Monthly Archives: May 2011

To Buenos Aires, Briefly

The flashy side of Buenos Aires. A graceful bridge designed by superstar Santiago Calatrava is visible toward the lower left. My Argentine host said that the high-rise apartments are only about 30% ocupied.

On Wednesday, May 18, I hopped on the Silver Bird to Buenos Aires, to give a couple of talks and attend a meeting of the board of the South American Business Forum (SABF), the student-organized event that I join each August. About 45 minutes before landing, I started to chat with my seatmate, Mariana, and was immediately reminded that my Talking to Strangers reconnaissance could start earlier in a flight – she was a really interesting person, an Argentine economics graduate with an MBA from Harvard, now working in several different areas. We exchanged business cards and vowed to keep in touch.

The plane was about an hour late. There was a huge line to clear Argentine customs, which meant that there were cheaters trying to cut the line. A burly Russian troublemaker attempted, and the crowd around me spoke up (his wife or girlfriend headed to her rightful place at the end of the queue). One especially energetic young man, much smaller, got in his face, then got justice by summoning the airport police. We did not see our comrade again. I was muttering about civility. Once through, I met my long SABF friend Martin Siniawski and another pal, and we headed into the city.

The morning evaporated, and at noon met Nestor Sanchez, a new host from the Instituto Tecnologico de Buenos Aires (ITBA, the host institution of SABF). Nestor was director of the graduate management program at the school, and organizer of an executive conference where I would be speaking the next day. The session was the first of a series of joint sessions organized with the Universidad de San Andres, and to build attention they arranged for a journalist from the biggest daily paper, Clarín, to interview me. Isabel the writer seemed focused on safety issues, and ten minutes into the interview the sad reason surfaced: a small Argentine airline, Sol, had lost a Saab 340 the night before, in the south of the country.

After the session, Nestor took me to a splendid lunch in a restaurant called A/222, high atop a building with a clear and wonderful view of the former port, Puerto Madero. From four to six the SABF board of trustees met. I’m the only non-Argentine on the panel. From seven to ten, I delivered a talk on leadership to current and former SABF organizers. The plan was to grab pizza, but I headed back to the hotel and hit the pillow. It was a long day.

A birds-eye view of a nice renovation of a government building; they are retaining the graceful Second Empire facade and gutting the interior.

Was up early the next day, Friday, to meet Nestor and head to the conference. They were pleased with the turnout, about 50, including some CEOs and other high-ranking executives of Argentine companies. The presentation was entitled “Managing in Permanent Crisis,” and focused on what we learned at American Airlines in the first decade of this millennium. Lively questions and an engaged audience. I really wanted to give them a good show to launch the speaker series, and I think it worked out well.

Things slowed down by 12:30. I said goodbye to Nestor, walked to the hotel, changed clothes, worked a bit of e-mail, and headed out. I had been in Argentina for almost 30 hours, and had not bought Argentina pesos. I didn’t need much, so asked about the hotel’s rate, about eight percent lower, no problem. But the desk clerk opened the cash drawer, she didn’t have the peso equivalent of $60. She apologized profusely, and I was nonplussed. Onward, up the street and into a bank that flashed a good exchange rate on a sign in red pixels. Waited ten minutes in a queue, only to be told of a $100 minimum. Onward to an ATM, to find that they wanted the equivalent of $4.

I am stubborn about stuff like that, so I continued to a currency exchange; they demanded my passport, which was back in my hotel-room safe. The touts on Calle Florida crying out “Cambio, cambio” (money exchange) suddenly seemed like a viable option. I told a smiling fellow, in Spanish, that I did not have my passport. He replied with the equivalent of “no problem,” and took off through a throng on the busy shopping street. I hustled to keep up, we turned down a side street, and into a travel agency. He flashed the exchange rate on a calculator, 4 pesos to the dollar (the official rate that day was 4.12 – ya gotta admire the efficiency of his market), and in less than a minute the transaction was done. He got a piece of the spread, the market cleared, and I felt way better than doing business with a bank!

At three I met Martín and two colleagues in the offices of his Internet radio start-up called Streema ( It was fun to see what I dubbed the “global headquarters,” about 100 square feet of sublet space above Calle Florida, three or four computers, and fast broadband connections. We bantered a bit, and I sat down at a counter and worked away for two hours, to help our start-up company.

