Near Yellow Mountain

Saturday, December 26, 2015

The "Not PC" Christmas

Before I left the US in early 2000 to spend over a decade living and working in Asia, I always sent my customers around the world Christmas cards. When I lived in Japan I continued to send Christmas cards to customers worldwide and to my Japanese customers I sent "nengajo" or the traditional Japanese New Year cards. When I lived in China I sent Christmas cards overseas and, locally, greetings for several Chinese holidays including Chinese New Year. I did this out of respect for my tradition and the tradition of the culture of the country where my family was living.

My 2015 Christmas Card
 When I returned to the US just in time for Christmas 2010, I found my employer no longer allowed employees to order Christmas cards to be sent out under the company name - the cards had to say "Happy Holidays"- the logic was not to offend anyone. The company no longer allowed a Christmas party. We had a "holiday celebration". In China, we had a Christmas party. There was no stigma associated with saying "Merry Christmas" in the Shanghai office. My American colleagues often spoke about "communist China" yet after more than ten years living outside the US, it was a surprise to me that many Americans didn't seem to notice the freedoms they had lost. When you aren't supposed to say "Merry Christmas" at work in the "land of the free"- perhaps something was amiss......

 I asked my assistant to check closets around the office for old Christmas cards. She found several generations of unsent Christmas cards and I sent them. I was clearly out of step with tide of political correctness in America which is a major reason I am no longer working for my former employer. I never found Christmas cards offended my customers. The "holiday" cards were only a symbol of a society losing its way in the guise of being "non offensive" or "politically correct".

 From most of the past 25 years I have done business with people who believe differently than I do or not at all but I have never felt the need to hide what I believe. I respect the right of others to have faith that is different than mine or no faith at all. I wish everyone a "Merry Christmas" fully appreciating that most of my connections on Linked In believe differently than I do.

I respect everyone has the right to follow their own path but I remain a believer in Jesus Christ. Ben Stein, a Jewish economist, comedian and commentator discusses his perspective on the Christmas and makes the point better than I can. Depending on what country you are in - you may or may not see the Ben Stein video on Youtube. Click once after the "disabled" notice.

 Merry Christmas.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Around the World One Hundred Times - Part Two

A few days ago I was settling into my latest circumnavigation. Now I am in the last thirty-six hours. All transit now except for a fifteen hour mini visit in Hawaii. This trip will be the fastest I have ever gone around the globe. Although I will have been away from home eight days; I will actually have gone around the world in six days since I started in Charlotte spent two days in LA and then turned east and stopped in Chicago and Frankfurt on my way to Bangkok. I left LA five days ago and have spent 30 hours in flight since then. My total air time over the eight days will be about 54 hours. Total actual miles just under 21,000. Total frequent flyer miles just under 100,000 with bonuses.  My average trip is 12 days – I have never had one last more than 18 days. The logic of a 12 day trip is two working weeks with only one weekend away from home.

Yesterday and today I was on the Shinkansen (Japanese “bullet” train) to Osaka for a meeting and dinner and back to Tokyo. I rarely fly inside Japan – I love the bullet train.

The best flight of the trip was the ten plus hour flight from Frankfurt to Bangkok on Thai Airways. Thai’s first class is still real first class from Dom Perignon and caviar at the beginning of the meal to the Johnnie Walker Blue at the end.  The amenity kit is a mini Rimowa case not some “pleather” schlock served up by the US airlines.  The crew seemed to like their jobs which made for a pleasant experience from beginning to end. Actually the service started before I boarded when a uniformed Thai agent met my United flight in Frankfurt and escorted me to the lounge Thai uses. After I landed in Bangkok I got the same treatment. Are all the niceties necessary?  Of course not, but some things in your life should be special and I decided a long time ago, for me, flying is one of those things. Unfortunately it is almost impossible to have a true first class experience flying a US carrier. The US airlines for the most part have dropped any semblance of true service and moved to a “Greyhound bus in the sky” model. How do I know the Thai flight was the best when I still have four flights to go? Trust me I know – my remaining flights are on United. United’s first class isn’t terrible – the seats are pretty good now and the entertainment is almost world class but most of the flight attendants do not appear to enjoy what they do – to put it as kindly as I can. I will cross the two million mile barrier of actual flight miles on United on my way home so I know of what I speak.

Thai Airway First Class

Twenty years ago when I began flying to Asia and experimented with non US carriers, I quickly learned that flying Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Lufthansa, Thai, Swiss and ANA were the better way to go on long hauls. The difference between the best foreign carriers and the best US offering is greater now than it was then. The Star Alliance and OneWorld based RTW tickets have enabled me to experience the best carriers and make gratuitous stopovers all under the well-worn guise of “saving money”. When you are spending over $10,000 a ticket no money is being saved but the idea sounds good to bean counters. Since I work for myself now, I am spending my own money and I continue to fly first on international trips. I am a “spoiled traveler” who often stays in $400 a night hotel rooms but washes underwear and workout clothes in the sink to avoid hotel laundry charges. “Value” is in the eye of the beholder.

I have spent much of my adult life on airplanes but I never “rode in the front” until I was thirty years old. I liked it enough that I began to study how to “hack” the airlines rules without breaking any laws. Once I started flying internationally, I spent time reading about how to get the most for spending the least. I also picked the brains of experienced travelers like my seatmate who told me about RTW tickets. Most people that use RTW tickets miss a key point. The ticket is mileage based with enough miles to go about 1.5 times around the world but ends once you return to the city where you started. If you go around the world but land near your starting point you can buy a cheap connector ticket to “home base” and continue to use the ticket to fly thousands more miles. Early in my RTW days, I wrote the tickets starting in Charlotte, NC but would fly back to Atlanta and connect back to Charlotte on a separate ticket. To continue using the ticket I would fly back to Atlanta and then I could fly to the west coast (or even Hawaii on one occasion), back to Buffalo to see relatives and then to Charlotte to finally end the ticket. I almost always go 1.25 around the world on one ticket. There are rules about how many total stops – I think it is 14 now but that gives you a pretty long travel leash.

