Forman's Games is a must-read for any student of family business. It is the story of Lance Forman, the fourth generation of his family to join the smoked salmon business after his great grandfather brought the technique to the UK from Ukraine.
Lance was successful in his own right before he joined H Forman & Son. After studying economics at Cambridge, he joined Price Waterhouse and worked there for six years. His job took him to Poland to manage the privatisation of medium-sized enterprises. When he left Price Waterhouse, he enjoyed a brief career as special adviser to Peter Lilley, who was then secretary of state for trade and industry. After politics, he set up a property development company with a friend specialising in Eastern Europe. So when Lance joined the family fish-smoking firm, he was a qualified accountant, a property developer and had had experience of politics at the highest level.
At H Forman & Son, he suffered and overcame all the usual family business problems. Existing management were doubtful of his abilities and the operations manager tried to catch him out on pricing the salmon. Lance was horrified to find out that computer records were shunned in favour of personal knowledge kept in the head, which protected the individuals in their jobs. Outdated machinery in an old, inefficient factory limited the volume of sales. Marketing was almost non-existent. And he had three sisters all of whom (and their children) might have created havoc in the boardroom with their conflicting demands unless he had the wherewithal to buy them out of the business.
Within a year of joining the firm, Lance is confronted with a factory fire. His trusted second-in-command leaves the company (and the country) without warning just as the accountants are poring over the books looking for goods invoiced but not received. And then there is a catastrophic flood with all the consequences of ruined fish and contaminated water in the walls of the fish preparation room.
But this story is not about victory over these obstacles - there is a far worse shock to come. The 2012 Olympic Games are to be held on the site of his smokery and the London Development Agency (LDA) places a compulsory purchase order on his factory to build the Olympic Park. Its plan is to improve the area with expensive blocks of flats and world-class sports facilities, and the family smoker is in the way of the March of Progress. Lance becomes the leader of the 'Save Marshgate Lane Group'. He fights not just for his business but for all of the 12,000 people employed on Marshgate Lane threatened by the steamroller which is the Olympics. Lance 'the fish man' becomes locked in battle with Ken Livingstone 'the newt man'. He becomes embroiled in a series of meetings with the LDA and LOCOG - satirised in the TV series Twenty Twelve. Lance in real life has to deal with the head of legacy, the head of infrastructure and the head of sustainability.
At this point, the book becomes the story of David against Goliath, of the little man pitted against authority. Lance is convinced that the bureaucrats are not just incompetent but out to get him. He fights compulsory purchase because his relocation deal is just not good enough for his historic family business. It is difficult to say whether this is because the LDA was trying to do things on the cheap or whether he wanted rather more than it was prepared to offer. Certainly the site that the LDA offered H Forman & Son was further from London, and the traffic jams on the A12 from Leyton could have held up Lance's vans.
But all is well for H Forman & Son in the end. Lance himself finds a site just the other side of the River Lea overlooking the Park, employs a brilliant party planner, the legend that was Arthur Somerset, and puts on the party to end all parties at the Olympics. He charges £75 for breakfast during the Games and his office now has a nice view of the Olympic Stadium and the Queen Elizabeth Park. After all the publicity, his smoked salmon is selling in Waitrose and in China.
This is an uplifting read because it is the story of a triumph against all odds. He now lectures at business schools around the country and unsurprisingly one of his messages is 'Don't make a plan, there are bound to be disasters you cannot plan for'. The one thing he needs to sort out now is how to encourage his son into the business. Oliver's feelings at the moment are: 'I am not going to work in a smokery because you come home smelling of fish.'
Charles Morgan is the former MD of Morgan Motor Company and the grandson of its founder Henry Morgan. He writes and films car reviews at carfection.com
Forman's Games: The Dark Underside of the London Olympics by Lance Forman, Biteback Publishing, £20
Image source: EG Focus/Flickr