What an Argentine Internet start-up looks like: my three pals from Streema,

Took a short nap and at 7:15 walked south, past Casa Rosada, Argentina’s White House, and onto Subway Line E, riding five stops west. Ambled a couple of blocks to Miramar, a traditional and simple neighborhood restaurant that qualified as one of many bares notables (no translation needed!). The place opened for dinner at eight, and as I waited, I snapped a couple of pictures that were emblematic of the unselfconscious oldness that makes Buenos Aires so endearing – like you’re six or seven decades in the past (Anteojos, literally “before the eyes,” are glasses):

An older waiter stepped outside to clear a stray Scotch bottle from the step. I leaned over and picked it up. He thanked me. I replied, in his language, that I was waiting until Miramar opened, ten minutes hence, and he welcomed me inside, found a choice table by an open window, and brought a menu. I ordered a bottle of Quilmes Stout and perused the daily specials. An SABF pal, Juan Trouilh, and I had visited Miramar a couple of years earlier, and although we were too early for dinner, a kindly young fellow invited us inside for a view of a totally old-school place. Of course it had not changed. According to a 2009 article in The New York Times, Miramar was still owned by the Ramos family, who opened it in 1948 as an almacén, or small grocery.

The waiter spoke a bit of English, because he had worked in San Antonio, Texas, and Seattle in 1977-78. He brought a second bottle of stout (cerveza negra, literally black beer), and made a remarkable and ugly transition from not liking black black beer to not liking black people. I replied in Spanish that I had many black friends, thinking that would send him away, but no. I did manage to turn the discussion toward an order of morrones¸ sweet red peppers with lots of garlic, followed by a main course of rabbit stew, savory and piquant, with potatoes, peas, and onions. The place started to fill up about nine. Notwithstanding the waiter’s ignorant comments, it was a splendid meal.

On the way home, I stopped to snap a picture of the splendid 18th century cabildo, the offices of Spain in that part of the New World.

The walk north to the hotel, on the street called Reconquista, was grim: I passed a lot of homeless people, including a young boy under a blanket in a supermarket cart, and people picking through rubbish to find recyclable materials. Buenos Aires can be a grim place.

I was up before seven on Saturday morning, and up two floors to the gym, which had a great view of the old harbor and the River Plate estuary. Rode hard for a half-hour, then down to the room and breakfast. At ten I met a former SABF organizer, Julieta Rodriguez, and we ambled up Avenida Cordóba for a coffee and to catch up. She graduated from ITBA 18 months ago, and joined Kraft Foods in their logistics group. She was super-enthusiastic about her job, and I asked a lot of questions about it. An hour later, Elisa, another SABF alumna, picked me up at the hotel, and we headed out to suburban San Isidro (stopping to pick up Martin and another fellow on the way), to a typical Argentine weekend activity – an asado, or barbecue. The host, Juan Pedro, was another ITBA alum. He was renting a very comfortable townhouse from his parents. It was a perfect autumn day, blue skies, breeze, and about 65º. It was nice to be away from the crowded center, in a place with trees and plenty of colorful fall foliage.

The asado was for the team organizing the 2011 SABF, as well as organizers from previous years. It was great to see old pals, like Alberto, Yvonne, and Agustín, and I was reminded of a thought from two days earlier – ITBA graduates people who succeed, and succeed well. It was a pleasure to spend the afternoon with them, yakking about their new jobs, my new gig with Intelligent Avionics, and a range of other topics. We enjoyed the simple meal of barbecued beef (grass-fed Argentine meat, so flavorful), sliced onions and tomatoes, and some beer. I played the first game of foosball (table football) in at least 25 years; I was terrible back then, but somehow improved, and Pablo and I nearly won!

Current and former SABF organizers at the asado, and an admirer

A bit past four, Elisa drove me across town to the airport, I jumped through a lot of hoops (leaving Argentina is not fast), and flew home. Landed Sunday morning at six and was walking MacKenzie by eight. A fast trip to the Southern Hemisphere: two nights on planes, two nights in hotels.


