by Geoff Fitzgibbon….
My previous articles about selling Citröen cars in the UK during the 1970s have focused on some of my near-disasters. This should not suggest that all my time was problematic: 95% of the time I had a ball. Almost all of my customers were wonderful, I worked in a prosperous area, the economy was strong, and Citröen’s UK sales were accelerating.
One of the best of those golden days was when I sold a new Safari to Sir Robert and Lady Bellinger.
At the time, Sir Robert was the chairman of a major grocery chain. He and Lady Bellinger were spending the week at their country home – close by the village where my dealership was located.
On that beautiful summer’s morning, I took a call from Sir Robert requesting I show him and his family a Citroën Safari. He told me to drive up to the house and ring the doorbell. Should there be no answer, I was to sound the horn and proceed by a side road down to the swimming pool.
Later that day, the Safari and I rolled slowly along a lengthy drive and stopped outside the large and rather grand Georgian-style house. There was no answer at the house and so I drove down to the pool, where I could see the family was cooling off with their two young children and their nanny.
After the usual introductions and a walk-around of the car, Sir Robert and his wife got in and we went for a test drive. The route I used had a little of everything, including a freeway, country lanes and residential streets; the latter was chosen because of its speed-bumps. I never ceased enjoying the customer’s initial horror and then amazement as I drove over the bumps without slowing down; the self-leveling oleo-pneumatic suspension provided a perfect ride without transmitting any sensation or sound into the car.
Sir Robert took the wheel after a mile or two and took us back to the house. Lady Bellinger declined a test drive but both people were delighted with the car and we concluded the order details back at the pool; I would place their order on the Slough distribution centre as soon as I got back to base.
I thanked Sir Robert and started to head back to the car, but was surprised when he asked me to join the family in the pool – because it was such a hot day. He was also kind enough to say I had made the sale more enjoyable than he had expected. Feeling pleased but somewhat over-awed, I stammered out that I did not have any swimming shorts to wear. That was not to be a problem, as Sir Robert explained he had several spare pairs in the changing hut.
The day was hot and the kids were splashing around happily in the crystal clear water. The offer was tempting but I really did have lots of work awaiting me. It was not a difficult decision in the end: the pool’s attraction won easily and I disappeared into the hut to get changed.
The water was like silk, the kids were playful, and I soon joined in with their games while their parents looked on happily. Not wanting to outstay my welcome, I excused myself from the pool after a reasonable time, and changed back into my suit and tie.
But I was not allowed to leave until I had shared a perfectly chilled glass of white wine with Sir Robert, and it was then that the afternoon became most interesting:
After asking a few questions about my work, what I had done before, how I enjoyed selling Citroën cars, and so on, Sir Robert told me a little of his life story:
Growing up poor in London after the death of his father in the 1920s was tough: young Robert left school at 14, pushing a barrow around the local markets and selling various food items to help his mother.
Ambitious to make something of himself, he joined the Kinloch Group in a very junior position and started working his way up the ladder while studying business in the evenings. By the age of 20, he was an accountant; by the age of 28 he was Managing Director and by 35 he was Chairman – a position he held for 30 years.
These were remarkable achievements for a man of his youth and background, and says much of his abilities and drive. Highlights of his career were to be knighted in 1964, and to be elected the Lord Mayor of London in 1966. He was also involved in various charities and held several directorships.
The Lord Mayor of London is a very ancient position that recognizes the financial and diplomatic skills of only a very few senior business leaders. The role is completely separate from that of Lord Mayor of London with all that larger city’s boroughs. The Lord Mayor is responsible for the walled city of London, the inner “square mile” of the original Roman City that is today one of the world’s foremost financial hubs. This position within the old City is subordinate only to the monarch of the day. It is partly ceremonial but also key to the smooth functioning of London as a financial center and to its success.
As a side-note, Sir Robert visited Toronto in 1967 as part of his duties as Lord Mayor.
Sir Robert’s one regret was that he had spent so much time and energy in building his career and company that he had not married until quite late in life. He would have been in his early 60s at this time, while his children were aged around 8 and 11. He adored his wife and their children; a charming family.
I finished my glass of wine, thanked Sir Robert for both his business and for such a delightful afternoon, and headed back to the dealership.
It was quite hot and uncomfortable in the showroom when I returned, but I was fresh as a daisy after my swim and glass of wine. I told my boss about the Safari sale but thought it best to omit the rest of my afternoon.
I have thought back to the experience over the years, and realized how fortunate I was to have been invited to spend that afternoon with one of the kindest, most charming and considerate gentlemen I have ever met, together with his delightful family. What a role model for a young guy to have met.
Sir Robert passed away in 2002 at the age of 92, after a life very well spent.
Definitely one of the 95% of my great days selling all things Citröen.
Great story! What an experience!