“I was furious,” he said. “I couldn’t see straight for a week.”

There were about fifty of us in a conference room. We’d been listening to speakers all morning on supply chain compliance, getting the low down on WRAP and SA8000. This was back in 2003, so some factories were already up to their necks in audits. They were old hands, but it was still early days for most.

I’ve never been much at networking, so at the tea break I stood alone, examining the fabric-covered walls as if professionally interested.

That’s when he came over.

“You know something?” he said, after we’d made small talk. He held a spring roll in one hand, a cup of tea in the other.

“The first time I got audited, I thought I was going to choke from anger.”

I had a vision of him lying on a factory floor trying to loosen his tie. I told him I was glad he didn’t.

He had a sense of humour. “Me too,” he said. “My wife? I’m not so sure.”

He ate his spring roll, telling me about the first audit. There were two of them, he said. They came to the factory, checked everything, and then met him in his office before leaving.

“You wouldn’t believe it,” he said, his face flushing. “The way they spoke to me.”

I didn’t need a shrink to know he’d been bottling up resentment.

“I spent thirty years building my business,” he said, waving his free hand around. “Thirty years. I’m proud of what I achieved.”

His voice got louder. I wondered if people were staring at us.

“They basically said I was worthless.”

I was curious about what made him so angry.

“They knew nothing about this business,” he said. “But they sat in my office telling me how I should run mine. I’m sixty. They were fresh graduates. There was no respect for what I’d done.” 

Then he laughed. “You see?” he said. “I tell you, I couldn’t calm down for a week.”

He pulled at his collar.

“Then I attended one of these,” he said, nodding his head to indicate the seminar. “I realised there were things I had to change.”

He started spelling them out, counting them off on his fingers. He would have continued, except a waiter in a black waistcoat dinged on the xylophone. We exchanged cards, shaking hands before returning to our seats.

Later on, I Googled his company. It was big, with a list of well-known clients.

Apparel and textile production facilities don’t usually look like this.* And nobody’s claiming the supply chain is perfect.

But belittling people – or the businesses they've built over a lifetime – isn't a well proven route to influencing them or changing their behaviour. I’d say it has the opposite effect.

Even so, I wonder how many conversations like this still occur in supply chains.

*The McLaren Production Centre in the UK, designed by Foster + Partners. The photo at the link above ©Nigel Young.