Archive | May, 2012

From my archive: Milan and Thomas Prenosil, inheritors of Switzerland’s Confiserie Sprungli

28 May One of many treats from Confiserie Sprungli. -

One of my contacts tweeted recently about having found himself sat next to Lindt’s UK finance director at a dinner, which reminded me of one of my favourite interview experiences when I worked at Campden FB, a magazine for wealthy business families. I flew to Zurich to chat with Milan and Thomas Prenosil, who inherited the country’s oldest chocolatier, Confiserie Sprungli – the founding family of which is split into two branches, one of which is the better known Lindt chocolate brand. If you look on the back of one of those Lindt Excellence chocolate bars, you’ll see the manufacturer name ‘Lindt Und Springli’, with their family crest.

I came away from the interview with a huge box of chocolates and macaroons – not bad for a day’s work. Have a read.

One of many treats from Confiserie Sprungli. -

One of many treats from Confiserie Sprungli. –

Switzerland’s oldest and most revered chocolatier Confiser Sprungli has an international reputation for excellence, but remains a one-town operation as part of its strategy to maintain exclusivity.

The world-famous Bahnhofstrasse, in the heart of Zurich, was once the most expensive mile of real estate in the world. The traditional home of Switzerland’s private banks, with vaults of gold and silver sleeping underneath the tram lines, it is now somewhat of a baroque Rodeo Drive save for a little piece of Swiss history standing where it has for nearly 200 years  – the legendary confectioner and bakery, Confiserie Sprüngli.

One hundred percent owned and run by two family branches, Confiserie Sprüngli has supplied royalty and Zurich folk alike with the finest chocolates for 167 years, made by hand to secret family recipes. Having never traded outside of Zurich and with no intentions of going global, the people of Sprüngli’s home town will continue to enjoy almost exclusive access to that rare thing in this commoditised, homogenised world: a little bit of luxury and arguably the most exquisite chocolate to be had.

This is one family business that challenges the size/success ratio. In 2002 turnover reached €47 million through just 14 shops in Zurich. The family have always maintained that they will only ever operate out of Zurich and never branch outside Switzerland. That strategy may at first seem conservative, but is in fact a clever way to preserve the most important part of the Sprüngli brand – exclusivity – and has certainly not stopped a glittering reputation for excellence unravelling across the globe. Visitors to Zurich report their experience of Sprüngli in online travel guides as “out-of-this-world,” having to be “tasted before it can be believed”.

One may assume, then, that the secret to this family businesses’ success is clever marketing or expensive PR. In fact, the current sixth generation leaders – brothers Milan and Tomas Prenosil, 40- and 37-years old respectively – reject these ideas, sticking to the performance of their brand as the sole promotional tool. And it really works.

The Sprüngli story started in 1798 when David Sprüngli took up a trainee position in the patisserie Konditorei Vogel, in Zurich Old Town, owned by the famous painter Johann Vogel. Vogel had no children and in 1836, sold the patisserie to David, who with his son Rudolf, renamed it Sprüngli & Sohn and moved it to premises on the Paradeplatz (a site now adjoining the Bahnhofstrasse). The father and son team picked a strategic position in the Paradeplatz, hoping to make customers of the commuters from the railway station which was planned to be built there. However, their hopes were initially dashed when the station was built elsewhere. But a rash of construction at the site sprung up to create the Bahnhofstrasse, and the pair soon found themselves with a flourishing business in the best part of town. Chocolate production began at the Confiserie in 1845; the Sprüngli’s could not have predicted how pivotal a move it would turn out to be.

The Prenosil family joined with the Sprüngli’s when they settled in Zurich from Prague in 1968, and Milan and Tomas Prenosil’s aunt – their mother’s sister, Katja – married Richard Sprüngli, the fifth generation descendent of David Sprüngli. Richard and Katja never had children, but their nephews Tomas and Milan had grown up around the business, spending summers working there in their teens to earn some money, thus becoming the heirs apparent. In 1994, Richard appointed Milan director of marketing, communications and sales for the company, replacing his non-family predecessor who was retiring. Tomas, who had also been working in the factories for some time previously, followed his brother into management of the business two years later, becoming director of operations in 1994. Milan later became President and remains so today.

Both brothers sit on the board of directors alongside Richard and Katja, with an additional two non-family executives. CFO Werner Glauser has worked with the family for two decades, assisting the brothers in day-to-day management. Stanislaus Scherrer has worked for Sprüngli for ten years and will replace Glauser when he retires in 2004. A management and financial advisor, Dr Ernst Kilgus – a professor at the University of Zurich and the former president of the Swiss Banking Institute – completes the board.

Milan’s wife Sacha is not a board member but runs a two-person team within Sprüngli’s ‘Atelier’, designing specialty and seasonal packaging and gift ideas. The Confiserie changes much of its packaging monthly, and this is managed by the Atelier. It is a small but key area for the company as a luxury brand, and as the brothers say, important in times of market downturn when consumers still seek out small luxuries. High-quality, innovative products and packaging is the company’s lifeblood, and the backbone of its central philosophy: simply, to remain Switzer­land’s best luxury chocolatier.

The brothers were fortunate to have taken individual interest in the business from a young age, and as fate would have it, their paths in life had always been intertwined in more ways than one. “The funny thing is that Milan and I have always done the same things throughout our lives – at school, then when we joined the military, and now we work together,” Tomas recalls, fondly. “After the military I studied law and then my uncle asked me if I wanted to join the company. I had already been working in the factories in the summer, but I had kept my mind open until then because I was not sure what I wanted to do. After I finished school my interest grew and I noticed the interesting dynamics, even in this traditional business.” Milan adds that he had always wanted to join the business since childhood. “And somehow, we love it.”

Setting the tone for commitment, 87-year old patriarch Richard Sprüngli still comes to work at 6am, five days a week at the headquarters on the Bahnhofstrasse. This is testament to his love for the business he has grown but is also illustrative of his approach to the successorship process. When Milan and Tomas joined the company almost a decade ago, Werner Glauser and the brothers devised a rota between himself and the brothers for directorship that would allow his nephews to run the business their way, while allowing him to observe and mentor if needed. While Milan is the president and Tomas runs the operational concern, the brothers and Werner Glauser take six-monthly turns at the highest management position, a kind of CEO role. Unorthodox it may seem, but for a management team unified in their wish to see Sprüngli remain fully family controlled and successful with it, ensuring a smooth handover was simply a prudent risk management strategy.

The brothers agree. “The idea of the rota was to separate the operational and strategic parts of the business, and to renovate the organisation. After about five years our uncle realised where our strengths were,” says Tomas. The brothers note that they abhor the idea of family successors sitting on positions in companies they are incapable of fulfilling. “We earned our credibility when we were given responsibility at first, and then my uncle reorganised the management to create our positions for us,” adds Milan. “Until that point, it wasn’t clear that we could do it.”

