The Agony and the Indifference


It’s often said that no news is good news, and in the software business, when it comes to system upgrades, no news really is very good news indeed  True, after months of intense creative work (for, after all, software design is an art), one might hope for a little adulation, but I’ve long ago learned to hitch my emotional needs to more dependable areas of life. A well-judged cheese soufflé will almost always inspire acclaim, or a nicely burned bitter-sweet tarte tatin.

As we grow, we learn to avoid risking our feelings. If I were to attempt a novel, or learn the Strauss Oboe Concerto all over again, and play it at the Proms with the Berlin Symphony Orchestra, then I would be suicidal if the best response I got was indifference. But I’ve learned that in the world of business software, silence is the best you can hope for. To the experienced ear it can sometimes sound like adulation.

I was thinking these regretful thoughts in view of our impending release of Version 6 of time@work, our software for Professional Services Organisations. We’ve completely reworked the GUI (Graphical User Interface) so that it looks much nicer, at least by today’s fast-changing standards. How long it will be before we must change it again to avoid new sneers of disapproval, as its look and feel fall from fashion, I cannot predict. And it may be that the early 2010s will make a comeback (as the platform heels and long swirly skirts of the 1970s have done) and we’ll simply have to change it back to what it was. But you have to keep up, and we certainly left it a little longer than we should.

‘That’s not cool enough for our users,’ was the kind of remark I was having nightmares about hearing from potential customers, and existing ones. Business software has too look as nice as Facebook if you want anyone under thirty to use it. Or worse than the overt sneer or the snide remark, there’s just never hearing from potential customers again.

But now with Version 6 we’ve put that unpleasantness firmly behind us. At least I think we have. At least for a while. But the thing is, you can never really know. The sneers and snide remarks need no longer be feared but you can’t expect a warm shower of praise in their place. Silence and indifference are as good as it gets.

We’ve done some early upgrades of the system for our own company, and for an important client. Only two out of our 100 plus users at LLP Group provided any unsolicited feedback – very positive, as it happens. Others, when pressed (by me, and therefore under duress) admitted that we’ve produced a much improved interface, though none of them used the word ‘cool’. As for our clients, they simply remarked that it’s okay.

But, then, that’s all that one can expect, and I take it as ‘admiring with faint praise’ rather than ‘damning with faint praise’. When I think about it, I’m probably as ungenerous as the next man about similar things, so it would be hypocritical to complain. The fact is that IT and Business IT are invisible and unremarkable when they’re working well. A new version of time@work will never be like the latest video game, or a new model of iPhone. Timesheets have yet to become a pleasure for anyone, even if they’re a necessity for a professional services organisation. If the software isn’t actually unpleasant to look at, or isn’t actually difficult to use, that’s a very considerable achievement.

So, lovely though acclaim may be, I know it’s a great achievement to have achieved indifference, and I mean that seriously. We all know how badly software upgrades can go. That there are no complaints, that nothing went wrong, can feel, after thirty years in the business, almost like ecstasy

Build It and They Will Come…Yuk!

How I hate that smug little cliché. It’s not even true. Try building an opera house in Antarctica. Try building another unnecessary business software package. Try building a new restaurant, religion, hotel, political party, mobile App. Come to think of it, how many things are there that don’t need to be announced or marketed? Very few.

I was thinking of this little saying last week, when, I finally found a colleague using our office’s relaxation area. We at LLP Group built this a couple of years ago when we moved to our new offices in Prague. Every IT company has to have a little bit of Lala Land where employees can relax, and be creative and cool.  Indeed, it’s one of the first things that an applicant asks when he or she comes skipping in for an interview – ‘Have you got one of those, like, chillaxing areas where I can be creative and cool? And can I, like, smoke weed there?’ Yes to the first, and no to the second (well, actually no one has asked us the second question yet).

Every office must have its little bit of Lala Land…..

But you can build a bit of Lala Land and they still won’t come.

We made a special little corner containing ultra-luxurious items of furniture set in front of a lovely 1970s swirly psychedelic mural, and a vase with a dead stick in it, but they’ve been sitting there, enticingly, for nearly two years and I’ve rarely seen anyone using them.

Is it because I’m the boss, and they’re scared that I’ll think they’re slacking? I hope not. I encourage fun in the office – laughter, banter, joshing – all those things that make people stay and encourage creativity, and I trust that when hard work is needed, hard work is what they’ll do.

