Thursday, May 20, 2010

Alice Down the Rabbit Hole

Alice Down the Rabbit Hole
When I think about the disjunction I’ve mentioned in relation to how people perceive my family, and what the reality actually is, I realise it existed before we ever started Wicked. Even when Dad was still a mechanic, while I was in primary school, he managed to pick up second hand Mercedes Benzes cheaply because he was able to fix them. Of course this sometimes led to the other kids assuming we had more money than we actually had. My parents also told me later that in high school there was a period of time when Dad had to write out weekly cheques to cover the fees rather than paying the bill by term or semester. To the school’s credit, although they were a toffee nosed private school, they allowed this. Again it’s about perceptions. As Alain De Botton discovered in his most recent book, most of those who use the Frequent Flyer Club lounges at the airport are (gasp) ordinary people in spite of having money. Then again, many outsiders are not aware how much hard work a successful business entails or how much of the so-called profit gets swallowed back into building it. However, it was still something of an adjustment to realise that we can sometimes pay for luxuries we couldn’t afford before. Luckily like the White Queen I practice believing six impossible things before breakfast. Who knows—I might not end my days starving in garrets even if I am a poet!
One thing I noticed over the years watching dad try and get things off the ground with his business is that you have to be prepared to start over again to succeed. If you aren’t, it just isn’t going to happen. Anything can get in the way. Not finding a niche market straightaway? Check. Grumbling from the family because of Sunday meetings and constant phone calls on outings that are meant to be family time? Check. You get the picture! I saw very clearly even though I haven’t yet tried to run a business myself, that it can give you independence and the power to do your own thing without being dependent on an employer. However it can also lead to enormous stress. I swear there were times I thought dad would love to take both his mobile phones and fling them off the nearest cliff. I do remember him having fun with it too though—when Big Pond’s technical help number was one digit off our roadside service number, dad got calls from irate customers who had no idea they hadn’t reached Big Pond. He advised them (after they had finished their angry tirade) to exercise some patience. I don’t think they appreciated this but it was pretty funny on loudspeaker!
The main thing I’ve sometimes found difficult over the years is being sucked into the stress surrounding the whole thing. The media campaign I started this blog with is the perfect example. Dad was trying to write something in response to a negative article on a popular travel website I won’t name. He was talking to mum who was taking down what he said, and mum wanted me to help polish up how it sounded. This process soon degenerated into dad saying when mum read it back to him ‘that sounds terrible!’ and mum snapping back ‘its your words!’ and me thinking ‘I want out of here!’ There have also been issues around how much I or my brothers should be involved in the day to day running of the business and on what terms. When my brothers and I became adults we all felt uncertain about being entirely dependent on the business for wages and work for different reasons. Yet the reality of the world for the majority of young people today is that depending on a job to last more than two years is not really a great idea. Also, I began to realise, whether I liked it or not, found it boring or not, that it was in my best interests to get smart about money so that I could make informed choices. Where better to learn this than a family business?

