Frank Sportolari, in Memoriam
The amazon.com page of my recently published Memoirs of a Russianist: From the Ground Up carries one five-star review signed “Frank Sp” and headlined “Unique insights into a fascinating business era.” The reviewer was my one-time colleague in United Parcel Service at the beginning of the 1990s, Frank Sportolari.
Frank’s untimely death was announced yesterday and I hasten to record my reminiscence of this extraordinary person who left the most positive impression on me and surely on everyone who knew him. His life and career offer pointers to all those who enter the service of leading multinational corporations or other large bureaucracies. I use this occasion to share them with as broad a readership as possible.
Frank was ten years younger than me and at the time we worked together he was on the first rungs of management in the Finance department of UPS Deutschland. His raw talent in this domain was appreciated by his superiors, who were already then giving him increasing responsibilities. The company was completing a massive expansion as it transitioned from being a predominantly domestic delivery company in the United States to being a global logistics provider with major operations across Europe. The expansion was implemented with great haste and with great waste. The Finance function was tasked with clean-up, to bring costs under control and cut losses. It was a time when talents such as Frank possessed were rising to the fore. And yet at the time the pecuniary benefits accruing to his cohort in Finance were not in evidence.
Though he was an American passport holder, Frank was hired by UPS under the terms of German nationals, because he had been working in the country already for six years and was not considered to be an “expatriate” brought over from the States for the assignment. This meant that Frank had compensation package that was significantly lower than mine or of the senior management levels who were all enjoying expat benefits.
Frank bore this discrimination with neither rancor nor envy. Overall, he showed humility and acceptance of the hand he was dealt. We knew very little of his important educational accomplishments in the United States before he came to Europe.
UPS at the time placed great emphasis on working class values of its drivers who became top managers and shareholders. We all knew of colleagues who were millionaires at age 40 after having put in 25 years with the company. Among personal qualities, the company valued loyalty, readiness to work 60 hour weeks when required, “street smarts” and toughness. Many top managers had risen through the ranks by their talents in labor relations, dealing effectively with the semi-criminal units of the Teamsters. Education as such was just beginning to rise in value as the company culture absorbed the highly trained engineering achievements of its pilots and others working in its air fleet, which became already at the start of the ‘90s one of the world’s largest airlines.
Frank was a keen observer of the contradictions of this corporate milieu in transition which was grist for his wit. Traveling with him on business was always a pleasure, thanks to humor and his light touch.
I left the company in 1993 to pursue opportunities in Russia, which just then became a major Emerging Market that was attracting a large foreign business community. Frank stayed with UPS. Over time, his forebearance was handsomely rewarded: he made a brilliant career as senior manager in Italy, in Spain, in Belgium and in Germany which was then and remains today the most important UPS operation on the Continent. His long term of service as the head of UPS Deutschland ended only recently due to the health problems that in short order led to his demise. He was twice elected President of the American Chamber of Commerce in Germany, where he had very important representational duties and met official and business leaders of both countries. Frank’s gifts as a linguist combined with his gregarious nature to make him a very effective communicator in his postings across Europe.
Over the past twenty-five years, I met a number of times with Frank in his home, met with his wife and growing family. He always wore his responsibilities lightly and retained his keen sense of humor at life’s foibles. He had the rare quality of projecting “one of the guys” modesty while possessing rare financial-management skills and experience. He was in the best spirit of UPS – a “people person.”
©Gilbert Doctorow, 2021