Is it because it’s not actually a very enticing offer? There’s no billiard table, no table tennis table, no slot machine, and certainly no ashtray.

Is it because it’s too visible? Everyone can see when someone’s in a chillaxing mood.

Who knows? But I was overjoyed, last week, finally to see my colleague Mario stretched out on the sofa.


And, just to show that I’m up there with the coolest in this respect, they have them at Virgin too (though their sofas look a lot less comfortable than ours), and I don’t think this young man was fired.




Marketing – I Must, I Must, I Must

I attended a roundtable discussion yesterday evening organised by the Prague-based International Business Forum (IBF) on the subject of marketing, and especially marketing on a low budget. Low marketing budgets, unfortunately, abound when it comes to the members of the IBF, since most of us are small business owners.

The roundtable was led by the excellent Jo Weaver of JWA. Her theme was that marketing is as essential for most companies as desks, chairs, PCs, and telephones. (Actually, in my view, desks and chairs aren’t essential.)  Marketing can be a website, a business card, a dinner with clients or prospects, a newsletter, a battery of telesales agents, a seminar, an advertisement, a Facebook Page, an article on LinkedIn, a well-crafted press release, a commissioned PR article, or a blog (such as this). She pointed out that the large multinational fast moving consumer goods companies (such as Coca Cola, Procter and Gamble, and Unilever) spend up to 20% of their revenue on marketing. And when times get tough they spend more, not less.


Most of us in the room, as Jo pointed out, run or own small businesses, and small companies, unless they’re directed from abroad by larger headquarters offices, are reluctant to spend money on marketing. We’re also inclined to think we can do it ourselves without professional help, and we approach the task without forethought, without consistency, and expect immediate results.

All of this is true. Every company must spend time and money on marketing. Not, in most of our cases, since we’re not selling consumer goods, 20% of our revenue, but probably more than we’re in the habit of spending. Many of us trust to ‘word of mouth’, but that is marketing, too, and we should work hard to make sure that the ‘words of mouth’ that get bandied about are the right ones.

Most of us in the room were also at the helm of companies selling to niche markets, and the larger amongst us have tried marketing of many kinds. My company, LLP Group, resells and develops business software, and provides consulting services to international organisations in Europe and North America. How to reach our market? And where? In the countries in which we have our offices, or in the capitals where our potential clients’ headquarters are based?

And how? Website, obviously (we have four, aimed at different segments of the market), Facebook pages, LinkedIn groups, blogs, Google AdWords campaigns occasionally, sometimes telesales, and so on. Even over many months or years, these have achieved marginal results (or, looking at it another way, they have kept us in business). We might spend more money if we knew how or where it would be effective. Or should we realise that our markets are small and that we are reaching them as effectively as we can? One of yesterday’s participants stressed the need for measurement. He made some good points, but how do you measure the effectiveness with which you are reaching potential customers if your market is a niche market? It’s not obvious.

But there are many easy mistakes to make in marketing, and I always find myself telling a story about our early days in Romania, when our amiable but ultimately crazy managing director (so possessive was he of our subsidiary in Bucharest that eventually he stopped doing what he was told and we had to fire him) complained incessantly that we weren’t allowing him to spend enough on marketing SunSystems.

‘Look,’ he said, as we travelled through the city in his vast and vulgar limousine, ‘our competitor, Scala, has advertisements on every lamppost. Every taxi driver knows about Scala.’

‘And how many taxi drivers are looking for international financial software?’ I asked.

It’s easy to spend too little on marketing. We should all spend more, and we must accept that we will never be entirely sure as to how much of our money is wasted and how much is effective.  But one thing is certain – market towards your customers –  and if your customers aren’t taxi drivers, don’t waste money on telling them a single thing about your products.


Would you want to be unstoppable?

Amongst the more awful exhortatory articles on the web, designed to encourage the ambitious to be more so, to be more monomaniacal, more ruthless, more obsessive and more insufferable, is this:

10 Morning Habits of People Who Are Unstoppable

Now for a start, who would want to be unstoppable? I certainly wouldn’t want to live with, or work with, or talk with, anyone who’s unstoppable. Can you imagine what it might be like?


So, I was curious to see how I measure up against these 10 morning habits. I’m not, as they say, a ‘morning person’. I amble into the office at an ever later hour, as the years go by, but I stay late and I work every day of the year. I’m successful, I suppose, though ‘success’ must always be qualified. Let’s say I run a successful business – a good one, a happy one, I think, and a profitable one. But I don’t think LLP Group is unstoppable.