Since 2000 I have started all my RTWs in Japan. I lived in Japan then but have lived in China and the US the past ten years. Even still due to an anomaly in the Star Alliance pricing model it is still cheaper to buy tickets in Japan in Yen than in USD no matter what the Yen/$ exchange rate is. Japan is not famous for bargains but this is one.

On night five of this trip, I had dinner with a friend in a sushi restaurant off the beaten path in Tokyo. The place was a 25 minute cab ride from my hotel. My friend, well aware that I enjoy “local things”, took me to a place that doesn’t see many non-Japanese customers. Clearly most of the patrons knew each other. In central Tokyo, a gaijin (foreigner) doesn’t get a second look but in this place I think anyone from outside the neighborhood would have been noteworthy and seeing a gaijin was kind of like a bald eagle sighting. The meal ended with a brief chat with the owner and some of the customers who were extremely tolerant of my limited linguistic ability – another reason why I love Japan. For the most part I avoid western food when I am in Asia. I love to eat local wherever I am so the RTW ticket has broadened my food “world view”. The only dish I ever rejected was in Sichuan province China. I would not eat “cat in a pig’s stomach”. My host laughed and said “we won’t eat it either but wanted to see if you would”.

Time to board a flight to Honolulu. 

Sunday, November 15, 2015

One Hundred Times Around the World

Over eight days in November I will complete my one hundredth “Around the World” trip. Flying around the world in a few days requires no skill but, on the other hand, it is something that most people on the planet have not experienced.
One of my favorite sights in Asia
I began traveling to Asia in 1995. On my second trip I happened to be seated next to a loquacious rock concert promoter on my return flight. Apparently he viewed me as a “international travel virgin” so he decided to educate me as we made our way over the Pacific. He handed me his business card which included only his name, phone number and “United States of America”.   No business title, no address and, in that era, no URL or email address. I wasn’t sure what to make of my seatmate but since I was a captive audience it seemed like I might as well listen. I honestly only remember one thing he talked about – the first class “around the world ticket”.  When we parted I thanked him for his insights and was determined to find out if the “around the world” thing was real.

As it turned out my seatmate was correct. Six weeks later I made my first – first class around the world trip but not before I spent some “quality time” with my company’s controller who had to approve anyone except the CEO buying a first class ticket. My justification was simple – if I went first class around the world it would save the company a couple thousand dollars vs a business class round trip from Charlotte to Tokyo or Osaka.  I had to fly more hours but would accept that trade-off for first class. I got a letter from the controller authorizing me to “save the company money”. It was “win – win” and though I did spend more time in the air, it was on company time (getting paid to fly) and being in first class greatly increased my comfort and volume of frequent flyer bonus miles. The difference between first class service and business class was night and day. The RTW (“round the world”) also opened up access to Asian and European airlines via global alliances. I soon learned that almost any foreign airline in Asia or Europe had better international service than the US carriers. It was true in 1995 and still true today – even more so.

My current trip looks like this:

On Friday I flew from Charlotte NC to LA. After spending two days with my daughter, I reversed directions and headed to Chicago. Tonight I will fly to Frankfurt, Germany. After a shower and some quality time on email, I will board a flight for Bangkok, Thailand. One meeting and five hours in Bangkok will suffice and I move on to Singapore for another meeting and a dinner. At 5am the following morning I will head to Changi Airport for a flight to Tokyo. After a meeting, a dinner and an overnight in Tokyo I will take the bullet train to Osaka for 24 hours and then head back to Tokyo for a flight to Honolulu. After less than a day seeing relatives in Honolulu, I will fly back to Charlotte via LAX and ORD – which makes about 1.25 around the world (more than 21,000 actual flight miles) in eight days.

More later……………….

Monday, November 2, 2015

The Lithium Market - What's Next?

This post is a departure from the norm since it is work related and was first posted on my Linked In page. So with "full disclosure" you can either read on or move to another blog post.