It is clear at this point that they can do it, and that they make a strong team. One might expect a divergence of interests somewhere, or at least a glimmer of ego, but their unified ethics and passion for the company is heartening in a climate of corporate disarray. “[When we were handed management of the company] we took it very seriously; this is a gift, to sit here and run this company. Many family business successors our age are still hanging around, waiting to be told what to do,” Tomas explains. “I think what is very important when two brothers are running the family business is not to just sit on the board and take money from the company. We are responsible for this company, and even more so because we are not blood relations.”

The brothers’ biggest challenge this year has been increased competition from both local boutiques and national players in the food service industry, such as Swiss supermarket giants and national and international chocolate brands, breaking into the niche for luxury chocolates with luxury packaging but doing it at bargain-bucket prices. Rather than taking emergency cost cutting measures, the Prenosil brothers simply stepped up their existing competitive advantage – the strength of their brand. “These guys try to enter our niche, so competition is high. We need to be careful with this situation as it demands a very clear profile of our strategy, because we’re not as powerful in financial issues,” Tomas explains. “These companies put millions into marketing strategies that we don’t have. What we do have is high quality products and the best service, and that’s how we advertise ourselves.”

Tomas expresses his dismay regarding the way some of Sprüngli’s large, corporate rivals have recently tried to sell themselves as Sprüngli-esque boutiques. “Sometimes you see TV adverts where companies appear to be making their chocolates by hand. They are generating a brand profile and compared to us, their prices are low. People’s imaginations are provoked by this marketing, but we never want to market something that is not a reality,” he explains. “Our products really are hand-crafted and therefore impossible to sell at their prices.” Milan concurs; “Everyone’s gone crazy in the niche markets with beautiful packaging and chocolates that look handmade, but they aren’t. In difficult times like now, big players are more of a competitor because people think twice before spending a franc.”

Ninety-eight percent of the Swiss population recognise the Sprüngli brand, a surprising feat considering the lack of presence outside Zurich. The name is synonymous with the highest quality products, and indeed, such a reputation is hard to contain. The brothers are well used to receiving franchise enquiries from across the globe, and while some companies would jump at the chance to grow so quickly, the Prenosil brothers believe going global would see their company become the antithesis of everything it has stood for and destroy its unique sales edge. “Perhaps once or twice a month someone calls us from India, Japan or the US asking if we can deliver our products for a retail business or set up a franchise with them. In this sense we are very strict and we focus only on the consumer. Ours is not a wholesale or retail concept – it is always very private and personal,” Tomas says.

That doesn’t mean Sprüngli does not take advantage of good business opportunities. A small internet service set up in 1999 provides a mail order facility and delivers to the door within three days; a large percentage of its customers are situated on the Arabic peninsula. By way of making connections with the rest of Switzerland, the company will open its first non-Zurich boutiques in Switzerland’s Basle and Zug train stations by the end of the year. Again, small steps, but one can be sure they were planned and pondered upon for some time before the move was made, being as location is such a key facet of the brand. “We do not intend to pepper Switzerland with Sprüngli shops,” Tomas makes clear. “We’re not a McDonald’s.”

It is this concern for Sprüngli’s exclusivity that flavours every process and plan the company uses. Fresh cream and butter are the main ingredients of 40% of its product palette, delivered from the same supplier in the mountains just outside Zurich that the family has used for many years. This means the shelf life for many Sprüngli products is just 24 hours, and as a result, global expansion seems unrealistic. For one thing, the company would need to find equally reliable suppliers of raw products in the relevant countries, which in turn would make quality and freshness regulation difficult. Thus, as Milan and Tomas are all too aware of, the end of the famous Sprüngli selling point. “We are absolutely addicted to high end products, quality and innovation,” Milan points out. “We cannot transfer our croissant and multiply it by a few million every day while keeping it the size it is. We are in such a competitive daily business, a local business, that if the croissant is not good or the cake is not fresh, then our customers will go to someone else.

“But we are not so ignorant that we believe people will walk ten miles for our products, because they won’t.”

The Prenosils are definitely a long-term thinking team, putting the longevity of the business ahead of everything else. Their own succession is a long way off – Milan’s three children are all under 10 while Tomas is not a father. But they have made provisions to see off any threats to the total family ownership as it stands by setting up shareholder contracts, which they note as the biggest challenge they’ve faced in their tenure. Richard brought the subject up with the family three years after installing his nephews in their roles, feeling that the future of the family’s ownership should be protected against any unforeseen events. The contracts ensign all shareholders to strict conditions for selling their shares to other members of the family and outside sale is prohibited. “It was a natural process, especially for Tomas and myself,” Milan reveals. “The first priority is the company, its financial prosperity and independence, then the family and private life. That’s as it should be and I hope the way it always will be, but making that distinction is always the biggest problem for family companies.”

Tomas adds that as an owner-manager company, maintaining a healthy brand is a double-edged sword, being as important to the future of the business as it is to the shareholders’ personal reputations. “As a family business, we feel responsible for every customer, and we feel our products and service should be personal. When someone is not satisfied with our products, it feels personal – especially for our uncle, who shares the name. We feel the same but the name makes the deal stronger,” he reveals.

So, how do these emotional issues affect the internal workings of this family enterprise? “You need very strict rules when you work so closely with your family. You need guidelines and transparency. The reason many family businesses fail at the third or fourth generation is because of money and because people take from it what they want for themselves,” Tomas says. “We invest more or less everything we have in the company and we would never consider changing that to endanger the business.

“If we were not family run, we would definitely be more financially focused. Some of the things in this company are there for image reasons; if you were to analyse their cost, you might well cancel them. But we are going to keep them because they belong to the family, to the tradition and to Zurich – we want to retain its luxury and we are too long-term thinking to act that way,” the brothers agree with trademark honesty.

Milan and Tomas have also invested a lot of time researching their competitors, both at home and abroad. Tomas once spent six months touring US universities and companies, and has spent time in the East assessing the business there. If anything, these exercises helped the brothers to realise they were on the right track. “[When travelling] I realised there are three things that the Confiserie Sprüngli is always very focused on: continuity; high quality; and a long-term perspective and relationship with our customers,” recalls Tomas. “We never focus on one-day results like so many companies today – taking the long-term perspective has changed our company completely. Our uncle once said that the problems never change, but that it is how we solve them that changes. Vision and strategy is another thing; we have changed the way we run the company drastically from 20 or 30 years ago, adapting to the times, but our vision has stayed the same.”

The Prenosils note a final time their absolute belief in staying local as a cornerstone of their brand. “To have such a popular and exclusive brand known worldwide when we only operate in Switzerland is a very exclusive position,” Milan notes proudly. “Many brands that have gone international are not special anymore. We want to remain special.”