Monday, March 29, 2010

Poking Dragons

Because we developed the image of the company and what it was about over a long period of time, the later negative attention was perhaps an even bigger shock to us. I think none of us were sure what sort of ‘animal’ we actually were—porcupine (family business) or dragon (multinational operator)? Some of dad’s desire to thumb his nose at authority no doubt goes back to his upbringing; a rebellion against the religiosity of a family who was part of a highly restrictive cult. Maybe at heart dad has always had a desire to be ‘wicked’ in the sense that he reacts very strongly against ‘spin’ and hypocrisy he sees in any organisation (especially the government!) When the cult leader who has your family in thrall to their ideas isn’t smoking what he’s selling himself, children quickly pick up on that. Dad’s later acumen as a businessperson may have been honed in these years as well because of a persistent sense that he needed to be the provider and if necessary work till he dropped to achieve this. Mum’s seen this workaholism become a major issue later in their marriage but that’s a whole other story I really can’t presume to tell for them. Another way of ‘poking the dragon’ of authority before Wicked started was music—because dad had been forced to play Christian songs on the piano accordion on street corners as a boy till all hours of the night, as an adult, his musical ‘stuff you’ to the world became obsessive constant playing on the trumpet of the ‘naughty’ song “Stripper”. He even played it to the ladies in the drive through at our local McDonalds. No wonder risqué slogans and cheeky pictures on vans later became a trademark of his business! Mum also came from a dysfunctional family—she remembers waking up in different places because her father would spend time in pubs drinking and sometimes come home in a state that her mother didn’t want her children to see. While dad picks up on spin as I’ve mentioned (he didn’t believe that anybody’s super was going to be enough to retire on and refused to credit that the Y2K threat was real) he and mum make a good team since she is much better at sensing whether people can be trusted. I am speaking from experience when I say mum is very hard to lie to! She thinks this might be a common character trait that adult children of alcoholics share.
Despite his difficult beginnings dad powered ahead when he discovered a taste for motivational reading—starting with “The E-Myth”. This book was the key to helping him realise if he wanted to grow his business he had to learn to delegate the technical tasks to others and give himself permission to focus on creative ideas for the business if these came to him. Unfortunately for my brothers (as far as they were concerned anyway) he insisted on playing his taped books over and over in the car during the years he was driving them to school. When mum was driver, they preferred listening to Clive Robertson on ABC radio. We were very proud when my youngest brother successfully sent in a ‘word of the day’ query to the program at the age of 13—maybe what dad used to refer to jokingly as ‘brainwashing’ had had some positive effect after all!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Riot of the Daisies

People always tell me “begin at the beginning”. The more I started thinking about Wicked, though, the more I realised how difficult it is to pin down what ‘the beginning’ actually is. I mean I can talk about dad bringing home a valiant made in the 1970’s, a lovely car that was slightly dinted. At the time mum was doing china painting, and dad suggested she paint daisies on the car like she did on her plates. Mum wasn’t having a bar of it at first but dad managed to sweet talk her into it and then the two of them researched what type of paint to use. This research culminated in an evening painting session splashing daisies and vines all over the car, with the aid of a couple of bottles of bubbly and dad holding a gaslight so she could see what she was painting. Perhaps due to the bubbly, the daisies and vines grew bigger and bigger and took over the whole car. The first person to hire this car, which we dubbed “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” asked for it again. When my parents wanted to know why he wanted the painted car, he told them he liked the attention it got him, especially from the girls! This first car led to a second—“Gloria” with purple morning glories all over it. Two vans followed, one with flowers, peace symbols, butterflies and bees. Appropriately, the slogan on the back came from the song lyrics “Let me tell you bout the birds and the bees and the flowers and the trees” well you know the rest. The other, later photographed at Ayers Rock, was a van painted red and yellow with enormous poppies on it—because one poppy was extra tall mum dubbed it “The Tall Poppy”.
This was long before Wicked had become a popular brand in its own right, and its possible it goes even further back. I can remember an embarrassing Bongo van with graffiti all over it, which dad used to insist on picking me up in from primary school. Had it been a Wicked van that would have been a different story—I might have had some coolness cred with the other kids then!
I’ve already described how my parents came up with the concept of the painted vans with slogans. Dad’s vision was that they be set up so that people could cook and sleep in them on the road. Dad knew young people hitch hiked around Australia, or bought beaten up old station wagons, which they resold to the next lot of travellers or just abandoned. He was excited about offering a cheap travel option that was safer--no one else was doing this at that time. Now all that remained to slot into place was the name. A young girl named Jill phoned up about hiring one of the vans. When dad described the features of the vans to her, she said “wicked!” meaning cool, great, neat. It was like a light bulb going off in his head—dad’s instincts told him that this was the name to use for the type of company he was interested in creating and promoting. In fact, dad called the van she ended up hiring “Wicked Jill” The thing I find most fascinating about this is how little of it was pre planned as a ‘package’. The realisation that our company could be successful and popular came much later, because the elements of it all came together in dribs and drabs.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Bligh Rebellion