I have spent the majority of my career in the lithium business. Twenty years ago if someone asked me what business I was in and I said “lithium” – it usually generated a quizzical look and a shrug or a question about bi-polar disorder. In 1995, lithium certainly wasn’t mainstream. Today it is easy for people to relate to lithium since it powers IPhones, tablets, and Tesla. Although the average person in 2015 is familiar with lithium, 99.999% of the people on the planet can’t name a lithium company nor do they care where the lightest metal comes from.
On the other hand, the .001% of the population who knows or cares about lithium, generally speaking, has limited access to meaningful information about the main players or their competitive positions and future prospects.
Consumers of lithium chemicals have long complained about the “secret club” they imagine controls lithium supply from proverbial “smoke filled rooms”. The major lithium suppliers which until recently were called the “Big 3” clearly did not work together effectively to control price for most of the past fifteen years. In my opinion their arrogance and short sightedness often caused them to sub optimize their obvious market power.
The predictions of a green energy driven “lithium boom” almost a decade ago led to dozens of projects that resulted in well over 1 billion (US) dollars of investment in completely failed or minimally productive assets around the world. The failed lithium projects (think: Canada Lithium, Qinghai, Tibet Zabuye, Galaxy,etc) as well as projects that lingered but never got adequate financing to produce (think: Nemaska, Western Lithium, LAC, Simbol, etc) in addition to botched expansions of existing resources like FMC’s left the industry in a situation where there is currently insufficient capacity to support the now nascent lithium boom. The obvious result - price is moving up.
Since the “lithium boom” did not occur when predicted and is now only in its infancy , the failed capacity additions are just beginning to be felt in the market. The industry is approaching a full blown shortage situation - especially since lithium is not necessarily a fungible commodity like gold or sweet crude oil. All lithium is not created equal even if it meets a similar chemical spec. If you don’t believe me, ask a cathode producer who looks at morphology and stability of impurity profiles not just assay. In total supply seems to stay in balance with demand to 2020 but mix issues will cause short term pain and higher prices. You are likely to see some major lithium consumers on future episodes of "Hoarders". Check your local listings...
So where do we go from here? Some of it you have heard before. Let’s take a quick look:
SQM – is the only member of the former “Big 3” with a clear strategy that is being executed. Despite a plethora of issues with the government and a down cycle for their core ag related businesses, SQM continues to be a major force in the lithium industry. SQM knows who they are and will continue to run a very profitable upstream lithium business while they sort out their long term issues. The run up in carbonate and hydroxide price will go straight to their bottom line.
Albemarle – what I have called the “lithium superpower” seems on the verge of turning their proverbial lithium “sword” into ploughshares. For non-native English speakers this simply means it looks like they are losing their strength by choice (or bad decisions). Yes, it is hard to understand especially after they have bet the future of the company on the Rockwood acquisition. Rockwood will continue to be very profitable short term but not profitable enough long term in my opinion to overcome the high acquisition cost and things like an expansion that will not produce significant volume until 2017 . The flawed hydroxide tolling strategy from high cost suppliers is designed to bridge ALB until their curious plan for a 50,000 MT LCE spodumene based plant is on-line. According to ALB's CEO, the new plant isn't likely to produce until the next decade. Time's wasting.
ALB is in the process of cutting loose most of Rockwood’s key management and technical talent developed over decades. That would be ok if they had a team to replace the departed talent in kind. They don't.
Good luck ALB as you appear to be transitioning from the Lithium Superpower to the “Roman Empire of the Lithium World”. 
The Chinese Power Players – Tianqi and Ganfeng: The Chinese market is the largest in the lithium world and these two companies are the leaders in the Middle Kingdom which make them defacto “majors”. Tianqi owns 51% of Talison which solidifies their position as a major factor in the global upstream market. Ganfeng is the world’s largest lithium metal producer, a major supplier in the Asia downstream lithium market and increasingly important as a global upstream player.
FMC Lithium – The sad story of a great franchise being decimated with each passing year by continual missteps. This is a “Frog Prince” tale with no one on the horizon to break the spell. FMC Lithium is now a stepchild that could potentially flourish with a supportive adoptive parent. FMC's 3rd Quarter earnings call on 10/29 continued to have the standard "happy talk" about the future of lithium while they delivered $1.8 million in earnings on $57 million in sales. Results speak louder than words. 
It is hard to function as a "noncore" business in a company whose stock has fallen from the mid-$80s to mid-$30s in the recent past.  FMC should sell but likely wants too much for a  damaged asset.
Orocobre – very late to market, over budget and with higher costs than anticipated yet the lithium world yearns for another brine based major. ORE could be the star of 2016 if they can produce more than 10,000 MT economically. No other lithium company has  had the opportunity ORE currently has - to enter the market at time when the capacity addition will not lower price. ORE - the biggest question mark in the lithium world.
Two of the companies listed above are looking to ORE for "third party" sourcing but why supply your neighbors when you can achieve a higher yield going directly to customers? 
Juniors – Western Lithium and LAC. The merger is still 2+2 = 3 in my opinion. Simbol – is the “better mousetrap” that will likely never be built. Projects in Argentina lack investment due to political chaos. Tesla’s two virtual suppliers (the names that shall not be named) on “contingent contract” are unlikely to produce. Et Tu Elon…..
In any case, Chinese suppliers will keep expanding and despite their high costs, lithium supply will be, for the most part, adequate to bridge the supply gap at much higher prices until lower cost capacity comes on-line early in the coming decade.
There is one project  I believe has excellent prospects to supply by 2018 but that is a story for another day.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Testing "Out"

When my family arrived in Shanghai in August, 2005 I was firmly planted in the third quarter of both my expat and work life. China was in the midst of its historic rise to economic might and I was wondering what I was doing there. Per standard operating procedure, my wife assessed our situation and made a “to do” list. She got on with the task of getting our home life up and running. At least one of us understood what they were doing. I had a “big picture” idea of my goals but seemed to need a lot more help than my better half. The devil is, as they say, in the details.

My first office was rented from a serviced office company which meant that I was, for the most part, surrounded by people who had come to Shanghai to work on a short term project, start their own business or, like me, worked for a division of a large foreign company that was just beginning operations in Shanghai.

On my third day in Shanghai a smiling middle aged American woman appeared at my door and introduced herself. As it turned out, she worked for a testing company that wanted to introduce their personality testing products in the Chinese market. I became her first customer. Actually, she tested me for free in the hopes that I would use her service to help assess my local hires. I took the rather lengthy test that afternoon. I would get the results later in the week when I was back in the office.

The test I took was a little more complicated
Personality test results were not high on my mental list of concerns as the days passed. The life I had in systematic Japan was a memory in the “wild-west” environment of China. Rules were more like “nice ideas” but not necessarily something you needed to follow. For a foreigner, the first test was figuring out which rules needed to be followed and which were “conceptual”. It would more than six months before I would be chastised by my driver Philip for stopping at a red light the day I got my China driving license and decided to get behind the wheel. “Why are you stopping?” said an eye rolling Philip. “The light is red” was my reply. “So what, nobody is here, just slow down but no need to stop – it’s a waste of time”. Our first three months in China would have been much easier if Philip had been with us from the beginning to provide his unique perspective on how the locals behaved.

One benefit from life in Japan that did transfer to China was that I had already learned to ask for help any time government bureaucracy reared its ugly head.

