Near Yellow Mountain

Friday, January 25, 2013

One Man Band

One of the many benefits of our ex-pat days in China was the fact that there was an abundance of helpers – a full time assistant who spent her days looking for new ways to help me (and my family) and never felt any request was too much, an “aiyi” (auntie) in the office who made sure I always had oolong tea (even though I liked the Japanese brand), and the often mentioned driver Philip to make sure I always got where I needed to be and never had to worry about where to park. We also had an ayi at home, a lawn guy, the garbage got picked up five days a week – you get the picture. I was never able to play golf in China without a caddie – it was just part of the deal in a land with an abundance of low cost labor. The Chinese caddies had a tendency to give you the benefit of the doubt in keeping your score. One day my caddie handed me the scorecard she had kept and asked me to sign it before she turned it in for handicap calculation. After looking at the total, I wasn’t sure if she was trying to become a fiction writer or thought it was my birthday. My card said 87. The caddie’s card said 79.  
Caddies in China - always ready to help

In my eleven years overseas, I signed a lot of papers – all sorts of contracts, government required forms that I couldn’t read (thank the Lord for my previously mentioned assistant – Sabrina), expense reports, employment offers, etc. I just never had to fill out any forms I signed. When I traveled out of the country even the entry documents were filled in for me. Ok, I am not going to get any sympathy for having gotten spoiled while I was out of the country. The point I am about to make is - my life changed dramatically when I got back to the US.

While I was living overseas the company I worked for, like many, cut back support staff in the US - time and time again. In many cases, marginally usable technology replaced humans. The results weren’t pretty. Booking travel on-line was easy if you were flying to Chicago but was unspeakably bad if you needed to go to Singapore through Tokyo and Hong Kong. One time the Orbitz website suggested a 46 hour “layover” in Istanbul (yes, the one in Turkey) to save $400 when I was flying from Tokyo to Charlotte. Unbelievable but true.

Far too often, the people left in support functions spent more time explaining why they couldn’t help you than getting things done. Still, I was lucky. The admin I shared with a group, that seemed to include more members than AAA, was very dedicated - an exception to the rule in our company. She had worked with me before I moved to Asia, was loyal and helped as much as she could. I didn’t realize it but having to do more administrative work myself was good training for what was to come.

When I left the company almost four months ago, I didn’t look back. I never fully adjusted to being back in the US organization. Besides getting spoiled overseas, I developed skills that were not valued on this side of the Pacific. Despite getting calls from headhunters, I decided to forgo getting another “corporate job” and to work independently in the industry I know best as an advisor to former customers and new lithium producers. The fact the global market for lithium is in a boom period (perhaps a poor choice of words given the current battery woes that have grounded Boeing’s new Dreamliner) was very helpful in creating demand for my niche expertise.  Much to my surprise, several companies expressed interest in retaining my services. Working on my own seemed to be the best course of action for me but also provided a further shock to my formerly spoiled “by an abundance helper’s” self.

As my fledgling enterprise got off the ground there were a lot of basic things to do. Form an LLC, set up accounting, design and order business cards, negotiate contracts, etc. Once I was actually working there was more to do: issuing invoices and making sure I got paid being among the most important. I am my own secretary, IT person and travel agent. I am President of the new company. I am also the janitor.

Earlier this week, I was asked to visit a client in China next month. I checked my visa for China and found it expires a week before I leave. I have been getting visas for China for 13 years. Every time I did it the same way – I handed my passport to my administrative assistant and said; “please get me a new visa”. A week later, a Fed-X envelope appeared on my desk with my passport with a new visa.

In the brave new world of being a “one man band”; I need to handle all the travel details - booking the ticket (and confirming the upgrades) which wasn’t too much of an effort but still takes time. I am embarrassed to say it took a large part of a day to go on-line find a service company to expedite my urgent visa request, fill out the service and visa applications and write a letter from my employer (me) to the Chinese consulate general, guaranteeing that I would not be a financial burden to the people of the People’s Republic of China. The letter was required to be on “company letterhead” which I had to create on the fly.

