business


Ain't it pretty?

Ain't it pretty?

Did you hear the news? About the stars? You know, those people we look up to and can’t wait to read about. Yes… The “stars”.

Okay, maybe not those stars. I mean the stars of Wall Street. The beautiful people on the cover of the Wall Street Journal and Business Week. Or at least somewhere on the pages in the middle. Not really a typical centrefold but still… You see, the stars are leaving the big banks and financial houses. It looks like they are leaving in the droves. Moving on to smaller investment firms still trying to make a name for itself. The “Stars” of Wall Street. Now moving on to “bigger and better things”.

Stars? Why? Because they made loads before they… hum… messed up. Just like most celebrities in the world we live in today – these stars are fake stars. Famous for just being famous. Rich for just being rich. Privileged for just being privileged.

How did they make their money? Risk… Nothing wrong with risk but it gets out of control if there is no one to check their behaviour or nothing to prevent them from crashing and burning. And taking everything in their path down with them.

Again, just like the celebrities of today. Clickity-click-click. You’re famous. Flash us some naughty bits. Or a risky deal. We love that. You’re such a star! You made the front page of People. Great… For what? For being an idiot with behavioural problems? For being the new “It Girl” or “Hawt Guy” (Sorry Paris)? Plastic lives. We look at these fake celebrities and call them plastic. Well… These Wall Street celebs knows a lot about plastic… Drive the risk high enough and go into debt and more debt. Gamble and skim a bit off the top for yourself as no one is checking while you go wild. And we’re left with some hot plastic in our hands. And not a loan in sight to cover the burns.

But they are just like the plastic celebs. They were/are a one pony trick. Risk? Actually no…

It wasn’t risk that drove them wild. Anyone with half a decent ambition will face risk and take a few risks. The problem was that they took risk without any fear of failure. Or a few rules to keep them in check. Or a threat that might come back to haunt them. “Here, have some money and then some more. You’ll never fail. At least not fail big enough…” Nothing to cover us if they failed. A bit like paying a celeb a huge sum of money to be in some B-rated movie and hope you will score big. But we know for every Titanic there is Waterworld ready to sink.

And anyway… Like “real celeb stars” they don’t want to take the responsibility of failure but happy to take it if the movie makes a mint. I don’t get it. The market runs wild and everyone is smoking cigars and drinking Cristal. And they throw money at the “stars”. But was it the market or was it the “star”? Because these same people were behind the wheel when it all came crashing down… But they didn’t want to take the breathalyzer test when they got caught driving under the influence of power… Can you dig that?

But the small firms are a bit like those cool indy films. The “stars” go to them to get some “legit”. But it is still a crap movie with a fancy name and a plot no one understands. So we felt stupid and hide our insecurities by calling it brilliant. Same with the Wall Street “stars”. They still do the same old same old crap and still have no clue what they are doing. But a fancy name for the investment firm and a sweet smell of selling of snake oil investments makes them “brilliant”. Because we are the idiots who don’t understand what they do and hide our stupidity by calling them “stars”. Puh-leeze… We have a cat who eats too much each day and throws up afterwards. I don’t understand that cat. But I do know that the cat is still pretty stupid for doing it every single day. The same thing over and over. But it’s in its nature I guess. It doesn’t know better…

So these stars are running from Wall Street. Please don’t mind me if I don’t look that worried. Or that I don’t care too much about them leaving. Maybe they can close the door on their way out. I’ll walk across the road and buy myself a Starbucks, wearing my Levi jeans and Timberland boots. Shop at Wal-Mart and drive my Ford. I’ll put my money on things that I can touch. Stuff I can feel. Stuff I can take back if it doesn’t work. Yes, I’ll take my chances on the real thing.

The King is dead. Long live the King!

Look up at the stars tonight. I love shooting stars…

globehands

The UK and Europe is so far ahead of the US when it comes to Corporate Responsibility. If I only had a penny for everyone who said this. I hear this almost every single day. And not just from those in England who have a slightly superior attitude when it comes to corporate responsibility. I hear it from people here in the US just as often, if not more. The truth is that we are comparing apples and oranges. Is cricket better than baseball? Only if you are from England. Although you wouldn’t know that from recent results. And you would only like cricket more if you enjoy sitting in the sun and rain for five days and still not get a result. But I digress. They are both ball sports but they are vastly different. They might even share a common history, but that is where it stops.

In the US they believe in Corporate Citizenship and in the UK they believe in Corporate Responsibility. More or less the same, but different just the same. Corporate Citizenship is about what you do in your community. How you interact and how you support them. Corporate Responsibility is about how you run your business – it’s about operations and how you work. The impact is important to both, but in Corporate Citizenship you look at your community and their needs first and the way you work in your community might have something to do with the way you operate, but does not have to. In Corporate Citizenship you focus on your role in society through your operations and the impact you have, and then you improve on these. Through these operational changes you will have a more positive impact on society. Both benefits society, but they have slightly different points of departure.

