I’m traveling quite a bit less this year, and was home all of July, working and in the last week teaching a crisis-management short course at Georgetown. Finished grading exams and projects on Monday, August 1, and the next day I headed to the airport for my ninth visit to the South American Business Forum, a student-run business conference in Buenos Aires. The trip did not begin well: it took four hours to get to Miami. And continued poorly: I was headed first to Montevideo, for a one-day quick look-see, and the 10:10 p.m. flight first posted an ETD of 12:00 midnight, then 1:30, then 1:30 the next afternoon. Happily, the Admirals Club remained open all night, and I found a couple of comfy chairs, one for my seat and one for my legs, pulled my blazer over my head, and managed to get almost five hours of sleep. Took a shower, and headed off to breakfast at the airport’s La Carreta, a longtime Miami institution. Bowl of cereal and muffin, to which I added a nice dessert: Cuban tres leches cake. I needed some sugar!
I could not abide hours in the airport, so I bought a public transit day ticket for $5.65 and hopped on the Metrorail train into downtown, then south to Coconut Grove, a neighborhood I knew well from working there three summers in grad school in the mid-1970s. I opted not to leave my luggage at the airport club, and after walking a few blocks from the Grove train station I regretted the cargo – was immediately sweaty, and was reminded that Miami is not comfy in the summer (40 years ago, my host Herb did not believe in air conditioning, but he had a marvelous swimming pool which we used several times a day!). Coconut Grove was once a funky sort of place, full of hippies and natural food stores and such, but real estate values have transformed the place, and it’s now boringly affluent. Well-heeled tourists have replaced the flower children and bohemians. More broadly, after being swatted down in the 2008 recession, Miami is booming again, high-rises everywhere.
Back at the airport, the new ETD for the Montevideo flight was 2:30, then 4:00, then they canceled it. So I got on the standby list for the 6:00 and 8:00 flights to Buenos Aires. I have an AA-employee app on my iPhone that shows flight standby lists, and it was clear I wasn’t going to get a seat at six, nor probably at eight. I repaired yet again to the Admirals Club and looked at other ways to get south. The first available flight to Buenos Aires was three days hence (and from New York), meaning I would miss most of the conference. Then, slap my forehead (why didn’t I think of this before?), I checked flights to Santiago, and I could get on American’s nonstop that very night, buy a standby ticket across the Andes to Buenos Aires, and be where I was supposed to be at the time I was supposed to be there (minus a stopover in Montevideo). After a bit of drama at the gate, I got a seat, uttered a loud “woo hoo” and got on the Silver Bird.
The bad luck continued, though at relatively smaller scale: the 777 had a mechanical problem, so we went back to the gate, finally climbing into the sky three hours late. While at the gate, I bought a standby ticket for a later flight to Buenos Aires, but I still needed to sprint through Santiago airport to make the 10:50 a.m. KLM nonstop. God bless the Dutch, I snagged seat 20B, did a little dance at the gate (informing a bemused staff of my half-century of standby travel), and off we went. It had been four years since I flew over the Andes, and I had forgotten both how tall they were and how close to the jet. Way cool!
When I finally arrived in Argentina I practically kissed the ground. Bought a bus ticket into the city, enroute working my email (Wi-fi on the bus! Nice!). When I got off in Retiro, on the edge of downtown, I was elated. Even more, because of my many trips there, Buenos Aires felt comfortable, familiar, home-like. Walked briskly to the hotel, 10 minutes, and checked in. Sergio, one of the front-desk clerks, remembered me, and vice-versa. More sense of home.
