Near Yellow Mountain

Sunday, September 10, 2017

A (Very) Late Thank You Note

Five years ago today I received a wonderful gift that changed my life.

When I was a child, my mother always insisted I write a “thank you” note when I received a gift. Compliance was required within 48 hours. Grammar and spelling were checked. Postage was provided.      

The habit continued into adulthood although the notes today are normally sent by email, text or other form of messaging.

So today I am “righting a wrong” by writing this note:

Dear FMC:

Please accept my heartfelt appreciation for firing me on 9/10/2012. I can’t thank you enough for creating a “Reduction In Force” (RIF) "group" of one just for me. That was really special - above and beyond my wildest dreams.

I feel terrible that I have waited so long to let you know your kindness will never be forgotten.

All the best,


                                                              The “Backstory”

The true irony is I am very thankful to FMC. Don’t look for a sarcastic punchline. One isn’t coming.

In 1992, FMC allowed me to transition from a boring finance position to the commercial area. When their lithium mine in North Carolina was running out of ore before their brine project in Argentina started, they gave me the assignment to acquire lithium stockpile material from the company that originally outbid them. They were desperate for feedstock to keep the business going. That was just the beginning.

When SQM’s start-up changed the the competitive balance of the industry in 1997, I was sent to Santiago to “make peace” and set up a meeting for my boss. Months later I got to negotiate a tolling agreement with SQM which was critical to maintaining FMC's position in the lithium market. Once the details were agreed on, of course, the agreement became the “work” of my boss who got the credit but I got the experience. 

Extensive international travel came next as I was given global responsibility for FMC's upstream lithium business. Ultimately, in 1999, I was asked to move with my family to Japan which was the fastest growing market at the time. We arrived in early 2000.

I loved my eleven-year ex-pat life with FMC. So did my family. My time in Asia put me direct contact with the people who started Ganfeng and Tianqi. I dealt directly with all the major lithium battery companies in Japan, Korea, China and Taiwan from the time they were just getting started. I spent time with the major spodumene converters and made countless trips to Xinjiang to spend time with the original lithium producer in China.
While in Asia, we traveled from Tibet to New Zealand
I was also President of two Japanese Joint Ventures and a Chinese Wholly Owned Foreign Entity (WHOFE). Great experience.

I was “the lithium guy” in Asia long before lithium was cool. FMC enabled that and, yes, I am sincerely thankful. The fact FMC neglected me from an oversight perspective was a huge benefit. They always paid the bills. Actually at one point they paid my expense reports for nine years without any of them being properly approved. When an internal auditor discovered their process broke down they sent an audit team to Asia. When the multi day audit was over, they discovered they owed me some money based on how they did the currency translation.

They didn't play golf in Xinjiang 
I have written a couple of times about the mean spirited and petty way I was actually “let go” in 2012 but that is only how my FMC story ended. Most of my time there was fun, it simply ended on a sour note.

FMC didn’t have an effective process for handling ex-pats in Japan or China so I got to create many of my own rules which for me was an ideal situation. I didn’t like the ex-pat “handbook” from the company that FMC hired to “administer” my assignment so I got my direct bosses to agree to “side letters” – waivers to the parts of the policy I didn’t like. When corporate HR found out – they were not happy.

Our daughters embraced life in Japan
I had several bosses in the eleven years I was out of the country. Since my business area was growing fast and very profitable and my day was their night, I rarely communicated with HQ beyond sending a short monthly update.

We lived in an apartment in Japan overlooking Kobe Bay that cost the company 8 times more than my US house payment. Later, in Shanghai, we had a great house with a driver and maid. My daughters went to excellent international schools at company expense. My family also had the opportunity to travel extensively in Asia, Australia and NZ.  I had golf club memberships in Japan and China. What's not to like?

Given almost all my bills were paid directly by the company and I got a cost of living stipend, I saved  85% of my after-tax income for eleven years. That would never have been possible if I didn’t stay overseas when nobody else was willing to replace me.

Towards the end of my ex-pat assignment, I worked for a very capable person who was extremely helpful to me then and continues to be to this day. He left the company a few months before I did and helped me transition to what I am doing now. Thanks, Jon.

In Cambodia we found the guy on the cover of the guidebook
 In January 2010, FMC brought in a new CEO who changed the company and not in a positive way for many employees including me. FMC always tended to have a baseless arrogance but the new guy took it to a different level. I knew my days were numbered two years before I got the axe. On top of that, at then end of 2010, I moved back to the US after eleven years building the lithium business in Asia with little adult supervision from HQ. Reverse culture shock was about to hit me.