The reason why the community focus is so central in the US is because there is less of a safety net in the US than in most of Europe. People do not expect government to solve their problems or protect them from every single little thing in life. No, people do that themselves and they tend to look after themselves and after each other. They expect to solve issues themselves. Americans like the idea of less interference by government and more control by themselves in taking responsibility of their own lives. It might have something to do with the open spaces, but Americans do not like people telling them what to do. They want to be masters of their own destiny. Less government and more power to the people.

In the UK and much of Europe there are much more of a reliance on government to interfere in daily life. People expect government to take more control of their daily lives and maintain the rules of how society engage and organize themselves. The rules of engagement. And they want government to identify the common areas of good that will help improve society. Government will tell you what is bad and help you to become better. All that is left for companies to do is ensure they do their best through operations and compliance to government regulations.

That brings me to a second point of difference – regulations and compliance. Corporate behavior is managed through regulations and compliance in the UK and Europe. Everything you do is regulated and not left to the company to try and innovate on their side. Any leadership position you develop is very quickly turned into a government requirement. (Your window of opportunity to show true leadership will stay open for a very short period in this environment). It helps that there is a strong central government in Europe. It makes it easy to push through new regulations. And it is even easier in Europe where the European Commission is hardly held responsible by ‘the people’ and have an almost free ride in bringing in new regulations. No wonder that Europe brought out regulations to define what a banana is – up to the curve needed to be defined as a banana. And I am not joking…

And it is also easy to bring in new regulations in the UK. It is a small island with a central government that runs the rule over everyone. Yes, Scotland and Wales have some autonomy, but the UK is still pretty much ruled from London. It is easy to understand the drive towards more regulations with so much power in the hands of a central government. It is in the nature of government to try and rule their own way. And each new government want to leave behind some kind of legacy. And what is easier than to bring in new regulations that can be sold as ‘for the good of everyone’.

It is different in the US. States control their own destiny much more than any regional authority in the UK. The federal government do not have the power to control everything. Even taxes are different from state to state. And some states like Massachusetts might regulate more towards the protection of people than those in say Texas, but it is up to each state to decide what is most relevant for their state. Federal government can provide guidelines and try and push through federal laws, but this is generally fought tooth and nail by states. The art of the federal government is to try and keep a balance between inching forward on the regulatory front and encouraging states to take control at a local level. But change happens at state level and not federal level.

This approach allows for companies to take more risk in trying out new practices and to develop a leadership position. They know they can bring in these practices without the danger of it being regulated to death. Yes, it is a fine balance. They still have to tell the truth in advertising and not make claims that can’t be backed, but they can be more risky in taking chances. Over in the UK it is slightly different. The aim of regulations is not to bring best practice into law, but to rather identify the lowest common denominator that could be passed as acceptable behavior by companies. I know, both have a place – best practice and lowest common denominator. In the US they lean more towards the former and in the UK more to the latter. It fits their societal and political needs.

Of course the US does have one thing that ensures that the lowest common denominator is ‘self regulated’. The I-will-sue-you culture. You make one mistake and the consumer will take you to the cleaners. Yes, it is out of control, but it creates an incentive for business to not do something that can harm the public. There are enough lawyers here to ensure that you will get sued. Businesses in the UK can hide behind compliance of law and it is much more difficult to sue someone if they haven’t broken the law instead of suing because they didn’t look after the public interest.

And some of the regulations make the way companies act very different. For instance, both the UK and US have regulations regarding how foundations are run. And these are very, very different. US corporate foundations are not allowed to do any work that can directly benefit the company. This was put in place to ensure that companies do not see this as a way to hide money, and to ensure they spend their foundation money on what is good for society as a whole. Very different in the UK. Much more freedom to be strategic in the way they spend their foundation money. They can spend the money on helping suppliers of the company and still write it off under foundation rules. The unbelievable work the Shell Foundation (UK) has done in development in poorer countries would not be allowed under US rules.

The US also likes rock stars and celebrities more than anything else. Man, their news are pathetic over here – give me the BBC please. Every second story is about some celeb and their latest escapade. And that plays out in the way company CEO’s act as well. The CEO and Chairman tend to play a major role in the public view of the company. Bill Gates is Microsoft. Howard Schultz is Starbucks. Steve Jobs is Apple. And each one have to make their mark in this world. Not because they want to, but because people expect them to do their thing from the front – lead the way in how and what they give and the way they run their company. They are the people others look up to and aspire to become. These leaders drive change across all businesses and are needed in a less regulated business environment. They are by default the people who drive real change through their own commitment to making business and society better. Thank God for them.

Less so in the UK. Companies are seen as more important that the individual. A few has made it to the front – Richard Branson as one. But they stand out because they are so different from the rest. The focus tend to be on the company and not the individual who runs it. Yes, they play a role, but the company is seen as less dependent on the CEO and/or Chairman than in the US. Another reason why the UK loves splitting this role while the US wants the same person in charge. Two big egos would be difficult to control in the US.

One area where the US is way ahead of the UK is in communicating their corporate citizenship. They tend to focus on the communications part more while the UK tend to focus more on the operational changes. Maybe it is because the UK society is more reserved than the US, but it means that Ben and Jerry’s is more respected in the US than Unilever. But in the UK it is the other way around. Of course this can be exploited and can confuse the consumer. A classic example is the current discussions in Washington about ‘green’ advertising and marketing. But the best tend to rise to the top and consumers do know to take things with a pinch of salt.

