Thursday, 30 December 2010

The unlikely villain turned hero


Painting with a broad brush is not always the right thing to do. In the United States, virtually anybody who's in the finance sector has been branded a villain. They of the billion dollar bailouts and the million dollar bonuses. Near the top of the pecking order of rogues, in the public mind, is AIG - the insurance company that had to be bailed out at the peak of the crisis. But consider what's happened to AIG in the last one year and you may change your mind.

AIG's stock has risen 97% in 2010 - the fourth best performer in the S&P index. AIG was a solid company brought down by the antics of one department. But that didn't detract from the soundness of the rest of its business. When confronted with the crisis, it had a number of valuable assets it could sell. Top of the pile was AIA, its Asian subsidiary, which was a jewel. It has disposed of other businesses as well. It brought in a new CEO - Bob Benmosche, a rather colourful personality, out of retirement. Lots of things have been done well.

The US government holds 92% of the company now thanks to its 182 billion bailout. But it can now start to look forward to exiting. If it could realise $30 per share it could break even as the Wall Street Journal says here. If it could sell at $45 it would make a profit of $20 bn. The share price now is $ 58. Of course the government couldn't unload the stock at this price - it would simply crash; but it increasingly looks likely that in a carefully managed divestment spread over time, the US taxpayer might actually make a profit. Bailout should not be a bad word anymore, if you make a profit, but alas in the intellectually challenged shrillness of US politics, such niceties are unlikely to be observed.

A rather interesting subplot is that of the CEO Bob Benmoshe. When appointed he called Congress, a bunch of crazies. Fortune voted him the most tone deaf CEO of 2009. He demanded a private jet and took a holiday weeks after being appointed. But then, just look at AIG's performance. As a shareholder, you have to be delighted. Sadly, he has been diagnosed with cancer recently and in undergoing chemotherapy, but hopes to oversee the government exit from AIG and turn a profit for the shareholder. Recently, he wistfully wondered if somebody would call him and congratulate him , but then he realised the Ayn Rand's famous quote of " Find your Thank Yous from within" was perhaps more appropriate.

Appearances and name tags are deceptive. Convenient buckets of heroes and villains are not always true in the real world. Reality is often far more messy and not reduceable into a pithy soundbite on Fox News or the New York Times. At the moment, AIG, and its Chief, deserve a tipping of the hat. Why is it that you aren't likely to find many Americans who would agree with that ?

Sunday, 26 December 2010

Yuletide Cheer

Its that time of the year, when there is a nip in the air (or a vigorous bite if you happen to live in cold lands). The world is seeming an altogether nice place. Half the world's humanity is on holiday. Warm greetings and best wishes are flying around. Most of us are prepared to put the ills of the world behind us and, for a few days at least, look forward with hope and happiness to celebrate all that's good in this world. As indeed, it should be.

For those in the northern hemisphere, its deep winter. Both in Europe and in the United States, they are facing an especially cold start to winter. Many will have a white Christmas, even in places where snow is unusual. Its cold and blustery outside. Perhaps frigid. But inside, the family has got together. The fireplace is exuding warmth. There's food on the table. There's a drink to warm the insides. There's a feeling of joy and togetherness. The spirit of Christmas.

And there's the coming New Year. Millions more, who are not Christians, will join in ushering out the old and welcoming in the new year. A time to look forward with hope for better times to come. For most of us, the year past might have been a mixed one. Some joys, some sorrows, some victories, some disappointments. Although it might appear that the bad was more than the good, nature actually deals us a reasonably even hand. Its time to forget the not so good times, and cheer for that which is to come.

Its also the season for resolutions. Make them, many do, for the New Year. Most break them soon enough. But in the season of hope, its entirely appropriate that we try to aspire for something that we would like to be. For its only hope and cheer that can see us through the winter.

For some, hope would be a difficult emotion to drum up. Perhaps homeless, shivering in the cold. Perhaps nature dealt them a bad hand. But even then, I hope, and pray, that the cheer in the air will ease some of the pain and make it a little more sunny for them.

