On the way home from Indonesia, I was feeling about a quart low, and indeed I contracted shingles, sort of like chicken pox for older adults. Didn’t have anything to do with tropical pathogens, the doctor said stress often triggers the onset (well, yeah, like getting your phone stolen, leaving your passport at the hotel, etc.!). It’s uncomfortable, to me not debilitating, but persistent.
Persistence meant I still had some symptoms when I departed Tuesday, August 5 for Buenos Aires and my seventh appearance at the South American Business Forum. But the show must go on, especially at that student-run conference where I have become something of a senior leader and proud cheerleader. The journey south had a few complications that were not my doing. The Washington-New York flight was severely delayed, which would have meant missing my connection to B.A. I was rebooked on another flight that was also late. The original schedule gave me almost three hours at JFK. I arrived 9:40, waited five minutes for my gate-checked bag, and walked as fast as I could across American’s big Terminal 8. As I dashed, I heard them paging me to go to gate 8 “for immediate departure,” to which I responded “I’m coming, I’m coming” (I’ve never been paged as a tardy passenger). At the top of an escalator a man asked if I was Robert Britton, and escorted me to the gate. I was on the Silver Bird 10 minutes before departure time, and they closed the door right behind me. Whew, that was close.
Arrived into winter in the Southern Hemisphere, met one of the conference volunteers, Lucas Diaz, and my sidekick Rick Dow (see earlier posts, a longtime friend and marketing genius), who was making his second SABF appearance. Hopped in Lucas’ car and were soon yakking across a bunch of topics, not least what sounded like an awesome presentation Rick would give the next day. It was a pleasure to be in B.A., a place that has become familiar. Rick and I checked into the hotel, changed money, and headed to lunch at one of the city’s cool bares notables, the Bar Britanico in the San Telmo neighborhood just south of downtown. We spent a couple of hours yakking, ate a good meal, had a beer.
We then headed to a high-rise that has long been the site of the first day plenary, met some of the conference organizers, and tested Rick’s presentation. At six, we walked a few blocks south to the compact campus of ITBA, the Buenos Aires Institute of Technology, the SABF host institution, and plunged into the first forum event, a noisy and lively “tea party.” Organizers asked the roughly 100 participants (50 from Argentina, 25 from elsewhere in Latin America, and 25 from other places) to bring some nonperishable food from their homelands, so we were able to tuck into geitost (caramelized goat cheese from Norway), savory crackers from Paraguay, the sweet cookie from Argentina called an alfajon, and lots more. Taste was great, but better was the exuberance of the youngsters. We met Kulani and Mokgohloe, two women medical students from South Africa, Daniel from Venezuela, Ariadne from Ukraine, and many more.
Next stop was dinner with long friends Martín Siniawski and his partner Valeria Luna, and Juan Trouilh and his girlfriend Barbara. The two guys were part of the SABF founding team, and we’ve become close through the years. Dinner was at Caseros, a delightful restaurant Juan’s cousin owns (unhappily, she wasn’t there). We shared wonderful appetizers, ceviche and grilled sweetbreads, then I tucked into a ribeye steak. I am not a big red-meat eater, but when I’m in Argentina I really appreciate the superior flavor and texture of grass-fed beef, so much better than the grain-pumped feedlot animals in my native land. Yum! The day ended just after 11, with me as cheerleader, addressing the SABF organizing team on the eve of the conference. I got ‘em fired up!
Next morning the conference began, a full day of plenary, six speakers, including Rick’s stupendous preso. Met lots more students, including Artem from Russia, Menzi from South Africa, Thijs from the Netherlands, and more. As good as the sessions were, the chatter during coffee breaks, lunch, and dinner may have been better. So many remarkable life stories, like from Aslan, born in Iran but now a proud Oklahoman. The day sped by, as did the next one, Friday. I moderated a student presentation in the morning, continued yakking. Rick and I left a bit early, grabbed a short nap, then returned to a group dinner.
Before dinner, we ambled across the street to an agreeable neighborhood restaurant, El Establo, for a beer. It’s got a great local feel. I thought I knew Rick pretty well, but he told me lots of new stories, of him living in Paris as a teenager, and more color on his first real job, selling pool chemicals in the Southeast. Just one colorful story: he loves music (his first job – not a real one, he says – was owning and running a live-music bar, Vegetable Buddies, in South Bend, Indiana), so often on his selling trips he’d check out various music venues in the Carolinas, Georgia, etc. That included breaking into a closed, old hotel in Macon, Georgia, to “commune” with the spirit of Little Richard, one of the black musicians who hugely influenced rock and roll; Rick knew that Little Richard had been a dishwasher in the hotel. I could listen to his stories for hours!