What, then, are these ten laudable habits?

1. ‘They’re crushing it on commutes.’

It seems that what this curious phrase means is that the unstoppable amongst us are using every minute available to ‘crush’ numbers in spreadsheets, or do other business-improving things. Moreover, if your hands aren’t free, for example, because you’re driving, you should be ‘crushing’ it with audiobooks.

Now this is nonsense. A good book, newspaper, magazine or even some good music to listen to will make you a better, broader, more interesting and more imaginative worker. Travelling gives you the time to broaden the mind. I’d rather be broadminded than an unstoppable ‘crusher’.

2. They wake up early – around 6 to 7 am – and are excited for the day

I get up between 8 and 9 unless there’s a good reason for an earlier start. I like to have a cup of tea and to approach the day with Zen-like calm.

3. They simplify their wardrobe choices.

My wardrobe is the simplest I know. I wear a polo shirt and jeans nearly every day. The author describes how the alternative is the wasted time of ‘agonizing’ over choices. Who does he think he might be? The Duchess of Cambridge?

4. They create motivation by reminding themselves of their ‘why’.

As if they only have one why, and that’s to be unstoppable and insufferable. I get out of bed for all sorts of different reasons and I hope my ‘whys’ go on surprising me.

5. They don’t drink coffee

Apparently the alternatives (yoga, cycling, etc.) also give you a chance to ‘expand your social circle and influence’. I don’t drink coffee either, but I don’t think it makes me more or less unstoppable.. I ‘expand my social circle’ through the judicious offering of tea (though never Darjeeling). This man is an idiot!

6. They don’t surf the web and other social sites for hours on end

They have no interest in the world, or their friends. They have no curiosity outside their ‘unstoppable’ sphere of acitivity. They have no sense of fun or joy.

7. They drink green smoothies because they believe that a healthy body leads to a healthy mind.

YUK. Priggish bastards.

8. They eat protein, because it helps with satiety.

Very soon they’ll need statins. And do they, these unstoppable goody-goodies ‘drink water because it helps with sobriety?’

9. They work out and even break a sweat

Well, nothing wrong with that, but I hope they’re not those ostentatious people I see in the gym, grimly going through their routines in a world entirely of their own. And looking at themselves in the mirror, and never looking at me.

10. They simply start.

Well, nothing wrong with that as long as some calm and quiet thought has preceded whatever they can’t be stopped from doing. But why don’t they start being human and likeable rather than unstoppable and loathsome?


I certainly hope I’m not unstoppable. Apparently 5,000 people read this ghastly blog post. How can they read such nonsense? How can people even think such nonsense and write it down?

I despair. Let’s not ‘crush’. Let’s be nice!




Business Image and Professionalism

Last night I watched the film of Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van, in which Dame Maggie Smith plays Mary Shepherd, a malodorous, dishevelled,  but equally imperious version of ‘Lady Grantham’ in Downton Abbey. The mentally fragile Miss Shepherd, a former pianist and nun, in flight from an imagined crime, took up residence in a van in Alan Bennett’s London driveway in the 1980s and stayed there until her death 15 years later.


Step by step, though with characteristic indecision, the playwright becomes involved in her life. At one point a social worker asks Alan Bennett:

‘Are you her carer?’

He recoils from the word.

‘I hate the word carer,’ he says.

And one can see why. You can care about someone, care for someone, take care of this or that, but who, or what, exactly, is a carer? Are not all human beings carers?

For similar reasons, I’m always puzzled when someone’s behaviour is described as ‘unprofessional’. It’s usually meant as criticism, but when I hear the word I’m always cautiously optimistic that something interesting has happened.

I hate ‘professionalism’. But what I mean is that I hate the idea that there’s something more than doing a good job, with all that implies in terms of skill, knowledge, experience, courtesy, pragmatism and economy. What does ‘professionalism’ add to the mix?

What people often mean by a professional style is a gloss of conformity with some entirely artificial notions of standard business behaviour.

I’m still angry with something a client once said to me twenty years ago. I was working on a systems implementation project for an international company that involved simultaneous implementations of SunSystems in both Prague and Budapest. I was shuttling between the two and on one occasion I worked until the early hours of the morning at the company’s Prague office before flying to Budapest to continue working there. The question arose, at around 7pm, towards the end of a very long day, as to whether we should begin a new task or down tools for the day.