In the middle of printing the forms, my printer ran out of ink so I asked the IT guy (me) to go to Office Depot and get an ink cartridge. When I returned, I tried to enlist the help of our faithful dog Yuki to review the checklist of required documents as I stuffed them into the
Fed – X envelope but she just sighed and left my office. Turns out I needed a passport size photo – guess who I asked to help with that? Me. It was a stressful day doing simple tasks. I felt a bout of multiple personality disorder coming on as I juggled my various roles.

Today, I reflected on all the time I spent on mindless tasks to get ready for a trip to China. For a minute I longed for the corporate infrastructure that, for most of my business life, took care of details for me but then I remembered how miserable I was when I returned from Asia to HQ and spent more than half my time in mind numbing meetings with no agenda or spending hours trying to “manage the quarterly numbers” for my corporate masters. The next time I need a visa, it will take a fraction of the time it took yesterday. I am fortunate to have found clients that will enable me to stay active in a business I know and enjoy while continuing to travel the world.
Philip saying goodbye to Connie on her last day in China
Life in Shanghai would have much harder without Philip

Monday, January 21, 2013

The West Wing

Today is Inauguration Day in the US. By custom, the President makes a speech to begin the new term followed by a parade and other festivities to reward the faithful for their hard work in getting him elected or, in this case, re-elected.
This is the first time since 1997 that I have been in the US on Inauguration Day. I am listening to President Obama's speech as I write this. Our current President is a great speaker and a pretty good gum chewer if today’s performance is typical. I only wish he was even a mediocre President but let’s give him his second term to try to make good on one or two of the many campaign promises he seemed to have forgotten between trips to the golf course and Hawaii during his first term. My grandchildren (not yet born) may have the historical perspective to properly rank President Obama’s performance vs others that have held the office. At this point, I rank him somewhere between Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter.  It is hard to respect anyone who after four years in office is still blaming George Bush and Congress for his inability to get things done. If today’s events were a “West Wing” episode - it would likely have been titled “Past is Prologue” and would probably have been more interesting than the real Inauguration.
I have been revisiting the West Wing series via Netflix. The 70 minutes I am on an elliptical each morning in the gym allows me to watch about an episode and a half before I have breakfast. The series ran during George Bush’s time in office and seems to have been Hollywood’s attempt to fantasize of a world without a republican in the Oval office. In any case, I love the show – good characters and good writing. Watching on a daily basis (I have watched 75 of 156 episodes) makes me hearken back to TV watching binges shared with my daughters when we were expats. Watching while on an exercise machine limits my guilt over wasting time watching TV – 70 minutes on an elliptical would be torture without some diversion.
The first few years we lived in Japan, we did not bother getting Satellite TV. My mother in law would tape a few popular shows (yes, it was a long time ago so it was VHS tape) and mail them on a regular basis. I liked getting my TV fix by tape because we could watch three or four episodes in a row. A habit I continued when we moved to Shanghai and could buy entire seasons of TV series at the DVD store for $5 in a nice boxed set. The Chinese DVD copy industry provided even more entertainment by usually misspelling the names of the stars on the packages and sometimes having a picture from “Lost” in the background when label said:  “’24’ Kevin Southerland is Jack Bauer”. Keifer Sutherland probably always wanted to be named Kevin anyway.
My elder daughter and I watched an entire year of “24” in less than 3 days when a typhoon turned our year end sojourn to Australia’s Gold Coast into several days of hunkering down in our beach front condo in front of the TV in between walks in torrential downpours. We powered through Prison Break in similar fashion during a smoggy weekend in Shanghai when venturing outside was not advisable.
Watching “West Wing” episodes filmed over ten years ago that are focused on gun control, terrorism, school shootings, congressional grid lock, and a tanking economy  serve as a reminder that nothing much has changed in Washington in a long time no matter whether a republican or a democrat is in the Oval office.
“West Wing” focuses on a fictional President whose wife routinely criticizes him for his lack of international engagement. When Asia is referenced in the show it is typically with well-worn stereotypes – the “evil” communist Chinese, the “hard to understand” Japanese, etc. Of course being an American show, there is invariably a happy ending after we are taken to the brink of some disaster each episode which is why I like the fictional West Wing more than the real thing.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Global Recycling