Latin News: Luis Jorge Quijano, administrator, Panama Canal Authority

15 May The Miraflores Lock at the Panama Canal. Flickr/Scott Ableman -

My latest published profile for Latin Newsvery much enjoyed researching and writing this (thanks to Sarah Sheldon for editing). Gave me a taste for possibly working there in future. Also made me curious about the Panama Canal Authority’s claim to the highest and most rigorous transparency, anti-corruption and corporate governence standards, versus being a sort of appendage (a GDP-critical one) of the Panama government – frequently said to be one of the most thoroughly corrupt in the Americas.

The Miraflores Lock at the Panama Canal. Flickr/Scott Ableman

The Miraflores Lock at the Panama Canal. Flickr/Scott Ableman


Who is he? The Board of Directors of the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) (an autonomous government agency) recently named engineer Jorge Luis Quijano as the new Panama Canal Administrator.

Why watch him? Quijano, who officially takes over from Alberto Alemán Zubieta in September 2012, assumes the post at a critical time for the Canal and for Panama. The massive five-year US$5.2bn project to expand the Canal, by constructing a third set of locks, is due to be completed by October 2014. The expansion plan is crucial to President Ricardo Martinelli’s US$13.5bn 2010-2015 infrastructure plan to turn Panama into the “Hub of the Americas”. In its 2006 report on the expansion plan, the ACP forecasts that, in the most probable scenario, Canal traffic volume will go up from the 279 million PCUMS (Panama Canal/Universal Measurement System) tons that passed through the Canal during fiscal year 2005 to nearly 510m PCUMS tons in fiscal year 2025, which represents an 82% increase. With the expansion of the Canal, the ACP expects Panama’s GDP to experience an average annual growth of 5% over the next 20 years (from 2005) until reaching US$31.7bn in 2025. Alemán recently raised questions as to whether the expansion plan will be completed on time.

Place of birth: Panama City, Panama.

Education: An engineering graduate from Lamar University in Texas, Quijano also has a Master’s degree in industrial engineering and management from the same university. He is a graduate of Executive Management Programs, both in the Federal Executive Institute, Charlottesville, Va., and the Northwestern University, Chicago, Ill, US.

Public Life: Having started his professional development in the Texaco Oil Refinery in Panama, where he worked as a process engineer and product forecaster, Quijano began his career with the Panama Canal in 1975. He moved up the professional and managerial promotion ladder to the position of Maritime Operations Director in 1999, responsible for the largest department of the Canal organization, overseeing some 5,000 staff. Under his chairmanship of the ACP’s ISO 9001 Quality System Executive Committee, the Department of Maritime Operations obtained the ISO 9001 Certification issued by Det Norske Veritas in May 2001 and subsequent re-certifications. After having led the Maritime Operations department for over seven years covering the transition from US to Panamanian administration, since September 2006, he has been in charge of the US$5.25bn expansion plan; to that effect, he was appointed as Executive Vice-President of the Engineering and Programs Management Department. He has also intermittently taught at the University of Panama’s Graduate Law School Program covering subjects related to the maritime sector. On 9 March 2012, the ACP board of directors named Quijano the new ACP administrator.


1975: Joined Panama Canal.

1999: Appointed maritime operations director for the Panama Canal Authority (ACP).

2006: Put in charge of ACP’s Expansion Program.

9 March 2012: Appointed ACP administrator.

Strengths: A career engineer, Quijano has done many of the ‘oily rag’ jobs involved in running and developing the ACP over his long-running career there, and is well equipped to deliver. Just as important is his apparent independence from political affiliation or business connections. Over the years the various governments have strenuously sought to keep the reputation of the ACP intact; while this has been largely successful, a few clouds gathered in 2010 amid the release of a US embassy cable via ‘Wikileaks’ which pointed to corruption. Dated 8 January 2010, the cable raised questions over the July 2009 decision by the ACP to award the biggest contract under the expansion plan (for the US$3.12bn construction of a new set of locks) to the consortium Grupo Unidos por el Canal (GUPC). Led by Spanish construction giant, Sacyr-Vallehermoso, the GUPC includes Panama’s CUSA which is run by Rogelio Alemán – cousin of the ACP administrator. Quijano appears to have no such political connections and will be aware to the damage any further such allegations could have on a largely unblemished corporate governance record at the ACP.

Weaknesses: Alemán recently admitted that there had been a seven-month delay in pouring cement (which should have begun in January 2011 but didn’t start until July 2011) due to the fact that the mixture did not have the right specifications. The possible delay in delivering the project could prove embarrassing for Quijano who will oversee its completion. Quijano was cited by the international press as suggesting that the expansion project would probably be ready for a trial run in December 2014 while local news sources reported last month that the GUPC had written to the ACP to say it would not expect the Canal to be ready until April 2015.

Prospects: Quijano’s prospects are inextricably linked to the completion of the expansion project. Alemán recently told reporters that failure to observe the deadline could result in penalties of up to US$54m for the ACP while early completion would earn it US$50m. Some 6,000 workers on the expansion project went on strike in January 2012 and the resultant agreement over better wages and labour conditions should for the time being keep industrial action at bay. But if deadlines are missed and penalties are issued, political pressure will bear down hard on Quijano, and if the quality of the work is not up to scratch, he could face problems later in his tenure.

From my archive: David Gold, Gold Group International

14 May David Gold. Flickr/Leaders In Football

I’m often reminded of my very first profile for Families In Business magazine (now Campden FB) because I see David Gold, the interviewee in question, on Twitter most days. I’m often surprised that he seems to reply personally to so many of his followers – West Ham United football club fans, as they always seem to be – answering their queries on whether there are still tickets for this game or that game, what his opinion on this transfer or that booking is. In my experience most family business owners are not that reachable (his daughter Jacqueline is similarly active on Twitter), but David was a great first interviewee for my then-new features writing job, spending a couple of hours chatting through his life and times in his living room, then breaking out his scrapbook of anonymous letters from anti-semitic groups threatening to murder his children. I have vivid memories from the afternoon I spent in his home and below is the resulting profile I wrote.

David Gold. Flickr/Leaders In Football

David Gold. Flickr/Leaders In Football

David and Ralph Gold are known commonly as the ‘Porn Barons’ – but behind the headlines, Gold Group International is an exemplary family business model

David Gold, the UK’s most notorious ‘Porn Baron’, is sharing a nice cup of afternoon tea with me, telling me how much he loves his mum.

Broaching the part of his multi-million pound business from which he gets this well-worn media title, he politely asks that I refer to it as ‘top-shelf’ and not pornography, “because the word ‘pornography’ suggests something aggressive, which is not what we do.” It seems David and his brother Ralph Gold, owners of Gold Group International (GGI), are misunderstood.

