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OPINION: Working for Jack

Ben Parfitt
OPINION: Working for Jack

Last week the games industry lost one of its founding fathers with the sad news of Jack Tramiel’s passing. Here, Zattikka president Tim Chaney recalls the legacy left by the founder of Commodore…

In early 1982 I responded to an advertisement in The Grocer for Regional Sales Executive – Consumer Durables. Ford Cortina. Well, the car did it for me so I replied and interviewed with Paul Welch, sales director for Commodore at the (was) Spiders Web Hotel, outside Watford. It was a poor interview, aggressive, hostile and as I didn’t know one end of a Vic 20 from the other, erased the interview totally from my mind as I left the car park.

A couple of weeks later, I received a call at home. ‘This is Paul’, ‘Who?’, ‘Paul Welch – Commodore. I’d like to offer you the job’, ‘Me – why me, it was a terrible interview?’, ‘Oh, they are all like that whether I like or hate you – you were the only one that fought back. And I want fighters’.

Thus it was I joined Commodore, owned by Jack Tramiel (and Irving Gould), a Polish immigrant and a famed Auschwitz survivor. In charge of the UK was Bob Gleadow, a hard, sharp north-easterner.

One of the first documents one read, and had to learn verbatim, was Jack’s Commodore Commandments (it wasn’t called that) and this contained the Commodore mantra for business. There were 10 like the Bible, but I only remember a few and they were etched for my brain for years to come: Business is War; You don’t have Competitors, only Enemies; Treat every Penny as if it was your own (I was a salesman on expenses – like that was going to happen!).

Paul Welch had another, ‘F**k goodwill – when I want it I’ll buy it’ – this being after a small retailer in Greenford was threatened with bankruptcy for not paying the Commodore invoice. The retailer sued me personally and Commodore took up the fight. Later on versus Boots, who also had ideas about suing me.

In my first week of work I was told to bring clothes for a week away and was ‘in training’ from Brian Reid (the shining star in Paul’s battalion). We camped at The Post House near Heathrow and the first field meeting each day was at 9am, regardless of distance from London – always working our way back from there on in – we had a early hotel dinner each night and then until midnight each night I had to learn ‘Introduction To Basic 1’ as I was expected to demo the machine if required. From then until the end of my Commodore days, the first meeting was at 9am, meaning that if it was in Glasgow and I happened to be at home, I would leave at 4am. Reid would soon leave and join Apple. Paul’s cloud at the time, was my silver lining.

Tramiel, as myth had it (and there were a LOT of those about Jack), didn’t believe in this home computer business as anything long term. So, our attitude was like: we have it (and even more so when we had the C64), you want it, so here it comes and these are our terms, take it or leave it. At the time of the Vic 20, the only competition in the UK was Sinclair, a home computer sold mail order (later with the Spectrum at retail) so it was with the Vic 20 and Commodore’s ‘give no quarter’ high command, we broke home computers into retail across the length and breadth of Britain. We left no stone unturned and because the biggest objection from retail was not having the in store skills to sell them, we trained the High Street from Currys to John Lewis, Rumbelows to WH Smith, the Co Op to Hoover’s approved retail partners.

Over the next couple of years, anyone who know something about a circuit board was building home computers:  Mr.Sugar with his Amstrad 464, 664, 6128, Acorn with the BBC Micro, Dragon Data with the Dragon 32 and 54 (which in fairness for a while was a competitor), the Enterprise 64 and 128, the Grundy New Brain, the Jupiter Ace, the Memotech (many of these using the off the shelf Z80 chip), the Oric 1 and Atmos, the Camputers Lynx and triple that number being sold in kit form, probably still awaiting functional assembly today.

The Z80 based computers were more an irritant than anything else – but as most were UK designed, each one ‘the next best thing’ compared to the ugly Americans. That was until Commodore finally settled in its own mind what the C64 should be: a home computer that could play great games. There was a market opportunity taking large disk based games from the US and get them playing on cassette, and then convert them to Spectrum and Amstrad. Thus US Gold would be born whom I would join as employee No.1 in 1985.

Commodore during Jack’s tenancy also launched the Commodore Max (which was offered to Marks and Spencer as a St. Michael own brand), the C16 and C plus/4 – both duffers. It was at the London launches of these later two machines that I met Jack Tramiel, fleetingly. They say ‘don’t meet your heroes’.  He was one of the few who could be more terrifying face-to-face than in photos and myth.

In 1984 Commodore-led a price war in the US against Texas Instruments, Tramiel resigned following a Board power struggle. Commodore would buy a small startup called Amiga Corporation who had a machine codenamed ‘Lorraine’, later dubbed the Amiga 1000 and Tramiel bought the consumer business of Atari Inc from Warner Communications and he struck back with the Atari ST. Amiga won.

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Tags: blog , tim chaney , memories , Jack Tramiel

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