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To England for Rugby, a History Lesson, and the AURA Summit

Worcester Warriors and Bedford Blues in a Scrum. Whew!

On Saturday, April 30, I flew to Boston and on to London, bound for meetings with my new colleagues at Intelligent Avionics. May 1 marks the start of summer air fares, so I headed over a bit early to save $600. The Boston-London plane was a 757, and it was packed and cramped for a long trip. But it took just a bit over six hours to cross the ocean, so no need to complain. Managed a couple of little naps, and arrived Heathrow 7:45 on May Day. The queue for UK immigration was huge, and after waiting 40 minutes, I politely explained to a marshal that I had a bus at 9:00. He kindly moved me to the front, so kind. It pays to be assertive, but even more so to be civil and effusive with thanks. Got some cash, bought breakfast from a Marks & Spencer ministore, and high-tailed it to the Heathrow Central Bus Station. Made it with six minutes to spare. Headed west on the M4 motorway, past Windsor Castle, to Reading. Traffic was light, and I was at the train station and onto the train west to Worcester by 10:10. And with a large cup of coffee! Ate my breakfast and enjoyed the ride west and north, past bright yellow fields of canola, past draft horses munching hay, under arched viaducts of brick and the local Cotswold limestone, across the River Avon, and into Worcester on time, just past noon. Along the way, I cued Elgar and some other British composers, and listened to “Jerusalem,” the lovely song that is a sort of alternate national anthem, a poem by Blake set to music in 1916: “I will not cease from Mental Fight / Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand / Till we have built Jerusalem / In England’s green & pleasant Land.”

Hopped in a cab and rode a few miles north to Sixways Stadium, for my first-ever Rugby Union match, a do-or-die semifinal between the Worcester Warriors and the Bedford Blues. My friend-since-1981 John Crabtree (mentioned many times previously on these pages) once again invited me to a signal English event. He sits on the board of the Warriors, a professional team in the second tier of Rugby Union, called Championship. The stadium was brand new. I collected my ticket and headed up to the Duckworth Suite, named for the club owner, and in no time was watching the action (was only about 10 minutes late). Hugs for John, wife Diana, and son James.

I had done some homework in the days prior to the match, online, including some helpful videos on the BBC Sport website, and felt about 20% familiar with the rules of the game. The fans were passionate – it was, after all, a semi-final – and in no time I was completely into it all, a Warriors partisan.

Diana Crabtree, Worried Warrior Fan

The Blues took an early lead. The Warriors scored before the end of the first half, but lost momentum, and with five minutes to play the Warriors were down by 6 and it looked like the home team would lose. Director Crabtree looked deeply concerned, Diana gripped her head.

Then, miraculously, the Warriors scored a try (like a U.S. touchdown, sort of, and worth 5 points), then 2 for the conversion, and they led 23-22. The Blues launched one more drive, and nearly scored, but the match ended happily. Pandemonium in the stands, and in the Duckworth Suite, beer and wine flowing, grown men hugging. It was enormously exciting. The Brits asked what I thought, and I told them it was quite a game! Here are a few scenes from the match:

An injured Warrior. Play did not stop, but the teams avoided the casualty!

We drove home. John and Diana’s youngest, Jessica, age five, was eager to show me her mastery of a two-wheeler (precocious, I thought).

I yakked with son Robbie. Took a shower, fixed a flat tire on Robbie’s new bike. A nice Sunday afternoon with a familiar family.

At five the Crabtrees and I drove southwest to Great Malvern, a former spa town just below the Malvern Hills. The views from the hills west to Herefordshire and east to Worcestershire were splendid. We stopped to photograph a field of bluebells on the western slope, spectacular.

The numerous “posh” private (to Brits, public) schools in the district prompted John to recall. He waxed enthusiastic about a nearby Quaker prep school, The Downs, which he attended from age 8 to 12. “I loved it there,” he said, and contrasted his experience with the quite famous boarding school he attended as a teenager, where the vibe was decidedly negative. Those memories remained strong, and I can see how they affected his life, in many ways. Dinner was at Anupam, an Indian restaurant in Great Malvern; among other stunts, I entertained the kids by eating whole green chilies. It was still light when I was fast asleep.