Showered, grabbed a quick nap, and at 4:45 met my long friend and now fellow SABF stalwart Rick Dow, and we walked a mile to the host institution, the Instituto Tecnológico de Buenos Aires and an informal conference opening event, billed as a “tea party,” The Spanish word, merienda, sounded better, but in any event we were soon in the middle of what has long attracted us to the academy – the energy of youth. Jimmy, a former SABF organizer, told us of his start-up venture. Priscila, standing next to him, seemed eager to tell us her story. So when Rick asked what she was working on, she became incandescent, and for good reason: an architecture student, she had designed recently designed a circular shield for a university astronomical observatory in Rosario. The observatory is in the city center, and for many years has been unusable because of light and heat pollution, and dirt and particulates in the air. She solved those problems with an ingenious design combining function and beauty, and the observatory will soon be again open to the heavens. Whew! Rick and I worked the room separately. I met Gabriel from Germany, Javid from Azerbaijan (headed to Berlin to start a MBA), Qhayiya from South Africa, and lots more. A fine kickoff.
Grabbed another short nap, and at 8:15 we met Juan Trouilh, the fellow who in 2005 first invited me to SABF. More than a decade after helping to found the forum, he’s still deeply committed to its success, which is exemplary. Rick, Juan, and I walked a couple of blocks west to Tancret, a Spanish restaurant, for a fine meal, mainly fish and seafood, some wine, and great conversation across a range of topics, not least the prospects for the new Argentine president, Mauricio Macri, a center-right candidate elected in late 2015, replacing years of corruption and cronyism by Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and other descendents of the goofy Peronist ideology. The last task before sleep, has become customary: a bit of cheerleading for the 18 members of the SABF organizing team 10 hours before the start. Rick and I both spoke, cheering them on.
The first day of SABF is always a plenary, and the after the ITBA dean welcomed us, the first speaker was brilliant, a Palestinian citizen of Israel who told group that when facing challenges, we can either cry, become insular, or take control over what surrounds us. She has chosen the latter, not an easy choice in a place divided by centuries of conflict. Unhappily, most of the subsequent speakers were not of her caliber (and one was simply awful), but the day ended on a high note, a superb summary of the day from another SABF stalwart, Diego Luzuriaga.
We buttonholed Priscila, the architecture student we met the night before, and Pascal, a Ghanaian we met earlier in the day, and invited them to join our table at the group dinner at El Figón de Bonilla, where we’ve eaten on the first night for years (the owner remembered Rick and me, hugged us, and at the end of the meal brought the table complimentary glasses of sparkling wine; that’s hospitality, no?). Dinner was leisurely, which gave both youngsters the opportunity to tell their stories. Pascal grew up in a subsistence-farming village in northern Ghana, without access to education, and in 2014 he graduated from Harvard. In between was a remarkable story of determination, help from some Americans who believed in him, and pure serendipity. Before Priscila began studying architecture, she qualified as a certified music teacher (piano and violin) at 17. She was especially delightful because she opened her soul, telling us about being bullied as a child, about some odd experiences as an exchange student in Switzerland, and more. It was a remarkable evening.
Saturday was spent in breakout sessions, punctuated by lunch with a Brazilian, a Pole, and an Argentine. They were especially interested in what we did at American Airlines after the 9/11 attacks, and I was happy to tell them the story. I skipped out of the last session in order to start writing closing remarks for the next day, which was my major job.
At 7:00, Rick and I met a former SABF organizer with whom I’ve kept in touch, Julieta Rodriguez. I had not seen her for six years, so it was good to catch up. She was married a few months earlier, and we talked about matrimony, jobs, business, life, all at a bar around the corner from our hotel. At nine, we hugged goodbye, and Rick and I hopped in a taxi out to the Palermo neighborhood and a wonderful steak-and-Malbec dinner at Rio Alba, a comfortable neighborhood place. The place was empty when we arrived at 9:15, and packed by 10, including families with small children – the Argentines are flexible about kids’ schedules, a good thing for sure. We shared a small bowl of ice cream, whence Rick remarked “They must have cows in this country!”