Indeed, there is nothing of the Porn Baron in David Gold. He appears a modest man who repeatedly attributes his success to the strength of his family. He speaks of the enormous faith he has in his children Jacqueline and Vanessa, and Ralph’s son Bradley, as successors-in-waiting (despite admitting like so many other family business founders, “and this is confidential of course – my brother and I have decided that we intend to live forever, so that’s going to be a real challenge for the children…”); refers warmly to the kinship and love of his brother Ralph, the steely support of his mother Rose – and notes how the turbulent relationship with their father, Godfrey Gold, drove his desire to succeed.

Whatever one’s stance on the erotica market may be, GGI is a successful enterprise and an exemplary family business model. Led by the brothers, managed at ground level by their children and with Mum managing part of one of their biggest interests, even at 89 years of age – GGI is, at heart, just an old-fashioned family business.

Modest beginnings
Being born less than two years apart, the Gold brothers were in business together from an early age. Raised by their mother Rose in London’s East End, as a single parent family on a cleaner’s wage, pulling together to make ends meet was a necessity. David and Ralph had the effects of poverty indelibly imprinted upon them, borne with the hatred they endured as a Jewish family. “The poverty and the racism we experienced brought us closer together, and while most brothers of that age hate each other, we stopped fighting pretty quickly because we had to stand back to back,” David recalls. “We started off fighting kids, then older people, and before we knew it, we were fighting the world together. It was that family strength that inextricably linked us; it was us two brothers together in our effort to succeed.”

In the sporadic periods when the family was together – David and Ralph’s father Godfrey was frequently in prison for petty crimes or working in Northern England – their mother Rose ran a stall selling buttons and bric-a-brac from their front porch, enlisting her sons to sew the buttons onto pieces of card or take turns manning the stall. Meanwhile, David and Ralph’s uncle, David, had begun selling books and comics to retailers with their father, buying up surplus stock of Captain Marvel comics and a selection of ‘pin-up’ magazines for bargain prices, enlisting the brothers to deliver them across London. Before long, Rose had started stocking the pin-up magazines on the stall, and soon converted the front room of the family home into a fully-fledged newsagent’s shop. David and Ralph would later go on to start printing their own lines of these magazines to capitalise on the growing niche, publishing now infamous titles including print runs of the famous John Cleland books Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, its successor Memoirs of a Coxcomb, and New Direction magazine.

In the 1970s, David Sullivan emerged as a strong rival in the erotica trade, publishing more explicit magazines than the Gold brothers had chosen to such as Parade and Whitehouse (dangerously named after the staunch UK anti-pornography campaigner Mary Whitehouse). David and Ralph had bought up a distribution company, GBD, and due to the heavy demand for these more risqué titles, began to distribute these as well as their own range.

Profits ballooned – they had capitalised on a boom market at just the right time – but with that came a high profile that the brothers never wanted. The business was growing too fast for society to keep up with, and the British Establishment dug its heels in; Gold Star Publications endured a series of protracted investigations, lawsuits, customs and police raids on its shipments and offices to seize its titles under the UK’s Obscene Publications Act. Thousands of magazines were destroyed. David narrowly escaped a prison term under the Act, despite being tried twice for the same charge. Ironically, the advent of the Internet has eroded the call for printed matter in this field, and now top-shelf publishing constitutes just 1.5% of the group’s business.

From front room to high street
As the top-shelf market gradually became more socially acceptable, Establishment curiosity died down allowing the Gold brothers to become leaders in the erotica market. In 1972, capitalising on its new-found place in the minds of ‘ordinary’ people, Gold Star Publications made its first steps out of magazines and on to the high street with the purchase of two erotica shops under the name Ann Summers for £15,000. Three decades on, led by David’s daughter Jacqueline, Ann Summers is Gold Group International’s best performing brand bringing in UK£8 million (nearly half the group’s total profit) in 2002, operating 99 outlets across the UK, an online mail order arm, a lingerie arm, and a party plan arm – the largest of its kind in the world. Not content with that, Jacqueline furthered the GGI high street offensive in 2001 by leading the buyout of underwear chain Knickerbox.

Now a diversified group, the secret to the GGI’s success is clear: it is about exploiting niches as they emerge and keeping the competition out, facilitated by sheer hard work. A key trait, surely residual from their experience of poverty, has been to stop giving other companies money; for instance, as well as publishing magazines, GGI also prints and distributes them itself through its own companies, rather than outsourcing these expensive necessities – eliminating the risk of failing service providers while keeping money outflows to a minimum.

David and Ralph have created an empire that makes money from its own operations and can cut itself amazing deals; it is a lean and mean strategy, and one that makes the Golds one of Britain’s most successful business families, listed 67th in the Sunday Times’ 2003 Rich List.

Leap of faith
One part of the business, however, completely defies this philosophy and illustrates the risk David and Ralph were willing to take for something close to their hearts. In 1993 they bought a 50% stake in the near-bankrupt third division football club, Birmingham City (BCFC), along with their business partner – one-time arch rival David Sullivan – who bought the other 50%. The kid brothers, lodging with a surrogate family in Birmingham for a time when Rose was unable to cope, had watched the side play at home to rapturous support from the ‘Kop’ stalls, filled with dedicated ‘Blues’ fans. As a boy, David had been offered a contract to play for West Ham FC Under-21’s, but missed his chance because his dad would not sign the consent forms; for him, it was a second chance to play, if only from the director’s box and not the pitch. The risk worked out and in a tidy decade, the club hit the Premiership, sitting comfortably as this article goes to press at its highest ever position, fourth. Mum Rose continues to head up BCFC’s Senior Citizens club alongside Sullivan’s mother, Thelma.

More aggressive in their approach than many other family companies, David and Ralph are quick to thwart competition before it presents a threat or even exists – the alliance with David Sullivan being one of their most valuable defence strategies yet. When a team of rival bidders emerged for Ann Summers, the Gold brothers approached them to cut a deal; each side was to produce an envelope containing the maximum they wanted to bid, and the one offering the least would step down from bidding, receiving the difference in cash between their offers as compensation. The Gold bid was £5,009 more than their rivals, and they snapped up the chain within a week. Similarly today, they have continued to defend Ann Summer’s unmatched position without hesitation, aiming to have a store in every town and realising this by opening 30 new stores every year. Even locally, the Golds take no prisoners; not content with having a store at the east end of London’s Oxford Street, they opened a second store at the west end, “just to dissuade someone from thinking about it”. David explains: “Everybody looks at us longingly, at our figures and our sales growth. So, while no one has yet emerged as serious contender, we want to stifle any competition before it gets a chance, and we want to do that quickly – though I’m not paranoid about it,” he adds. “People have done that in the past at their peril; it’s like buying up the world’s supply of tin so that you can charge twice as much for it.”

Ready for G2
David has much enthusiasm about the year ahead. In 2004, David reveals that Ann Summers will begin to expand onto the European continent, working its way in via British tourist and ex-pat hotspots like Marbella in Spain (where an Ann Summers shop is already installed). Gold Air will take delivery of a US$55 million order of five new Lear Jets; projected group profits for the year are upwards of £20 million.