When I arrived back in North Carolina after eleven years outside the US, I was not prepared for what the US office had become: a more bureaucratic, politically correct place. A place where I didn’t want to be. I hung around because my younger daughter was attending one of the most expensive universities in the US and if I left on my own I would have had a non-compete agreement to deal with. The non-compete was void if the company let me go so really getting fired was “win-win”.

A recap of the day I was fired and my wife's wise advice to me can be found here: but the point of this exercise was to make it clear that I do really appreciate the fact that, absent my experience at FMC, I would not have Global Lithium today.

I miss my former FMC team in Shanghai but am glad I stayed in the lithium business
On the evening of 9/10/2012 I called my daughters in LA and NYC to tell them I was no longer working for FMC. I was surprised and pleased that in both cases they said they felt bad it had happened but it was probably best and that they appreciated that FMC had enabled them to grow up overseas. Both my daughters graduated from high school in Shanghai. 

Of course appreciating the past doesn’t mean I won’t continue to express my feelings about the way FMC runs their lithium business now. 

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Broke Millennial(s): The Untold Story

I was the last arrival into a large family. I became an uncle at age 12 and by age 18 my nieces and nephews constituted a small tribe.

Babysitting was as natural to me as mowing the lawn. I learned to discipline (much to one of my sister’s chagrin), tell distracting stories to stop tears, bribe when my stories were ineffective and to shamelessly use my cute charges as a conversation starter with girls (they were better than a puppy but I digress). I have always been comfortable around babies and little kids.

Despite my comfort level with children, becoming a parent was a sobering event. Our first daughter’s (Erin) birth in 1989 was a seminal moment in my life. It went quite smoothly for me but required substantially more effort from my wife, Connie. Like many new parents, I think I had FOSU (fear of screwing up). Time passed, Erin seemed to be pretty normal when her little sister Cailin arrived three years later.

Day 1 as a parent: trying not to show my "FOSU"
I blinked a few times and Erin was starting school. Connie was a force of nature as a parent. The girls were busy: school, play dates, sports, homework, parties, etc.  Our kids were strategically placed for photo ops so often at community events that the editor of the local paper issued a temporary ban via memo to her staff on “those Lowry girls” picture being in the paper. True story - I know because the editor’s husband worked for me and “fessed up" in a moment of weakness.

My role as Dad was pretty simple – be a good playmate, read bedtime stories/say prayers, settle an occasional dispute over the last piece of candy, help put a tutu on our 70lb dog before an impromptu play. Pretty basic stuff. That is not to say I didn’t take my role seriously, Connie just excelled at doing the harder stuff leaving me to ponder where I could “add value”.

Erin sharing another "life lesson" with her father

The girls were in elementary school during an era when many parents spent more time worrying about “protecting” their kids from reality rather than helping them learn how to deal with it. If I screwed up at school in the 1960s and 70s, I expected that a little “muscular Christianity” would be dispensed to help me see the error of my ways. By the time I reached adulthood, teachers could get into trouble for giving a child a “stern look” or somehow “creating a hostile environment”. Of course, we wouldn’t want to “crush” junior’s spirit or lower her self-esteem. A bit of overstatement is intentional but the emerging trend was clear. That was one reason our daughters never entered the public school system. The catholic school where our kids spent their first few years of education still believed in discipline.

Not spoiling the kids was a theme in our house. We saw that happen with many of their peers. We wanted the girls to develop solid work ethics. From an early age we used “market principles” to try to accomplish this goal. For example, when the kids asked for something that was a “want” rather than a “need”; they were expected to pay for a percentage of it from their “piggy banks” which included money they earned from various modeling and acting gigs arranged by their mom. “Of course honey, you can have that $12 teddy bear, you just need to give me $6 for your share when we get home”. We caused the homelessness of many stuffed animals with this policy. Were the girls emotionally damaged? I don’t think so. A few years later, Erin would build a brand in part by telling stories about her parsimonious father.

We spent much of the girl’s childhood living in Asia. Most of their pre-college education was in schools in Japan and China. Nothing like competing in schools with the progeny of Asian “Tiger Mom’s” to help hone a child’s work ethic. Compared to the Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Singaporean, and other Asian parents we were “pikers” with no academic standards. The occasional “B” that hit the report cards in our house did not cause an emergency parental summit meeting like it would in the home run by a “Tiger Mom”. Silly me, I didn’t even know that taking the SAT a dozen times was a “thing” until we lived in Shanghai.

