This week I had several tons of Bonsai pots delivered. The experience got me thinking about where we find ourselves and what to expect going forwards. If strong language offends PLEASE do not read further. If you are a bone-idle tired hands please do NOT read further.
At some level the past few months have been tough for most everybody. The last thing you need is for me to start griping about how tough my life is. For sure some folk around the world are in a struggle for their very existence, by comparison our ‘first world’ problems are petty and inconsequential. However, for any number of reasons, there are some storm clouds on our horizon that are beginning to rain toast crumbs into the comfy bed of our lives. The world is awash with hyperbole about ‘the new normal‘ and using our current straightened circumstances as a springboard towards a ‘new’ start.
I have some very strongly held opinions on what’s going on but to be honest nobody gives a shit so I will keep that to myself. Suffice to say much of what is wrong today is the idea that we need to change everyone else in order to make a better world. Protesting is rife and anger is on the streets. In my opinion and experience there is only one person we have a legitimate right to force change upon and that’s ourselves. There is no way to change the world by telling everyone else they are wrong, trying to do that just makes matters worse. All we can really do is stay home and work on being the best person we can and doing the very best we can in relation to our own work and contribution to the rest of humanity.
I have written many times here about folk NOT doing their jobs. A lack of care and consideration and blaming everyone else is bringing our country to it’s knees. Here’s a recent example….. I had five tons of Pumice arrive from Italy. It was dropped off at Dartford and was due for delivery a couple of days later. I got a call and headed for the warehouse. We don’t have a fork truck so rely on tail lift drops which was made plain when booking the transport. So this guy arrives with five big pallets over 6′ tall and a thousand kilos each. A hundred and twenty mile run one way just for this drop. Upon arrival he refused to offload because his lift was only rated for 500Kg. We offered to jump up and reduce the pallets in size but apparently letting us on his truck was more that his job was worth. So getting arsey with us I told him to GFYS and left. The pallets then went all the way back to Dartford before the following day coming all the way back to my freight agent 25 miles away and he dropped them off as we had requested the following day without incident.
That’s a lot of pointless waste considering we have done this job multiple times with the same operators. That’s at least 240 wasted miles at an average of 8 miles per gallon, 30 gallons (136L) of juice up in smoke and about £200 plus 2 working days. When someone fails to do their job properly the repercussions are far reaching and the most insignificant detail can cause total chaos and cost a lot of money and resource. There are people everywhere that do the bare minimum in their work, just enough to get paid and not get sacked. Whatever happened to pride in a job well done?
I have based my entire business philosophy upon doing the best we can. That’s not to say we are the best and I would be loathe to make that assertion over something that’s a matter of opinion. However we do the best we possibly can all things considered. If that involves going the extra mile, getting up early, staying late, working weekends or missing meals we are all happy to do just that in the pursuit of customer satisfaction. For me it’s all about the pride in a job well done and delivering my very best. Some folk will never be satisfied but they get short shrift from me. Nobody is perfect but that’s no excuse for not bothering.
That philosophy has also driven my bonsai since day one. I do bonsai for myself and I simply do not care what anyone else has to say. My bonsai, my work and my appreciation of the result. I know if I have done my best and expended appropriate effort and that’s ALL that matters to me. I can’t help thinking the world would be a better place if we could all muster the energy to do our best. As Vince Lombardi said… “I firmly believe that any man’s finest hour, the greatest fulfilment of all that he holds dear, is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle – victorious.”
So, back to those toast crumbs. I have been warning for a long time a change was coming. There is too much demand in the world and not enough supply, of anything. In a bonsai context bear in mind most of what we use comes from small specialist cottage industries. There is no ‘economy of scale‘ enjoyed by more mainstream pursuits. Akadama is pulled out of the ground by a few guys, a loader and some open ended poly tunnels. Tools are made by a dozen guys in a unit with some archaic machines. Nothing is mass produced and it’s only thanks to the passion of a lot of dedicated folk that we have anything to use at all. Trust me nobody in bonsai is getting rich.