Behind much of David’s excitement is his belief in the next generation, and the strategy in place to nurture them as they help build the family empire. As well as Jacqueline leading Ann Summers, her sister Vanessa is director of a range of GGI companies including Ann Summers Lingerie, while Ralph’s son Bradley is director of Gold Air International (while Bradley’s sister does not work in the business). All three worked their way up through the ranks: Jacqueline started out in 1979 at Ann Summers as a wages clerk, going on to launch Party Plan in 1981 and becoming Director in 1993. For now, it seems clear who is poised to take the mantle as head of the business after David and Ralph. “Jacqueline has emerged as the current principal, being Chief Executive of our most lucrative company,” David admits. “What I can say is that everyone is bright enough to do it, and I am hugely optimistic about the future of our family.

He continues; “Sometimes in family businesses, the children inherit the company but they aren’t particularly business minded. I’ve seen children inherit a business when they’d rather be on the golf course – they’ve almost been forced into it, and that’s sad for the business because it is then led by a person who doesn’t share their predecessor’s passion for it. That’s not true of our family: our successors are actually instrumental in our success as we speak and are being carefully groomed, given greater responsibility and autonomy by the day. We aren’t fragmented by the jealousies you so often see in family businesses. We’re a very warm family, and not just because my brother and I have worked together for so many years.”

But there have been some destructive forces to contend with. David and Ralph’s father had at one time tried to trick the brothers out of an equal share in the business. They created a holding structure and each took three shares, signing the contracts separately, without witnesses. Only when the brothers challenged their father on a financial query did he move to maintain his superiority by blurting out that they did not have any right to argue their point, since he had fashioned Ralph’s contract to sign over two of his three shares to his father. “I think he feared that he would lose his patriarchal position in the business because of us holding shares; he saw his sons evolving but didn’t want to stop being the Alpha Male,” David recalls. “He realised that my brother and I were inseparable in our determination to succeed, and he was right to see that – we didn’t even see it then.”

Godfrey’s plan was foiled anyhow because the contracts were not legally binding, and the brothers went on to form GGI without him. Turning this traumatic experience into a valuable lesson, the family will from 2004 begin formalising the succession and share transfer plan. Each of the four Gold children will receive exactly 25% of the business.

Lastly, I ask David the mandatory question all business families love to hate. Would you ever sell out? “We have been approached many times by companies wanting to take us to market, but it is a question of need. People go to the market because they need money to expand at a faster rate; Ann Summers Retail, for example, is growing at 50% a year – we couldn’t expand any faster than we already are,” he explains. “We are a family business and have an excitement about remaining so because we have very, very good people ready to take over. So no.”

That’s perfectly understandable.


The Guardian: the ‘mature’ intern comes of age

13 May Interns are getting older. Flickr/National Library of Australia

My second feature for the cover of the Guardian’s Work supplement on 12 May 2012. A subject I’m passionate about, alternate routes into work and to a richer palette of experience – this time, for ‘older’ people who want to do internships or apprenticeships. Very enjoyable to research and my only grumble was that I didn’t have enough room for all the comments of all the people I spoke with for it.

Interns are getting older. Flickr/National Library of Australia

Interns are getting older. Flickr/National Library of Australia

A tuft of grey chest hair pokes out of the top of Alan Kean’s stripey shirt. It catches my eye as we drink tea amid the deafening chatter and the expensive fig trees in Portcullis House where Alan, 55, is six months into life as a parliamentary intern.

In recent months there has been much gnashing of teeth over young people flooding into these positions, unpaid or poorly paid, with scant observation of working rights, desperate to get a foot on the career ladder. That has left little room for discussion around a lesser-known trend: of the 457,200 apprentice positions started in 2010-11 in the UK, 182,100 were started by people aged 25 or over, according to the Data Service. Five years ago, only 300 people aged 25 or older took up these roles.

Of the overall rise between 2006-7 and 2010-11, 68% were in the 25-plus age group, according to the National Audit Office (NAO); an increase it attributes to Tony Blair’s government, which, in 2003, widened the age eligibility criteria for government-funded, private company-runapprenticeships to include over 25s.

Many people presume that interning, or being an apprentice (the two are used almost interchangeably) is for graduates or school leavers only and the newly-launched National Careers Service doesn’t disabuse would-be applicants of that notion.

Jobs websites bring up advert after advert seeking “ambitious graduates” with a “work hard, play hard attitude” to fill numerous unpaid or minimum-wage internships and apprenticeships – wording that barely complies with age-discrimination law and makes plain the cultural advantage younger, cheaper applicants have over older ones. Part of the problem is that the National Apprenticeships Service pays up to 100% of the training cost of placements taken by 16-18 year olds, and up to 50% for ages 19-24, but makes only an unspecified “contribution” for placements taken by those aged 25 or over.

“The impression is that the government doesn’t provide routes for older people like that. We know there’s no such thing as a job for life anymore, but culturally, we’re yet to develop that broader attitude,” says Rosemary Thomas, a research assistant at the Work Foundation, previously a work psychologist at Jobcentre Plus.

“At Jobcentre Plus I worked with lots of long-term unemployed, or over-25s that hadn’t worked out what they wanted to do. An apprenticeship or internship would have been a perfect solution for them, but it was so hard to come across anything. We tended to guide them down the voluntary route.”

What kind of people make “mature interns”? A Leicestershire boy who left school with no qualifications, Kean fell into hotel work and meandered through “low administrative level” jobs in the NHS and the local branch of the Department for Work and Pensions, later working in the community football stadium in Doncaster where he and his wife relocated, before moving again to London. After a short employment contract with Harrods, he worked as a volunteer with Locog interviewing other potential Olympics volunteers. Then he saw that the Social Mobility Foundationwas offering nine-month internships working for parliamentarians, paying £17,500 for that period.

“I did wonder if I was too old to apply because most interns are 18-25, aren’t they?” says Kean. “Once upon a time someone like me would be at the end of their working life. But I’m not ready to lie down,” he adds. “Like most working-class people I’ve not had a career, but I’ve shown in my work that I can do almost anything – I’m flexible and the labour market has a need for that. Being stuck in a rut is a luxury of years gone by. The more strings you have to your bow, the easier it should be to find paid work.”

The forthcoming rise in retirement age makes refreshing your skills and competitiveness important. And while older interns and apprentices are doing that, they’re providing the UK taxpayer with value for money. In a February 2012 report, scrutinising the government’s apprenticeship programme, the NAO found that its advanced and intermediate apprenticeship models produce returns of respectively £21 and £16 for every pound of public funding they receive (the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills estimates those returns at respectively £24 and £35, using a different calculation).