This is one of my least read posts but one I liked more than most. The re-post is a shameless attempt to see if giving it a new title (that is more appealing on search engines) will increase the readership. My apologies to those who now get to this page looking for info on a different type of recycling. I am always interested why some posts get 10X the number of hits as others.

Chain(s) of command
From early childhood, we learn the concept of chain of command - in our homes, in school and later in the workplace. Everyone has a boss.

In each culture the chain of command plays out differently but in the end, everyone is ultimately accountable to a higher power.  Anyone that begins to climb the proverbial corporate ladder needs to learn political survival skills and that success does not always depend on what you do but how you "manage up".

One of the joys of an ex-pat's life is that often the boss is several thousands miles away - distance and several time zones tend to give the person working overseas more freedom than their peers in the home country. This was certainly true in my case. After eleven years in Asia, I was not eager to return to the US. From a business perspective, my overseas assignment had been a success. Over 11 years, sales in Asia increased >8 times and profits ~10 times. I enjoyed the freedom and the company was happy with the results. The family loved the time overseas too so it was a good move all the way around.

Unfortunately I enjoyed being away from HQ so much that after a few years, I let many important relationships grow distant. In my case "out of sight" really became "out of mind". I made the naive assumption that "results speak for themselves".  If I had only stayed  overseas 3 years as my original ex-pat agreement suggested, there would have been no issue as all the same people in "high places" were still in the same roles back home. After 5 years, things changed - I moved from Japan to China and was dealing with a very different culture and ignoring that the company culture back home was changing too. New Division leadership, new values. The people who knew me for what I had accomplished and believed I could accomplish more were replaced with people who saw me as a name on an org chart and a large ex-pat cost center. The new thinking was that "the market in Asia was growing" and I might be "just riding the wave". While I knew the reality was quite different, I made the mistake of thinking that just continuing to do my job well would be enough to demonstrate my value to the new team. I should have been more active in managing perceptions on the US side.

Fortunately, in time, the new Division President began to appreciate to some extent what I was doing but the business had grown to the point where more and more people wanted to be involved. I was told I needed to be more "inclusive" of the increasing stream of three day visitors from the US. I began to sign as many visa "invitation letters" as I did sales contracts.  More time passed; the business and the local team continued to grow. More profits and more headcount attracted more attention.

After 10 years in Asia, I was told that I would be moving back to a "global position" but was given a year to "make a smooth transition". Of course, I always knew the day would  come when we would return. The timing was good -  my younger daughter was graduating from Shanghai American School and returning to the US for university.

Unfortunately for me, about the same time corporate management changed - a new CEO and a new "Vision".  More pressure on our growing Division. More "expert advice" from people unfamiliar with our the details of our business.

My years of experience with the "old regime" became a liability rather than an asset. When my new global position was announced, the CEO and a board member happened to be in town. At a reception the board member overheard me indicate to a colleague that I really would prefer to spend a little more time in Asia. He was furious that the company would give such an "ungrateful" person a more responsible position. The CEO, who had just met me the day before was not happy. The board member was new and did not know me either. Had I done a better job of staying linked in to the new org structure it is likely my overheard comment would have been taken for what it was - a statement that I had thoroughly enjoyed 11 years overseas.

I was told by my Division leadership to "lay low" and things "will improve in time". The best line was "you are critical to our Division's success" but it is best if the CEO doesn't "hear from you directly".......