Despite living abroad, the girls still worked odd jobs – pet and babysitting, being the “English voice” on language tapes. As an eight year old, Cailin modeled for a Japanese clothing catalog. You can imagine how thrilled I was to find my baby’s picture was in a catalog that said “PENTHOUSE” on the cover.

Anyway – you get the picture. Had we stayed in the US our parenting style would have seemed “severe” but by Asian standards we still qualified as “shiftless” Americans. Truly a “win – win” situation for us. When we told Asian friends at parties that we expected our kids to contribute to paying for college (hopefully by getting scholarships) smiles eroded into icy glares. What kind of human being didn’t “sacrifice everything” to ensure their offspring attended “an Ivy”, Oxford, MIT, Stanford, etc? For the most part, an Asian “safety school” was an “aspirational” choice for 98% of US students.  It always seemed ironic to me that success for a Korean mom who looked down on “weak American standards” was for her child to attend a top ranked US school. American universities were the "the educational promised land". “Call us shiftless if you must but our colleges are still the gold standard” – I never said that but I thought it often as I listened to many a stressed out Tiger Mom opine about her child’s college entrance prospects. “Harvard just sent a rejection note, and he is waitlisted at Princeton, so far he has only been accepted by Duke – where did we go wrong?”

Our standards were a joke to "Tiger Moms" 
Fast forward a few years……………………… Erin, our elder “bundle of joy” is out of college, packing to move to NYC with her drama and mass communication majors (from a school that didn’t make many Asian “safety school” lists) to join the “working poor”. I could hear the distant Tiger Mom’s virtual giggle – “what is mass comm? - is it math for white people?” “I am so glad MY daughter graduated with honors in advanced math from MIT and is going to NY to work at a boutique hedge fund”. Blah, Blah, Blah.

You can read about Erin’s “working poor” years on her blog: The “happy ending” (the American kind not the Asian version….) was that while being “underemployed” and working three jobs; Erin’s creativity and work ethic kicked in.

The "donut" story became a book and a business
The success of Erin’s blog that morphed into a book deal thrilled her parents and her little sister. Her blog cast me in the role of the evil father that made her pay for things she wanted as a little girl and contribute to her college expenses. I am glad the girls are too old to be taken by "social services". I became of big fan of her blog wondering how she was going to make me look like a “financial fascist” on an almost weekly basis.  

Erin came up with what she called her financial epiphany aka “origin story” where I helped stake her donut selling business during a community garage sale day but then had the nerve to teach her about net profit at the age of seven by taking the cost of the donuts out of her pile of cash from the sale and making her pay her four year old sister a living wage. I did not insist she pay for Cailin’s health care.

Week after week, month after month, I waited for Erin to tell the tale of my proudest moment as her financial mentor.  Yet four years into the blog, the most valuable lesson I felt I imparted on her impressionable mind was yet untold. She loved the Krispy Crème donut tale and her angry assault on my Halloween “candy tax” but how, I pondered could she have forgotten the “TCBY moment” as I liked to think of it. I scoured the advance copy of the book she sent us – a black cloud descended as I pondered the improbable – the TCBY story was long forgotten.

A couple weeks ago there was a Broke Millennial “book launch” party in New York. The hostess of the event asked me to say a few words. I smiled and thought to myself “quite a few words, the TCBY story needs to be told”. So, microphone in hand, I launched into my favorite Broke Millennial story but since Erin forgot it maybe I should leave it for another day. The lesson here folks is you never know which lessons you try to teach will actually “take” with your child.

If you haven't bought the book, it makes a great graduation gift
As a parent you don’t get a report card for many years. Erin went through high school and college without showing much evidence that the financial lessons we tried to teach the girls had made an impact on her thinking. Perhaps it required the stress caused by having a low paying job while living in a high cost city to activate the dormant “life lessons”. In any case, I will not try to take any credit for the creativity Erin showed in morphing from Broke Millennial to a published author with her own successful business. I am just glad it happened.

Cailin is claiming the Broke Millennial mantle from Erin
According to Erin’s younger sister, Cailin, she is the new Broke Millennial in the family. Cailin works in the rough and tumble entertainment world in LA. Cailin is the proud parent of our “grandhamster” Thelma. Thelma starred in a recent Katy Perry lyric video that Cailin produced. The video has over 70 million views on YouTube. We don’t expect Cailin’s Broke Millennial status to last long.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

The "Digital Water Cooler"

I worked for multiple companies in the “corporate world” over three decades. We lived in eight cities, in three countries. North, south, east and western US, Japan and China. For work, I traveled to six continents and flew, literally, millions of miles.

