Tales from my travels #2 — learning important lessons about international business, the hard way
I wasn’t expecting to find my boss waiting at the airport when I arrived back home. “Where are all the students?”, he asked. Oh heavens, I thought, with a sinking heart — not only had he not told me what I was getting into, but he’d actually been hoodwinked by his overseas “partner” himself….
That was a memorable trip in very many ways, and I learnt a lot. Business lessons are much more effective when learnt the hard way!
I’d been sent to Cairo with the mission, as I had understood it, to interview potential students for my boss’s language school back in London and help them with their visas. Back in 1975, not only was there no email, even making international telephone calls (at least from Egypt) was a nightmare; long queues, dead connections and, when successful, a massive bill. So sending one’s business manager overseas — with not much chance of further contact before they returned — required large doses of faith and hope.
I set off on April 13, 1975, via Beirut. The date is memorable because the civil war in Lebanon broke out while I was in flight from London! I actually spent the journey composing a letter to my prospective father-in-law, handwritten of course, in my rudimentary Spanish, requesting the hand of his daughter in marriage, but I digress (and I suppose give away my age…).
Having been told so much about Beirut, I was looking forward to breaking the journey to visit it. But all I saw was the airport terminal, where I spent a very long time waiting for the first available seat on a connection to Cairo. As you might imagine, it seemed that everyone who could was getting out.
Somehow or other my business contact, Sami, was told about my new flight details and met me. His new-ish car, a Fiat 124, was surrounded by admirers, so I immediately discovered that anything better than a wreck was a status symbol at that time. I also discovered Cairo traffic — already arguably the worst in the world, and it’s only got worse since.
My boss had met Sami in London. He’d impressed him; he said he was from a rich family, with many businesses including a travel agency, and he’d proposed an arrangement that was supposed to be mutually advantageous, with him sourcing students from Egypt for my boss’s schools of English language in London, so he would get commission from both the tickets he sold them and their course fees.
My boss clearly believed that the students would be coming in droves, and I, young and naïve, accepted what I was told.
Sami was certainly well-off, and he was young and fun-loving. He delivered me to a posh-looking hotel on the Nile Corniche, where he seemed to know everyone. My room certainly wasn’t posh, though. I remember it as being at the back, overlooking a junk yard and with the nearest bathroom being down a long unlit corridor.
But I didn’t have to spend long there. Sami was anxious to show me the sights, and over the next few days I saw the pyramids, the sphinx and just about every other tourist attraction, rode camels, watched belly-dancing, tried a hookah pipe and drank a lot of beer.
But I didn’t see any students. In fact, I had to ask him three days running before he took me to his travel agency. It was buried deep in the bazaar. Once I saw it, I realised why. It was more or less just a hole in the wall, with a shabby sign over it.
Don’t get me wrong; in those days, most “shops” and “offices” in Cairo were basically a room with no shop window, just a shutter that was brought down at night. There are still plenty like that (and in cities in most developing countries), but it came as a shock to me, and I knew it wasn’t what my boss would have been expecting either. Not only did Sami, in his Savile Row suit, look entirely out of place there, but I just couldn’t imagine it as a sales office for a respectable British language school. I was shown a very small table with a stool either side, and told that would be my “office”.
I asked him where the customers — the students — were. “They will come”, he assured me. Nobody seemed to be coming, though, even to buy a bus ticket (the only thing advertised on the walls).
At first I didn’t press him, as I was young, having a good time and in no hurry to do any work. Eventually, though, my conscience got the better of me, and I forced an answer from him. He told me that he was waiting for my boss to send him money (he called it “the investment”) before he would start advertising for customers.
That really brought home the realisation that I hadn’t asked enough before I left London. I was almost certain that my boss wasn’t planning to send Sami any money.
It took me another couple of days to convince Sami to phone my boss. By this time I’d been there over a week; I’d had a great time exploring, but achieved nothing business-wise. Sami returned from the call office with the news that the money was coming, but he was postponing the student recruitment drive and I was to go home.
That wasn’t as easy as it sounds. I had a return ticket, but on MEA via Beirut, and by now they’d stopped flying because of the war. That prompted another discovery — Sami’s agency couldn’t issue me a new ticket with any airline as they weren’t licenced.
Somehow, a day or two later, I found myself in the back row of an Egyptair plane, headed to London, theoretically non-stop. The first three or four hours were spent on the tarmac, in baking heat with the plane doors open; the cabin crew brought water, but ran out 3 rows before they reached me. Within an hour of take-off, there was an announcement that we would land at Athens to refuel; we then had a “technical” stop in Frankfurt, so the journey took forever — and, although there was some sort of meal, I remember it being impossible to get a drink.
And so, eventually, to London, and — after a fraught time with customs, who wanted to open the hookah that I’d bought as a souvenir with a tin opener — the greeting from my boss. It turns out that Sami had told him that my trip had been very successful and there were a lot of students, all coming with me on the same plane. So he’d turned up with a coach.
So, Lesson One, never believe that what your business “partner” tells one party is what they tell another (and, sometimes, don’t believe a single word they say).
Other lessons I learnt from that trip:
· Always visit a partner or supplier’s business operation for yourself before committing to anything
· Get everything you can in writing — ideally including a phrase lawyers use “this represents our entire understanding”, or something like it
· If you’re sending someone else on a mission, be sure that they know everything that you do about the initiative, even if it seems irrelevant at the time
· Check out the political situation in the country you’re going to and any stopovers along the way (and, as I’ve since learnt, even if those countries are supposedly stable democracies)
On that trip I also learnt something else that’s proved incredibly useful over the years — how to bargain with traders in a market. Sami was a master in that. My first lessons in Negotiating Skills. Maybe that’s a good subject for another story, another day.