Some time ago, I stumbled from a few years of fun and games at college into a recession-hit UK. My sister, bless her, in a well-intentioned attempt to help her sibling get to grips with the world of work, suggested I apply to join the Tesco graduate trainee scheme. I still hold that act of kindness against her.
I somehow navigated my way onto the graduate programme and, donned in ill-fitting, double-breasted Next suit, dutifully arrived at Tesco PLC which was – and still is – based in Cheshunt.
On my first day I joined about twenty other graduates selected to join the ranks of the retailer’s commercial trading arm. I very clearly remember the HR folk gathering us together to assign us to our departments with a single word. Some of those words were quite exciting. ‘Wine’, for instance. Others were dubious. ‘Fish’, for example.
My own orders were equally succinct: ‘Meat’. I don’t know why - it may have been the look of pity on the face of the delightful HR lady who was to become my career guide and sometime counselor, but I just knew I had drawn the short straw.
This intuition proved to be completely accurate. It was later explained to me that the meat department was where they sent the graduates who the business thought needed to be ‘brought down a peg or two’. How I qualified for this particular brand of special treatment I have no idea, other than a probably-very-annoying cocksure air that I managed to maintain throughout the interview process.
So off I trundled to the Tesco PLC meat trading division – my first experience of the adult workplace. It wasn’t pretty. The department was composed of a group of men, several of whom had been butchers, who went out of their way to bolster their unreconstructed, alpha-male credentials at every opportunity.
The boss and Pack Leader (basically the hardest bloke in the room) reported into an individual by the name of Terry Leahy, a man who was spoken of in hushed Voldemort-style tones, followed by whisperings of his selection by the perma-tanned Ian MacLaurin to be his heir apparent. Leahy’s reputation meant that even the hard men of the meat department would go down a floor to use the toilets in case they bumped into him. I didn’t know this of course and so was once quizzed by he-who-must-not-be-named on the price of chicken quarters while we stood taking a pee.
My first job, naturally, was photocopying. And it was here, standing at the car-sized photocopier behind the open plan offices of the beef buyer (the most red-blooded in the bizarre meat-driven pecking order), that I first experienced how this macho world translated into the war zone of supplier relations.
Such was the venom and violence of language that he was using on his desk landline that initially I could only presume he was talking to someone who had, maybe, kidnapped his daughter. There was certainly a reference to legs being cut off – and he wasn’t talking about cattle (or horses.) However, I slowly realised he was tearing strips off a supplier and this call was in fact a commercial negotiation about silverside and brisket.
Having stood open-mouthed listening to the tirade, I wasn’t surprised when the Pack Leader arrived and grabbed the phone from Mr Beef - presumably, I thought, to apologise for his Jack Regan-esque style. How wrong I was. Pack Leader was merely there to join the fun.
Having wrestled the phone from his subordinate, he exploded down the line. ‘What have you done to make my buyer talk to you like this?’, was the gist of what he said – but obviously with a lot more swearing and violent intent. ‘Surely this isn’t allowed,’ thought the naïve young innocent that I was. Not only was it allowed, it pretty much set the tone.
Other than photocopying and being sent off to price check on the competition (told you it was a while ago), my role as a graduate trainee was something akin to a boot boy whose job was to shine the shoes of the professionals before they entered the trench warfare of supplier negotiations, and then to hold up the bodies of the sales reps who had, due to some unknown crime in a past life, found themselves knocking on the door of the Tesco’s meat trading department. One of my specific jobs was to escort these sorry souls from the reception to the fourth floor where the fun and games took place. Think hangman. Think gallows. Think dead man walking.
Looking back it was the precision of the orders I was given that demonstrated the precise cruelty employed upon these men regularly sent from their meat farms to receive a good kicking. It went like this. I was given a name and sent off to reception to find the target. Not that you needed a name. You could just look for the individual sporting the rictus grin of someone who had known metal cruelty and was about to experience some more.
The first step was to report that the lift was broken (it wasn’t) and that we needed to use the stairs. Now I think it’s fair to say that in those days you didn’t get into the meat trading markets through svelteness. Most were big men whose greatest climb was probably onto the bar stools of their local pubs. So they would arrive at the fourth-floor very short of breath and in a bit of a mess.
My second instruction was, having recognised that this was someone who needed a rest, to offer them a fag. (I didn’t even smoke). Naturally they were all puffers and eagerly took the bait. Having carried out the first stages of the tenderising process, I was then instructed to take them into an office and prepare them for grilling. I’m not sure if they ever noticed that the seat offered was sometimes a stool, sometimes a chair, but the crucial detail was that it shouldn’t have any arms, thus guaranteeing further discomfort.
I would then run along to prepare the final blow, which came in the guise of a cup of coffee. However, this wasn’t the age or world of flat whites, but all part of the arch negotiation tactics. The instruction was a cup of scalding black liquid that, and this was the important part, was filled right up to the very top. The word meniscus was used. And – vitally - no saucer.
Tesco's Cheshunt HQ
Thus the stage was set for the negotiations, or slaughter, depending on your viewpoint. A large man perched on a stool. Out of breath. Fag in one hand, molten coffee in the other, now inevitably beginning to flow over and down the wrist of the trussed up supplier. With no table or relief in sight.
At this stage the door would be smashed open and some initial volleys delivered onto the hollowed-out husk of that day’s victim. Most of the time I think I was asked to leave. No need for you to see this, I suppose was the thinking. Occasionally, I stayed and watched from behind split fingers.
There were other delights. Lots of abattoirs obviously. A Christmas party where the only teetotal and only female member of the department had her drink spiked with vodka (the finger was pointed at me of course). And several nights out with suppliers that always ended up in the other type of meat market – at the suppliers’ expense naturally.
I think it’s fair to say that the meat-buying department was more than a little old-school and probably wasn’t entirely reflective of the rest of the Tesco business at the time. However, it was my professional home for a while. The final straw came when the chicken buyer (relatively low down the red-blooded pecking order), who was berating me for a misplaced order to a store in Liverpool, exclaimed, ‘It’s almost like you don’t care if these chickens get there or not.’ We both knew the answer to that one.
The end came shortly afterwards. That final train trip out of Cheshunt was a dream. I have no idea if the experience was a positive one or not. Possibly character-building. Possibly a complete waste of time.
I now work in consultancy. An age away from the Meat Men - gawd bless ‘em. I have no idea whether that culture had anything to do with Tesco’s current problems. Readers can draw their own conclusions. However, if any of those meat trading reps are reading this - sorry about the coffee.