GREAT BRITAIN’S BUSINESS CULTURE

A colleague at Chrysler called Adrian Nano was taken ill last month and I visited him at his house and later twice at the hospital Modelo. At first the diagnosis was hepatitis but later he was operated on and was found to have cancer of the intestines. He was kept in ignorance of this and believed that the operation had been successful when I went to see him on Sunday, 5th March. He was very weak and having serum feeding each day for six or more hours. He is nearly seventy years old and it was just a question of time to his end. Nevertheless, it was a shock when I heard today, Tuesday, that he had died. Aided, I suspect, as is so often the case in this country, by a draught of ‘cha de meia noite’ (midnight tea).
Nano was an exceptional man, large and upright with a good analytical mind; he was born in Bucharest at a time when the Austria-Hungarian Empire still straddled great areas of Europe, to rich and well-connected parents. He spoke impeccable English, this being virtually his first language since he learned it from his English nanny and later governess in the days of pre-world war 1
When the Austria-Hungarian Empire was broken up after that war, he had become a citizen of Romania and when Romania passed into the Communist sphere he had left with his wife. They had lived in Madrid for some years before coming to Rio de Janeiro and subsequently Sao Paulo. On account of his background, experience, education and profession as well as the fact that he spoke fluent French, he was able to get a job with the French car manufacturers Simca and later had continued with Chrysler. He worked as the scheduling supervisor in Bob Louwer’s department and then for me when Bob returned to the States and I took over his department.
Nano was a fine man and respected. Without any indication of self-pity or self-importance he had told me many stories about his past. We got on well together; he accepted me as his cultural equal whereas he would accept none of the American bosses. In a way he was justified in this, and while they never guessed what his feelings were about them, his gentlemanly deportment would amuse and even impress them. He was not philosophical as I am but he had practical knowledge about European culture that I did not and, surprisingly, he was a trained engineer. It is one of his many stories that concerned his profession that stuck in my mind, and I am writing it now.
‘You know, Mason’ he would say, in the deep, rolling cadences of a person who spoke a language as a skill mastered, I admire the English and always have done so; they provide an extra dimension to the civilised world, without which we would all be the poorer.’ He paused and I was thinking of Conrad and his similar ability to create images in an acquired, not native, language, when he shifted his bulk in the fairly uncomfortable chair at the beach house where he and his wife were visiting us. ‘But I can’t say as much for their business habits.’ I was interested as I always am when I know he is about to let me into a chink of his past and interesting life. He speaks slowly and compellingly and I knew I did not have to make any prompting noises for his encouragement; nevertheless, I wanted a beer before he began and got up offering him one at the same time. This he courteously accepted.
‘Well, Nano,’ I began when I had settled down again, ‘what…’
‘You know I am an engineer,’ he interrupted me, saying it as a statement. ‘I was working for the Romanian State Railways and we had a very big project in hand to electrify parts of our track. The only two possible sources for obtaining the equipment and the know-how were Germany and England and I was sent to both of these countries to bring back information and specifications for appraisal by the Romanian authorities. My first call was Berlin and I was met there at the railway station by two representatives of the companies I would be dealing with. They took me to a hotel where reservations had been made for me. They provided me with a chauffeur-driven car, they ensured my leisure time was adequately filled by arranging visits to the theatre and the opera, according to my wishes. They had full board meetings assembled to brief me and to answer all my questions. I was given every facility I asked for and within the allotted time I obtained all I required before moving on to London.
‘There was no one to meet me when I arrived in London and I made my way to the address of the office where I was to meet my contact. It was a Thursday afternoon and I perceived on arrival that there was a certain air of constraint when I turned up. On being introduced to the Chairman he invited me into his office and said, ‘Just to clarify matters with you Mr Nano, we like to have some long week-ends about this time of the year and everyone you might wish to see will be unavailable tomorrow. I think we should arrange our first meeting for next Tuesday. How does that sound to you?’ I was fairly nonplussed, but could see that I was expected to accept this. ‘Let’s say three o’clock on Tuesday. I’m sure you will find plenty to do in London if this is your first visit. We will look forward to seeing you here at that time; goodday then Mr Nano.’ I was the potential buyer but it was clear that they considered they were conferring a favour in selling to me.
‘I found myself a hotel and filled in the time until the meeting at 3 o’clock on Tuesday. We assembled in the boardroom for a question and answer session. The Chairman opened the meeting. ‘Let’s just acquaint ourselves with the location of your project Mr Nano; can you bring the atlas, John? The man addressed left the room and returned with a large bound volume which he laid on the table in front of the Chairman, opening it and ruffling through the pages putting his finger on a spot on a selected page. ‘What’s the name?’ Asked the Chairman. I gave it. ‘Can’t find it here.’ They crowded around his chair peering and moving fingers around. ‘Can you help us Mr Nano?’ I joined the group around the chair at the head of the table, and saw at once that they would never find it; all the names were in Turkish; the atlas was showing Romania as part of the Ottoman Empire. There was a silence when I pointed this out, and they looked at me as though somehow I was responsible. ‘There’ve been quite a few changes round your part of the world has there Mr Nano?’ The date of the atlas is 1876, I said, looking at the front. ‘ We’ll find out more detail at a later date,’ said the Chairman decisively, ‘meanwhile let’s get on to the main points…..ah, tea. You drink tea Mr Nano?’ A maid had entered the room pushing a tea trolley and the meeting stopped. As we supped our tea my neighbour leaned over to me and asked in a conversational gambit, ‘tell me Mr Nano, are there any niggers in your country?’
Eventually we did get through the points I needed to go back to present to my principals but during the time I was in London, which I enjoyed very much indeed, I had no contact with any of the directors outside the confines of the office; and although they treated me with normal respect, I could sense that somehow they had a totally detached view of me and, to my mind, the business I was involved in. I never could understand how it was that London eventually gained the contract and not Berlin.’ he paused to allow the essence of his story to sink in, and I laughed, and then, in mock seriousness, ‘are you insinuating that the British don’t deserve the eminent position they hold in your esteem?’ And, before he could answer, ‘come on Nano, let’s join the others for a swim.’

MARCH 1971