At 27, Ben Harford is an older intern, one of many thousands trying to break into the creative industries, where, though much criticised, poorly-paid internships are all but mandatory. Redundancy last Christmas brought a small sum of cash that Ben ploughed into a career change, retraining from public sector administration to graphic design. A Gumtree advertisement led him to a full-time internship designing sponsorship collateral for a Premiership football club. The commute costs him £500 a month, taking up most of his minimum-wage salary, and he relies on his girlfriend’s income to shore up their living expenses.

The work is enjoyable, says Ben, but could end at any time. “It was meant to be six weeks, but it always gets extended for another week, another two weeks … they keep their cards close to their chest, so you’re always in limbo,” he says. “In this industry you’ve got to earn your stripes by working for not much money. Even junior positions expect one year’s experience. So you’ve got to start with an internship.” His fellow interns, most of whom graduated last summer, “have rich boyfriends or live at home rent-free – they can enjoy being 21 and survive on the minimum wage with their parents’ backup. They don’t have the responsibilities I’ve got.”

But it can work. Mike Mann was 39 when he joined Pricewaterhouse Coopers’ Headstart scheme in 2007 – its equivalent to a graduate scheme, but for those without many formal qualifications – leaving behind a long-established career in sound production. Apprentices are paid a salary to work full-time and study for their accounting qualifications.

He now manages audits for the businesses he was attached to when he started. “I was fed up working in an environment where we were incredibly experienced technically and commercially, but had no real business understanding. I wanted to understand what makes businesses succeed and felt strongly that I needed a mixture of hands-on work and formal training,” says Mann. “It was very daunting at first, but being in an environment where everyone is enthusiastic about learning is so refreshing.”

He adds that one of his oddest apprenticeship experiences was revising for exams at the kitchen table alongside his daughters who were studying for their GCSEs and AS levels: “Not what you expect to be doing at 40.”

The Headstart scheme pays between £16,000 and £20,000. Can an older apprentice survive on that? “This has been the hardest part, but in less than five years I’m back to a healthy salary and over the next few years it will easily surpass what I could have earned before changing career,” Mann says.

The NAO report says that completing an advanced apprenticeship is associated with raising earning power by 18%, and completing an intermediate internship raises salaries by 11%.

The cultural barrier to older people accessing these positions remains strong. Some think employers presume they will want too much money, defend their workers’ rights too strongly or even show them up professionally. “Employers might be put off because they think they’ll expect lots of money, but they might have come out of a well-paid career and aren’t motivated by money any more,” says Rosemary Thomas.

Kean, the oldest participant on the parliamentary interns scheme, agrees. “So many MPs and their interns have no expertise and haven’t worked anywhere else, so I’ve brought in some procedures here to make things run smoothly,” he says. “But I think some employers might be intimidated by someone a bit older with a mind of their own like that. We’re more likely to stand up for ourselves, while young workers are new to the workplace and don’t know what’s expected of them – which is why they are abused.”

The government intends to invest more in apprenticeships, and given the return on investment older participants appear to provide, it makes sense to give them more funding.

But Chris Ball, chief executive of The Age Employment Network, sees the cultural blockade at its strongest within the government’s apprenticeship machinery. “There are huge issues around economic inactivity among older people, and the fact is the government has put far more energy into supporting young workers than older workers,” he says.

“Older people need to feel there is somebody out there working for them, but they’re just not a priority – they have to wait six months before they’re allowed onto the Work Programme, in which time demoralisation and self-pity can set in. You’ll look like a far better prospect to an employer if you’re doing something like interning than if you’re out of work.”

Case study: the translator

Well travelled and multi-lingual, Marta Rodriguez, 34, is the epitome of the progressive European prepared for tomorrow’s labour market. A BA twice over, and currently studying an online Master’s degree as a mature student, she is highly experienced in translation work.

She is halfway through a six-month internship with a west London translation company, on a scheme operated by the European commission which aims to “help students to adapt to the requirements of the EU-wide labour market”.

For Marta, it’s a shrewd way to see how her translation clients work from the inside while getting paid. The position was advertised unpaid except for €500 for living costs. But Marta got lucky: her employers pay her £500 per month on top. “They’re happy because I think they were expecting an intern with whom they had to spend a lot of time teaching and explaining things.”

Marta is the agency’s first intern and is seven years older than her manager.

“At the beginning they thought I’d be working on their database all day long, but I’m translating, I’m proof-reading translations from our freelance translators, and I’m about to do some project management,” she explains.

“They weren’t expecting me to be as experienced as I am or to know what I’m doing. They can rely on me and delegate things.

“I hadn’t even thought about the possibility of being an intern before. I thought my employer Erasmus wouldn’t accept me because of my age – that they might think ‘oh, she must be a loser’,” Marta admits.

“That’s about my preconceptions – that there’s an established way. You finish university, you do your internship, then you get a job, you get a better job and that is what you do with your life – so I thought that was how society would behave towards me.”

Latin News: Profile, Jorge Alberto Bunster Betteley – Chile’s new energy minister

8 May Demonstrating against Chile's ambitious hydroelectric dam project. Flickr/International Rivers

This is one of my most recent profiles for Latin News, where I am interning to learn more about Latin American politics- and where they very kindly permit me to stretch my legs on all topics.

Demonstrating against Chile's ambitious hydroelectric dam project. Flickr/International Rivers

Demonstrating against Chile’s ambitious hydroelectric dam project. Flickr/International Rivers

Who is he? Bunster is Chile’s new energy minister.

Why watch him? Bunster, who was sworn in on 3 April 2012, is the fifth man to be appointed to the post since President Sebastián Piñera took office in March 2010. The energy ministry has become Chile’s most challenging portfolio, replacing education, after high fuel and energy prices sparked violent protests in the country’s extreme southern regions. Piñera has instructed Bunster to lead a new national energy strategy, calling for an increase in output from hydroelectric as well as other non-conventional renewable energy sources. However local environmental campaigners have mobilized against several projects aimed at increasing Chile’s energy production capacity. There has been strong opposition to the HidroAysén hydroelectric project, a chain of five hydroelectric plants that will affect large swathes of national parks in Chile’s Patagonia. An unexpectedly hot Southern Hemisphere summer has resulted in a severe drought since the tail end of last year and Bunster began his tenure by extending power rationing across the country, reducing the voltage from the central energy grid by as much as 10%.

Born: 17 March 1953.

Place of birth: Santiago, Chile.

Education: Bunster obtained a degree in business studies and marketing (ingeniero commercial) from Chile’s Universidad Católica in 1975. He also obtained an MBA from the IESE School at Spain’s University of Navarra in 1978.

Public Life: Bunster entered public life in 2010, when Piñera appointed him director-general of foreign economic relations at Chile’s Ministry for International Affairs, where he built a reputation for leading important free trade agreements. In March 2012 he led a delegation to Buenos Aires for a meeting with Guillermo Moreno, Argentina’s secretary for domestic commerce, to request that recently imposed trade barriers be eased. He was picked by Pinera to head up the energy portfolio because of his experience in the energy sector – and no doubt, his contacts and influence within that industry. Implementing the country’s new 30-year energy strategy and managing relationships with environmental groups against key hydroelectric projects are at the top of his agenda.