In short, the US is different because it fits in with the way their society organizes itself compared to the UK. Both approaches have real value. Both approaches will improve the world little by little. Both approaches will have failures and successes. But the one is not better than the other. Just different. Dealing with their own little peculiarities in their society and political systems. Both work. And both fails. I don’t need to remind you of the current economic failure in the US thanks to a regulate-yourself culture. But the US is not in any way behind the UK when it comes to the role of business in society. No. They are just different. A US approach won’t last a second in the UK. And the UK approach won’t survive a second in the US. The real challenge for them both is to adapt when they are outside their own borders, culture and comfort zone. For example, neither will last long in China or South Africa if they just try to continue working the way they do in their country of origin. New rules and new ways of operating is needed. They have to bring the best of their world and merge it with the societal and political expectation in these new countries. And that won’t be better either. Just better for that specific country.

Bu the discipline of business in society benefits from this dynamics – bringing different approaches to the table. And it is when these merge and mingle that we move further ahead in this world of ours. Of course there is one approach that works no matter where you are. The South African approach. But I won’t be giving away our secrets just yet. No, I am way to responsible to do something like that.

starbucksiv

I’m just a guy. You wouldn’t take notice of me if we walked past each other in the street. I look like anyone else you might see in your life. Someone sitting at the airport waiting for their plane home. Sitting next to you on the train in the daily commute. Just a guy.

I love what I do. I love what I do at home and I love what I do for a living. But I am a guy who doesn’t believe in a job in the way many people would think of a job. I am my job. What you see in my work is what you see at home. A little crazy but I love what I do. I seriously love what I do. And like my life because of the people around me. People who make me think and push what I do to the edge. How can we do it even better? How can we push the boundaries? How can we make a real difference? How can we make it better together?

That ubuntu – I am because we are. It is so true. I am at work because of others. They inspire me and they drive me. They ignite the flame inside me that makes me who I am in life and in work.

This is really difficult to explain… Let me put it in another way…

I am pretty good at what I do. I know that. I know that because people tell me so. And I know I am good at what I do because I have no clue why I think the way I do! But I also know that I am good at what I do because I challenge myself constantly. And I somehow always find an “angle”. I am proud of what I have achieved and I am proud of what I stand for. But not proud like in full of myself. I know I am only who I am because of others. I would not have achieved a thing without others. Every person and every team made me better and taught me new ways of thinking. Ebrahim Patel was a genius who taught me how to think on my feet. How to find new angles and solutions to problems that no one else even considered. Martin Kalungu-Banda taught me about being humble and a manager at the same time. How to be subtle about leading others by inspiring them and finding the best in them. Oh man, so many people made me better and made me who I am today.

The names just flash by – Adrian, Demba, Sophia, Sumi, David, Patricia, Cunningham, Herbert, Chris, Gordon, Vernon, Sahra, Robert, Jane, John, Siviwe, Peter, Themba and so many others. Names to you. More than just people and faces to me. They made me.

I hardly said thank you. But I hope that me just being me and opening up to them showed that I did appreciate every single minute they gave to me. Every single day that they helped make me who I am.

I love what I do because of some of the people I have had the pleasure to work with in my life. They are not clients and they are not colleagues. They became friends. They are people I want to have coffee with. People I just want to hang out with. And sometimes it happens that they want to hang out with me as well.

They are me. No. They make me better than what I am.

Here is another thing. Most people go out in life and find things in other people they don’t like. That is easy. It is easy to find the things that we don’t like and the things that are different from ourselves. It is easy and it is lazy. It is life with blinkers on. The people I have met along the way have taught me something else. Finding the things in people I like and building a relationship based on what we have in common. And celebrating the differences as the bits that make us unique. Those differences makes up the rainbow of life – flavors and tastes for everyone to share. It is one hell of a way to meet new people and learn from others. I am one lucky guy to have been able to celebrate these differences with others. One damn lucky guy.

But I can only do this by being myself and being true to myself.

All we can be is ourselves. Nothing but ourselves. We can hide behind a mask or be ourselves. I picked the “be myself” way of doing things. I don’t think about it. I just do it. I don’t think of the consequences and I don’t think of the reasons. I just do it by being myself. Like breathing.

But we all have good times and bad times. And sometimes you doubt yourself and your style. Should I not be a little bit more like this or a little bit more like that? Should I wear a suit more often? Ha! But you sometimes question your style and the way you work. Do I need to be different? But it won’t work. It’s just not in my blood. All I can do is be myself. And I like it that way. I am who I am. And it works for me.

Hell, I really don’t know how to write this…

So I go through life and I make friends. It’s just one of those things. I make friends because people inspire me. They truly inspire me to be the best I can be without even thinking about it. They inspire me because their genius touches me and teaches me. And I can only have these relationships because I am who I am. And you never ask whether it will pay back or whether it has any benefits. You just do it. You are just you.

And then you get an email from someone that really makes you realize that we live in a pretty good world with damn fine people in it.

