From Russia with Uplift: The Order Came from Moscow Via Amsterdam. but Why Did the Customers Want to Pay [Pounds Sterling]90,000 for a Job That Need Cost Barely [Pounds Sterling]50,000? (Features)

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The inquiry came in a telephone call from a chap called Nigel (definitely a chap, not a bloke) in London. He was offering what, for my small Midlands engineering company, was a big job: [pounds sterling]40,000 at a guess, and enough to keep us busier than we had been for months.

I faxed a quotation to Nigel. He phoned the next day. "Liked your quote, Bill -- you don't mind if I call you Bill? By the way, the plant will be located in Antwerp. Can you install it?" We could. "And could you double the storage capacity for future expansion?" You bet: by now the job would be worth more than [pounds sterling]50,000.

Despite Nigel's languid accent and a certain mystery about the background, I was confident this job -- for a chemical transfer and packaging plant -- was going to happen. But I asked who would be placing the order, because you don't send a truckload of machinery overseas without making sure who's paying for it.

"The order will come from the warehouse company in Antwerp," said Nigel. "But the official inquiry you'll get from Russia -- that's where the chemicals originate. You'll be getting a telephone call from Moscow asking if you're interested in the contract, and then a revised quotation will go to them, with a copy to my boss in Amsterdam."

Nigel paused. "Oh, by the way, there's just one more thing. We want you to add a commission for our Amsterdam office."

This was normal; there's usually somebody sitting on his backside collecting 10 per cent. But Nigel was thinking more on the lines of about [pounds sterling]40,000. "It's what they call 'uplift'," he said.

I swallowed hard. Uplift? Eighty per cent?

"It's all right," said Nigel, "It's just paperwork, it won't affect the order; it's the way these things are done over there."

My first thought was that he was going to cheat his client; or perhaps the job was attracting European aid, so inflating the price would increase the grant. Or was it Antwerp that was going to be swindled?

At all events, [pounds sterling]40,000 was going to wind up in somebody's back pocket, and my little engineering company (more importantly, its documentation) was going to play a crucial role in making it happen.

Yet when Moscow telephoned, there was no mention of commissions or "uplift", just a brief discussion of the contract specification and delivery requirements. So I sent a straightforward quotation with a 10 per cent margin for whoever turned out to be the fixer. Then I rang Nigel. "Moscow didn't say anything about uplift," I said, "so I just added l0 per cent."

"Oh dear, that could make things difficult." said Nigel. "Let's pretend you made a mistake and have another go at it."

So what was going on? I rang my local MEP's office. Could they find out if an EU grant was involved? All they had to do, surely, was to ring someone in Brussels and find out if anyone had applied for a grant towards a chemical packaging plant in Antwerp? They didn't know -- could I call back later? Later, they were closed. Next time I rang, they were on holiday, then everyone was away on a course. Finally: "It's not something we can handle, really. Have you tried the Department of Trade and Industry? They have a Russia desk, you know."

The piping voice on the Russia desk sounded as if it had just left school. However, I asked if he could explain why a Moscow client would want an inflated quote for a job in Antwerp. "Dunno. …