As the fall out continued, Dad tried to blitz the media with positive interviews. He was also in need of some quiet time to escape into the ‘Nothing Box’ that the male brain proverbially contains. My normally gentle, mild mannered mother was ready to become the first campervan company to bring down a State government, call for the immediate resignation of the Acting Deputy Premier, and never to vote again for the rest of her life, she would rather pay the fine.
Dealing with this madness reminded me of what mum and dad had to cope with when we managed to annoy no less a person than Anna Bligh, Premier of Queensland. In case you were wondering, there was no rum involved in this particular ‘rebellion’ unless mum or dad had some to try and relax—I haven’t asked.
The Courier Mail kicked things off with an article on the 14th of June 2008. My mother remembers feeling rather shaken, and crying in bed, because this article was suggesting that we project a sexist, racist image as a company. She’d been feeling very uneasy about how far we should or shouldn’t push the envelope for a long time, and this was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. I know, I know, it’s a cliché, but most cliché’s are a good way to describe things—that’s why they become clichés! Mum wasn’t ready in 2008 to take down the State government yet, but she does recall losing it at Dad on the phone over his idea to put rude things on the tops of the vans, and angrily splashing paint over the worst ones when she had the opportunity. What can I say—I’ve always been proud of you mum; you are an example of a strong woman who knows her own mind!
Anyway, back to the “Bligh Rebellion”. To our confusion, before we knew what was really going on, complaints were being made to the Advertising Standards Bureau about several of our slogans, specifically “Save the Whales—Harpoon a Jap.” We thought this was odd, since the joke had previously been published in a book, and used as a gag by the Chaser team on their ABC skit show. But hey, after all, they dressed up one of their team as Osama Bin Laden and sneaked him past APEC security in 2007 and hosted a fireworks show of which the centre piece consisted of sparklers spelling out the words “screw APEC” so maybe that wasn’t such a good idea to use their jokes as a defence? I’ll have to think about that one.
I can remember either soon before or soon after all this happened, there had been a couple of other incidents involving people saying stuff that ‘offended’ others which made me think. One was the ongoing issue with the Chaser team—many Australians will remember their “Make a Realistic Wish” skit and the uproar that caused. Then there was the “Red Faces” skit on the Hey Hey its Saturday reunion show that provoked outrage because the performers “blacked up”—it was a parody of the Jackson five but caused a furore in the US. The point here isn’t the details of these incidents, but rather that they caused me to ask myself if I would want to live in a world where no one could say anything that offended me?

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Sunday Morning Insanity

It began like any other Sunday morning. I fired up my laptop and went to the yahoo page to check my email. In the ‘top ten’ news links, I noticed the phrase “wicked campers” and did a double take. You see, my parents are the owners, and I know from past experience that while no news can be good news, good news is not usually “news” to the journalists. We’d already managed to annoy the Queensland Premier Anna Bligh--so what the heck was happening now? How had we gone from being silly in the back yard painting flowers on a rental car called “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” to being a multi-national operator with depots all over Australia and several other countries besides?
Even though you’ve probably seen our vans out on the road in Australia, you most likely don’t know my parents, and you definitely won’t know me, their daughter. This is their story, told as much as possible in their own words, even though written by me. I’ll give you fair warning though, from the get go; in the words of the late great Jane Austen, I am a partial, prejudiced and ignorant historian who makes no pretence of being totally objective. After all, truth is not just facts. History and biography alike are always a specific person’s point of view, and mine will be no different in that respect.
Anyway, back to the Sunday morning in question, January 2010. My stomach tightened as I read the news item which said that Wicked had 86 vans in Queensland and only four of those were now legally allowed to be on the road. This was news to my parents, as they soon informed me, since we actually have more than six hundred vans registered in Queensland. This didn’t make sense—where was the false information coming from and who was feeding it to the papers? I soon had a text from one of my brothers, asking what was going on. I didn’t know yet, though I was able to say it didn’t look as if they had new information since the “wicked rents out death traps” story A Current Affair ran earlier last year. Soon dad was being coached by his PR team on how to respond to the journalists, mum was on the phone to me telling me more about what was going on, and the whole crazy merry go round kicked off again. Welcome to our slightly insane world.