I left out many names in that list at the start of this blog. Recent names. I did that on purpose. I am to sh*t scared I leave someone out! But there are many other people who have touched me and who have become friends of mine. People I hold close to me no matter what the distance is between us. Good people. Geniuses who make me better.

I got an email from someone not on that list who would in another life be seen as a “professional relationship”. But she isn’t. She is a friend. A good friend. And she emailed me and had these really kind words about me. It was really a bit of a shocker as I don’t do what I do to get credit or to make myself feel better. I just do it because I like it and I like most of the people that go with my life. They all somehow made me a better person for just knowing them and having worked with them. She reminded me that who I am is what drives me. I am a better person because of people like her. People like her allow me to be just me.

I won’t share the whole email but these words really hit home. I’ll give you a little bit from her email. Edited of course…

“small world my friend.  i was having dinner the other night with some folks at X…  i was ranting to them about all sorts of things we need to do…

somehow i mentioned your blog and X said — “wait a minute, you know (him)?”  then he told me they had been talking with you…  i of course waxed poetic about your big brain, smart savvy approach and your ability to get (people) to think about how to push to the ‘brave place’ rather than just the easy place.

seriously, it was a glowing endorsement.  …and we could light things on fire.”

That last sentence says it all for me. “… we could light things on fire.” It’s about the “together” isn’t it? It’s not about me. It is about us. I am because we are…

I wrote her a thank you email. And this is part of what she wrote back…

“you don’t owe me, you earned it.  it’s the whole kizmet / karma / destiny paradigm. you… make real connections and it all comes back to you.”

She reminded me of the good people I have met along the way. And she reminded me why I enjoy the hell out of what I am doing. She reminded me that I do what I do and I am who I am because of people like her. To that person and everyone else I have met along the way. Thank you. Thank you for being my friend and my teacher. Thank you for allowing me to just be me. A guy who likes what he does and who likes hanging out with people like you.

I owe you a life of living. You are my ubuntu – I am because we are.

Now let’s have a coffee together…

Make mine a four-shot skinny Venti latte. (I’m getting all fancy and checking my weight!) A Starbucks Ethiopian Sidamo, please and thank you. Strong and deep like Africa with a fleeting aroma of floral left behind from the men picking flowers when they return from another hunting trip. A little spicy and a touch of chocolaty taste to go with our sweet tooth. Hum… Some of us also recognize a bit of wine in there! And to give it a bit of a bite and round it off nicely, the best Sidamo coffees have just a hint of lemon. Who said us Africans can’t have a feminine side? First sip… Aah… That’s much better. Wait! Better still. Just hook it up to an IV and I’ll be just fine…

charity

You want to hug a dolphin? Or maybe plant a tree? What about buying a goat for a village in Ethiopia? Or a desk and chair for a school in Banda Aceh? No. Mm-mm, difficult one. Wait, I have just the thing for you – how about supporting the Foundation for the protection of Swedish underwear models?

And you think I am joking about that last one. It might be tongue in cheek, but this cause has over 400,000 signed up members globally. Okay, it is a Facebook cause – but one of the most supported causes. They even managed to raise some money for their nonprofit – after specifically asking for NO money. Yes, this is a nonprofit and their aim is the “promotion of international understanding”. No, I really am NOT joking.

The point I am trying to make is that we now have a cause for every taste and need. And then some. Once you find your cause – which organization within this cause do you want to support? And so on, and so on. The list just gets longer and longer.

This shouldn’t be a problem. People can now match their passions with the right organization. And there are enough charities out there to still have a slight different individual flavor that makes you so much more different from the plebs who support Oxfam (joking people…). Oh no, you support Project Africa – because it is so much more than a goal, it is a mission. A cause that goes with your evening dress and another that goes well as a car refresher hanging from the rear-view mirror.

And it makes life so much easier if you run a company. All you have to do is pick your cause and adopt the charity or nonprofit that is still available. You feel strongly about education for kids? Make your pick – we still have EduKiddiCare and KEDUCare available. (Man, how many times can someone focus on education before we run out of charities or ideas?)

But the growth in charities and causes can have a bad impact as well – apart from the bad jokes (sorry). Firstly, it waters down the important stuff and diverts attention. Instead of tackling the real big issues facing the world – Climate Change, Abuse, Poverty & Hunger, War, Disasters and Health (the Big 5 plus Climate Change) – we tackle every issue that comes to mind. Can we really justify saving the dolphin, battling bottled water, fighting immigration, protesting GM crops and anti/pro-abortion marches (the Little 5) while people are dying of hunger, disease, abuse, disasters or war? Of course all these other issues are important, but more important than people dying right now in this world we all share? I don’t know – your call.

Even more important than the long list of options and diverting attention – the diversion of funds. Two dynamics stand out. Firstly, aid only increases marginally each year – and even then it goes to certain causes that are important, but not really charity for the needy. For instance, where do you think 80% of US federal ‘aid’ go? A handful of countries that are not really on the most needy list – Israel, Pakistan and Egypt. And oh, it includes military aid… And it gets worse because the money is now spread across and even wider range of causes and organizations. Each year another nonprofits comes along that wants a piece of the pie – and reduces the share of the next one.

