“Ahh, Le Gui, Le Gui!”
19th February 2014
The Mistletoe run, 1984
I guess I was destined to run my own business from an early age. My first business transaction was at the tender age of 5. I was quite good at drawing birds, Robins mostly as I remember, and a few of my classmates paid me a penny to draw birds for them to take home to their parents and pass them off as their own. Slightly shady business really; come to think of it.
When you start in business, a certain amount of blagging can often be the difference between getting the work or not. If you’ve never done it before, you’re not likely to get the job, and if you’re a resourceful fellow you’ll figure it out along the way. Being a bit of an opportunist can also get you started, but it’s worth remembering that people often tell tall stories about their ventures. And so it was on the Mistletoe run…….
I was in my 2nd year at Loughborough University and by the end of term I was surviving on a few pounds a week. I had big ideas though, by July I would own a four storey Victorian villa, with 8 self-contained flats.
It was the last week of term, about 2 weeks before Christmas, and I was as broke as any student could be then. You were lucky to get a £150 overdraft from the bank, so that’s considerably less broke than the £30,000 student loans that most graduates have these days. But having no money and no possibility of borrowing any, brings out the maverick in you.
A friend of mine, Yvette, who studied Fine Art Painting, took me and my girlfriend to see her brother, who was developing a property in Nottingham. He was several years older than us and he was converting a large house into student flats. He was striding around the place barking orders at various tradesmen. Bathrooms were going in, stud walls were being boarded out and plasterers and decorators were climbing all over each other to finish the place off by the weekend. I was impressed; I knew nothing about developing property and this guy looked like he was going places. That evening he flashed some cash and bought us all dinner, telling tales of fortune and adventure. One story got us thinking.
A couple of days later it was last orders in our local, and we decided that one of those stories was an opportunity not to be missed; and the timing couldn’t be better: The Mistletoe run was on! We would set off straight away. Claire and me, in her mustard minivan and Yvette in her ex post office Bedford van. We would drive to Dover, catch the Ferry about 4am, drive into France and look for an apple orchard around dawn. Mistletoe would apparently be dripping from every branch and the farmer would be happy to let us have it for free as it was a plague on his orchard, sucking the life out of his trees and reducing his crops.
Everything seemed to be going to plan; we parked up in a lay bye 50 arbitrary miles into France to get a couple of hours kip and wait for dawn. As soon as we woke, we were off, heads pivoting, on the search for apple orchards, down any likely looking country lane. For a couple of hours we began to doubt whether Mistletoe was really so abundant. One farm track we ventured down slowly petered out and we realised we would need to do a 3 point turn in a freshly ploughed field. The minivan, not known for its off-roading prowess, got bogged down to its sills. The overtly disgruntled farmer pulled us out with his tractor and we slunk off suitably admonished.
It was while trying to explain our predicament, that we realised we had no idea what mistletoe was in French. Luckily, with 2 fine artists on tour, a fairly obvious mistletoe drawing soon aided our quest. Not a glimpse of mistletoe anywhere, until we happened upon a lovely little village with a church and traditional cottages and farms huddled in a valley. There, going up a steep hill, above a 6 foot grassy bank on our left we thought we spotted a likely looking bunch sprouting from the bare branches at the top of a fruit tree. We stopped and I clambered up the bank to see an orchard, about the size of a cricket pitch, laden with big green bushy mistletoe with gleaming white berries dripping from every bunch.
It was the first time I’d seen mistletoe growing and it was greener and bushier with way more berries than I had imagined. Suddenly I had an inkling that this might actually work. This would have to be the best mistletoe going, and if the story was true, by 3am tomorrow we would be dealing out green and white gold to scrapping hoards in Spitalfields market, with our pockets bulging with cash.
We knocked on the farmer’s door, holding up a bottle of white plonk to greet the craggy faced old chap with crazy matted hair. With a showing of the drawing and a pointing to the trees, he soon cottoned on.
