I would have liked to have been home more than three nights, but one more paying gig summoned, an opportunity to deliver talks at three conferences in Chihuahua, so I flew south and west on Tuesday the 19th. It was colder in Mexico than in Washington, but the welcome was – as it always is in that super-hospitable land – warm. Victor Molina and Andrés Alvarez, two young businessmen, met me outside customs in Chihuahua. It was my fourth visit to that booming city of a million, capital of the state of the same name. We motored to El Retablo, a great restaurant I had visited before, for a late dinner, then across town to an unfamiliar hotel, the Soberano. The place was in the throes of taking on the Sheraton nameplate, and there were some rough edges, but all I really need is a soft bed and hot water.
Victor met me at eight the next morning for breakfast, then off to his employer, Zodiac Aerospace, a French company and one of many in Chihuahua’s Aerospace Cluster. They have successfully leveraged low labor cost, good technical training, and proximity to the U.S. to build a big – and growing – complex of firms that supply commercial, private, and military aviation. After a nice chat with two local HR managers we started the tour.
First stop was the plant where Zodiac makes the airplane hardware you never want to use: evacuation systems, meaning escape slides and life rafts. The affable plant manager, Luis, gave us a thorough tour, with the ever-curious T-Geek asking lots of questions. High point was two test deployments (every piece made there gets tested and certified before being scrunched into remarkable small packages). A slide-raft for an Airbus A320 was inflated and launched in 3.2 seconds. Whoosh! Next stop was the Water and Waste plant, where they make onboard water tanks and toilets. They test the latter, too, but only for #1!
We then headed to a plant where they make a range of wire harnesses and the actuators for business-class seats. There we met Benoit, the only French guy in among 3,000 Mexican employees (earlier, the HR guys and I had a discussion of cultural issues in managing manufacturing workforces). My frequent thought that morning was how all that high-tech, safety-sensitive manufacturing contrasted with most Americans’ image of what gets made in Mexico: blue jeans and tequila? Especially impressive was a small design and engineering team – Zodiac had the good sense to recognize that Chihuahua, with no fewer than three technological universities, was not just a place to make stuff, but that talent did not just exist back in France.
We headed to a late lunch downtown at a favorite from Victor’s childhood, a comfy 1970s style restaurant, Degá (Victor reminisced about visits with his parents; “I always had the hotcakes”). We walked past some nice old buildings, including a century-old theater that I had admired on my first visit. Drove back to the industrial park for one more tour, EZ Air, a joint venture of Zodiac and the Brazilian planemaker Embraer that supplies the latter with everything in the airplane interior except for seats: sidewalls, floors, ceilings, overhead bins, galleys, and lavs. Way cool.
Walking from that last plant, the day’s recurrent thought surfaced again, a thought that for a couple of decades has informed my view on the Mexican people: they work hard, and every person on this continent, Donald Trump included, should acknowledge that reality. Whether in Mexico or as immigrants in the U.S., all they want to do is work. Shouldn’t we Americans celebrate that will?
We then zoomed a kilometer to my first speaking gig, a 2.5-hour talk on the airline business to 45 people from various firms in the Aerospace Cluster. Lots of good questions. I was tired, and not that hungry, but of course my hosts invited us to dinner, so we headed to Las Faenas, a very lively place (Mexicans are world-class funmakers!). A bowl of vegetable soup and a beer hit the spot. The pillow was welcome.
Thursday was a “day off,” no speaking but still jam-packed. Javier Ortega, father of the young guy who organized the talks (also named Javier), picked me up at eight and we headed to Barriga, an agreeable restaurant, for a nice breakfast – good food and fine conversation. I took an immediate liking to Javier, who like me had a mixed career of teaching and professional work, mainly in manufacturing. We then headed to the plant he manages, Pregis (pronounced PRAY-jees), a U.S. maker of varied packaging materials. In this case it was a variety of polyethylene foam. As I wrote when chronicling the visit two weeks earlier to the mothballed German steel mill, I love industrial process, so another plant tour, in this case much simpler manufacturing compared to the high-tech aviation stuff, was also really interesting.
