Like some kind of urban Argonath, Croydon has forever been guarded by two concrete monoliths. Taberner House to the South, and City House to the North. The latter was home to Philips Electronics, the pioneering Dutch engineering firm, where I worked for two years in the ‘80s in my first ‘proper’ job (I’m discounting Saturday stints at Wimpy and Presto).
The role in question was Stock Controller for the white goods team. This was as dull as it sounds and I won’t dwell on it; suffice to say that to this day I can still remember lists of product codes by heart, and have the occasional nightmare about having insufficient stock of AKG 617 hobs for Magnet’s spring campaign.
We were on the third floor and, this being the ‘80s, smoking was not only permitted in the office, but – in my section at least – actively encouraged. In these enlightened days it’s hard to visualise the sheer fug that was created by twenty chain-smokers in a sealed office with no air conditioning; you would hop over to The Cartoon pub if you wanted fresh air.
The top floor housed the canteen, serving food that was maybe two steps above school dinners. The views more than made up for this though – or rather, view in the singular as for some reason, there were only windows on the West side of the building. Still, you could gaze out at the towers of the old power station while picking at your rubber stroganoff and sipping your Coca-Cola (“From the bottle – fresher than the can”).
If you were very lucky, you might be invited into the private dining room and bar at the North end of the building. This was a posh little room, all subdued lighting and dark leather, with windows on both sides. I only set foot in there once for a Christmas do, and was roundly bollocked when I helped myself to a second measure of Jack Daniels.
The third option was the coach that left at 12:05 every day for the Whitgift Centre, returning at 12:55. This was a nice little perk, allowing staff to do a bit of shopping or grab a slice of Pizza from PDQ, Pizzaland’s experimental outlet in North End.
The rest of the floors were mostly just offices, and highly territorial ones at that. Excursions to vending machines were grudgingly permitted, since different items were available on different floors. But venturing any further into foreign territory would lead to a grilling by whichever middle manager happened to be around.
This was particularly true of the loos on the 4th and 6th floors, which were a lot nicer than the others. But it was rumoured that being caught going for an executive shit was a sackable offence.
The two floors that were out of bounds to everyone, however, were the first and second. These housed the IT team and had the sort of security you’d expect from NORAD rather than a manufacturer of dishwashers. The doors were fearsome, with the sort of electronic locks that were still the province of science fiction in 1987. Signs warned of halomethane gas for fire control (but heavily rumoured to be anti-personnel measures). You never saw the IT people in the canteen, and their names didn’t appear on the staff directories.
The level of technology was not high. For a company that introduced the video recorder, laserdisc and CD to the world, the in-office kit consisted mostly of green-screen dumb terminals connected to ISANET, Philips’ Eindhoven-based CICS network. Faxes and photocopiers dominated the floors, colour printing was a pipe dream and we even had a Telex sitting in a Perspex dome, clattering out share prices on a ribbon.
Somewhat higher tech was available in the staff shop at a decent discount, and occasional raffles could see you going home with a coffee machine or an ice-cream maker. The latter was rubbish – little more than a slow mixer with a special disk that had to be left in the freezer overnight.
Philips moved out of City House in the ‘90s and it is now converted into flats. I went to look at the show home, hoping to find some mementos of its former incarnation… but no, it’s been so utterly transformed that you would never guess at its former role.
They’ve even managed to get the nicotine stains out of the walls. Bet that took some doing.