On Saturday morning,we started a bit later, so the Transport Geek hopped on the subway for a short ride; the now-privatized system is old and in need of investment (judging by the Japanese characters on windows, my train began life across the Pacific). Stations have wonderful old art, mosaics, paintings, and tiles.
We did a cool group activity that morning, basically an hour of dance with a wonderful and inspiring moderator. My big job, for the third time, was to summarize and close the conference that afternoon, a task I have come to relish, for it gives me the opportunity for a full measure of inspiration. I also was able to meet and thank parents of six or seven organizers, which was lovely, and pose for countless pictures with the youngsters. It was sorta rock-star treatment, and I kept telling them that I was getting far more than I gave. Once again, a colossal conference. I am just so happy to be associated with the group. They are like family.
At 6:30 Rick and I met a former organizer, Josue, now a management consultant, for a beer and a good yak. He still wants to get into the airline business, and Rick (a former VP at Northwest Airlines) and I dispensed some advice. The airline theme continued at 8:15, when we met Christoff Poppe, the Argentine country manager for United Airlines. I met Christoff when he was a MBA student at Kellogg a few years back, and we reconnected earlier in the year. Three airline guys, two former and one current, made for a lively dinner at Al Carbon, a steak place around the corner from our hotel. We covered a lot of topics, including our industry, Argentine economics and politics, and lots more. Really fun. And another steak.
I was plumb wore out, but we promised students we’d show at the end-of-conference party, so at 11:30 Rick and I hopped in a cab and motored west to the Palermo neighborhood and the Liv night club. A night club! I don’t think I had been in such a place for at least 25 years. It was lively, the kids were having big fun, but it was way too noisy for this old guy. Still, we moved around, getting into digital snapshots, hugging and one-cheek-kissing almost everyone (Rick and I do like the Latin way). On the way out, I ran into another old SABF hand, Agustín DiLuciano, a telecoms engineer who told me he’s spending more and more time as an artist – a good thing, because he has huge talent.
But we weren’t done. Nope. At 1:45, we left the club and headed to La Catedral, a tango club that Juan Trouilh told us about. It was exactly as he described: dumpy, funky, but totally local and totally memorable: I will long remember ordinary Porteños (as locals are known) moving around the dance floor, filled with energy, and a lot of passion. The tango is such a cool dance. We left just before three, and I felt pretty local. I’m an early-to-bed guy, and have been for decades, but lately I have discovered – perhaps better late than never – that if I stay up late from time to time I’m not gonna die! So 4.5 hours of sleep was better than zero. And, oh, did we have fun.
Up Sunday morning, packed my bag, and met Rick for breakfast at 9:30. We hopped in a taxi and headed to Recoleta, pausing to admire the baroque church of Nuestra Señora del Pilar (1732), then into the huge cemetery where Eva Peron and lots of others are buried. It’s a fascinating place, with elaborate burial vaults and structures, some in poor repair.
The latter are a sort of metaphor for the local economy, which has been on a down slope for more than seven decades. As I have written in these pages after previous visits, Argentina 110 years ago was as rich as the United States, but the decline began with the election of Juan Peron in the 1940s. His populist approach, with lots of state intervention (and ample corruption) has become entrenched, and has destabilized an economy with enormous resources and potential. The collectivist urge has actually engendered an absence of togetherness, and the evidence is plainly visible on the street (for example, in disrepair and dog turds on the sidewalk).
We walked the rows and rows of the cemetery, then headed into the nearby park, filled with what seemed like an oversupply of artists and craft vendors. Hopped in a cab for a (to us) late lunch with Martín and Vale, at a sensational local parrilla (barbecue), more steak, some spicy chorizo, and more. After the meal, we walked a few blocks to their high-rise apartment and rode up to the 31st floor for stunning views of the city. Had a coffee and a short yak in their apartment, then headed out for another amble around Palermo.
Rick shares my delight in spending time in ordinary landscapes, so the hour or more walking the streets of an interesting neighborhood was to both of us a perfect way to spend a Sunday afternoon. Some scenes from the neighborhood:
We hopped in a taxi back to the hotel, I said goodbye to Rick, and hopped in a private car (I planned to take the bus, but the SABF, always hospitable, organized a nice ride). The driver spoke no English, so it was the perfect moment to thank Don Miguel, my first Spanish teacher, way back to 1960 (I actually murmured a “Gracias, Don Miguel” the night before in the steakhouse, where I ordered all courses in Spanish). The driver was my age, a friendly fellow, and we exchanged basics – my job, my family, his family. He explained that he was in his second marriage, and had children aged 6 to 40. It was a fun ride, a nice variant on Talking to Stangers. Flew to Dallas/Fort Worth, arriving early Monday morning. I was headed to family vacation in South Carolina, and had a seven-hour layover, so I took a welcome shower, worked a bit, and at 1:50 flew to Charleston.