Dean Clough

February 16, 2024

Portico Darwin: London Calling, Chapter 3



6 Minute Read

Happy Friday, and this is the third installment of London Calling.

Preface and Chapter 1
Chapter 2

Welcome to Our World
In between our due diligence trip to London in October of 1997 and Seaco's own to San Francisco a few weeks later, rumors internally at Genstar were running rampant.  Although I was not truly on the inside, special insight was of course available, via Pleather, from Fugazi.

The bottom line was GE Capital wanted out of the shipping container leasing business, despite being, at the time, the largest player in the industry.  The final result of the "merger" or "joint venture" (or "JV, " as Genstar staff called it) would be, while named GESeaco, a Seaco-run affair.  GE Capital and Genstar would have plenty of say, but eventually, GE would be out operationally, with Seaco assuming control of the whole shebang.

This also meant a lot of people had a big decision to make, as GE Capital was offering Genstar staff a no-lose proposition.  As the combined GESeaco entity would have a lot of redundancy in terms of staff and their roles, employees could opt for a very nice severance package and leave.  Alternatively, there was the option to stay, and participate in the merging of the operations.  Most chose the former. 

The funny thing for me then was that I didn't comprehend, or even care, about much of this.  With my wide and dreaming eyes, all I could see was an opportunity to work and live internationally. 

The fact that it could be in London gave me the chills.  My father is a first-generation American:  My paternal grandparents were both born in and around London.  From that and my own visits previously, I was over the moon.

Beyond the personal and even early on, I could also see this would be one hell of a big project.  I fucking loved that and craved doing something bigger than building a small data center in San Carlos, California.

And now, with Genstar's headcount dwindling weekly, there were growing questions (that I naturally encouraged) about who was going to do the actual work of getting the joint venture's technology on solid ground.  While I didn't actually raise my hand, I almost did.

So, yeah, I was motivated when my British counterparts came to San Francisco and Genstar's headquarters at 505 Montgomery Street (there's a great story involving that building).  It was the perfect opportunity for me to show off what we (really, the team) had done. 

Because luckily, it just happened to match what GESeaco was going to need, at least in terms of computing and telecommunications.  

The Seaco Limey Bastards Blokes
With whom did we do due diligence?  Who came to San Francisco to pull back Genstar's curtain? 

I must say now that the warmth that was extended to Julie and me throughout all of this by the people that follow (exception of course noted) still almost brings tears to my eyes.  What these guys (and yes, they were all white men at Seaco) did to enable a professional highlight of my life is a debt I can never repay.

And we haven't even really started talking about the partying.  Or the complete awesomeness of the endeavor itself.

Until then, here were the big players in Seaco IT - in other words, who I hung with for almost 11 solid months; some came to San Francisco, others did not.  Most of the names are real, and the titles are how I perceived each person's role, but they're probably incorrect.

Steve Whittam, CIO
Holy mother of God, this guy was pompous and I know something about that.  But also very smart, and in the end, I think he eventually took to me.

Or at least saw me as someone he and everyone that follows could blame if the technology went south.
Whichever it may have been, he approved the stuff that mattered to Julie and me, including paying for our apartment in South Kensington, so I could direct the project from London.  We'll get back to that.

Wow wow wow - I had only seen offices like Whittam's in the movies.  It was on the floor beneath the main conference room at Sea Containers House, with the same nutty view of The River Thames and St. Paul's Cathedral.  It was huge and paneled and furnished in solid white oak.  Whittam's desk was attached to a conference table, at which we'd all sit, while he leered and snarled and intimidated, in his tailored suit and French-cuffed shirts.  This guy was something else.

Martin Denny, VP Telecom
Martin Denny is one of the kindest men I have met.  Fairly old even in 1997, he had been in telecom essentially since its inception, and was my biggest advocate at Seaco.  Eccentric as only the British can be, it was Denny and Denny only that stood up to the CIO Whittam when it was required. 

And it was certainly required to bring in a loud and extremely brash 34-year-old American consultant and let him manage the company's largest-ever tech upgrade.  While Genstar was my client, the depth and breadth of my role were defined and approved largely by Steve Whittam.  But I believe with a lot of encouragement by Martin Denny.
Martin and his wife, Anita, were kind enough to have us to their home for a meal.  They also hosted us to a highlight of the entire year, a day out at the Henley Royal Regatta.  We will also get back to that.

Malcolm Graveling, VP System Operations
The lynchpin.  Malcolm was responsible for Seaco's data center and its big computing:  Its mainframes, minicomputers, and servers (although I am not clear they knew what a server was at the time).  His acceptance of my role would also be critical, as, like Denny, he had Whittam's ear.

Malcolm was also a great guy, and we would connect for drinks and/or dinner with him and his wife Linda for years afterward whenever we were in London.

Chris Bushell, VP Software
I mention him only because he was exceptional among all of these people in that he was never nice or friendly to me over the entire 11 months.  Not that I remember slights or anything.

These three, Martin Denny, Malcolm Graveling, and the software engineering dilettante Bushell constituted Whittam's IT brain trust. 

Randy Smee, Director, Telecom
My man.  It is Randy who deserves the credit for a lot of this story.  Sure, we both worked our asses off, but it was he who knew what to do within the Seaco and European telecom bureaucracies, and he was kind enough to share that info with me.  My and the overall program's success is in large part due to Randy.   Full stop, as he would say.

He also enjoyed an occasional pint (he hosted me at my only pub lock-in - but we'll get back to that) and he also knew a thing or two about music.  And telecommunications. 