When I first started traveling, to communicate you made calls from pay phones, wrote letters, sent faxes.

Back then, the world wasn’t viewed thinking about how it would look later via your IPhone camera on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or WeChat.

Colleagues were communicated with by walking to their office (or cubicle) or meeting them by chance (or plan) in break rooms. Talking was preferred. Texting wasn’t an option.

Between cities or even across oceans; jets, trains and cars traveled at the same speed they do today but life was much slower. I am a the product of a low tech era.

At work, corporate info and gossip often came through “water cooler” conversations or the “grapevine” – unstructured communication that could be random but seemed to have a common form in every place I worked or traveled around the world. Never good at being deskbound, my incessant need to move and curious nature made me a student and daily user of the grapevine.

The Water Cooler has Evolved
Whether it was having coffee with a colleague in Argentina, drinking after work with customers in Tokyo or sipping tea with the office team in Shanghai – I spent most of my career eyeball to eyeball with people. I enjoyed learning about their world, what they felt, wanted for their kids, their career or their company.

Time passed, things changed. Although my use of email started in the 80s, back then it was infrequent and always business related since it came on a mainframe terminal not a PC (younger readers you may need to “google” those arcane terms).

I was not an early adopter of technology but stayed fairly current – in China I had a Motorola Razr (think Jack Bauer in season 1 of "24") in the run-up to the IPhone but to me a phone was not my preferred way to communicate.

After moving back to the US six years ago, my only social media activity was posting pictures on Facebook. Shortly before I was booted out of the corporate world in 2012, I set up a Linked In account and then wondered why. 

Now I know.

Working for myself has been an almost totally positive experience; however early on I had a severe case of “grapevine withdrawal”. Don’t get me wrong my four legged office companions are great company and working out of a home office is the best commute imaginable but I really missed the frequent chats with colleagues and the camaraderie of an office setting. Initially, it seemed like I would just have to live with that void in my work life. Fortunately, a digital solution manifested itself.

One day in a bored moment I set up a new Linked In account because I had not used my first one in so long that I had forgotten the particulars. At first I found the site of limited value but once I starting writing posts about the lithium market, I seemed to get new connection requests every few hours. I discovered how valuable Skype video calls could be. I knew people all over the world – they became my electronic water cooler network. I could talk with people from Argentina to China face to face from my home office.

On a trip back to Shanghai – my buddy and driver, Philip introduced me to WeChat which seems to have the best functioning video chat of any app I have used.

My daughter told me multiple times I should have a Twitter account. I resisted but later decided to give it a try. I have never paid to advertise. I don’t even have a premium (paid) account on Linked In yet I have more business now than I can handle and almost every new person I deal with either says: “I follow you on Twitter” or “I read your posts on Linked In”.

I Finally Gave in and Started Tweeting
My small business is driven by what I know and by staying current in my industry. I continue to travel the world meeting with major lithium related companies face to face but since change happens so quickly; it is great to have a growing digital “water cooler” network. If a client asks me about a market rumor from China or Japan or a supplier’s production problem in South America, I can often debunk or corroborate information in minutes by accessing my network through one of various the digital platforms.

Last summer I challenged the position a Chilean regulator was taking on a matter important to the lithium industry via Twitter. Much to my surprise he responded within a few minutes. We went back and forth on Twitter. The next day I was changing planes in Zurich on my way to Shanghai, I turned on my phone and saw a Chilean Newspaper had printed our tweets and written an article about the issue. By the time I landed in Shanghai, the story had been picked up in Asia and I was getting emails about it. The next day the Chilean paper asked for an interview. I did the interview from the other side of the world. I never met the regulator or the interviewer except electronically.

The speed of physical travel across oceans may be much the same as when my career started; but news travels across global “grapevines” faster than ever – and in most cases the cost is only that of an internet connection. Even in my home office, I am never without access to a global network I could not have imagined just a few years ago.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

The Thing I Greatly Feared..............

I was born with what the Japanese call “Rondon Pari” which more clearly stated means “one eye points towards London and the other eye points towards Paris”. My parents did not want me to start kindergarten with the malady so one of my earliest memories is being spirited off to an eye doctor who proposed what at the time was a “cutting edge” surgical procedure – pun intended.

"Rondon - Pari" days circa 1962
I still recall trying to negotiate with the anesthesiologist. I didn’t like the idea of “going under” as it was termed. I was five and JFK had not yet faced down Khrushchev in the Cuban Missile Crisis.

