Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Buenos Aires... III

Our stay in Buenos Aires took in the better part of four years. Much happened in this period of time; some good, some not so good. The entries will take more space than originally anticipated, but it is well worth it. This city will always hold a special place in my heart.

Time flies and, once again, I am forced to wait far too long before being able to sit at the computer to put down some thoughts. It gets worse since, due to the lack of doing, my ability to get started on a blank page gets rusty and needs priming. Well, ‘nuff of this…

The company was called “Cenit” a name which, in Spanish, means “Top of … ”. Yeah, yeah… we Latinos tend to go for the grandiose… nothing less will be impressive enough… Anyway Cenit, the company, was an empty floor: no desks, no phones, no equipment, no… nada! We walked into an echo chamber, where every thing that was said was thrown back by the walls surrounding this emptiness. There was a lot of work to do and a relatively short time in which to do it. We had about 4 months in our hands prior to the Christmas (summer vacation there) break and we had to be ready to at least impress those folks from the press so that, by the time summer recess was over, we would be ready to roll. This was Bs As, late 1986. The electronic environment which allows me to so easily write and publish these notes was in its infancy and all had to be done in real time, not virtual.

Duties and responsibilities were quickly delegated and spread around. At the beginning, there were only three of us: the Admin VP, a quiet but efficient and well regarded fellow who came to us with some 18 yrs experience in the local industry, the already mentioned Financial VP, one messenger and jack-of-all-trades and me, a jack… without a trade… There was one area I understood and did well: marketing/sales (not to confuse one with the other); therefore, the actual running of the company had to be shared with these fellows, with the added personal incentive that this could not be perceived as such by them.  I utilized the fact that the Argentinean market was indeed very different than those where I had heretofore worked, and needed a bit of time for adjustments.

The Admin VP and I formed an alliance and became great collaborators; he had the needed local experience and I the international exposure which was to be exploited. First order of things: a personal assistant for me. Maddy (Magdalena) came into my business life via the Admin VP, who knew her and had worked with her in another company. She turned out to be a gem… did take a little getting used to, but a true and loyal assistant.  With her help and knowledge of the then existing local market, we began to recruit the basic personnel needed, buy the furniture on which to sit them and the equipment to have them do something while sitting there. Getting phone lines was a story unto itself. At that time the BsAs phone company was a mix-match of long existing and competing outfits, whose different brand equipments (German, Italian and some English) had to be patched and adapted in order for them to work and coexist with each other. Not to mention communicate.

To complicate this(ese) issue(s), the communications syndicate was a tough labor outfit who took in new customers and their gratifications… directly and in person, with hair slicked back, black leather jackets and all. They were the ones who controlled those who received service; yes, you could buy the equipment but unless you were planning to use it as pretty paperweights, the service had to be contracted with these guys. Our Admin guy, well versed in these negotiations, took over and we received our service within 24 hours of the bonus being paid (matters have changed quite a bit since then, the telecomm business being now a modern, united company with regular business practices) and we were now able to make and receive calls. Now we just needed someone at the other end of the line… 

Things began to move quickly, with 12 hour work days becoming the norm. Between Maddy and Mr. VP Admin, we were able to populate the office with a group of young people, who actually turned out to be excellent learners and workers. In fact, I still communicate with a couple of them once in a while. Yes, with Maddy also; she is now an attorney. I can only visualize what an appearance in court by her may be… Worth tickets, I’m sure. Since the admin part was working well and the financial end was being held up by Henry, I then dedicated my time to what I knew best: the development of the product to be sold and of the marketing plans which would help sell it. And, oh yeah… the sales structure (different than any other sales structure in the market then) to actually bring it to the market…. Hah!  Piece o’Cake!!