‘I’m rather tired,’ I said. ‘We need to be very precise with what we’re about to do, so it probably makes sense to continue in the morning.’

Everyone agreed, but later it transpired that one of the young, arrogant, financial controllers had remarked that to say that you’re tired is ‘unprofessional’. He had worked for Arthur Andersen, and at Arthur Andersen no one would have dreamt of saying such a thing.

I’m still angry. I was being entirely honest and sensible and I expected a little sympathy.

I strongly believe that we should be entirely ourselves at work, not some ‘professional’ other self. We should neither look alike, nor behave alike. Diversity brings creativity to teamwork, and the less energy that we spend on attempting to be a person other than we are, the more energy there is available for the task in hand.

History, I think, is on my side. The worlds of work and leisure have coalesced. We work from home, we work on holiday, we don’t quite watch the clock as assiduously as we used to. We are flexible, and we are more ourselves, and, in my company at least, we rarely wear suits. Technology has made it possible for us to live and work in different ways.

Social media also reflect this change. LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, these are tools that blur the edges between workplace and home. We no longer project a ‘professional’ and a ‘domestic’ style in carefully separated ways. When marketing ourselves and our values, especially if we work for a consulting company, we present ourselves as real, diverse and whole people, not as androids formed from pliable material in a specific professional mould.

Facebook is where this is most evident, and to that end we have recently published a new Facebook banner for LLP Group which celebrates our diversity and individuality. Have a look at it here.

LLP Group

From left to right:

  • Veselina Portarska, Administration and Marketing Assistant at LLP Bulgaria is passionate about driving.
  • Adam Bager, LLP Group’s Chairman, plays the oboe.
  • Alinka Varhegyi, Chief Accountant at LLP Hungary, trains dogs.
  • Irina Ilieva,  Country Manager at LLP Bulgaria, does anti-gravity yoga.
  • Gabor Varadi, Consultant at LLP Hungary, loves surfing.
  • Valeri  Yordanov, Technical Consultant at LLP Bulgaria, races cars.
  • Dimitar Dimitrov, Consultant at LLP Luxembourg, enjoys skydiving.
  • Lada Svecena, Senior Consultant at LLP Czech Republic, runs marathons all over the world.
  • Dana Benakova, Senior Consultant at LLP Czech Republic, sings in a choir.

Let us all be interesting!

Strength in Numbers – Growth by Acquisition


You can grow a consulting business such as LLP Group in two ways: through organic growth, or through acquisition. The first is a slow, but usually sure, process that can ordinarily be financed from profit, as long as the pace is not too fast. It’s a sure process because expansion need proceed no faster than the market will allow, and because each of the many steps you must take will be a small step that you can take when you’re ready, and not before. But organic growth is not without risk, the risk that others might move faster than you, seize a larger market share and leave you struggling along behind. Growth by acquisition is a far riskier process, and it’s much more difficult to finance, but it’s nearly always a quicker way of gaining market share. So, each process has its merits and its risks.

LLP Group has grown steadily over 24 years, usually through self-financed organic growth, but also through three acquisitions. The first, in Romania, involved the acquisition of a small competitor providing consulting around Microsoft Dynamics NAV. We thereby gained market share and brought into the company some of the best experts in the field. I would judge it a success, though it would be difficult to measure the financial benefit over a long period. When the financial crisis came we lost some customers and employees and we eventually sold our Microsoft Dynamics ERP division.

In Hungary we made a disastrous acquisition that I regret to this day, encouraged by a managing director of great charm and persuasiveness, but little sense of risk. Again, it was a company that was expert in Microsoft Dynamics NAV. We carried out limited due diligence and failed to spot a disastrous project that led to an expensive lawsuit against the company, which we eventually lost, and which finally led to the bankruptcy of the company.

In Slovakia we made a third, small, but successful acquisition to bolster the group’s capability around Microsoft Dynamics AX. This company was sold with LLP Group’s entire Dynamics division, but the acquisition made the division more attractive to potential buyers.

The risks of acquisition are many, particularly for a services company, where value lies mainly in employees and customers, partially in intellectual property, but almost never in saleable fixed assets:

  • Are the financial statements correct?
  • Are revenue projections plausible?
  • Is the sale pipeline plausible?
  • Are contracts with current customers secure?
  • Are relationships with employees good?
  • Are the company’s strategic aims consistent with the buyer’s?
  • Are the company’s culture and ethical standards compatible with the buyer’s?