I slept hard until about 2:15, then flopped a bit until 4:45, when it got light. Read The New York Times on my iPhone (what an invention), sewed a button on the wallet pocket of my khaki trousers, and fell back asleep. The Crabtree kids get up early, and Jessica was already in the kitchen at seven.

First light on older buildings in the Crabtree's village of Crowle

We yakked a bit (she’s a real sweetie), ate a couple bowls of cereal, and John drove me to the station in Worcester. Hopped on a local train north to Birmingham, then west about 30 miles to Telford.

I was bound for the village of Ironbridge, a few miles south of Telford. This was a journey I have wanted to make for nearly 40 years – ever since reading the “Heroic Materialism” chapter in Sir Kenneth Clark’s book Civilisation. Clark was an eminent art historian, and the book was companion to a BBC series of the same name. Back in the 1970s, there was no such thing as BBC America on your cable TV system, and to see the series I took the bus downtown to the Minneapolis Public Library on Sunday afternoons. Some things stick with you, in this case images of the first metal bridge in the world (hence the village name) and a dramatic painting “Coalbrookdale at Night” (1801, by the French artist De Loutherburg).

The painting and text that prompted the visit, decades later

Ironbridge and the nearby Coalbrookdale iron works were one of several birthplaces of the Industrial Revolution. First step in that valley was in 1709, when Quaker inventor and entrepreneur Abraham Darby figured out how to combine iron, coke, limestone, and energy to make steel. In essence, Darby removed the need for ironworking to be near forests (wood was needed for charcoal), as well as water. Everything he needed was readily at hand in the Severn River Valley: iron ore, limestone, coal (coke), and water power.

Many of us take this stuff for granted, but seeing where it began was way cool. First stop was the famous Ironbridge, which Darby’s grandson and investors built in 1779 to demonstrate the creative uses of structural iron. In the bridge was not only a great industrial breakthrough, but a transport advance, too, one that delighted the Transport Geek. It was a splendid sunny morning, and I ambled across the bridge, then below it to snap some pictures. It was a little hard to depend on public transport, but I had done some research online, and found a shuttle bus that ran up and down the valley. After Ironbridge, I headed upstream to Coalbrookdale, to the Museum of Iron and a look at some of the well-preserved remains of the mill. Fascinating stuff. And I need to return with more time. Here is a quick look:

The Tontine Hotel and the village of Ironbridge from the top of the span. Investors built the hotel a few years after the bridge opened, sure that visitors would come from afar to see the marvel. And they were right.

Part of Darby's Coalbrookdale ironworks, splendidly preserved

The first output of the ironworks were cast cooking pots . . .

Soon Darby's factory branched out, and made a vast array of products, including elegant iron tables

Even window frames, lintels, and mullions were made from iron

Iron cupola atop one of the Coalbrookdale offices

Hopped a bus back to Telford, and toward the end of the ride had a nice chat with the driver. He asked where I was from, which launched him on a nice recall of his trip “to the real U.S.,” a one-way car journey from New Orleans to Nashville, via Baton Route, Natchez, Memphis, and points between. I saluted his sense of adventure. “It was unforgettable,” he said. I smiled broadly. Hopped on a train back to Birmingham, and a connecting service to Milton Keynes. It was a Monday “bank holiday,” and many trains were not running. I somehow found the slowest one, and because of track renovation I had to take a bus from Northampton to Milton Keynes. Average speed from Birmingham was well under 30 mph, which made me a bit late for a wonderful evening at the home of my new boss, Martin Cunnison.

I had met his wife Tara in Hamburg, but not his three-year-old twin daughters Beatrice and Henrietta, nor the Bernese Mountain Dogs Matilda and Phoebe, nor the three guinea pigs, nor the two fluffy laying hens. The backyard was nearly a zoo, and it was loads of fun. I took an immediate shine to the twins, and vice-versa. High points were a bedtime story for the girls and a spectacular roast-lamb dinner that Martin prepared. It was a big time, but a long day.