“Ahhh Le Gui, Le Gui! Oui oui, of course, go on.” He gestured towards the orchard and walked off in the other direction. We stood in the orchard and then, only then, we realised we had no tools whatsoever; no stepladder, no loppers, no saw, how completely stupid! No matter, the farmer returned with same said items moments later. What a jolly fellow. Smiles all round, we set to work. With the stepladder, I’d climb up into the branches and saw off bunches that were 2 foot across, the size of a big beach ball but as heavy as a bag of sand. The bunches were soon landing in the lush wet grass and the girls were towing them off on sheets of tarpaulin. In no more than a couple of hours the vans were full, but we had cut down half as much again. Luckily we had thought of tarpaulin and rope. The minivan had 2 roof bars and Yvette’s Bedford van didn’t. We strapped the tarpaulins onto both the roofs in any case, roping Yvette’s on by tying the ropes through a slightly opened window on the passenger side and through the door openings on the driver’s side and the back. If you really slammed the door it closed, and with a lot of heaving and leaning we had the back doors closed too. We parked up, fully laden, and went to thank the farmer. I can still remember the dark kitchen with light from an opposite window reflecting on the worn table top. He sat, opposite his wife, with some hearty smelling broth on the range; they cheerfully raised their glasses and hailed “salut” through dry bread crumbs and missing teeth.
We had our bounty and we were on our way home. We were only an hours drive from Calais, and boarded a ferry in no time. Of course we were a little concerned about what customs might say to us, but there was nothing to be done except hope for the best. Yvette was first off the ferry in her Bedford van and got waved straight through; we unfortunately were taken to one side. We had driven through the nothing to declare channel and the customs chap asked us “Anything to declare?” We were sitting hunched over; mistletoe was bulging out over our shoulders and spiking the back of our necks and ears. The roof tarpaulin sagged under the weight of mistletoe and sprigs poked out of every gap. “No,” we said. “What’s all this then?” “Mistletoe.” “I can see that, how much did it cost?” “A bottle of wine.” “What are you going to sell it for?” “Don’t know, never sold any before.” “Wait here.”
We waited for an hour and a half, whilst various phone calls were made. When we asked what was happening, they said they were waiting to hear from the Office of Infectious Diseases to see if it may be carrying any disease or parasites. If they didn’t give the all clear we would have to take it back or pay for it to be incinerated. It was agonising and we were just so jealous of Yvette sailing through customs a couple of hours ago.
Thankfully a man eventually ambled over to us and said we could go. We didn’t ask if he’d got confirmation that mistletoe was ok, or just got bored of holding us there, we just went. It was dark and we had no idea where Yvette was. The plan was to head for Spitalfields market, so we hoped Yvette would either be waiting for us at the exit to Dover Port or be having a kip in the car park at Spitalfields. It wasn’t all Motorway then and there was no M25, it was A roads and roundabouts. We were near Canterbury when we saw a huge pile of Mistletoe by the side of a roundabout. We could see what had happened and there was nothing Yvette or we could do about it, so we just shook our heads and motored on.
We arrived at Spitalfields around 3am and it was all going on.
There were only traders there, selling to other traders. Every florist and market trader within a hundred miles of London were buying van fulls of cut flowers and fruit and veg. Claire and me went up and down every aisle and then around the outside of the whole building. There was the little yellow Bedford van, with Yvette fast asleep. “Yvette, Yvette!” She woke, all bleary eyed and smiley, “What happened, I waited for ages.” We told our sorry tale and she told us of the mistletoe falling off the side of the van on the roundabout and we decided to get a cup of tea and a sandwich in the café we saw in the market.
Real sawdust on the floor, a Pint mug of tea and a bacon sarny for 50p, really! Feeling pretty chuffed with ourselves we got some empty fruit crates, filled them with mistletoe and started walking round the traders stalls to see what we could get for them. We had a figure in our heads, but I don’t know where we got it from. We started at £20 a crate but were laughed at by everyone. Far from being in short supply, there was plenty around and we were never going to get more than the going rate, which was unfortunately just £3 a crate. We emptied half of Yvette’s van and counted up. “We’ve sold half a van full for 50 quid!” At this rate we’d be lucky to cover our costs. What happened to hoards of people ten deep fighting for our mistletoe? What happened to our pockets that were supposed to be bulging with notes?
We felt pretty stupid. These guys were seasoned traders who knew the score and we were just a bunch of baby faced posh kids who didn’t have a clue. We decided to drown our sorrows in a pint of tea. We got chatting to this HGV driver who said he only worked 6 weeks a year, hired an HGV and did a trip to Sweden every 24 hours. He made a pound a tree, buying for £2 and selling for £3. The thing is, he could fit 3000 trees in his truck! With costs he was clearing well over two grand a trip; £2000 per day! He was earning more in 6 weeks than most professionals with degrees earned in a year.