But the single biggest problem I have with the proliferation of charities? They divert money away from Africa and other places of need. Instead of the funding going directly to the charity in the country suffering, it goes via other charities and donor bodies first. And everyone takes their cut. The money for empowering women farmers in Zambia doesn’t go to Women for Change. Oh, they might get a small amount. But the money first goes to DFID or USAID or GTZ – or whatever government agency. And then it goes to Oxfam GB or US or Germany. And then it goes to Oxfam Southern Africa. And then it goes to Oxfam Zambia. And the leftovers go to Women for Change.

Businesses always try and streamline their value chain. We should do the same with funding. No more than 2 steps before it gets to the actual people that need it and should benefit from it. Cut out the middlemen. Hey, they make money for campaiging in any case by collecting from door to door and in the streets. It doesn’t mean the end of Oxfam or Care or Save The Children and mates. Just the beginning of the nonprofits who can really bring immediate change to the people who need it most. It will force every charity to focus on achieving real change and doing the bit they are best at. And more of the program money will go to the charities who are closest to the real issues on the ground – they are part of the people who suffer in their community. We just need to streamline the charity supply chain a bit.

Of course there is another reason for my little rant. Is it about caring about something or doing something? The caring bit is about you. But the doing bit is about those who need the help. It’s a slight but important difference. You can pick a charity or a cause the way you pick a dress or shoes – something to fit in with your needs and different tastes. But please don’t forget that this isn’t about you. It’s about those who really need you to be part of them and part of the solution. I worry that the causes are so diverse that we start forgetting who and what this is all about. It’s not a clothing outfit to fit with your personality. It’s about people. And what they need.

Mm-mm, maybe I just found the cause that fits my charity. The AA BARF charity needs your support. Really… The Angry African Beer And Rugby Fund never really got the funding or supporters it deserved in any case. And the money will go directly to the cause it supports. I promise…

This is a little bit of bragging. I am sorry for that. (No, really!) But I am really proud of having been part of this team. And I am proud of the role that I played. Most of all.. I am Proudly South African.

proudlysa

How do you get people to buy South African goods when they have this perception that something made elsewhere is so much better? Well, Nelson Mandela wanted a campaign to get people to support South African goods and services. And what Madiba wants Madiba gets. At least in my books. The question was – How do we get people to support South African made goods and services in such a young democracy still redefining what being South African means to us? With difficulty… And I was asked to get this off the ground. It wasn’t as easy as you would expect! But it was fun…

Nelson Mandela got everyone and his dog (government, business, civil society and trade unions) together back in 1998 to get them to agree to a joint effort to create jobs in South Africa. His Presidential Job Summit was a breakthrough. Getting everyone on the same page was key to moving us forward in more or less the same direction. It didn’t come up with too many tangible things, but just getting everyone to share thoughts was huge for us. Hell, we were tearing each other apart a few years earlier so we had to get our heads together if we were going to make it together as the new Rainbow Nation. So we got together around the virtual campfire and agreed to many things that should be at the forefront of this new “partnership”. One of the things they agreed to was a short little paragraph about initiating a Buy South African campaign. Doesn’t sound like much does it? Should be easy to get off the ground right? But nothing happened until 2000. Yes, we work in African time…

The problem was that business hated it, government was indifferent and the trade unions were split. But I worked for one of the key supporters of this idea – Ebrahim Patel. Ebrahim was a genius. A hard man and difficult to please, but still a genius. And I loved working with this guy no matter how difficult it was. But I’ll leave him for another day.

Ebrahim was the reason why I joined COSATU and because of him I was made Convener of the Trade and Industry Chamber at NEDLAC. NEDLAC was where all these “stakeholders” (government, labour, civil society and business) negotiated almost everything that had something to do with the economy and social development before it goes to parliament. And the Trade and Industry Chamber negotiated and developed anything from trade deals to competition policy. You name it we negotiated it, wrote it and did it. NEDLAC is light years ahead of anything I have seen in any democracy in the world. The only institution actually making people part of government policy decisions and processes. Imagine that. By the people and for the people. That is a novel idea…

So it was only logical that this Buy South African idea would eventually land up in our laps. And it was my job to make this argument. Well, at least according to Ebrahim. So I made the arguments and threatened and threw my toys until they agreed. Not because they wanted this, but because they thought it would be best to humor me instead of facing a possible mass action (read protest) against them. And they really did not want to face Ebrahim when he was pissed. But they had something up their sleeve as well.

They were pretty sure that this thing will never get off the ground. There were just too many people against it. And the then new President, Thabo Mbeki, wasn’t that eager for it either. It would be a legacy of Nelson Mandela and he was trying to get away from under the shadow of this great man. So they decided to set up a task team that would get this campaign off the ground. Knowing that it would never happen – not if they had anything to do with it. You know – the best way to get rid of something is to create a committee to deal with it! And who better to lead this task team then me. Yep, I pushed so hard that they thought the best way to get back at me is to set me up for failure. So I was the “lucky” one who got selected to lead this campaign. Thanks Ebrahim…

They gave me total freedom to include anyone in the team that I wanted. They were sure that I would fill it up with unionist who would be supportive of the idea. But no. i knew that wouldn’t work. I needed those who were against the idea even closer than those who loved it. Keep your friends close and enemies even closer. Or the tent and the pissing story – you know the deal. So I selected key people from government and business who were totally apposed to the idea. I had to convince them if we wanted any chance of this actually getting off the ground.