Due diligence of various kinds and close observation can help you to decide some of these questions, but risk remains.

Sometimes there’s an opportunity that you can’t put aside, so this week we’re announcing the largest acquisition in our history, the acquisition by our Microsoft Dynamics CRM consultancy, LLP CRM, of Logic point, our main competitor in the Czech Republic. Together we will be the largest specialist provider of CRM (Customer Relationship Management) consulting and software in the region, with combined revenues of towards 3 Million EUR and around 45 staff.

‘Marry in haste, repent at leisure,’ the saying goes. This has been a fast-moving relationship, with talks only beginning a month ago. But we’re a good match, each of us bringing different technical skills and different sector knowledge to the table. Together we will be able to offer our customers a wider range of skills, with greater efficiency.

We’re starting close cooperation this week, and have agreed terms for our merger (LLP CRM will acquire 80% of Logic point) subject to due diligence. We expect to tie the legal knot in about three months’ time. Preliminary careful analysis, carried out with caution and scepticism, has thrown up no obstacles, or unexpected risks that cannot be mitigated, but it is the ‘unknown unknowns’ that we must be wary of.

In the meantime, we’re in for an exciting and hectic time, as LLP Group’s numbers in the Czech Republic grow to more than 80 for the first time in the group’s history. Fingers crossed for a long and happy marriage.


Keeping an Eye on Projects


Whether you’re a lawyer, an IT consultant, an engineer, or working in PR, architecture, or for an advertising agency, or indeed any other kind of professional service organisation, it is your time that is probably the chief determinant of project cost, and the fees that your firm will charge to your customers. Sometimes it’s a matter of adding up all the time you’ve reported in your timesheet and multiplying it by a fee rate; sometimes your firm will have estimated how much time is needed for a project and calculated a fixed price for a well-scoped piece of work. In both cases, it’s never quite as simple as you would wish it to be. Sometimes there’s time you can’t charge, and very often a fixed-price project takes more time (and very occasionally less time) than planned.

If you’re working for a professional services company and you’re in a position of responsibility you’ll be familiar with these month-end questions:

‘How much of your Work in Progress (the time you haven’t yet billed) will you be able to bill? How much is it really worth?’

‘How is your fixed price project going? Do you expect it to take more time or less time than planned? ‘

You’re asked these questions especially sternly by your firm’s Finance Director, since he or she is responsible for calculating revenue for the month that’s closing, and revenue depends on the value of the project time that you’ve reported for the month. This is not just a matter of multiplying time by fee rate.

At year-end it’s even more important, since it’s your annual P&L that statutory and corporate auditors will analyse, and if you’re not too careful your managers will defer serious consideration of the value of Work in Progress and the progress of Fixed Price Projects until then. That can mean unpleasant surprises in the last month of the year.

At LLP Group we use systems@work’s time@work to keep an eye on what’s going on. Adjustments to Work in Progress value and the value of time in Fixed Price Projects are tracked as discounts or uplifts to the values that are calculated from timesheets. We can track how these values are discounted or uplifted when billed or written off, and we can track when this is done.

It’s never pleasant to discount work, but it’s some consolation when it’s done steadily throughout the year, rather than all in the last month. Take this report, for example:

project virtue

This, from one division of the company, shows the month in which work was executed down the left y-axis and the month in which the  value of time was increased or decreased along the top x-axis. What we see is that the value of time is written up or written down in the month in which it is recorded, or a month or two later. This is virtuous. This division doesn’t execute many fixed price projects and doesn’t hold Work in Progress for long.

lessvirtuousThe matrix, above, shows data for another division, one which executes more fixed price projects. It’s clear that decisions about the write down or write up of time are made sometimes many months after time is recorded, and as year-end approaches large values are written off. This is less virtuous.

If you’re running a professional services organisation this is the kind of tool you need if you want to avert unwelcome surprises.

When it comes to Fixed Price Projects you might also track the estimates that your project managers give you and track time recorded on the project (green), planned time (blue), and evolving estimated time (orange).

In this case, below, the project manager has seriously underestimated the number of days’ consulting that the project requires. As the project progresses he or she estimates more and more work. The result is that the achieved project rate is nearly 40% lower than the planned rate of 500. It’s probably loss making.


