was a trip to Japan for factory visits and entertainment. It was always interesting to watch the flurry of last-minute bike orders arriving at Chiswick in order to secure a dealers’ place on a forthcoming trip. Eric would often send me off to these holiday destinations six-months in advance to do a recce. It involved long flights to places such as Tobago, Florida and elsewhere to check out the hotels etc. It was an important role, of course!

Having previously worked at dealers Gander and Gray and Johns of Romford, my time at Honda went from the technical service desk to sales and marketing and then on to being head of the motorcycle division. During the boom times of the 1970s and early 1980s when the pound was strong against the yen, everything was rosy. As I said earlier, Honda couldn’t do anything wrong, but times change quickly and by 1982/83 the atmosphere at Power Road was different and it was during this time Gerald Davison returned from the now defunct NR racing project to a new role at Chiswick with a personal goal in mind. It was well known that Gerald and Eric didn’t get on, but I now had to work for them both, neither of whom would talk to each other and both using me as a go between! Gerald brought a more professional and structured approach to work which I welcomed. He was a pleasure to work with. I always felt it was a great shame the two didn’t get on. With Eric’s strength in sales and Gerald’s expertise in technical matters they could have been a formidable pairing for Honda, but it was never to be.

On behalf of Honda I worked on the second 1985 industry advertising campaign, attending regular meetings in Coventry and in London. The first Saatchi campaign was a disaster. I wasn’t a fan of the concept, and much time was wasted. Trying to create a successful joint campaign with a mixture of companies, all with their own goals and targets, was always going to suffer from a conflict of interests. I couldn’t imagine John Bloor getting involved if he had been in the market at the time and look where Triumph is now! I experienced the same issues later while working as commercial director for Silverstone Circuits with the motor racing industry wishing to join forces to promote more interest in car racing. The real winner was Lord March at Goodwood who wouldn’t join the group.

I had got to know Eric, his wife Muriel and the family very well. They attended the opening of my Bike Studio showroom in North London some four years after Eric had left Honda. Eric’s son was an airline pilot and eventually moved his family to Australia from where just recently Eric’s grandson contacted me to ask about his late grandfather’s life and times in London. What could I say?

With much thanks to Eric and Mr Honda, my ten plus years at Honda was for sure the best time in my fifty or more years of working life. I was very privileged and very fortunate and enjoyed every moment. With a company car, the free choice of any Honda motorcycle to ride on any day and travelling on business to Japan, USA and across Europe plus test riding prototype models, what other job would offer such amazing privileges?

A major highlight for me was meeting on several occasions the great man himself, Mr Soichiro Honda. On one occasion, when he was visiting Chiswick head office, I was asked to introduce him and his wife (at his request) to each and every one of the 100-plus staff.

There are many great stories about Mr Honda, especially the one recounting how the 1958 Honda C100 Super Cub (later named the C50/70/90 Cub) was originally created. This was the bike that put the company on the world map and provided the profits for them to go international racing, from which road models such as the CB750 were born. Such an amazing man, a self-taught engineer, entrepreneur, and, without a doubt, the top salesman in our industry. A statement that Eric, l know, would have agreed with.
Roger Etcell, Honda Classics, Daventry

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