The government was holding my passport (never a comfortable feeling) pending a work visa being issued and my household goods clearing customs. A customs officer requested a meeting at my office to “discuss” my shipment which sounded a bit ominous. I wanted a local and native Chinese speaker with me during the meeting so I requested the GM of the serviced office company help me out.

There were a lot of little tests getting settled in Shanghai
 “Janifer” was the name on the English side of her business card. I think she intended to be Jennifer but a typo got in the way. She became my hero in short order as she guided the man in an ill-fitting customs uniform into my office. The unsmiling bureaucrat began in rapid fire Mandarin and seemed to have some sort of complaint with my household goods shipment. Janifer locked eyes with the guy and took on the appearance of a Shaolin warrior monk. She listened, nodded, deepened her glare and nodded some more. She seemed to struggle discerning what the complaint was but finally figured it out. She turned to me and said “he wants to know why you have 57 teddy bears and other toy animals in your stuff”.  My response: “I have two daughters – they like teddy bears”. Janifer went on to say that he wanted to disallow them because I didn’t “need them”. Feeling relieved that the issue was minor; I took the offensive and said that toys were not on a list of banned articles so I didn’t feel he had the right to complain. It seemed to me maybe the guy wanted the stuffed animals for his kids. Janifer said she “completely agreed” with me and unleashed a torrent of high decibel verbiage at the suddenly squirming official. Long story short – Janifer apparently told the guy to “get out and clear the shipment by tomorrow or else”. That was exactly what happened. I never found out what “or else” was. The experience of watching Janifer take on the official was important for me.It showed me a lot about how China "works” and paid dividends later on. I would never have thought a young lady could challenge someone in an official role and win but I saw it time and time again. First China “crisis” averted.

Later in the day still basking in the glow of Janifer’s victory over customs; I went down the hall to get tea and saw my American friend - Anne. “I have your test results. They are quite interesting. If you have a few minutes we can discuss them”.  Her use of the word “interesting” got my attention.

A few minutes later we met in my office. Anne started by revisiting my current situation – wondering aloud how long I had worked for worked for a “big company”. I told her that I had been with the same company for 16 years, had worked in multiple locations and been promoted on average every 2.5 years. She smiled and said she was very surprised that I could survive let alone thrive in a corporate environment. By now I was curious to hear more details about results and her conclusions. She explained that normally someone with test results like mine had trouble functioning in a big company. I told her I wasn’t necessarily convinced that the kind of testing her company did was a great predictor of success. She suggested that I spend a few minutes reading my results and then we could discuss what they “normally” meant in more detail.

After reading the results and conclusions – I thought most of them represented my personality and mindset reasonably well. We reconvened to continue the discussion. “Well normally someone who shows the combination of an extreme need to get things done and a very low tolerance of bureaucracy has trouble functioning in a large organization especially at a senior level”. “Your profile looks more like someone who prefers entrepreneurial activity.” I smiled and said “Well Anne – I think the test results are valid.” She gave me a quizzical look. I continued: “Well, my boss is 7,000 miles away and cares more about my results than the details of how I get them.” “Most people in my company think Asia is all ‘third world’ and couldn’t imagine living here which created an opportunity for me.” She looked surprised at my candor. “Honestly, as a young man I was very risk averse, clueless and too chicken to start my own business. My first job after grad school was with an oil company – I wanted security. It wasn’t until I had been in the corporate world a few years that I began to feel like a ‘drone’. I targeted assignments that gave me as much independence as I could have and still work inside big organization. The ex-pat assignment gave me maximum freedom plus a higher pay package because of the perception that living in Asia was a sacrifice”. We were silent for a minute. Finally I said: “I knew when I left the US for Japan that the odds of me successfully repatriating were slim. The company pushed me hard to come to China and I leveraged the situation to maximize the benefit to my family”.   

I spent five wonderful, frustrating, complicated and interesting years in China but in the first week I was there my interaction with Anne validated the belief I already had in the back of my mind that my corporate life was not going to last long after I repatriated.
I was fortunate to hire several people that taught me invaluable lessons about doing business in China and learning to think outside my comfort zone. Learning to operate in China was great preparation for what I am doing today.

This week is the third anniversary of getting fired by my employer of almost a quarter of a century. My experiences getting things done in Japan and China with limited support from my employer plus the relationships I developed overseas gave me the confidence to do in my 50s what I wished I could have done in my 20s – start my own business. My daughters are in their 20s and both seem to have the same desire to work independently. I hope they can do from the beginning of their work lives what it took me until late in the “3rd quarter” to accomplish.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

The China Syndrome - Part One (getting there)

Snow Festival in Hokkaido - We were in no hurry to leave Japan

Ten years ago this week my family moved to Shanghai, China. The fact that we were already seasoned expats with more than five years in Japan under our belts did not make the decision to move easier. After so much time in Kobe, Japan seemed like home. The kids were happy in school. We had an interesting life exploring Japan and many other places in Asia. 

My company sent me to Japan as their lone ex-pat in a city where they didn’t have a local office or any support services. After five years, my expat “report card” showed company sales in Asia had grown 300%, profits were up 400% and a troublesome joint venture had been restructured. My “reward” for success was being asked to move to China, for tax rather than strategic reasons. The company leaders did not like the fact that after five years in Japan the burden of my personal taxes in Japan increased significantly. The US has a barbaric "double payment" tax code for expats. Since my ex-pat agreement required the company to pay all taxes associated with my exp-pat status, I was asked to move to China. In typical fashion with corporate bureaucracy - the move actually cost the company more in taxes overall but that miscalculation is a story for a different day.

Living was easy on Rokko Island in Kobe

“No” means “Hell No”

Late in our fourth year in Japan, my boss visited and asked me to move to China. Since my division had limited sales and no infrastructure in China, I asked what the "mission" was. The answer was “keep doing what you are doing, just do it from Shanghai”. I reminded him that I had two teenage daughters who were happy where they were and a wife who was like the poster child for the successful expat. Why move if there wasn't a good reason?