Lesson learned - no matter you accomplish in your day to day work,  you always need to be sensitive to the environment you are in. Results are great but they are only part of the package.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

"Back Again"

This morning as I pondered writing a blog post, I decided to write about throwing my back out just a few hours after having oral surgery on Wednesday. Due to the dentist’s work, I was sentenced to a liquid diet for three days and relegated to nothing more than “mushy foods” for ten days. After arriving home from the dentist - I opened the refrigerator, bent over to pick up a protein drink on a lower shelf and felt my muscles spasm. I knew what came next; I straightened up and felt the wind flow out of me like a Notre Dame running back being pummeled by an Alabama linebacker. Go Irish…..

I had expected pain for a few days after the dentist’s micro laser ravaged my upper gums in an attempt to prevent me from getting a bone infection that would ultimately cause me to lose a couple teeth. The fears of severe discomfort in my mouth after the pre-treatment pain killing shots wore off never materialized but the muscle revolt occurring in my lower back more than compensated for it. Unable to indulge in a much needed comfort food binge due to the aforementioned diet restrictions, I began to ponder whether single malt scotch met the criteria for the “liquid” phase of my diet.

The problem with my back has happened to me less than ten times in my life but this is the second time in 12 months. As I began to write about my current state, it occurred to me that I had already covered this topic. I went back to my blog history and found the prior installment. Seems I was lucky this time as I can actually sit up and write this. It also seems I didn’t take my own advice and begin a stretching routine after exercise and golf (no, I don’t consider golf “real” exercise). So, I will go back to applying Tiger Balm (a discovery from my first trip to Asia in 1995), drink a protein shake, and leave you with this……

“Back to Work” published 2/5/2012

For the past 18 years I have spent approximately 150 days a year traveling around the world. My travel pre and post ex-pat assignment has stayed quite consistent. In January, I spent a week in Japan, visited my daughter in LA, made a domestic trip to visit customers and took several people to Argentina for a week. I managed to play 4 rounds of golf on three continents. Business as usual... and then I threw my back out hitting practice balls on the driving range near my home. I am not prone to back problems and fully expected to take some Ibuprofen, skip a day of exercise and be fine the day after. No such luck. By the evening of my injury, I knew I would be working from home the next day since walking and to some extent breathing was difficult.

I stayed home a couple of days on my back - pecking out emails on my IPad because it was too hard to sit up and type on my laptop. I put heat on my back initially when I should have used ice. Fortunately my wife was kind enough to suggest that I "Google" how to treat my back - she already knew the right answer but also knew it was better for me to hear it from Google especially in the grumpy state the bad back put me in. My condition got worse on day 3 (I foolishly spent 35 minutes on an exercise bike and went to the office only to return in extreme pain). As a result, I spent a couple more days at home alternating ice packs, heat and ingesting more ibuprofen then the bottle recommends.

It has been a week since the full swing with a 4 iron reduced me to a teary, kneeling mess on the driving range but the experience has taught me many things besides stretching my aging body before hitting golf balls. The first thing is to appreciate my health. When it is hard to walk and draw a deep breath - little else matters. Fortunately, I had no travel planned for last week. I could still communicate with customers in Sydney, Singapore, Tokyo and New York as if nothing had happened but I kept coming back to the thought of how I had rarely missed a day of work in the prior 25 years. Like many, I took an occasional "mental health" day but as I lose about 15 to 20 weekends a year to travel, the "one off" mental health day still seemed like the company was getting the better end of the work bargain. From the back of mind came the thought - what if I got a permanent injury and could no longer live the type of life I live now?

As the painful days passed, I vowed to appreciate my health more and to try to do more to ensure I stay healthy. I have always exercised, sometimes probably as much for my head as my body. It was much harder for me not to exercise than not to go to work. Despite decades of daily exercise, I never took time for stretching, cooling down or slowing down when my body was telling me to take a day off.

Reflecting on what you would do if you lost your health leads to other questions - am I making the best use of the time I have? When you look in the mirror and the answer to that question is probably not - then it is time for more reflection.