In the more complex case, below, the project has been ‘sold’ on the basis of ‘planned’ time, and as the project progresses the client adds additional scope and additional planned time (though not at the same fee rate). Time estimated by the project manager for the whole project gradually exceeds planned time. The Rates graph shows how the planned daily rate for the project is reduced as the scope of the project increases, and the actual achieved daily rate also declines.

FPP changing project

Whatever kind of service you’re selling, it’s essential that you keep track of the value of Work in Progress and the progress of Fixed Price Projects every month of the year.

Undergoing Analysis


It’s a well-worn truism of business systems that there’s no point in a report if it doesn’t change what you do. If you’re to control something you must measure it. Conversely, if you don’t need to control something, then there’s no point in measurement.

Even so, for nerds like me, there might be some pleasure in measurement. Analysis for its own sake.

I love statistics. I am an out-of-the-closet nerd. At school, although I was no genius at mathematics, I wasn’t bad at it either, and I took particular pleasure in statistics, the art of deriving meaning from apparent chaos (yes, and lies too, as they suggest). Whilst I’ve forgotten most of what I knew (nowadays I don’t know my mean from my median) I still love the idea of distilling something interesting, if not useful, from vast reservoirs of data (I think the fashionable term is BIG DATA).


Over a decade ago my company LLP Group sponsored a music competition in the Czech and Slovak Republics. We traipsed around both countries with a jury of four distinguished teacher/musicians, one from each category (strings, woodwind, brass and keyboards) and we listened to nearly two hundred young musicians. We had a relatively simple scoring system that delivered a single number between zero and ten for each player, and at the end of the tour, we promoted the top four from each category to the semi-finals.

I ran the scoring system using an Access database of my own devising, and every morning after I’d crunched the previous day’s numbers I’d produce a report for each juror, laying bare the unconscious stirrings that influenced his or her preferences. I was particularly keen to analyse these biases – a preference for Slovaks or Czechs (nationalism is always a danger in this part of the world), a preference for their own category of instrument, a preference for men or women (numbers I didn’t make public) and their average score and standard deviation. In the case of average score I had great difficulty in convincing them that the lower the average the less influence they might have on the final result. As for standard deviations, they didn’t like the sound of that at all.

Nationalism was a clear bias, unsurprisingly, but I found that each juror was biased not for, but against his or her category of instrument, as if he or she knew exactly where to find fault. As for bias towards men or women, this was fascinating, but I was careful to keep the sometimes surprising results to myself.

The systems@work part of LLP Group produces software for professional services management, which I design, and we’ve implemented the system across the group. In idle moments I speculate on certain questions such as ‘Is utilisation different on different days of the week?’ and ‘Is realisation related to the length of a client engagement?’ Utilisation is a measure of how much available time a consultant spends on client-directed work. Realisation is a measure of how much client-directed work is finally billable. I’m not sure that one can do anything with this knowledge, but it’s fun, and when I looked at all the reports in our system the other day I came across some of the reports I’d idly written a year or two ago to answer these two questions (it must have been a rainy winter weekend).

Here for example, you can see that utilisation is slightly lower on Mondays and Fridays. No surprise there, I suppose. What could one do about it? Well, maybe make Monday and Friday six-hour, rather than eight-hour days, making the midweek days longer ones?



And here you can see that average realisation is not significantly a function of engagement length.


time@work can do all of this (and less!). And no doubt more. Utilisation by nationality, by sex, by age, by client sector? Average engagement length by season? Hmmm…work to do!


For me this is fascinating, but perhaps it is I who should undergo analysis.




Which One? Paintings by Serban Savu.

I’d like to buy another painting by Serban Savu. He’s a Romanian painter who lives in Cluj Napoca in central Transylvania, one of several young painters and sculptors who work together at the Paintbrush Factory, an industrial building that was converted several years ago into a collection of studios, exhibition and performance spaces. It’s well worth a visit. Cluj Napoca is home to one of the most prestigious art schools in the country, indeed in Europe, and many of the best-known painters of Eastern Europe, some of them known globally, began their studies there – Adrian Ghenie, Marius Bercea, Mircea Suciu, and Serban Savu.

I first saw Serban Savu’s work at an exhibition in Prague (2013) called Nightfall, curated by Jane Neal  and I’ve loved his paintings ever since. I visited Cluj two years ago, met Serban and bought a painting – Landscape with Clerk – which now hangs in my apartment in Prague.