I also had done some research before we moved to Japan about “expat landmines” and had an agreement that gave me more control than normal regarding how and when I returned to the US. I couldn't prevent the move back but I had some level of financial and geographic protection when the time to repatriate came.

My decision was made – if they were going to try to force me to move to China, I would use my “exit clause” and return to the US before my elder daughter started her junior year in high school. Despite my frustration at being asked to make what amounted to a "tax move" - I played the game, waited a week and sent a carefully worded email declining the assignment in Shanghai. I fully understood that decision could effectively end my career with the company. The response was swift: My boss said he “understood", but he also said that I was still the "top candidate for the China assignment".

“Let the Games Begin”

Normally, my boss was patient and savvy in his dealings with me. Rather than continue this conflict with me head-on; he arranged for me to meet his boss for breakfast at an upcoming company meeting in the US. Although I liked and respected my boss who was a long time ex-pat himself – his boss was another matter. The “Big Boss” did not like my independent streak or my lack of interest in being what he called “a good corporate soldier”. 

The "one on one" breakfast meeting in a private room with the Big Boss was brief. After the obligatory 10 seconds of pleasantries I was told: “there is nothing in the US for you and you just need to make this move”. My one word response was: “why?”.  After a pregnant pause, I looked over my untouched pre-ordered eggs and bacon and began to thank him for his time and excuse myself. This was clearly the power play I expected – “be a ‘good solider’ or find another job”. Before I left the room I was told “maybe we can think of something to make the move more attractive”. I decided to leave before I said something I shouldn’t and closed with “I’ll wait to hear from you”.

As luck (or good planning) would have it standing outside the door as I left was a tall, balding man I had never seen before. “Hi, I’m Tom”. “I am the new HR director and my first job is to get you to move to China”.  I looked up at Tom, shook his hand and said: “Best of luck with your first assignment, by the way did you know my wife and I are house hunting in Charlotte this week”. Actually the short conversation included a couple of four letter words that weren't "golf". 

The day got more interesting as the company arranged for me to skip the afternoon corporate session to meet a very expensive consultant who was an expert on Asia in general and China in particular.  The consultant was a breath of fresh air. He knew Asia inside and out. He asked about my experiences in Japan, my family, etc.  Before we ended the meeting he said – “look, China could be a wonderful experience for your family but it won’t be easy.  I have known your company for a long time - they don’t understand Asia and you will never get the support most people need to make an overseas assignment work.  On the other hand, you succeeded in Japan so you can probably make it work.” He went on to say “you should only move to China if every member of your family is committed to go because otherwise you will be miserable”.  At this point I wasn’t sure if I was getting his honest opinion or if my time with him was part of a strategy to use reverse psychology on me……

A few days later we were back in Japan. I continued to mull over what my future looked like moving back to the US – I wouldn’t be fired immediately because of my agreement and the fact that immediately axing returning expats was considered “bad  form". Likely I would be assigned to “special projects”  and advised that I probably should begin to look for “opportunities outside the company”.

The second morning back in Japan (a Saturday) I got an early morning call from the President of another Division of the company asking me what my “decision on China was”. He was calling from the US and knew it was very early in Japan.  Through the haze of jet lag; I just laughed and asked why he was asking. Apparently, my boss had enlisted another helper to get me to make the “right decision”.  I had spent my five years in Japan operating with almost total autonomy – suddenly there were several people trying to help me make a decision I had already made.

Family Meeting

My daughters were well aware that a decision about where we would be living in the next school year was being made. I picked a family dinner to break the news that we were "definitely" moving “home”. There were no outbursts but tears began to well up around the table. I asked why everyone was so sad. The bottom line was the girls wanted to stay in Asia to graduate high school. If Japan was no longer an option they were perfectly happy to take their chances in Shanghai. They wanted to stay in an international school until they were ready for college. I told them that China would likely be much tougher from a quality of life perspective and I thought it made more sense to go back to the US if we couldn't stay in Japan. I appreciated their desire to stay in Asia and knew it would be a much better financial decision.  I am no match for the tears of my progeny - so in the end my daughters really made the decision for us to move to China. My "wiser than me" wife thought staying in Asia would be good for the girls and better for me so she wisely let things play out slowly.
The Details

I knew that many of my peers back in the US had been approached about a China assignment if I refused to go. My division was based in a nice area of North Carolina. Most people asked to go to China had kids in school and nobody was willing to move to what they perceived as a "third world communist country". Of course the company could  have "hired outside" but the lithium business is a unique niche and hiring someone from the outside who could be effective immediately overseas was nearly impossible. Armed  with those facts, I was able to negotiate a great package for the move to China and a safety net for my return. I felt quite sure that no matter how successful I was in China, I would not be with the company long after I returned to the US. The independent streak and determination that enabled my success in Asia was poison in the halls of a conservative US corporation's HQ.

From a business perspective, I knew moving to China would be interesting. My concerns about quality of life were reasonable but in the end it was better to ask the kids if they were willing to risk it. As we finalized plans for the move it seemed that I was the only one worried about it.

Shanghai - one of the World's Great Skylines

We arrived in Shanghai on a rare, clear day in August. A typhoon the previous day had cleared the sky for us. Our adventure in China was about to begin but that is a story for another post.

Post Script: After some initial struggles my family flourished in Shanghai. Both my daughters graduated from high school there. The business  prospered, when I returned to the US, the person who replaced me lasted almost a year before he got fired. Of course after two years "home", I got fired (a mercy "killing") too and started Global Lithium.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Musings of a Gaijin in Japan

Twenty years ago I boarded a United Airlines flight from San Francisco to Tokyo.  I was not overly excited at the prospect of spending 12 days in the “Far East”.  I  told my employer I wanted to get involved in “international business” and had been enjoying increasingly frequent trips to Europe and South America. The order to “visit Asia” seemed like a price that had to be paid to enable me to keep traveling.