Sunday, January 6, 2013


In the final days of 2012, my lovely bride asked me if I was making any New Year’s resolutions. My immediate reply was “no, how about you?”.  Although I have been on the planet more than half a century, I can only recall two times when I made New Year’s resolutions. In 1982, I actually wrote down my resolution/goal which was to run a marathon. By Thanksgiving of that year, I had run the 26.2 mile distance four times which I felt was a big accomplishment. On the other hand, I continued to view New Year’s resolutions as something that should be indulged in perhaps once every decade or two rather than on an annual basis.

As the clock approached midnight on 12/31, I pondered the reason for being asked the resolution question. My wife of 28 years is not given to asking questions without a reason or making idle statements. If she had decided to accomplish something or make a change in the coming year, it was important for me to know. There is potentially a “spillover effect” (on me, that is) like the time she decided to go “low carb” a few years ago while we were living in Shanghai.

Unaware of her decision - at first I thought that the Chinese government had made an overnight decision to ban and proactively confiscate carbohydrates. The Cheez-Its, that I stockpiled to keep at least one junk food link to the USA while living overseas, went missing. There were other signs of change, the green tea ice cream was another casualty but to counter balance, there was suddenly a generous inventory of beans, seeds and nuts in the house. Pondering the situation, I went for walk and saw a group of construction workers having a typical lunch of starchy rice and “mystery protein”. If there was a carbohydrate ban, clearly it was being unevenly enforced by the central government.  Later that day, I saw a paperback copy of the South Beach Diet on the kitchen counter. I asked about the book and my better half explained that she was a couple of days into “phase one”.  Linking the term “phase one” with the missing carbs didn’t paint a pretty mental picture of my at home dining future. I went to Google for some answers. Phase one sounded like a 14 day fast with a few calories mixed in to dull the pain. After a little more reading, for some yet unknown reason, I decided that “misery loves company”. I declared my second New Year’s resolution in a 24 year period. I was “all-in” for 3 months of the South Beach diet. Phase one sounded pretty bad – no carbs (at least no carbs that I wanted to eat), no alcohol, etc. but phase two seemed to allow enough flexibility to rationalize a reasonable meal and if I made it to phase three, I seemed home free.
The two weeks of phase one went by quickly. I intentionally didn’t travel so I was not confronted with pressure to eat stuff that wasn’t on the acceptable food list. I was several days into phase two before making a trip to Japan. Beer is still not allowed in phase two which presented a bit of an issue since almost every customer meal I have ever had in Japan started off with a beer and a ‘kanpai”. I thought I could finesse toasting and pretending to take a sip but I was not successful. “What is wrong, Lowry san?, you love beer”. “Kenko no tame ni (for my health)” was my reply. I explained the situation – that I was on a special diet for a few months “supporting my wife” who was on the same diet. I explained that I was allowed to have some wine but no beer, no Japanese French fries (the world’s best in my opinion) and no green tea ice cream.  They asked me how much weight I had lost. I said “5kg so far” and they responded “omedeto (congratulations) your diet should be over then, let’s drink beer”. I held my ground and explained that my diet would be over before my next trip. “But you are not so fat like most Americans and we know your wife is already skinny, what is the point?” Finally, the awkward “lost in translation” diet moment passed and I stayed the diet course with a large portion of edamame and sashimi.

By the time the three months was over I had lost 9kg (~20lbs) and weighed less than the day I graduated high school. I went 14 months between Cheez-Its and Pizza. Like the appearance of Haley's Comet, another more than year long fast from Cheez-Its and pizza is not likely to happen again in my life time.

Two successful New Year’s resolutions in 24 years. Perhaps skipping the annual resolution is a cop out but even if I count the years with no resolution as failures,  being 2 for 24 probably puts me at least at an average New Year’s resolution success rate.

If pressed for a 2013 resolution, I would have to say “maybe next year”.