Covid has turned the world on it’s head. It’s been the catalyst for a lot of change. Ever since the early eighties, we Brit’s have been enjoying increasing prosperity. A lot of that has come from falling prices relative to earnings. In the late 1970s, one pound in every four spent, and nearly one pound in every three for pensioners, went on food. That is now down to less than 13% for those of working age and 18% for pensioners. In 1977 56% of households had one or more cars by 2010 that was 75%. Basically we got wealthier to some considerable extent thanks to the relative decrease in the cost of manufactured and farmed goods. Thanks to efficiency and mechanisation and the ability to cheaply transport goods from low wage parts of the world we all get more for less.
If you earn £20,000 a year in Britain today you are in the top 5% of the worlds most wealthy people. However it does not feel that way thanks to the cost of living. A person earning less than a quarter of that in another less developed part of the world could easily live a millionaire lifestyle. Still, for most of my life we have been enjoying ever-cheaper consumer goods when compared to our forbears.
As an example when I started out in bonsai at the turn of the 1990s a bonsai branch cutter cost £30. For me at the time that was about 13% of my weekly wage. Today 30 years later that branch cutter costs £33.50 which is actually £32.80 adjusted for increased VAT. I earn more than I did back then, I’m old, so let’s take my son-in-law Richard’s earnings as an example as he’s not far off the age I was then. Our branch cutter will cost him 9.4% of his weekly take home pay. For the same percentage as I was paying Richard could get the same branch cutter and a pair of very good scissors which, from a certain perspective could be viewed as free. We like to bitch and moan but I recon we are, by and large, doing okay.
The media have been slow in pointing out the problems our reactions to Covid have caused in global shipping though as the effects feed through it is making secondary headlines. Most of us know there are a lot of shipping containers in the wrong place. According to my freight agent our government has 15’000 containers of (rapidly going out of date) PPE sitting in a field in Essex. That’s a lot of landfill and a lot of tied up boxes the world needs.
This is happening everywhere so a lot of the initial problem was simply a shortage of boxes. However underlying that was a shortage of container ships. Bear in mind that 90% of the worlds non-bulk cargo is carried by these behemoths of the sea. Because shipping rates have been so low for years now I guess buying container ships has been less than attractive considering the hundreds of millions involved and many industry experts agree that a lot more capacity is required. They also agree that current record prices will continue in the medium term.
So what does this largely esoteric information tell us? Bonsai is overwhelmingly dependant upon import and rising costs there mean rising costs for our stuff. Because of employment conditions and business costs imposed upon us here it’s largely not possible to manufacture goods at a reasonable, let alone competitive cost. I recently negotiated with a UK manufacturer to have Copper bonsai wire drawn and processed. The cost was 2.5 times more than I can source it offshore. The minimum order was massive, I had to stump up five figures with the order and the lead time was in excess of three months. These guys call themselves wire manufacturers, seriously?
I really want to support the old country. I am constantly trying to find folk to make stuff for us. However I bought my copper in China. No up front money and it was on the port within two weeks, even adding all the rip off port and customs fees and charges it ended up costing me well under half the UK manufacturing cost. We currently charge £12.95 a 1/2 Kg. For a UK sourced product that would rise to about £25-28. How patriotic are you now? I’m not, sorry.
Just yesterday I was notified a shipment price had risen by 500% since October last year when we previously ordered. This week we had tons of pots arrive from China for which I was quoted £1200 door to door. When the shipping invoice arrived there was an additional fee of £2600 levied by the boat owners on top of that. As it stands these record high prices mean record retail prices because little guys like us have no choice but to pass on the cost to our beloved customers and that really SUCKS. Anyone seen the price of Akadama recently? Even at that price I guess we should be grateful that at least we can still get it because that simply is not going to be the case with a lot of things. Going forward stuff will cost more so lets just value what we have and take care of it just that little bit better.
So, my shipment of pots cost exactly double the FOB price thanks to all of the above. What adds insult to injury is the fact we get such high losses simply because some tosser could not be bothered to pack stuff properly despite the fact we paid a high fee for them to do so. That’s just how it goes and I have to suck it up. However in light of my frustration at everything that is conspiring to thwart our efforts I have to highly recommend the cathartic activity of destroying (previously broken) bonsai pots. Once I got past the disappointment busting this lot up was an absolute joy.
To all those folk that spend their lives doing the bare minimum to keep their jobs FUCK YOU!
So next time you are minded to question the price of something try to consider what might be happening behind the scenes and give a fellow a break. In the words of my hero Forrest Gump “That’s about all I got to say ’bout that.”