Armed with a narrow world view and almost complete ignorance of Asia, I stumbled out of Tokyo’s Narita Airport and somehow managed to get to my hotel to meet the “mentor” who had arrived the day before and was supposed to teach me about the most populous continent on the planet. It took me a full six or seven minutes to realize my “culture guide” was almost as clueless as I was.

After a run and a shower I was ready to get my Asia business started so I could go home. Twenty years to the day later, I am staring out at the Osaka night from my perch in the Ritz Carlton reflecting on the love I have for my “second home”.  In 1995, I could not have imagined that my young daughters would attend school in Japan, graduate high school in Shanghai and that I would spend more time in Asia in the ensuing two decades than I spent in the US.

The local business partner my former employer had in Japan in 1995 was used to a steady stream of “clueless gaijin”. I was initially treated with what seemed to me to be a cool, condescending respect. In reality I was just another body in a long line of people that they had to babysit. Guests from the alleged superpower across the Pacific who were functionally illiterate and culturally ignorant when in Dai Nippon. 

The jet lag induced 1 am stroll I took through the Akasaka entertainment district on my first night was the beginning of my fascination with Japan. That bleary eyed walk through the neon lights and abject difference from anything I had ever experienced whet my appetite to learn more about the strange place I had only experienced via bad US WW2 movies.

When I got back to the North Carolina after my first trip I bought language tapes, read books on Japanese culture and prepared for my second trip which was only a few weeks later.  The bar was pretty low to outshine my colleagues with our Japanese partner.  I returned to Japan with a 20 word vocabulary which essentially enabled me to order green tea ice cream and beer with fluency unknown among my peers. I learned to enjoy small wins like not getting  lost on ten mile runs and being able to get a cab driver to take me back to my hotel without help – like I said low bar and small victories.  Our Japanese partners were well aware that Americans often fell in love with Japan in the short term but often did not have staying power. I soon lost interest in going to Europe. The business I was in was growing in Asia and I gradually became determined to see if I could become functional in a very different world.

After over 40 trips to Japan in five years, I was asked to move my family there and focus on growing the business in Asia. My wife was prescient enough to realize moving to Japan would be good for the family so we embarked on a three year assignment that lasted eleven years.  I knew our Japanese partners respected my efforts to learn the nuances of their culture but, the dark side was they also saw me as a potential threat and asked my employer to keep me in the US. After their request was rejected they welcomed me on an arm’s length basis  because they had no choice. I made the best of the situation.

Time and words are inadequate to explain how much our time in Japan meant to my family. Like any middle aged gaijin moving to Japan, my struggles and frustrations were frequent .  Despite my best efforts my language skills were at best “functionally fluent” which yields a lot of benefits in Japan but also left me feeling like a failure on most days when the meaning of so many of the words hanging in the air escaped me.

Our more than five years in Japan passed quickly. Suddenly we were living Shanghai – a new country, new experiences and new frustrations.  Many days found me longing to be in Japan but I rarely missed the US. Due to the nature of my business and proximity of Japan, I traveled there more than 70 times in the five years we lived in Shanghai. I never doubted my status as a gaijin but always felt at home in a way that never happened in China. I mean no disrespect to China as we also had a great experience there and the team we assembled in Shanghai is still the high point of my business life.  Finally, after an eleven year sojourn, we returned to the US.

After growing my business profits ten fold  in little more than a decade, my reward was getting fired less than two years after returning to the US. I took little solace in the fact my former employer lost 30% of their sales in Asia after I was fired. My victory was being bailed out of a tough spot by my Asian friends who quickly ensured my fledging advisory company more than replaced my prior income.

As I look at the late night traffic jam 28 floors below me and think about the last 20 years, I know I was fortunate to  be given the chance to live here and feel some measure of pride that I took advantage of the opportunity.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

The Golden Egg - a Politically Incorrect Easter Story

Holidays have always been major events in our home.  My wife has a gift for going above and beyond on holidays and birthdays. Christmas always included elf sightings, various incarnations of live Santa in the neighborhood or Santa “accidentally” being captured by the family video camera for later viewing. Going to see the  “mall’ Santa was a generally lame kick-off to the season which my wife made sure got more and more exciting as the “big day” approached. Based on shared Irish heritage, St Patrick’s Day was also a big deal – through the magic of food coloring, virtually everything ingested in our home on March 17th was green. Birthday parties included everything from animals brought in from a petting zoo to a local cop showing up to participate in a detective party and a “snow white” lookalike recruited from the frozen food section of the grocery store to wear a rented outfit at a Disney themed party.

Smiles were the norm at Easter 
Like most families with more than one child there was an implied “fairness doctrine” in our house – whether it was gifts at Christmas, candy on Halloween or birthday presents – the idea was each of our daughters would get their “fair share”. We employed the technique of letting one divide a shared item and letting the other one have the first choice. Sad to say - it sounds a little bit like we practiced  “Obamanomics” before the current regime was on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Our annual Easter Egg hunt was typical in most ways. A bunch of colorful plastic eggs with a piece of candy or two inside were hiding in plain sight around the house and yard. The girls happily picked them up and put them in Easter baskets. We labeled 80% of the eggs with one initial that could only be “found” by the initial holder  to ensure a “balanced outcome”. We left 20% of the eggs for open competition.  Each of our daughters wound up with a similar amount of candy but there was a more Darwinian contest within the hunt – the quest for the Golden Egg.