I had to sleep in Tuesday morning – until 7:45. Up slowly, paddling around the hotel, then walked across the road to meet Martin and Murray Skelton, our Scottish tech wizard, who had flown down early that morning from Edinburgh. We repaired to a McDonalds so Murr could get some breakfast, then worked in Martin’s offices. At 1:30 we headed to lunch at The Swan Inn, a 13th century pub (thatched roof and all the old stuff) in the middle of Milton Keynes, a 20th century new town. It was another sunny and relatively warm day, and we had our bangers (sausages) and mash outdoors. Worked until 6:30. Murray and I grabbed a pint and dinner across from the hotel, and was asleep before ten.

Murray and I hopped in a cab at seven on Wednesday morning, met Martin at the Milton Keynes railway station, and rode into London. Hopped the Tube across town to South Kensington and our fancy digs at a small hotel called the Pelham, literally across the street from the Tube. Very handy.

Murray Skelton (L) and AURA chief Martin Cunnison preparing for the summit

Our “AURA Summit” began later that morning, a productive day of debate and discussion about how to move from prototype to actual product. After a long day we walked a few blocks north and west (the neighborhood around the Victoria & Albert Museum and Imperial College is very familiar) to dinner at The Gore, a sister hotel to the Pelham.

Old and new at the Science Museum, Queensgate Mews

A nice meal, and my first glass of Lebanese wine. I marveled at its place of origin, the Bekaa Valley. The name registered immediately in this geographer’s brain – the Bekaa was the site of some nasty battles during the protracted civil war in Lebanon in the late 1970s and early ‘80s.

Was up early Thursday morning. I needed a stretch, so ambled down to the hotel’s tiny gym, in the basement, and rode the exercise bike for nine miles. It was tonic. The meeting started a bit late, and the day was less productive – we got sidetracked a bunch. High point was an end-of-day presentation from an industrial-design firm called Factorydesign (their ability to turn imagination into aesthetic and effective design reminded me of a point John Crabtree made a few days earlier: the UK ranks first in the world, well ahead of the U.S., in creative industries’ value-added per capita).

Sitting Room, Pelham Hotel; I don't often get to stay in places like this, and it was a treat!

The team headed in different directions that evening. I jumped on a conference call for an hour, then hopped on the Tube, riding two stops west to Earls Court Road and Masala Zone, a small chain of Indian restaurants that I’ve been visiting on recent trips. First, though, time for a pint. Spotted the Blackbird Inn a few hundred feet south of the Tube station, and ambled in for a pint of London Pride. And my daily prayers – I didn’t think God would mind if I put down my tipple and gave thanks for my many blessings and asked for His intercession. Refreshed and renewed, I tucked into a large plate of spicy food, hopped the Tube back to South Kensington, and clocked out.

I was up and on the exercise bike again Friday morning, packed up my suitcase (with the bears), and headed downstairs to breakfast. Had a nice chat with Tara and Martin. David appeared, and we three boys headed east on the Tube to a meeting with a creative agency that just did the user interface (screen navigation) for BA’s newest IFE system (unhappily from one of the old big companies). We left the meeting at 11:15. I peeled off to buy a jar of Colman’s English Mustard (cheaper and a sharper flavor than what they export to the U.S.), grabbed my suitcase, and took the Tube to Heathrow. Was home by 8:15 p.m., but to an empty house – Linda was with the grandchildren and our long-time cleaner and dogsitter Consuelo would deliver MacKenzie the next day. It was too quiet, but it was nice to be home.

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Day Trip to Austin and the University of Texas

MBA students and Professor Wayne Hoyer (foreground, right) at Scholz's Garden

Was home for three weeks, catching up on work, helping to move AURA forward, hosting Robin and her family for Easter week. On Wednesday the 20th, I flew down to the state capital (34 minutes) for a day of teaching at the University of Texas at Austin. Hopped the $1 bus into town and at 10:45 met one of my hosts, Ying Zhang, and delivered a lecture to undergraduate business students. At one we met my other host, Wayne Hoyer, for a plate of Tex-Mex, then back to Ying’s class from 2 to 3:15 and Wayne’s MBA class from 3:30 to 4:45. Whew! Tradition then has us quickly at Scholz’s Beer Garden (which claims to be the oldest surviving business in the state) with students. It was a small but lively group. At six, Ying zoomed me back to the airport. A long day, but after missing the trip in 2010, it was great to have UT back on the teaching circuit.

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