As you would have gathered, this isn't a post with a theme or a message or an opinion. Its just a revel in the mood that I can feel. And therefore an incoherent ramble. By Indian standards, which might laughable elsewhere, there is a nip in the air. Not all is well with the world, but there is the feeling of cheer and hope. Its a wonderful feeling. A moment to savour. A time to thank the Lord (or the stars if you prefer it that way), for safely negotiating the year gone by. And a prayer (or an exhortation) to stand by and see us through the year to come.

Pause for a moment. Sniff the air. Imbibe the cheer. Take a deep breath and feel the hope in the lungs. And then, resolutely, march on.

Xin nian kuai le !

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Au revoir Phil

How do you say farewell to a man like Phil, on his retirement ? You just can't. Period.

How do you even begin to say farewell to somebody who has spent 42 years in the company. No that's not a typo. The number is right. FORTY TWO years of sterling service to the company. He has seen it all - he's seen the company's many victories and some setbacks. He has seen people come and go. He's seen history being made ; well, he made much of the history.

Phil's an Australian and typifies everything that's great about that country. Sporty, fun loving, thoroughly professional, amazingly warm in a non sentimental way and above all, a wonderful human being. I bumped into him on a lovely barmy day in Sydney in 1994 ; an instant friendship grew that carries on to this day and will undoubtedly carry on for a long time more.

I could go on and on about his professionalism. He's the only person I have ever known who drove an initiative that was right for the company, even if it meant his job was going. He's amongst the rare breed of men who's untainted by even the faintest whiff of corporate politics. Scrupulously fair, unfailingly honest, brilliant at execution, but rarely bothered about acclaim - seeing Phil renews your faith that such people still exist.

But even more than his professionalism is his ability to build fabulous relationships with people across the world. Across nations, across cultures, across geographies. I've seen him in tough negotiations out of which would emerge friendship , not bitterness. He virtually redefined the concept of win win in a business relationship - in every deal I have known him to do, both sides won. Now how many people in the world can lay claim to that.

As he became a senior statesman in the company; his energy actually grew, not diminished. I've seen many brilliant people become cynical and static as they age in a company. Not Phil. He actually became younger. He became even more energetic, if that was possible . Every youngster was treated as a friend and equal ; not an ounce of condescension. He was still at the forefront of company dos even as his retirement was looming.

He has a love affair with India. He's been here many times and has hosted countless Indians in Sydney. He's taken us to innumerable restaurants for many a warm evening. He's taken us to the Sydney Cricket Ground to see Indians play. When all didn't go well for us in business, he stood by us like a rock. He's guided and coached many many of us during times of trouble. He showed us how to imbibe the wonderful Australian spirit of winning fairly. Phil's an Indophile in the true sense of the word. In fact, one of his granddaughters is actually named India.

Thank you Phil for everything that you have done, for what you are and for the incredible relationships that you built with so many of us. You leave a wide gaping hole in the company as you retire. I know that in your typical way, you would say somebody else will pick it up and do an even better job and that the business would go on. But the place won't be the same without you Phil - not by a long chance. And many will miss your presence deeply. It so typifies you that you would be missed not only inside the company, but by every outside organisation you have dealt with.

Many readers of this blog know Phil personally and I invite you to record your thoughts in the comments section.

Au Revoir Phil. Thank you for the friendship and wish you much happiness in the years to come.


Phillip L Cox retires this week after 42 years of sterling service to Unilever round the world.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Climb every mountain

If you are from the generation that grew up with The Sound of Music, you may recall this song - Climb every mountain. In that classic musical, it wasn't the most melodious of pieces, but it made up with some depth of meaning. Each one of us climb our personal mountains and this post is a rambling muse into how all achievements, big or small, are remarkable, amazing and, in many ways, the purpose of life.

Any one of us who has watched a baby take her first step can easily marvel at that achievement. For the baby, that step is like climbing Mt Everest. The act, by itself, is simple and one that the baby won't give a second thought to in the years to come. But at that moment, its a priceless achievement.