They also gave me an almost unlimited budget to work with. And like anyone with too much money I hired a few consultants. Rupert Barnard and Kaiser in Cape Town were perfect. They didn’t give a damn who liked it or not. Their aim was to make it work. And get paid a bucket load if they could pull it off. But the opposition pulled out their first trump card at our first meeting – World Trade Organization (WTO) requirements.

As a member of the WTO, South Africa agreed that the government will not do anything that supports South African companies above foreign companies. All should be treated equally. But we needed the support of government because they had the money. And they could influence business. And we needed business to implement it if we wanted it to be viable.

So we came to standstill almost immediately. We couldn’t move until we knew whether it would be allowed under WTO rules or not. We argued this way and that way. We did research and more research. And still we couldn’t come to an agreement. Four months went past and we still didn’t get any closer to an answer. And then it hit me. A piece of genius. A tactic out of this world! I picked up the phone, called the WTO in Geneva and asked them if we could do this campaign under WTO rules. They said it would be fine and even put it in writing for me. Needless to say, but the other guys were less impressed with my tactics. It was a bit underhanded to contact them directly! To actually ask them. The audacity. Imagine that. I am such a rebel… Not. Wow! The reaction from some of the others were less enthusiastic. Or maybe they were just pissed at the answer that I got. But they had to go ahead with it – they were part of the team. Now we had government on our side – and their money as well. One down, one to go.

We blew money left right and centre to convince everyone that this is a good idea. We benchmarked similar campaigns in Australia, US, Canada and even Indonesia. Our problem was that none of the other countries included environmental and social standards to their campaigns. We wanted the products to not only be of good quality and be made in South Africa, but we also wanted it to be done in an environmentally and socially responsible way. Yes, we were way ahead of everyone else at the time. So we just made it up as we went along.

But consumers would be key to this all. They had to believe in the campaign and buy the products in the end. So we blew some more money on consumer studies to see what would drive consumers to support this campaign. And although we didn’t know it at the time, this would be a breakthrough for the campaign. But not in a way we would have expected.

Those in business opposed to the idea found another obstacle they could throw our way. They couldn’t agree on a name. Business wanted it to be called Made in South Africa. But the unions wanted it to be called Buy South African – the original name they agreed to in 1998. But business was adamant. They would not go for the Buy South African name as it was to prescriptive and they wanted it to say more about the product – that it was Made in South Africa. And the unions refused to budge. They wanted people to buy the stuff. Stuck again.

We used this in our favor for a little while. Getting other key things passed like the budget, management structure and marketing plan. But we knew there would be no campaign if we couldn’t get them to agree on the name. And time was running out.

And we struggled. Again going this way and that way. Trying to convince each side that they should just go with the other name. But no one was willing to budge. Then one night I was reading through some consumer research when it hit me. What was the number one reason people would support this campaign? Easy. Over 80% of people said they would do it because they were proud to be South Africans. We had a name – Proudly South African. They couldn’t fight it. They would not be very proudly South African if they didn’t go with this. They caved in and we had a name. Business was on board.

The rest was easy. We removed one obstacle after the other. And more and more people came on board. And the name was a killer. It just captured the “Madiba magic” in a way no one thought we could. A few more twists and turns and we had everyone on board. We were ready to rock and roll.

That was the most difficult time for me. We had to employ people to run this. My job was only to get it to the launch stage. It took 18 months of my life. It consumed me and took everything out of me. I had to out maneuver opponents and overcome obstacles every day. It drove me crazy, but I loved it. And we had a great team backing it and working on it. But it was time to let go. My little baby has grown up and was ready to leave home. So we let it go. And the rest is history.

I was proud. I was Proudly South African

cherry

This will be short…

I was on a new business pitch with our team this week. Or as we call it in “agency speak” – new biz. Down in New York. It was fun. Great company. But more importantly, an absolutely great team from our side. It’s always fun going with our team. I always laugh my ass off at the craziness going on once they get started. I wish you could meet the people I work with. Just an absolutely brilliant bunch of people. Not only do they know their shit, but they are some of the funniest and most dedicated people you will ever meet. They want to change the world, but they want to have fun doing it.

Let me you give an idea of how close we all are. We always say that we know you can do the job once we ask you to come in for a “chat”. But the biggest thing for us is whether you can handle being part of us. Passion, humor and just generally great people – fitting in with our culture is most likely the single most important reason for our success. We work closely together and you need to laugh and poke fun or else you will never make it here. Really, I have never experienced it anywhere else where I have worked. Every place had a great work ethic and did the work because we want to change the world. But over here we want to have fun as well. Not fake fun – real fun where you can speak your mind and tell a joke at the same time. Argh! I can’t even explain it to you. Just trust me – it’s a fun place to be in so many ways.

