My Working World: B Is For…
Last month, My Working World took us across the globe, from Argentina in South America in the west, to Australia in the far east of the Pacific. Today we are going to spend some time much closer at home, in Europe. But first of all, let’s take another trip westward. B is for…
By far the largest country in South America, Brazil differs from its neighbours in that the national language is Portuguese rather than Spanish. I also remember it as being a very racially mixed nation; its roots lying in Europe, in Africa and in the Indian sub-continent; people’s heritage showed in their faces and in the colour of their skin, yet they all appeared harmoniously integrated.
My main reason for visiting Brazil was to audit the contract facility in Saõ Paulo which made product both for my own company and for another multinational based in the UK. Soon after I took over the role of Production Project Manager (a fancy name for the company seagulls many of our own factories and contractors saw us as) it was pointed out to me that having two major clients who each appeared once a year, but at different times, was causing a major headache, as not only did it cause double disruption to the production schedule, but since we had different views on life in general, and how pharmaceuticals should be made in particular, we were leaving different sets of recommendations, which often conflicted with each other.
So we did the sensible thing and for several years, we carried out joint audits. And that’s when I really learned about teamwork. Leading a group made up of representatives from engineering, quality assurance and development in my own company was challenging enough. Throw in people from a different company, with a totally different (and much more laid-back) company culture and life got really interesting. But we learned to work together, to compromise, and each year we left behind a concise list of recommendations that satisfied all three parties. It was a good time in my career.
I had the opportunity to travel a bit while working in Brazil, and two of my most striking memories come from that time back in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Anyone who has read Deception! will probably guess I have visited the magnificent Iguazu Falls on the borders of Brazil, Argentina and Paraquay. I did it on my own one year, breaking my journey from Buenos Aries to Saõ Paulo and spending just one night in the wonderful hotel on the Brazil side. Not knowing the geography very well, I landed on the Argentina side and had to make a journey by taxi across the border. I still remember the feeling of isolation as my driver stopped in a remote part of the countryside, took my passport from me and disappeared inside a tiny building, leaving me in the back of the car, wondering whether I would ever see him, or it, again.
One weekend, my hosts took me to the city of Salvador in the north east state of Bahia. It has a rich and not particularly glorious history as the first slave port in the Americas and has become a centre of Afro-Brazilian culture. It also has some wonderful beaches. My enduring memories are of eating freshly baked prawns on the beach during the day, and watching dancers perform to a wild, African music at night. Oh yes, and the panic from my boss back in the UK when he thought I was actually in El Salvador – a much less inviting and far more dangerous proposition.
Last month I talked about falling ill while in Armenia in 2005. But what I didn’t say was that wasn’t the first time it had happened. Back in 1992, ninety minutes before we were due to land in Brazil, I fainted in the toilet on the plane, trapped my windpipe and stopped breathing. Luckily, I hadn’t locked the door and I was pulled out before it was too late. I was unconscious for the remainder of the flight and only woke as I was rushed through an underground tunnel at Saõ Paulo airport on my way to the ambulance. I have never forgotten the first words I heard, as a stewardess screamed in my ear: “you’re alright, I’m with British Airways!”
My hosts arranged for me to stay in one of the best hospitals in town; my company brought my husband out to be with me; and a week later I flew back to the UK with the same flight crew, who were understandably nervous, but hugely caring. It was one of the most frightening weeks of my life. And we never did find out what caused my collapse.
Once I left my company and became an independent consultant, I never returned to South America. The consultancy jobs in that part of the world tend to be won by companies and individuals from the US. But I am still in touch with some of the people I worked with out there; I still have many of the presents I was given on each trip; and , as you can see from the dedication page, my setting of Deception! in Brazil was my tribute to the great times I had over there.
Much closer to home, I spent nearly a year on a major project in Brussels (two Bs for the price of one). Belgium was just a short hop across, or in fact under, the Channel from my then-home in Kent. It is the example I always use when talking to people about pushing the envelope or stepping outside one’s comfort zone.
I was asked by a former colleague to spend a day with a company in Brussels that had a problem relating to manufacture for the US market. Nowhere is the saying about the UK and the USA being two peoples divided by a common language truer than in pharmaceuticals manufacturing. The US and European systems of control and quality assurance are very different. The former is heavy on the documentation; the latter is concerned more with the physical facilities and equipment. I had spent all my career working on the European system. I was considered a GMP (Good Manufacturing Process) expert and I was busy educating countries all around the world in our approach to safe manufacture of drug. I knew the US system, but hadn’t done much work on it. I almost turned down the job. But at the last minute, I remembered the mantra my husband used about all aspects of our consultancy: “Always say yes; then do the research and learn how to do the job.”
So, I said “yes”, I did the research, I went to Belgium for one day – and I ended up with the largest single contract in our consultancy history. It lasted for ten months, employed not just me, but also my husband and several other consultants that we sub-contracted for specific aspects. It allowed us to buy our new home in Devon; it changed our lives significantly. All because I took a step outside my comfort zone.
Brussels was an interesting place to work; there are huge contrasts between the affluence around the Royal Palace or some of the shopping plazas, and the poverty around the railway station. There was an unexpectedly laid-back approach to work; I once heard a Spanish colleague complaining that the Belgians had taken mañana to new heights!
We had an apartment to stay in, which was more comfortable than a long-term stay in an hotel. We commuted back to Kent most weekends. We discovered some wonderful restaurants including an Italian around the corner from where we lived who could do the most incredible things with pasta, butter and truffle. There was a cheese shop down the road that was to die for. I took French lessons and even led an audit, in French, in Paris – much to my Belgian colleagues’ delight and the obvious dismay of our French hosts.
But we were bemused by the fact that in a European capital, one of the administrative centres of the European Union, the level of choice in supermarkets was much narrower than we were used to at home – and everything seemed to shut down for the weekend from Saturday lunchtime.
Living in a country for a long period of time is very different from visiting for a couple of weeks a year. We became part of the company team; no-one felt the need to host our visit; and we did far less eating out on company time or sight-seeing. But it was a fascinating experience and marked a transition from my somewhat turbulent years of travelling in the Former Soviet Union to a quieter period, working closer to home. But more of that as our alphabetical tour progresses.