Big achievers reach stardom. They get much fame, but alas not always, some happiness. But, each and every one of us, achieve many victories during the course of the years. Small it may seem to the outside world, but giant it is in our own hearts. Every personal milestone, we cross is a moment to savour, to dwell on the wonder of life and take heart. Far too often, we fail to celebrate ourselves and recognise the immensity of what we had done.

Corporate organisations are notorious in putting down achievement on the mistaken premise that you must always set the bar higher and be in a perpetual state of disappointment. Every deadline met, every target achieved, every move made, is a moment for quiet satisfaction. Its amazing how the overwhelming feeling of every corporate citizen is one of anger, disappointment, grouse, and all things negative and rarely one of accomplishment, which should often rightfully be the case. Witness any water cooler gossip and you'll know what I mean.

Its not only the biggest winner that counts, Every winner, no matter however small the win , ought to justifiably take pride. We need to inject more of the sense of achievement, fulfillment, and victories into our lives. To counterbalance the despair, the heartache and the defeats that often tend to crowd out everything else.

Take sport. Ask anybody who the heroes of the Beijing Olympics were and 9 times out of 10 the answer would be Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt. Rightfully so. But to me Natalie du Toit and Natalia Partyka were equal heroines. They won nothing. But Natalie made it to the Olympics swimming competition despite having lost a leg in an accident and Natalia played table tennis for her country despite being born without a right hand. They made it to the Olympics on sheer merit; no allowance was given for their disabilities. What an amazing personal accomplishment.

I'll leave you with a sporting scene to savour at the end of this chaotic, jumbled up, post. It wasn't the Olympics or World Championships or anything like that. Its was a middling event of questionable global relevance. The best of the business stayed away from it. But four girls from humble origins performed way out of their skin and achieved an amazing result. Way beyond expectations. That's achievement to me. Turn up the volume, sit back and watch this; and I guarantee you goosebumps.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

All that glitters is gold

They say all that glitters is not gold. But today, that might be a slightly misplaced sentiment. Gold is glittering so much that everything seems to pale into significance. I mean the price of gold. If you haven't noticed, it has skyrocketed. And the cause of it is coming from an unlikely direction.

Gold hit an all time high price of $1424 a troy ounce in Nov. It seems to be zooming northward. I haven't done the math, (after all this is a Sunday post !), but gold might have performed as well as equities as an investment vehicle in the recent past. That's a little funny given the significant difference in risk profiles.

Cut, to a completely different angle. One of the fundamental cultural differences between Indians and Chinese comes in the area of addiction to the yellow metal. Indians simply love gold and can't resist hoarding it. Gold jewelery, that is. It is passed from generation to generation; safely stored in bank lockers. They are taken out only for weddings, when Rajalakshmis try to outdo each other in the amount of yellow they display. Regular readers will remember that the aforesaid lady is in a regular battle with the weigh scale. But for once, she doesn't mind adding substantially to it, by decking herself from head to toe (literally) in gold.

Madame Wang has different tastes. She simply doesn't like gold at all. She won't be caught dead wearing yellow; convincing proof that the nomenclature of the yellow race is a misnomer.She has a fancy for diamonds; especially those paid for by the male species, but that's another story.

End result. China used to consume some 200 tonnes. Indians gobble up some 600 tonnes. No contest.

No longer so. Chinese imports surged five fold in 2010. Consumption stands now at some 450 tonnes. The unthinkable may happen - China may overtake India as the largest consumer of gold.

What on earth is happening ?? Has a cataclysmic change happen in the gemological tastes of Madame Wang. Yes; but not what you might think. She still doesn't like to wear yellow. But she has money flowing through her ears. She doesn't know what to do with it. What can she do ? She gave it to the Americans until they can take no more. She started giving it to even the Greeks, but there are far less Marias than there are Wangs. Who else to give it to ?? So she's now started to buy gold instead. Not jewelery, but just plain bullion. stocking the stuff.

So here's a tip to Rajalakshmi. Start selling all that's in the bank locker bit by bit to Madam Wang. In a trickle. Empty it over the next two years. You'll make a fortune. And walk lightly into the next wedding !!!

PS. Yes , I know its a Sunday, but .............

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