And it start at the top. We have one crazy CEO. I’ll tell you about him at some other time. But let me just say that when I was still talking to them about joining “the firm” he first took me to a fancy restaurant for a steak and right after that took me to a real bar where all the local Red Sox fans hang out. And some of the stories he told me and words he used made me realize this is one weirdly excellent and different place. And our Chair(wo)man. She started this place. She is the guru in my line of work. She did this when everyone else was still picking their noses. And you know what? You wouldn’t know it if you met her. So many gurus have big heads and are full of themselves, but not our guru. She’ll pop in and just have a chat about my kids or politics or whatever. And we all argue like hell. We are strong willed people who want to make a difference. But we respect and like each other. From every single level. That’s our crazy gang over here.

But back to my story…

So we were all in a cab heading back to the airport on our way home. Laughing and joking. And Mrs T told us that our first meeting with this potential client was the first new business pitch for one of our gang members. Let’s just call her “Jess” for now. So Mrs T said that right after that first meeting Jess told her this – the best one-liner I have heard in a very, very long time… If not ever.

“I just popped my new biz cherry”.

Yeah. We all pissed ourselves laughing. Our CEO was in the cab. And he egged me on to put this on the blog. As if I needed any encouragement…

Jess, thanks for that – And congratulations on getting engaged. I hope it had nothing to do with you and the cherry popping…

Seriously though, may your love be as strong and full and perfect as what I have with my lovely suffering wife…

831307315_44f2935b6a

This post was inspired by Monroe Anderson (I still can’t believe that he reads my blog. I am not worth the crossing of his t’s. He is the man.)

_________________________________

The first shop I went to when we landed here in the US two years ago was a convenience store just down the road from us. It’s called Honey Farms. Just your run-of-the-mill convenience store like a 7-Eleven. Nothing much. Bread, milk, cigarettes, Coke and chocolates. Everything I need to get through the day if pushed. That’s where I met them. The people working at Honey Farms.

The first guy I met was this old guy that must been at least 65 in the shade. But still in excellent shape. He cycles to work and back. We just called him ‘the old guy’. My lovely wife knew who I was talking about whenever I told her I had a chat with the old guy at Honey Farms. He was the first American I had a just a normal general chat with. Good guy. Exceptionally good guy.

It started off like any normal chat for us foreigners over here in smaller towns. The accent. He loved my wife’s accent. Called it “the Queen’s English”. Well, she does have a pretty good English accent even though she is South African. He made her talk just so he could listen to her accent. And then he will just be like a little kid and be all giddy. And tell all the other customers to listen to her speak. Yes, I think he had a bit of a crush on her.

I didn’t get the same treatment. But then, my accent is a bit more harsh. Less exotic, more farmer. But what can you do? We did have many good chats – me and the old guy from Honey Farms. Anything really – and he was as funny as hell.

Whenever I bought my cigarettes he would offer me “free” matches. And he used to say that they are so committed to customer service that they are happy to replace the matches if I am unhappy with them at any time. Yes, they were free to start off with.

Or the time I walked in and asked if they had dish washing liquid or tablets for the dishwasher. He made a huge scene claiming that they have the best dishwasher liquid in the whole of downtown Natick – if not in greater downtown Natick. (You can’t buy or find it anywhere else in downtown Natick.) He went to tell me how good this dishwasher liquid is. His wife swears by it. And he has never had a customer come back to say it didn’t do the job. With a smile I asked him if he has ever used it. He shook his head and said no. Never used the stuff. He still washes his dishes by hand. And then laughed a bit more. Both of us.

Yeah, he was a funny guy. Always something funny to say or a smart comment to make me leave with a smile.

But it always bugged me. Why is he still working when he should be taking it easy? When he should be retired. So I asked him. I asked him why is he still working. And he stared at me for a little while. And then just uttered a simple little concept…

“healthcare…”

“Why healthcare”, I asked. Simple, he needs to be covered if something happens to him or his wife. Especially in their old age. And he needs the extra money to pay for it. As security for when they really need it. The government will help but it might not be enough. In his old age he has to worry about that. He never had to worry about it when he was covered when he was young and healthy and looked after.

He also told me that he got his daughter a job at Honey Farms. But that he had to make her stop working there and found her another job. He was worried about her safety. When she worked the late shift. When some of the rougher and drunker guys came around. Nothing ever happened. But it wasn’t good for her to be exposed. It was good enough for the old man, but not good enough for his daughter.

He left my Honey Farms a few months back. He got a better offer to actually run a Honey Farms in the town next to ours. We still walk into each other now and again. And we still have our chats then. He still makes me laugh. And he still cycles to work.

Actually, he is doing more than that. One of the many discussions we had was about American addiction to cars. Hell, people will drive 200 yards to Honey Farms to buy their stuff. But more than that, single drivers keep on driving to work and back or to downtown Natick on a beautiful day when they could be walking. It bugged him. And he decided to do something about it. A campaign. A campaign to get Natick people to cycle more.