High point of day three was a short speech by Marcos Peña, chief of staff in the new government and, perhaps not coincidentally, the son of friend Felix, a longtime professor at ITBA (I’ve known him a decade). Sr. Peña did not strike Rick nor I as a “business-as-usual” politician. He was young, well-traveled (like us, a backpacker in an earlier time), smiling, articulate, and not glib. The challenge for the new administration is to manage expectations. It took decades of misrule and kleptocracy to create the mess, and fixes will take awhile. But the country is in better hands than at any time since I began helping with the conference. I did my closing, a short talk summarizing the conference and lifting up the stories of a few of the shining students we met, answered questions, and it was over. Rick and I hugged a few more folks, walked back to the hotel, changed clothes, and headed across the street to a corner restaurant and bar for a beer.
At 8:15, we met Christoff Poppe, country manager for United Airlines (I met him years ago when he was working at United’s Chicago headquarters and earning a MBA at Northwestern). American helped SABF for a couple of years, but United has really stepped up. This was the third consecutive year when we’ve met Christoff for a meal (he also moderated a session on Saturday). We drove in his car to the San Telmo neighborhood south of downtown and La Plata, a steakhouse where President Obama’s wife and daughters had lunch on a recent visit. Christoff’s newest hire, Ary, coincidentally an ITBA grad and former SABF organizer, joined us. Three airline veterans and a newbie, the latter marveling as we carried on about various aspect of our business, the carrying on rising in vigor as we tucked into a lot of meat and more than a little red wine. It was a long and fun evening, a perfect way to end the visit.
I was happy that I could sleep in Monday morning, 7:30. I had time for a short walk around the center, snapping a few pictures with a cool new digital camera (I had reverted to iPhone photos a couple of years earlier, largely because the digicam I bought in 2006 was bulky; this one is tiny, weighs 8 ounces, and has tons of power, including a 30X optical zoom lens). Shook Sergio the hotel guy’s hand, promised to be back in 2017, and set off for the bus to the airport. First stop, though, was to deliver the couple of pounds of meat left over from the night before. I gently deposited it at the feet of a homeless person snoozing in a sleeping bag.
Flew back across the Andes to Santiago. Had a nice T-t-S moment with a woman immigration officer. When I greeted her in well-accented Spanish, she responded in her language. I asked if we could switch to English. “No,” she replied, “you need to practice.” Loved her assertiveness, and valued the lesson. And valued Don Miguel, my first Spanish teacher, way back to fourth grade, 1960.
The flight was almost an hour late, which required me to hustle onto the bus then the Metro. My 13-year-old Metro chipcard no longer worked. The ticket seller at Pajaritos station smiled when she saw it, a look that said “this old guy is way, way behind.” At the hotel, in the suburban Las Condes office district, I quickly donned suit and tie, and headed to a 6:00 lecture for MBAs at Universidad Católica downtown. It was my first visit there since 2012, and it was good to be back in Andrés Ibañez’s class. Gave a quick lecture, spent 15 minutes with Christoff’s Chilean counterpart Arlette (a late invite to the class), and peeled off for dinner at a favorite rustic restaurant, Patagonia Sur. It had been awhile, but the place was the same. Had some craft beer and a plate of congrio, a large eel that is a fave, really tasty. Was asleep before ten.
My only task during the last day in South America was a seminar for employees of LATAM Airlines, the carrier formed through the merger of LAN in Chile and TAM from Brazil, and it didn’t start until four. So step one was a long walk around downtown, snapping some pictures. Back to the hotel, worked a bit. Step two was a 1:30 lunch with LATAM’s new VP-Network, Mike Swiatek. Mike was a guy I knew only by reputation, and it was great fun to hear his story. Son of a United Airlines gate agent in Buffalo (then LAX), after graduation from Iona College he headed to Poland to work for a couple of years (his family was Polish, and this was before the fall of communism, remarkable). Back in the U.S., he moved to L.A., worked in banking, got into the way-competitive MBA program at the University of Chicago, and embarked on an airline career that took him to United, Continental, United again, Alitalia, Air New Zealand, and more. Just a great story and a great fellow.
Delivered the seminar to about 70 youngsters, answered a few questions, hopped in a car, zipped to the airport, and flew home. The annual SABF foray is such a joy: seldom does one have the opportunity to meet so many interesting and energetic young people in such a short time. The future is in their hands.