I’d had a good education, but they didn’t teach us stuff like this. My whole way of thinking changed that night. Guys on the street, properly rough and ready guys, working through the night, making fortunes doing something really, really simple.
We sat there wide eyed, blinking at each other, and somewhere in the back of my mind the entrepreneurial spark flickered into life. I haven’t had a job since.
All of a sudden we weren’t copying somebody else’s story; it just wasn’t true and now we’d have to think for ourselves. We decided to go home. We would get some sleep and try selling it to the public; on the street, door to door, in pubs, at taxi ranks, bus stops, traffic lights; we’d try selling it everywhere and anywhere and we’d find out for ourselves how to turn this mass of greenery into cash. At least we could load our precarious tarpaulin into Yvette’s van and at least we’d be in our own beds by dawn. What a day that was. Well it was a night, a day and a night; but when we drove back into Loughborough and passed by the Paget Arms pub that we’d set off from 30 hours or so earlier, we just weren’t the same people.
The next day we headed for Leicester and walked down Granby Street towards the clock tower. It was heaving, it was Saturday, we settled on a bench on Gallowtree Gate. The girls started snipping red ribbon and tying up a few sprigs to make a dainty little bunch. The multi-storey car park was a fair way, so I headed back for a couple more bin bags full. When I got back to Claire and Yvette, they’d nearly run out. They had doubled the price, halved the size of a bunch and they still ran out! Hallelujah!!! As fast as I could fetch and carry they were selling out. Leicester was buzzing with Christmas parties kicking out after lunch and Christmas shoppers everywhere; it was like they hadn’t seen mistletoe for years.
If only it could have lasted, we sold 2 hundred pounds worth in an hour and a half. But then, we got moved on. There were dodgy traders, (like us) selling all kinds of junk from Santa hats to flashy, flashy devil horns. The police were not taking no for an answer, so we moved on and set up at the more exclusive St Martin’s Square. £20 in 2 hours, rubbish! Then we tried the bus stops; it was getting dark and everyone was on their way home. That wasn’t so nice; lots of drunks having a go, “give us a kiss darling!” We called it a day and counted the cash. We were in profit!
That evening we went to every pub in town and averaged £5 a pub in ten minutes, pretty good going, even if Yvette and Claire had to suffer a few bristly chins. Over the next few days we went to a Lincoln Christmas market, we went door to door in Oadby and Stoneygate, (nice bits of Leicester) and by the time the berries were turning brown and the leaves were stuck to the floor of the van we had sold something we got for a bottle of wine for nearly £500. It doesn’t sound like much, but that was a student grant for a term. Yes there were costs and it was split 3 ways, but it was a whole lot more fun than temping at Walkers Crisps, but most of all, it was a hell of an adventure and I’m sure Claire in Portugal, Yvette in God knows where will never forget it.
For me, it was the beginning of thinking for myself. I had an eagle eye for an opportunity; if he can do it, I can do it. I knew no bounds, I wouldn’t take no for an answer. That summer, between my second and third year, I bought a four storey Victorian villa with 8 flats, with a 110% mortgage. It was a block viewing and I put an offer in well over the “offers around” figure. The offer was accepted and it was taken off the market. All I had to do now was find someone to give me a mortgage. Of course the bank manager said no; I had no job, I had an overdraft and no deposit. How an earth could he say yes. I was so organised; I had a file with every suitable property for sale in Loughborough, with mortgage repayment amounts and projected rental income. The bigger the house, the more the figures stacked up. This house, with sitting tenants offered twice the return than a standard two bed terrace. I visited every building society and bank in town before I booked an appointment with my own bank manager. When he looked at me with a bemused face, like they all had done, and said “Have you even an idea of what the monthly repayments would be on a mortgage of that size?” “Somewhere around 436 pounds and 28 pence, per month” I said. He went away and came back with a piece of ticker tape with exactly that figure on it. I could see him battling for a reason to say why it wouldn’t work. He couldn’t say why, but he still said no.
I phoned him every morning at 1 minute past nine, for over a month, before he finally succumbed. The bank manager at Barclays, Mr Saunders, didn’t sleep for a year and a half worrying about me. I had no income, but I got the loan and I paid off my overdraft and refurbished the place.
That summer, when I turned up on my £10 push bike to show the tenants round, they said “have you come to look at a room too?”
“No” I said “I’m the Landlord!”