This old man decided to do it on his own. He got a plan together that we spoke about a few times. And he took it to the local authorities to get their backing. And convinced them to support him. Not with money. But with communications – posters, notices, free bicycles etc. And off he went. His “cycle more” campaign. Good for traffic and good for your health. This old man that should be retired did it because it bugged him. Never made a cent out of it. It was all about getting people out of their cars and start cycling when they go to downtown Natick. Yep, he was an activist in his own way.

I really liked him. Still do.

He is America for me. Him and the other people I have met at Honey Farms. The other slightly less old guy who knows everything anybody ever wants to know about the history of coins – American coins. Or the gay middle aged woman who suffers from depression. Or the woman whose kids always come to visit her when she works the late shift on a weekend. Or the young black kid from the wrong side of Natick that is taking extra jobs to stay out of trouble and build himself a future. All of them. They have been America to me. Proud. Strong. Easy to talk to. Friendly as hell.

Yes, they might not know as much of the world as what the world knows of them, but these people are good decent people that I would be happy to call my own. I can see in their eyes why America is great. Because they are great people.

So why am I telling you this? Why is this even important? I’ll tell you why…

…McCain and taxes…

What?

Yep, McCain and taxes. McCain is attacking Obama for wanting to raise the taxes of the wealthiest of Americans. One key line of argument from McCain is that the top 1% of Americans will pay almost 35% of American taxes under the Obama plan. That just doesn’t sound right. That is just unfair. It isn’t just. Why should 1% pay so much of the taxes? Well… Because that same 1% also own almost 35% of America’s net worth. That’s why. Mr McCain.

If you own 35% then it makes perfect sense that 35% of the taxes will come from you. Easy economics. Not socialism. Just easy economics.

And before I forget. Just 10% of the population owns 71% of America’s wealth… I expect that 10% to pay 71% of the taxes…

I won’t even mention that “in a survey of 120 major cities, New York was found to be the ninth most unequal in the world and Atlanta, New Orleans, Washington, and Miami had similar inequality levels to those of Nairobi, Kenya and Abidjan, Ivory Coast. Many were above an internationally recognised acceptable “alert” line used to warn governments”. I won’t go into that. Just saying that the distribution of wealth in America is beyond unfair. It ranks with the most unjust systems in the world…

Tell me why should the wealthiest not pay according to the share of wealth they have? Are they better than the old guy from Honey Farms? Do they mean more to America than the Honey Farms people? I don’t think that either group means more to America than the other. Or at least, I don’t believe that either group should mean more to America. CEO’s can be replaced as easily as the guy in Honey Farms. Don’t let them tell you otherwise. I work with CEO’s of some of the biggest American companies out there today. The biggest of the biggest. The best of the best. Make no mistake… I can count on my one hand how many of them are truly irreplaceable. And they generally earn a sh*tload of money. Way more than their counterparts from the rest of the world.

I get it that they earn more. I have no problem there. Maybe I have a problem with the extremes of what they earn, but I do get that they should earn a nice package to keep them in the job. But they are not more American than the old guy from Honey Farms. That much I know.

He has worked his backside off for this country. Never moaned. Never bitched. Never complained. When they ask him to serve he serves. When they ask him to sacrifice he sacrifices. He, and everyone else at Honey Farms, are the backbone of this country as much as what the CEO is. Without him there is no America. America is not a country of CEO’s. America is a country of Americans. And everyone should pay their share of being able to call themselves American. The old guy paid his dues. Through sweat and taxes. Even today in his old age. He kept that CEO in his job. Buying his stuff and protecting his rights. The CEO can afford to pay more taxes so that the old guy doesn’t have to work in his old age. Or that the woman suffering from depression can get good help even though she can’t afford it. She works her butt off. Each and every day. She doesn’t sit back and do nothing. She contributes. She pays taxes. According to what she can. Her share. Even though her share of the American wealth is nothing compared to the CEO. We can’t expect him to let it “trickle down”. It won’t. It never has. It’s a fallacy that Reagan tried to sell and we now know it doesn’t work. Mr CEO doesn’t buy from Honey Farms.

One more thing… Patriotism.

Conservative Republicans keep on saying that the American companies will take their business elsewhere if they don’t get the “breaks”. Can we then please question the patriotism of these companies? Who are they? Let’s all stop buying from them if they hate America so much. They made their money off the back of American sweat and American consumers. And now they want to leave? They made their American Dream come true through the hard work and money of other Americans. They made their American Dream off the back and sweat and hard earned cash of those Americans who defines the true American Dream – freedom, justice and liberty without the money attached. Let’s leave them alone if they don’t show the same commitment to America as the old guy from Honey Farms.

I like my old guy from Honey Farms. I like everyone who works at Honey Farms. They taught me about America. Not the CEO and his buddies that I have known for many years. They are also Americans. But they are not America. It was Honey Farms that made me realize what America is all about. The spirit. The belief. The patriotism. The people.

I earn more than the guy at Honey Farms. Way more. I don’t earn $250,000 p.a. (Not yet!) But I am willing to pay a little more to make sure that the old guy from Honey Farms can just ride his bicycle and not worry about the cost of his healthcare. He is America and I am willing to do what it takes to make that work. I am willing to pay my share according to the share I own and earn. That should be the American way.

Next Page »