Fun Fact:  Randy's last name here derives from his insanely accurate and hysterical imitation of big boss Steve Whittam's habit of not announcing his name at the start of a telephone call.  Instead, Steve (and Randy) held the phone as if the act were beneath him, dialed a number, and when connected, would simply utter "smee."  As in "It is me and you sure as hell better recognize my voice."

Jim Lawrence, Director, System Operations
I honestly don't remember Jim's precise role, apart from being Malcolm's right-hand man.  And while I think he opposed my involvement initially, he helped me greatly once we got rolling.  I loved talking politics and world events with Jim, and his wife's name was even Julie.

Peter Carolan, Director, System Operations
Sadly, Peter passed a couple of years ago, but he will never be forgotten by those who knew him.  

Peter, always game for a pint, was a bantam-sized comic force and also Seaco's resident Cockney Rhyming Slang expert.  He ran their main data center, which was housed in the basement of Sea Containers House.   

Along with Malcolm and Linda, we would reunite with Peter and his lovely wife Eve many times over the years on visits to London.  She still sends us beautiful Christmas cards.

While Jim was Malc's second-in-command, Peter wasn't far behind and he and Eve were also close personal friends of Malcolm and Linda's.  This starts to matter soon, as these wonderful Brits became a part of our very own London social circle.

Reg Ellwood, Director, Desktop Computing
The weak link.  Maybe the only non-player in the group.  Passive and you've just never seen a grown man cower before another like he did under Boss Whittam.  Still, a nice guy, and he did my family and me right by suggesting a Sunday meal at The Plough Inn, in Ford, in The Cotswolds. 

I also must mention the late Marc Bass.  Marc had nothing to do with this project, except he worked for Randy Smee and was in Martin Denny's organization.  He was the archetype of a British Lad and a borderline football hooligan, but he was the real deal and also very kind to me.  Even after I was moved into his and Randy's office.  The image of Randy and Marc working at their desks, perpendicular to a big office window, and so facing each other, will never fade from my mind.  

But Marc drank himself to death and I think he died before he was 30.  This story is not without sadness.

Nor the unpredictability of life.

I have saved some of the best for last.  In this and in the next chapter, I will introduce the 2 Brits and then the 2 Yanks who made the whole thing go, at least in nearly 35 offices around the world. 

Luigi Ferrari, Analyst, Desktop Computing
The story of Luigi and me spans decades, continents and includes smoking pot on both my rooftop in SF as well as in the finer coffeeshops of Amsterdam.  It eventually included a beyond-Diamond Certified sailing trip in the Mediterranean in 2019. 

But much earlier, in May of 2002, here we are at, Schloss Nymphenburg, outside of Munich. 

Fun Fact:  I vividly remember talking up my new venture, Casa Integration, with Luigi on this very day and him thinking it was a great idea.  Lucky for me, he was not wrong.

But I digress and in the Fall of 1997, Luigi Ferrari was barely even mentioned, apart from being a name in Reg Ellwood's organization.  That wouldn't last long, for him, nor one of his colleagues, Willy Aluminium.

Willy Aluminium, Analyst, Desktop Computing
Like Luigi, Willy was a non-factor at this point.  But also like Luigi, he would play a key role in the program, and we became personal friends.  Here we are in Prague, with his then-girlfriend, the National Health Service rock star Bo Nightingale.  This was taken a week after the photo above, and we remain in touch with both as I write this in 2024.  

Note that only a small number of the people above came to San Francisco on Seaco's due diligence visit.  It would turn out to be telling, as apart from Martin, only those Whittam listened to were invited.

It must be noted that Seaco was the epitome of an old-line British company.  Nearly all of the people above had been at Seaco for years, some decades.  "Entrenched, old-line IT guys in a big and well-connected British firm" is not far off.  Dynamic it wasn't.

But that didn't mean most weren't smarter (let alone more experienced) than I - they were and the difference was cultural.  These guys were smothered by Whittam and traditional British hierarchical nonsense.  

I had neither affliction, which I would soon learn was just what Seaco needed. 

Up next:  Upper Class (Virgin Atlantic Variety)


What, another chapter and another with nothing about the Brits' own visit to San Francisco in the late fall of 1997?  Correct - but I'll whet your appetite for Chapter 4 with the recollection of none other than Randy Smee himself.  

My only memory of that (trip) was arriving in my hotel room around 10 pm and in urgent need of a restroom.  Within a minute or so of relief, the telephone in the bathroom rang.  It was Whittam.

“Randy, smee.  We’re in the bar."

“Steve, I have just arrived, I’m worn out, and I’ll see you at breakfast.”

“Randy, we’re in the bar.”

“OK, I’ll see you 5 minutes.” 

Buggers were absolutely hanging and wouldn’t have remembered if I’d shown or not.

And that was not Whittam's only piss-up in SF.  We'll get back to that . . .

Thank you for reading this newsletter.  


I might as well get this out of the way relatively early in London Calling.  For one, wouldn't it be nice if I were able to live a dream, and get paid to work and live internationally, and in London of all places?  Next, I had only just recently been exposed to the album and was thus at peak Pet Sounds at the time of all of this. 

Here is Brian Wilson's Diamond Certified masterwork. 

Fun Fact:  As a token of my gratitude at the end of the program, I gifted Randy Smee some of my favorite CDs (remember, it's 1998) at the time, and this of course was included. 

About Dean Clough