Cash in the golden egg made our hunt more interesting

The outcome of the golden egg hunt was binary. Winner take all. This special egg was slightly bigger than the cutesy colored eggs left for easy finding. The golden egg was -  full of cash and sometimes other treasure. Besides the dollars, Yen or RMB depending on where we were living, the golden egg  could include other things. Perhaps a “get out of chores” voucher or some other promissory note.  Running the golden egg  hunt concurrently with the regular hunt added a strategy element to the festivities. Was it better to ignore the regular colored eggs since a certain percentage were guaranteed to each participant? Or did securing a larger % of the unlabeled colored eggs potentially make up for losing the golden egg. Each year we arranged a different outcome of egg largesse to keep the hunt interesting.

We have two wonderful but very different daughters. The elder is more competitive and given to playing “hard ball”. Her negotiations in the street markets of Shanghai for North Face gear are the stuff of legends. Our younger daughter is a non-confrontational “peacemaker” - at least for 364 days and 23 hours a year. 

Cailin honing her egg hunting skills at age 2
In the early hunts, the three year age difference between combatants for the golden egg seemed an overwhelming advantage but like March Madness  underdogs often win. Once the crucible of the golden egg  competition began – the personalities of  each daughter was manifest. The elder energetically rushing around the house and yard hoping to quickly notch a victory over her seemingly phlegmatic, younger competitor. No quarter was given nor expected. No parental help forthcoming. The battle was on – it could last just a few minutes but in one case in Shanghai lasted well over an hour. We never had harsh words during the hunt or after although there were tears from time to time.

No harsh words but occasionally we had to edit hand gestures when the sting of defeat was too much
In well over a decade of golden egg hunts in three countries our younger daughter exhibited a mastery over her elder sister that is still hard to fathom. The longest losing streak was five years but our elder daughter (affectionately known as  “the biggest loser” at golden egg hunt time) never managed back to back winning years.  Never one to gloat (much), little sister often seemed  surprised by her success. Far from being scarred emotionally by her losing ways, our elder daughter (now 25) speaks fondly of the golden egg hunt and is insisting we have one this year – her little sister is in California so she is pretty confident of a win. But then again – she still has to find it.

Cailin completing her "five-peat" by finding the golden egg in a stone lantern in Shanghai
If you would like to read my daughter's view of "Golden Egg" events, click here.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Dog Tales and Random Travel Observations

My current trip starts in Thailand which is about as far away from North Carolina as you can get. I took back to back overnight flights and spent almost 30 hours in transit. I left on Friday and arrived on Sunday with the 12 hour time change. Yet when I landed in Thailand, I still wasn’t really “there” yet.

"Suffering in comfort" on the way to the other side of the world

I disembarked in Bangkok at 5:55am, had a fast track pass through customs and a quick ride through the empty Sunday morning streets. The unfortunate result was two or three hours of extra “free” time in the Executive Lounge at the hotel while I waited for my room to be ready. At least I had a comfortable place to hang-out. Normally the super early check-in isn’t too much of an issue but this week the hotels are close to 100% occupancy with many Chinese tourists taking advantage of the long Lunar New Year holiday to take in the sights of surrounding countries. The five tour buses queued at the hotel entrance at 6:30am was a sure sign that Bangkok got a full allocation of Chinese tourism money this holiday. Writing a blog post seemed a good way to spend the time until my room key appears.

This is my first international trip of the year and my 20th anniversary of using “Around the World Tickets” which if you learn details of the fare rules and pay attention to the fine print can save thousands of dollars and keep you in the air for up to 12 months on one ticket. I usually have two such tickets going at the same time but since I didn’t intend this post to be about “RTWs” I will refrain from going into greater detail.

When I first started traveling to Asia my daughters were 3 and 6. The day before I left on a trip, I always felt guilty about leaving them for 10 or 12 days but found ways to bridge the distance by taping bedtime stories for them to watch for each night I was gone or asking my elder daughter to give me a topic to write a story about and then emailing it to her after I arrived so she could read it to her little sister. My wife was an expert at keeping the girls busy with all sorts of activities. I also used to ask my elder daughter for permission to travel before I went on long trips so she felt some level of control (or at least that was my intention). The girls came to accept travel as normal especially after we moved to Asia and almost all their school ex-pat peers had one “traveling” parent.

Now that we are empty nesters I feel a guilt when I travel I never had when the girls were young – leaving the dogs. We had two dogs back then and we have two different dogs now. Years ago, the kids kept the dogs busy as playmates, confidants and victims of “dress-up” experiments that often went wrong. The dogs always had people around so my absence wasn’t an issue except that it kept them from getting their daily run.

Yuki refusing to look at me after seeing the suitcase come out
Things are different now, the girls are grown and living on their own. I work from a home office when I am not traveling. My wife is working too so not around the house as much as she used to be. When I am not traveling I have more or less hourly interaction with one or both of the dogs. I have to keep conference calls on mute when I am not speaking because our younger dog will sit at my feet chewing on a squeaker toy or munching on a liter plastic bottle which is her “go to” chew toy. The bottles are surprisingly loud. More than one client has been on the other end of a conference call when FED-X or UPS rang the doorbell and a cacophony of protective dog utterances filled the air.

The dogs are used to the “new normal” and so am I which is why instead of being in a phase of life that includes “guilt free” travel – just the opposite is true. 

The look says it all
As soon as my suitcase comes out to pack for a trip, I start to get the baleful looks, the deep sighs and general moping until I am out the door to go to the airport. As foolish as it sounds, I have come to dread the day before I leave for a trip because of the guilt heaped upon me by two canines. Of course being raised catholic probably has something to do with the guilt level.

Fortunately the feeling of guilt lifts about the time I clear security at Charlotte Airport. I know when I walk in the house after a 12 day sojourn, I will be greeted by two wagging tails that seem not to remember they were unhappy when I left.

