Pages from the Personal Archive of a Russianist, Installment Three

My letter to an aunt in California, 15 January 1989

As I suppose you know I left ITT a year ago and set up two trading companies of my own in Switzerland and in Holland. I did about $400,000 in sales in the first six months. I was on my way to becoming the television picture tube king in South Africa with sales of Soviet and Polish made tubes, but then prospects started to dim about last July and I decided to look for a safer harbor. Happily there is at the moment great interest in East-West trade and several good offers came up at the end of a three month search. In early December I accepted one of these and I am now commuting to London each week, and traveling out into Eastern Europe from London for United Parcel Service. And so after Harvard and Columbia I am working for a team of ex-truck drivers helping to take them to Russia.

My work with United Parcel got off with a bang. My first day on the job was when that earthquake devastated Armenia. Two days later at my initiative UPS landed the first foreign jet, a company-owned DC-8 freighter, to get into Yerevan airport after the quake….I will be following up these developments with negotiations with Soviet organizations in New York next week and in Moscow the week after hoping to win the rights to open a UPS delivery service at Moscow airport.

The coming weeks are not likely to provide such instant gratification on the job. There will be just travel and more travel.

 

Letter to my parents in New Jersey, 23 December 1988   

 My work at United Parcel has gotten off to a good start. Within the first two days at the office I was able to enjoy a greater feeling of accomplishment than over 8 years at ITT. My joining coincided with the Armenian earthquake and as the first written reports came in on Thursday evening December 8th the scope of the catastrophe began to appear truly Biblical. Friday morning I understood that there could be something for us as a transportation company with our own air fleet to do in the emergency and I proposed an airlift to my boss, who took it up to his boss, who took it to the Vice President, International in Greenwich, CT and within 4 hours the company approved the idea of placing our DC-8 in Cologne at the disposal of relief efforts.

Our German office then rounded up donations of medicines, blood fractions, disposable syringes and other equipment from among our corporate clients in Germany. We in London worked to get the permissions for overflight and landing in the Soviet Union and kept the U.S. State Department informed. Then at 6AM, Saturday December 10 our plane took off from Cologne carrying 42 tons of emergency supplies. At 10AM ours was the first foreign plane to land at Yerevan airport. Over the next 5 hours it was unloaded by hand by some 250 volunteers. During that time Gorbachev’s plane landed at Yerevan and the chief made a slow circle by car around the UPS freighter.

Regrettably our name did not get in the papers, though Pravda the next day described in a dispatch from Cologne all aspects of the mission. We just didn’t have a PR department to match Norma at Trump’s. But we were all jubilant to have been of real assistance when it was most needed and to have accomplished our first landing on Soviet soil.

There has been plenty of follow-up to do in order to move from charity to commercial business. And as part of this work, I expect to come to New York on January 22 for meetings with some Soviet organizations. So tentatively please block out this date for a visit. I imagine that I will have two days in the city then a day in Washington and then will fly back to London. Between now and then I will be in perpetual motion: January 3 in London, 4-5 in West Berlin, 6 in London, 7-8 in Brussels, 9-13 in London, 14-15 in Brussels, 16-18 in Helsinki, 19th in Copenhagen. That’s what I mean about the suitcase syndrome. It’s hotels and restaurants all the way and I am losing the battle on the scales as a result.

On the bright side, I now have a guy reporting to me and I expect to break out of Eastern Europe into Africa and the Middle East in the next few months. This seems to be a company very serious about development the potential of its managers. So we are willing to put up with inconvenience.

 

Notes

 

These first impressions of my on the job experience with United Parcel Service are a foretaste of the fascinating and encouraging possibility of combining doing good with doing well when working for major corporations and riding high off the ground. This was precisely what made my employment as country manager in Russia so attractive in the second half of the 1990s: managing corporate sponsorship in the performing arts and literature.

The distinguishing feature of UPS in 1988-89 was the colossal expansion of its international services, till then limited to serving the US military bases in West Germany, in the midst of a repositioning of all the express parcel and logistics companies so as to achieve global capabilities.

In the run-up to my joining UPS, I had done a brief in-depth, in the field marketing study of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union for Fedex, which included a visit to their Memphis hub and talks with prospective service partners in Moscow, Ljubljana, Warsaw and Budapest.   I also was engaged in inconclusive negotiations for employment with DHL, who had just months before opened an operational center for Eastern Europe in Budapest and were expanding all guns blazing.  This kind of double and triple job hunting was entirely typical of all expatriate managers with whom I associated later, during the 1990s, in Moscow and St Petersburg.  Our employment positions were highly volatile and it was up to us to reinsure ourselves against changing moods back in corporate headquarters.

This life of expatriate managers, which I will describe in detail in my forthcoming book of memoirs dedicated to the 1990s shows how the new Eldorado in the East attracted not only the most dynamic industries and corporations but also the most ambitious and talented young people from everywhere to be business managers, financial and legal advisors, and journalists, if I may name several key professions.  It was not accidental that someone like Chrystia Freeland, today’s deputy premier of Canada, first came into wide public view as a talented and energetic and reasonably impartial journalist based in Moscow for the Financial Times in the mid-90s.

I mention here in passing Norma Foerderer who for 25 years was public relations vice president to Donald Trump, looking after in particular damage control for his dalliances, divorces and the like. Prior to joining the Trump Organization, Norma had been for five years my co-founder and partner at East-West Marketing, Inc., a small consultancy to major U.S. food processing companies aspiring to enter the Soviet market in a big way, among them The Ralston Purina Company, Castle & Cooke and Burger King. We maintained close ties of friendship till her death in 2013.

A word about ITT.  In the 1970s, this mother of all conglomerates created and run by the business genius Harold Geneen, was a sort of stock portfolio that paid out 10% dividends year after year to its many conservative small shareholders. However, with the change of leadership at the start of the 80s to Rand Araskog, and with the change of technology in its core business, telecoms, from electromechanical to purely digital switching, the company invested vast sums in development that were not covered by income from sales, with the consequence that it was on a long road to disposal of that core business that came in 1987 and to eventual extinction, as followed later. Thus, a major industrial group in an extended declining or ‘disrupted’ period was not a cheerful place to be employed, nor could it give any of us on board opportunities for exercising creativity or expecting reward such as I now found in the ebullient express courier industry.

 

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020