1979-1981: Joins Maquinarias MACO SA as Commercial Manager.

1981-1985: Joins Chilean pension fund system AFP Alameda as Chief Executive Officer.

1985-1986: CEO for ice cream manufacturer Alimentos Bresler SA.

1986-1990: Joins the Compañia de Seguros Generales Cruz del Sur SA, and insurer, as Operations Manager/Deputy General Manager.

1990-2009: Appointed CEO at publicly-listed energy and forestry conglomerate Copec SA, remaining in the post for 18 years. Copec controls nearly two-thirds of Chile’s fuel distribution market.

2010-2012: Appointed director-general for foreign economic relations at Chile’s Ministry for International Affairs.

3 April 2012: Sworn in as Chile’s energy minister following the resignation of Rodrigo Alvarez.

Strengths: Bunster has extensive experience in Chile’s energy sector and is well placed to manage the relationship between the government and energy companies. This has earned him the backing of Piñera’s ‘star minister’, Laurence Golbourne (public works) who said that Bunster’s experience in the sector was a valuable addition to the cabinet. Golborne, who served as Piñera’s first energy minister, did a good job of handling the portfolio until he was transferred in 2011. The fact that Bunster is not affiliated to any political party may also be seen as positive given that his predecessor, Alvarez, from the ultra-conservative Unión Democráta Independiente (UDI, the senior partner in the ruling coalition) resigned for “political reasons” after he was side-lined from a final round of talks that led to a preliminary agreement between the government and protestors in the Aysén region.

Weaknesses: Bunster’s appointment has been questioned by the Concertación opposition coalition amid concerns that, as a stakeholder in Copec and other locally-based energy companies including Spain’s Endesa, Chile’s largest electric utility company, he could face a conflict of interests as the head of the ministry. Copec directly competes with the state-owned oil company, Enap, while Endesa is one of the companies involved in the HidroAysén project. Bunster claims that, since being appointed, he has sold off his shares in energy firms but some reports allege that his family retains a 20% stake in AntarChile, the holding company that controls Copec. Alvarez’s predecessor, Fernando Echeverría, was forced to resign only three days after being appointed following similar accusations of conflicts of interests.

Prospects: Bunster’s experience is the government’s gain. His knowledge of the sector may well allow him to carry out the complicated mission that Piñera has set out for him. However, while he may have the President’s support in this, whether he will enjoy political support from the ruling coalition is another matter, given his lack of party affiliations. The day after Bunster’s appointment, Chile’s supreme court upheld an earlier ruling to allow the construction of the controversial HidroAysén project. This removed the legal obstacles to the project, but there is still a lot of local public opposition to this and other proposed projects aimed at increasing Chile’s energy generation capacity. While a preliminary agreement has been reached with the Aysén protestors, there is a strong possibility that Bunster will face other protests, not only in Aysén but also in other regions.

Five travel firsts

1 May The Autovia del Mediterraneo at Mijas. Yanfuano/Flickr

By their nature, travel fiends are always in the throes of planning their next trip, so they’re hard wired to obsess about the future. No one really talks about their formative travel experiences – the very earliest ones, on childhood holidays, where something so we might think quite mundane now elevated an annual two weeks in August time-share holiday to something magical and personality-forming. What were the moments back in time that led me to the travelling experiences I seek in adulthood?

I was thinking about the most effecting moments in my travelling life so far and I was surprised to recall a bunch of almost inane non-events that, in hindsight, were pivotal travel firsts – something small that happened, or occurred to me, while I was travelling for business or pleasure, that felt instantly new. Rolled up into a ball, these moments become a back-story as to who I came to be the person that writes these words today, whether I’m on the road or at home. And surely it’s that which underlines how important travelling is as one of many life experiences. Here’s a selection of five of my travel firsts.

Travel first #1: Aloe relief, Bahamas

This image is almost precisely what I see in my head when I think of the Bahamas. The Field Museum Library/Flickr.

This image is almost precisely what I see in my head when I think of the Bahamas. The Field Museum Library/Flickr.

As a child I had horrendous eczema that plagued me every day and night. But I was lucky to have a dad who, in the 80’s, had fallen into well paid sales jobs in IT, so he could afford the regulation middle-class fortnight somewhere hot in the summer school holidays, where my skin could heal a bit with the humid climate. My very earliest holiday abroad was when my mum and dad took me and my brother – it was 1986 so I was 6, he was 4 – to the Bahamas, which, by reaching into the furthermost and fuzziest corners of my memory, I recall being a place of whitewashed villas with sandy paths and great stands of aloe vera plants. Unaccustomed to the tropical heat and unforgiving sun, my parents being from Glasgow and on their very first trip somewhere so exotic, I got sunburn, which combined with eczema is no fun. I have a picture in my mind of my mum hacking a long, prickly leaf from a huge aloe plant growing outside the door of our villa and smearing the cold gel up and down my arm. What a strange sight to a little girl from Luton: to see her mum mutilate a plant and use its leaves to soothe my skin. In that memory, the colours are azure blue, to jewel green, to coral red and pale pink sand. Colours that are alien to the average Luton-dwelling child, for obvious reasons, I think that palette somehow stayed with me and became part of a subconscious search for exotic shades in yet more far-flung locales in my adult life, as a backpacker.

Travel firsts #2: Luxury business travel introduction, Switzerland

The view from Burgenstock, Switzerland. Tom Raftery/Flickr.

The view from Burgenstock, Switzerland. Tom Raftery/Flickr.

My first big business trip came in 2002. I was in my first proper job as a hack and was dispatched, with my bosses and the other reporters, to the three-day, once-annual Swiss Futures and Options Association conference, held on the rugged, remote hilltop Burgenstock, next to Switzerland’s monied Lake Lucerne. I had no idea that luxury of this level existed, nor that corporate events in the financial world were equally sumptuous and decadent. Walking into my suite overlooking the lake – complete with Milka chocolate-style cows munching on grass beneath my balcony, complete with ringing cow bells – I was confused to see that my bathroom had two basins. One entire wall of the room was given over to wardrobe space, as if those who stayed here brought a month’s worth of ball-gowns and Salvatore Ferragamo business suits. I couldn’t understand why I had so much floor space, equivalent to the entire size of my rented Brixton flat.