I’d like to buy another to hang in LLP Group’s offices. Which of these should I buy (I can’t afford all of them, and in any case there isn’t enough space)?



Live and work in former Communist Eastern Europe and you’ll be familiar with brutal apartment blocks such as this one, crudely built from cheap concrete, and planted without fanfare on a featureless expanse of dirt, a landscape cleared of natural vegetation. For me, perhaps, it has the special appeal of a souvenir. I’ve seen these blocks in Budapest, in Chisinau, in Bucharest, in Kosice and Moscow. I’ve shivered in them in winter, and sweated in them during the summer.

The painting is called Meeting, though it’s actually a number of meetings, some in progress, and some about to happen. Alternatively, it’s one group brought together by the painter, or the dog. It’s a frozen moment, full of possibility, full of character, and beautifully composed. It’s always a test for me to wonder if I can go on looking at a painting for days, weeks, months or years and still be drawn into it. This passes the test.

The Guardian

6 the guardian

This one contains just two elements, a painting by Filippo Lippi (Madonna of Humility) which Serban Savu saw in Milan, and a man who may be its guard, each, for different and obvious reasons, quite unconscious of the other. But as in Meeting what’s important lies in the relationship between the two, the guard dozing in quiet sympathy with the painting, or is he dreaming the painting. And who guards whom?

The Allegory of Painting

11 the allegory of painting

This and The Guardian were shown at Serban Savu’s solo exhibition at the Plan B Gallery in Berlin – Pictures at an Exhibition. I think this shows the main hall of the railway station at Cluj, but I might be mistaken (I spent a hour there attempting to buy a ticket to Budapest before discovering that the line was being repaired and no trains were running). Again, the appeal may be sentimental – I know those halls, those wet tiles, those kiosks selling bright fizzy drinks and biscuits made of powder, and those adverts.

Which one?

Money is a Charmless Motivator

There’s nothing more vexatious than worrying about what to give your staff as an extra token of appreciation at Christmas.

At this time of year, at LLP Group, as at other companies all over the world, we’re busy trying to finalise projects and close outstanding sales, so that we can end the year with the highest possible revenue and profit. This year is no exception. But such anxieties are child’s play in comparison with the woes of deciding what gifts to give our staff.

I don’t mean bonuses, which may be substantial, or trivial, or indeed non-existent, depending on performance and position, and which are always monetary. Rather, I mean that little, and more effortful, token of appreciation that should be more personal, and which isn’t usually money.

Every year we struggle to please everyone, so every year we take soundings on what went down well in previous years. But, of course, we always fail.

We’ve given vouchers for Marks and Spencer.


We’ve given ‘experiences’, whereby everyone can choose from a list of ‘adventures’ such as driving a double-decker bus, a day of facials, massage and other forms of indolence at what’s called a ‘wellness centre’, a parachute jump, a dancing or a cooking lesson.


We’ve given company-branded items such as backpacks, jackets and polo shirts.


We’ve even given smoked salmon (I remember one employee saying, ‘All they gave me was a slab of wet fish.’).


Last year we did a sort of secret Santa thing whereby each employee chose a gift for another randomly nominated employee (I got a bottle of vintage Port and gave a collection of Japanese items to a colleague who’s learning Japanese).

secret santa


We’ve given LLP-branded mugs. We’ve given iPod Minis.

In Budapest this year, we’re giving dining-out vouchers.

romantic dinner

But I’ve learned that you can never get it right. True, you only hear about your failures to please, rarely that you have delighted anyone, but that is the way things are, and I am long since inured to it (any form of remuneration is naturally understood as entitlement rather than gift). So the scale of disappointment is always exaggerated.

A close friend of mine described how, even in a very difficult year, she managed to give cash bonuses to her staff, and heard not a word from them. (Her partner, seeing how hurt she was, gave the staff a stern dressing down.)

There’s a strong lobby in favour of ‘branded’ items with our logo on them, but my own view is that a gift shouldn’t come with too many strings attached. ‘I’ll give you this, but you’ll be advertising the company by wearing it or using it.’

We could debate this issue for hours, and often we do.

My advice, though, is not to worry too much about it. You’ll never please everyone. All in all, you’d be better off  worrying about the sales you need to close.

This year we’re giving vouchers, which, to my mind is more or less money. It’s charmless, and impersonal, but it’s convenient, and easy, and it’s apparently what everyone wants. You’ve got to please the majority at Christmas if you can.

Now, four more working days to close those sales.