Sunday, February 1, 2015


My experience with New Year’s resolutions is limited. I have probably made resolutions less than one year in ten. This year, after watching a TV spot on the topic, I decided to write a blog post about resolutions but wait until most 2015 resolutions were long forgotten.  Since it is February 1, I believe it is safe to proceed.

On New Year’s Day 1982, I was what would likely be termed today as a “drifting millennial”. I was a couple years out of college, working in a reasonable job but totally uncertain about my future. I had recently met a young woman who would become my wife but other than that bit of good fortune, my prospects didn’t appear too bright.

For reasons I can no longer recall, I wrote down a couple goals for 1982 in a daily planner that was given to me as a Christmas gift. I didn’t consider the goals as New Year resolutions but in retrospect I guess they fit the criteria. One of my goals was to run a marathon. Like many Americans, I had been thrilled ten years earlier when Frank Shorter closed out the tragedy stained 1972 Munich Olympics with a rare US victory in the marathon. On the other hand, the idea of me running 26 miles seemed at best fanciful so I am not sure to this day why I chose running a marathon as a goal.

Despite the alleged power of writing down goals, mine remained forgotten for several weeks until I had my “Julie Moss moment”. 

An image that has stayed with me for decades
In February of that year I flew to LA to visit a college buddy. I happened to be in a bar with my friend during the end of the 1982 Ironman Triathlon. This was the year of the epic women’s finish in the darkness. The seemingly insurmountable lead of Julie Moss was overcome a few meters from the finish by Kathleen McCartney. Moss “hit the wall” less than a mile from  the finish - literally crawling at the end of the race as the ABC Wide World of Sports camera did a close up on her totally spent, writhing form. McCartney, looking surprisingly fresh after more than 11 eleven hours on the course, breezed past Moss to win the race and help launch the worldwide popularity of the triathlon. 

Watching the dramatic conclusion, I reached for the last handful of popcorn in a nearby 
bowl, washed it down with a warming Miller Lite, and made a decision. If Julie Moss could crawl to the finish after seeing her “certain victory" turn into a shocking defeat, I could definitely run a marathon which was only a small subset of what this brave women had just endured. 


I flew home the next day. After some research and a visit to the scales, I selected a marathon 16 weeks later and decided to shed as many pounds as possible before I got to the starting line. The following day, I bought a food scale and for the next 14 weeks, I ate a measured 1,500 calories a day with one key criteria – I did not give up my ice cream habit. Each day 500 of my 1,500 calorie allotment was ice cream.  Clearly my college major was not nutrition but I lost almost 30 lbs in a little over 3 months.

My training log from those weeks shows that I went from not running a step to running 89 miles in the peak week before I finished the “God’s Country” Marathon in western Pennsylvania. My time to cover the hilly course was a reasonable 3 hours and 15 minutes. Before the year ended, I ran three more marathons, each several minutes faster than the one before. My goal changed from "finishing" to running a sub 2 hour and 50 minute time which would qualify me to run in the Boston Marathon. Less than a year after my first race, I ran 2 hours and 45 minutes in Cleveland which qualified me to run in Boston the following spring. The impact of accomplishing the relatively minor goal of running a marathon, led to more significant decisions – such as leaving the comfortable environment of my hometown, going to graduate school, getting married, having kids and eventually living overseas.  Of course, I could have done all those things as a non-runner but I clearly recall that decision to run a marathon and the confidence each running success gave me made many other, more significant, decisions easier.

As 2015 approached, I took some time and reflected on the decades of life that had quickly passed. I noted that I weighed about the same as I had before I started running in 1982. More than three decades of running and a lifetime of other sports had taken a toll on at least one knee. I never stopped daily workouts but wasn’t challenging myself. I needed to raise the bar.

This time my “Julie Moss moment” was Christmas morning when my elder daughter proposed running a 10K together in May. She is the same age I was when I started running, wanted a reason to get in better shape and seemed to be enlisting my commitment as a way to ensure her own. 

As I grabbed a handful of Skittles and thought about the year ahead, I made a decision to go below my high school graduation weight, increase the intensity of my daily exercise  and run a race with my daughter. I wrote the goal down and decided I would start – as soon as my daughters went back to NYC and LA which, for me, was the end of the holiday season. My immediate action was an option I didn’t have in 1982 – use Google to find a book to guide my efforts, hopefully inspire me and download it to my IPad.  Less than ten minutes later I was reading the book. My diet began Jan 4th.

For the past 27 days I have taken a picture of every bit of food I have eaten. Six days a week I can eat as much as I want of certain specified foods and nothing made from white flour, no rice, no dairy, no beer, no candy other than one square of 72% dark chocolate, etc. I am eating a lot of protein (fish, chicken, beef) and more vegetables than I have ever eaten. I weigh myself every morning and take a tape measurement around my gut at the navel each day. Every 7th day, I can eat and drink anything I want to... and I do. On those days I consume about 5,000 calories.  

For a cheese loving, Skittle devouring person who had been eating Greek Yogurt with blueberries for breakfast five times a week for the past year, it has been an interesting four weeks. I have enjoyed the discipline rather than feeling deprived by the limited menu. As of yesterday, I was down 13.5 lbs and 5 inches around the middle which tells me I am likely down more than 13.5 lbs of fat as my body composition changes. Although losing weight was the original goal, I found that focusing on achieving this goal has driven me to consider many other areas of my life that could stand some “tweaking”.

My nutritional bond with Marshawn Lynch - I have been "mssing the rainbow" this month
I will likely stay on some modified version of this diet for a long time to come; however eating cheese, Skittles and ice cream only once a week isn’t a lifestyle I want forever.  I can probably live with every third or fourth day. However to focus on the diet would be missing the point. Just as my decision to run a marathon in 1982 brought benefits in other areas of my life; I expect the same result this time.  Time will tell.