After surgery, I spent a few days in the hospital. When they let me go home, I had to lie on the couch all day every day for a few weeks with eye patches on. It was summer and I could hear the sounds of my elder siblings playing outside. My reprieve from the eye patches lasted about five minutes twice a day when the blinders came off so I could do my “eye exercises”. 

The experience did not endear me to things of a medical nature.

When I was in kindergarten, my health conscious mother decided it would be a good idea for me and my siblings to be tested for allergies. In two tests of 50 toxins each, I proved to be allergic to, as the doctor would say with a smiling face, “just about everything”. This revelation ushered in six years of monthly trips to a clinic for an allergy shot. It seemed a very bad trade – a smiling middle aged lady stuck a needle in my arm and I got a piece of candy as a reward. My grandmother who lived around the corner was happy to dispense an Eskimo Pie, six-ounce Coke or a Heath Bar if I just showed up at her house.

My attitude towards going to the doctor morphed from bad to worse.

At age eleven I had my first positive health care experience. Mom signed me up for a summer camp that required a doctor sign off that I was in good health. She sent me, health form in hand, to a local doctor – an elderly German man that worked out of an office in his house. The house looked like something out of an Alfred Hitchcock movie. I made the trek with mild trepidation on foot alone (this was small town America back in the day), his wife greeted me at the door and after a short wait I was ushered into his office. We looked each other over and he finally said. “how do you feel”? I smiled and sensing a potential victory responded, “I feel great”. After a moment of consideration, he asked for my form and signed it without laying a hand on me. This was a doctor I could live with. A few years later, the same doctor performed my high school football physical. It was slightly more rigorous.

Despite many minor sports injuries from high school on, I managed to stay away from serious medical interaction for years. I don't recommend my practice of having only the physicals required by employers or countries granting me a work visa but that was my philosophy for a few decades which saw me get only five physicals from 1977 to 2012. Of course the work visa physical I had in China where I saw about 20 doctors in 3 hours should probably count as more than one. The same person who never missed a six-month dental check-up or yearly eye exam could not face the dreaded annual physical.

I play golf with a group that includes many retirees who seem to go to the doctor about as often as I go to the airport. Rather than the standard on course banter about whether Tiger Woods is coming back or what’s going on in the NFL, NBA, etc; this crew talks about their new knees, hips, or latest procedure, etc. Since I am only a few years younger than many in this group about a year ago I decided maybe it was time to make my peace with the health care system and then procrastinated my way through 9 months of telling myself – "I am going to get that physical this month". Finally, I did what many in my position would do – I asked my wife to take care of it for me. By the end of the day my appointment was set for later the same month.

As the appointment date drew near, a couple of days after Thanksgiving, I tried to talk myself out of going but then just decided to suck it up. On the appointed day I sat in the waiting room with a certain “digital dread” – the digit being the doctor’s index finger not an app on my IPhone. It turned out the doctor was from my neighborhood and a very reasonable guy.  I wasn’t going to get “digitized” (aka “have a prostate exam”) unless my blood work showed a high PSA number – I was warming to brave new medical world already. The other elephant in the room was the tennis ball sized hernia I had been carrying around for a couple of years. Ultimately, I got a pass on prostate exam but not on the hernia. My new doc suggested I get the “tennis ball” dealt with before it became a “grapefruit”. Of course I knew this was coming but I also knew I was actually going to go through with it which was new ground for me.

Long story short – a couple of days after Christmas, I met with a surgeon who looked at my hernia and said “as hernias go that is a big one”. He also said he recommended that I have “regular” rather than laparoscopic surgery which meant a standard surgical incision, general anesthesia, and a longer rehab – none of which was particularly appealing. On the upside, he said the odds of long term success were much better with normal surgery.

So last week for the first time since JFK was President of the United States, I went to the hospital for surgery. The thing I greatly feared had truly come upon me. I signed multiple forms acknowledging the various things that could result in my departure from "the land of the living" in the ensuing few hours,  had my vitals taken – was proud of the fact that my pulse was below 55 (despite being fearful) as multiple IVs were stuck in my arm. I yucked it up with the five different people required to ask me my name, date of birth and what procedure was being done before they allowed the “knock out” juice to flow into my veins. 

putting on a happy face before surgery
I woke up three hours later with my intestine back where it is supposed to be and what is likely to be an impressive surgical scar. Of course what I had just gone through was relatively trivial by the standards of many of my older golfing buddies but it was a big deal to me because of the fear factor built up over decades. Fifty-five years and ten US Presidents later, it was probably time to outgrow my childhood medical baggage.