My time is up for now… I guess our stay in Argentina deserves the time and the space in these entries. It was an important period for all of us, for many different reasons and it bears some detail…

Until next time…  Be well; Be Back…

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Buenos Aires, Argentina… Take II

Buenos Aires is a grand city, built along the lines of older European capitals. It offers much, especially as an amalgam of feelings, emotions, and a people who have truly suffered the ups and downs of non stable governments. Yet, these men, women and children adapt, survive and go on with their lives, always finding the time to cry, laugh and sing...  never ending the discussions as to how to fix the rest of the world's problems but, somehow, never being able to quite fix their own.

It was a good trip: short, sweet and to the point. The fact that my friend had already “softened” the board members, made it easier; mind you, it was not a cakewalk, there were some tough questions and some comments about how an outsider could deal with a negative yield economy, running somewhere around 8-10,000% inflation… In the end, the solution was relatively simple: I would not deal with the financial aspects of investment and money management.  It was a group of bankers that were town the company, right? Soo… Bank Away!! The Financial VP would be named by the main banker in the group, whose bank owned about 35% of the company. He turned out to be a good man and, eventually, a friend… More on this later.

My first trips to BsAs had come earlier, as a corporate consultant for the association where I had worked during the first half of the 80’s.  Yet, this time “The City” (as it is called by those who live there) welcomed me in a different manner.  It seemed more intimate, warmer, and it was telling me to hurry back, to come and stay. It is truly a beautiful city and, make no mistake, it has all the components of a major capital; both good and bad. Yet, during the time of my stay there, in the day to day living and working environment, I came to understand its feel, its heart, its sadness and happiness as well as the heavy mix of emotions that it could generate; without leaving out the abusive love it could lavish on one. It truly became a mutual love affair.

It was decided that, upon my return, I would present my letter of resignation to my then employer in Chile, with a 2 week warning. This was to be a formality; due to how things stood between my immediate supervisor and me, this news would indeed be welcome by both, as it was. Suddenly he was affable and courteous, offering all kinds of help to see me through the final period, making sure perhaps that I might not repent of my decision. He did not know where I was going, I guess he assumed I was giving up and returning to the States; when the actual truth as to where I was going and what I would actually be doing became known, he was somewhat upset. He would have much rather have me running back home, unemployed and with my tail between my legs. Not to say this has never happened, but not this time.

The two weeks went by faster than the wink of an eye. We had accumulated a lot of stuff in Chile, despite our short time there, and much of it went into a garage sale, the rest being packed by the movers and sent on to BsAs. It would take about 5-6 weeks for whatever was sent to get to us on the other side of the mountains.

I was hired with all the perks my “before” company had given me as an Expatriate: housing, private school for my children, car (this was an added bonus), vacation trips once a year to the US, and a comfortable base income. The only thing that was not included in the package was familiar stability.  In the beginning, once we came over to the other side, we were housed in a small corporate apartment complex. We were a family of five, where the breakdown of the relationship between the adults was already a work in progress. There were also two growing dogs and a cat, these last three being kept at a private home some 50 minutes away from the center of the city, where we were staying.  My office was two blocks away, which made it an easy walk to and from; the school bus would pick up the children early in the morning and return them late in the afternoon, leaving my wife pretty much to herself most of the day. Her job was to house hunt and this was meant to be done within a defined budget… But where there is a will, there is a way… My wife’s will was to live grandly, and not to be confined by a budget, even if this was a relatively generous one.

Eventually a house was found, and this meant going over the budget, with the difference coming out of my salary. The owner of the house (a converted big barn, which became a Tudor style home) knew the renter was a “foreign” corporate executive, so she peddled the house at a New York’s Fifth Avenue price; but this had to be the place, not another one would do. The property came partially furnished but it was so big that the “partial” furniture we had to buy, was enough to fill most regular houses. In the end, the amenities the house provided: space (two full floors), a big lawn with a swimming pool and a much closer location to the school, gave us good enjoyment and it was worth the extra money.

Going back to my “office”… on arrival that first morning, I walked into a totally empty floor: no furniture, no phones, no equipment, no people… no anything….

It hit me then that when I was told I would be structuring this company from scratch, they weren't kidding!!

More on this next time….

Be Back, Be well!!

Doña América and other memories.

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