Javier was justly proud of the facility. It was his baby – he convinced the U.S. executives that the plant would make sense. The process was not labor-intensive, but parts of it required diligence – heat, pressure, flammable gases. Not many consumers think about how things get made, but I always do, and appreciate those who toil to make them.
I had a small brain freeze mid-morning. I had forgotten to copy my schedule from my laptop to my iPhone. Next stop was at the Chihuahua campus of Tec de Monterrey, the university. I remembered I was to see Angel, but Angel who? Javier called his son Javier, and I had a first and last name: Angel Olguin. Javier, el padre, dropped me at the main entrance, gave me a hug, and drove off. I got into the main building, remembered the International Office from a visit two years earlier, found it, and told the nice youngsters inside that I was a little lost!
Soon I was found, across the street at PIT2, one of the school’s two buildings housing business incubators, and meeting young Sr. Olguin, his wife Cristina, and colleague Raimundo (“but call me Ray”). A pleasant, smiling woman named Sol gave us a tour of both buildings. Many people were already away for Christmas break, but we met a few innovators and learned about their ideas. Perhaps the high point was to meet Alana, a young woman from Toronto, because she represented a nice reversal, a flow of ideas southward to support – and she reminded me of the transformative power of the jet plane, a theme I had spoken of many times in 2015.
We headed to lunch, back to Las Faenas (dinner venue the night before, but the food was great and I was happy to be there). A young entrepreneur, César Santacruz, joined us, and we had a nice chat and a fine taco lunch. He drove me back to the hotel, and I enjoyed the first nap in days. I worked the rest of the afternoon.
I was on my own that evening, and the plan was to revisit a wonderful historic bar, La Antigua Paz, a place that hosted the likes of Pancho Villa. The wonderful escorting of the previous two days caused some substantial inertia (yikes, I was on my own?), so I had to hurtle myself downstairs to the front desk, where they called a taxi. The driver didn’t know the joint, so I had to show him on my iPhone map. Happily, rush hour traffic was light. As soon as I walked in, I knew I was in the right place; not just because a bottle of beer was the equivalent of $1.30, but the vibe was perfect, a mix of energy and tranquility. People yakking at the end of the day, a mix of ages. And a battle of the bands: two Norteña groups belting out traditional tunes on accordion, bass fiddle, and guitar – and strong voices. On the wall in front of me were many photos of General Villa and fellow fighters. On the wall behind me, opposite Villa, were Laurel and Hardy, and above them a rack of deer antlers and a sign that read in Spanish, “Are these yours? Reclaim them.” It was like Mulligan’s in Dublin.
Twenty minutes in, Edgar Franco, a local pianist originally from Durango, sat down at the bar and we began chatting. He offered a CD of Christmas music and discs with other themes. I politely declined, but later bought the holiday music, and as I bring this journal up to date I am listening to his music, and smiling. The battle of the bands got more complicated when Edgar sat down at the piano. He played with passion, but the two groups seemed to crowd him out, but not before laying down a nice arrangement of the Beatles “Let It Be.” A few minutes later, Rod from Calgary, Phoenix, and Mazatlán (four months per year in each), and his Mexican friend Kiko sidled up to the stool Edgar abandoned. I had another beer and another plate of tacos. The next day was going to be busy, so I asked one of the barmen to call a taxi. After some minutes he shrugged and said, “No hay” – there are none. Kiko overheard, grabbed my arm, and he said he’d find one on the street. Ten minutes later, I was rolling back to the hotel with a driver and his wife, Margarita, the former intent on learning as much English as he could in 20 minutes. It was a lot of fun.
Friday the 18th was my last full, full day for the year, and it was busy. First stop, the Autonomous University of Chihuahua business school for a breakfast speech. Then back to the hotel and from 11 to 5:30 I delivered a seminar on leadership for about 40 members of IMEF, the Mexican Institute of Finance Executives. A good group, but a bit quieter than a similar audience in Torreón in the spring. My voice was giving out after weeks of speaking, but we got it done, and the group was happy. Said my goodbyes, hugs. Javier the younger had arrived earlier in the day, so we headed out for an early, quick dinner. I was asleep by nine.
Up before five Saturday morning, out to the airport, up to DFW, and home. It was good to be there.