On my first night, returning from my first experience at a gala dinner where Chateauneuf-de-pape flowed like water and three sets of silver cutlery almost exposed my lack of high society etiquette, I walked into the room to find the balcony doors wide open and the curtains flapping in the breeze. I looked around and sensed that everything was slightly different to how I had left it four hours previously. I must have been robbed! Feeling panicked, I ran to the reception and reported this. A bellboy was dispatched to check out my story. Timidly waiting by the door while he hunted around, he walked over to me and pointed at my bed. It was perfectly made: there was no way that was me. “You haven’t been robbed madam. Your room has been cleaned.” The bellboy pointed to a chocolate placed exactly on the centre of one of my freshly fluffed-up deluxe pillows. “They clean the room and change the sheets and towels while you are gone – and they leave you a chocolate,” he reported. “They leave the balcony doors open just to bring fresh air into the room.” And that was how I learned that there was another half, let alone how it lives, which was a useful education for someone who would go on to spend four years writing about old family business money.

Travel firsts #3: Trusting your tour guide, Morocco

My Tangiers trip was pre-photos, so here's a snap of Ait Benhaddou, still in Morocco!

My Tangiers trip was pre-photos, so here's a snap of Ait Benhaddou, still in Morocco!

My dad won a time-share apartment in the faux-whitewashed villas of the Miraflores golf club resort in Mijas, on Spain’s Costa del Sol, through work and we spent the last two weeks of August there every year until I was about 14. After I’d become old enough to successfully protest at being forced to join the family holiday, I had not been back until after my dad sold the time-share but he decided, in 2004, to book a reunion trip for all of us (now five with the addition of my 12-year old sister). It wasn’t as much fun as a young adult: for one thing, I had by then been living in London for four years and wasn’t about to regress to tagging along with the olds, save for the free meals and board.

One day pottering in the shade of the faux-Moroccan styled club house, I saw some leaflets advertising day trips: pay Eu30 for a guided day tour to Tangiers, Morocco – North Africa! It might as well have been to Mars, so mysterious and seductive was the prospect of seeing Africa. I’d never been further than Spain without my parents at that point and I signed up on the spot. It didn’t disappoint: there were tagines, haggard old men in billowy white kaftans with skin like dried up teabags haggling over carpets, a snake charmer, mint tea served in the shadow of the medina, street koran schools and hole-in-the-wall bread ovens – the whole Mark Twain. But what was most instructive was that on the ferry from the port of Algeciras, our tour guide took the group’s passports and kept them in a supermarket bag until we were stepping off the boat on our return. I was naïve and not well travelled, but I was immensely worried by this need to disabuse us of our legal documents. I argued with him: why did he need to keep our passports? What if we needed them? But to no avail, and I was too lily-livered to force him to return mine. I had visions of it being spirited away to some private corner of the boat, copied by expert forgers and tens of new Melanie Sterns, of all colours and creeds, emerging to register Amex cards in my stead. (It didn’t reassure me that I saw several tiny, makeshift floats drifting by from the porthole in open sea, hosted by – as I know now, and didn’t then – absconding Moroccans desperate to enter Spain unseen.) I may never know what that was all about, but the next time my passport felt at threat I hid it in my knickers. No one was going there.

Travel firsts #4: Flying solo, Spain

The Autovia del Mediterraneo at Mijas. Yanfuano/Flickr

The Autovia del Mediterraneo at Mijas. Yanfuano/Flickr

As a lonely insomniac child, you get used to finding little worlds of your own to keep entertained. On one of my summer holidays in Spain with my folks (I think it was probably 1993, as it was the holiday from which I’ve got a photo of me in a crop top which I paired with a Marks & Spencer full length button down denim skirt – stylish!), I was in the nadir of my insomniac phase and, lying silently still in the dark while everyone else slept, I decided to go outside. Creeping out into the brilliant white living room of our villa, I saw my dad’s keys on the breakfast table and five minutes later, I had unlocked the front door and was outside in the big world with all its palm trees and balmy night air. I walked; I walked without aim or direction, but it didn’t matter; I was exploring in the darkness.

I ended up on the bridge over the Autovia del Meditteraneo, which marked my exit from the safety of the resort and my crossing over to ‘everything else’ – the world at large. Over the other side of the bridge it was so…different. There was a little road alongside the autovia with a few houses on it – they were all different, but that same villa-style. A side path led down to the beach; it had that slightly pinky-brown sand here and there. As I got onto the sand, the black sky was turning navy, and I caught sight of the lights attached to fishing boats out to sea. Apart form the hum of the autovia behind me, and the sound of the waves ahead, there was no noise, and no one around. I walked and walked along that beach for what must have been an hour or so; or it could have been a few minutes. Eventually, I realised that I was far away enough to feel afraid, and in any case, it was now morning. I scooted back the way I came, quietly stole back into the villa – everyone still fast asleep, crickets still singing – and back into my bed, whereupon I think I fell asleep for several hours. I think it was that night that set in me a decision to see more, to go further: not to be afraid.


Travel firsts #5: Passport panty control, Romania

Just to demonstrate how sunburned I was on my Romania-Turkey trip.

Just to demonstrate how sunburned I was on my Romania-Turkey trip.

After my little day trip to Tangiers, I wondered if I shouldn’t try something a bit more hardcore in holiday terms. My flatmate, Hayley, had sucked me right in with her tales of living in Japan and backpacking through Laos and Cambodia, so I asked her if she was up for a low-budget trip somewhere that felt far away enough to be challenging, but was gentle on someone as fearful of backpacking as I was. We agreed on a week in Romania (EasyJet still flew to Bucharest for £30 then) and a week in Turkey, connected by a ferry trip down the Black Sea coast. In the event, the ferries had long ceased operations, but having gotten ourselves to Viru Viru, a paradisical and totally undiscovered beach-side commune on the Bulgarian border, we heard a coach came through a couple of times a week that we could join at border control which would overnight us to Istanbul. We did catch said coach, but it wasn’t long before we discovered we were the only tourists on what was actually a routine contraband smuggling route, evidenced by the rotund, headscarved women who, with the border guards’ (perhaps wilfully) backs turned, furiously squished bottles of Jack Daniels and packets of cigarettes down into the legs of their woollen tights and threw on cable jumpers under which they hid tucked-in t-shirts full of the same, before loading onto the coach.

Once on our way, one of them started asking in broken English if me and Hayley would take some of their goods ( and by this time, they had moved the goods from their person to behind the ceiling panels of the bus, in plain view of us tourists) so that they could get them through the Bulgaria-Turkey border. Hayley almost said yes: too much of a cautious Carol, I used my power of veto and instructed Hayley not to make eye contact with anyone on the bus for the rest of the night. And mindful of the Morocco ferry incident where I feared I’d lose my passport and be lost forever in a foreign land without my papers, I slipped my passport into my pants where I knew there was only one way anyone was getting hold of it. Pulling into Sultanhamet at first light and first prayers, with our smuggling friends dozing around us, I yanked my passport out of my knickers, roused Hayley from her sleep and together we bolted off that bus and into a new city, papers intact. You don’t realise how painful it is to have your passport scrape past your sunburned stomach in a rush.