Turning 50. As good a time as any to be introspective about life’s decisions. So as I sit on the edge of a cool pool (while Peta slowly wakes up), sipping a foamy cappuccino, with Mango and Dwayne circling the table and scouring for the next cat they might chase, I think it may be good to recap through five “top 10” lists (do the math!).
Top 10 places I’ve lived
10 Saint Leu family home – small village outside of Paris where I grew up (in part): lots of green, lots of space, lots of freedom to roam the countryside.
9 Lille apartment– industrial city north of France, for job on US military program: grand architecture, lots of mussels, a drive away through Belgium to Amsterdam; Apartment overlooked weekly organic market…
8 Nagoya, Japan – Couldn’t have been a better introduction to Japan, living in this slower paced city. Temple markets, ancient neighborhoods with kimono-clad passers by and of course the subtle slurp of ramen at every corner.
7 Evanston, IL – the stay was short as I moved in two months before 9/11 and my new Boeing job was “relocated” to Washington DC. Still, for a few months, an awesome apartment one block from the lake, plus proximity finally to my girlfriend, Peta.
6 Highland Park, IL – Peta’s house was like a loft, encased between two walls of glass, seconds from the lake. The four boys and their revolving sets of friends made the house vibrant yet the upstairs “loft” provided romantic seclusion. It was a house that was perfect for art projects, experiencing Chicago’s winters, and of course a first place for Peta and I to live together.
5 Paris, France – a composite of Paris apartments come to mind, both as a child and as an adult returning to France to work for Thomson-CSF (defense electronics). The toss up is between a posh family apartment right down the street from the Eiffel Tower and, much later, a tiny bright apartment in Belleville, smack in one of the most ethnic neighborhoods in Paris – fabulous counter to homogeneous Japan.
4 Tokyo, Japan – of multiple places I’ve lived in Japan, one, Hiroo san chome, stands out for its authenticity, buried in a neighborhood that was still undiscovered by Gaijin. The Japan that one hopes to find with ancient buildings, fantastic food and a curious but friendly population.
3 Washington D.C. – not the actual space as much as the city; Intellectually stimulating with foreign policy moments all around.
2 Kansas City, Missouri – best loft in the world – glass windows all around for Midwestern storms and view over train yard, world class jazz at multiple venues all around and a weekly “river market” around the corner.
1 Granada “Casa Hubbert’s Peak”– time warp of a place in Nicaragua: never know what to expect next, beautiful architecture, Wild West of a place.
Top 10 creative moments
10 – Composing music with Jason Culp: As a teen ager living in Beverly Hills, my best friend in high school was a talented singer. Our creative work of the times lives on every time I sit at the piano.
9 – Charcoal drawing in Washington DC: I discovered charcoal drawing through Peta. A few formative classes and I was off and drawing at a time I was shuttling back and forth between Europe and DC or Seattle. Hours spent on planes and at airports, or at European cafes, drawing.
8 – Scavenger hunts in Tokyo: This may not seem like a creative endeavor, but it was. Designing scavenger hunts for my son Ezra required a good deal of creative planning.
7 – Work as a strategist: if ever there was creativity in the work place, I found it through my various jobs as head of strategy in the aerospace industry. The creativity came from seeing where we were, creating a vision for where we could be, and crafting a path to get there.
6 -Designing furniture for Ethnicities: After years in aerospace, the business Peta and I formed, Ethnicities, based on importing furniture from Argentina, triggered a burst of creativity. Having sought out artists and craftsmen in Argentina, we created from their existing product lines (paper mosaic furniture from Mapuche Indians, colored concretes from Italian-argentinian concrete artists, leather goods of museum quality…) a line that was appealing to a US customer base.
5 – Writing: I wanted to write as a career. Over the years, I wrote a number of newspaper articles and started several books. It’s the process of writing I enjoy. But until the advent of “blogs”, the challenge was the tension between the immediacy of writing and the longer term aspect of getting writings into publication.
4 – Fashion design: one of my earliest childhood memories was going with my father, a French fashion designer, into his work place. Besides the obvious appeal of hot models that made up his (and therefore my) universe, the process of seeing him design dresses was a first and lasting demonstration that one can combine creativity with business.
3 Painting and turning 40: together with Peta, painting forty small orange oil paintings in my loft in Kansas City.
2 Sculpture: Currently my favorite form of creative expression. I love the tactile process of going from a block of clay to the nude of a beautiful woman. The subject matter of course lends additional appeal, but the process of sculpting is what it’s about.
1 Sculpting life: I approach life as a sculpture – I am very mindful of my own role in sculpting the life I want to lead. I sculpt my life in terms of the countries I choose to live in, in terms of the jobs I take on…
Top 10 travel moments
10 Italy – Venice: hot chocolate, San Marco’s golden ceiling, roof top breakfasts;
9 US – Kansas City: Jazz, jazz, jazz (and ribs);
8 Holland – Amsterdam: coffee shops, canals, herring and eel in the street, red light district;
7 France – Paris over the years – walks, walks, walks… French news, architecture, fantastic outdoor markets and gastronomic surprises available at every meal;
6 Nicaragua – Granada and Ometepe Island – flashback to earlier times, cattle in streets, volcanoes, and people in rocking chairs on their porch at night;
5 Toss up between Spain – Granada – Streets alive late at night, paella y gazpacho, Flamenco dancers and France – Antibes — the walled ramparts of a city on the Mediteranean sea, home of a fantastic Picasso museum;
4 Argentina – Buenos Aires: tango music all around, antique markets, dulce de leche;
3 Morocco – Essaouira – white washed village, sardines at the port, soukhs and hammam;
2 India – Rajasthan – colorful saris, Indian markets, mosques, goats, cows, monkeys;
1 Peru – Sacred Valley – Ollantaytambo – walks in the Sacred Valley, Inca architecture, archeological finds
Top 10 animal moments
10 Rita, my Belgian shepherd: My first “love” as a pre-teen.
9 The Capuccine monkeys I had as pets in France, until it became obvious that these are animals meant to be free and that life in a cage was clearly not right. One took a particular dislike to me and used me as “target practice” from his cage.
8 Chickens: am partial to chickens and roosters, always have been. Lots of fun as a child feeding, chasing, hunting for eggs.
7 “Sir, your camel is ready” – with this, the Rajasthan desert tent staff notified me that a camel had been saddled to take us through a desert hike. Camels in India are beautifully adorned with “tatooes”.
6 Horse back riding in Peru – the climb is steep, the path exceedingly narrow… best not to look down down the precipice on the right.
5 Thousands of insanely large goats make up our first visual in India. We arrived the day of the Haj, the Muslim holiday that culminates with the killing of the goat that will feed the family and neighborhood.
4 Free roaming llamas on the grounds at Macchu Picchu. They move effortlessly and majestically between the Inca ruins.
3 Lenin, my goat, whom I hugged on the day of my Bar Mitzvah before the guests arrived, making my “stench” memorable.
2 Peta’s revolving doors of kittens – I am not a cat person, but I admit to being “smitten” with those kitties that make their way to Peta’s door on a regular basis.
1 Mango and Dwayne – they do force us to go out in nature (beach, lakes, parks) more often than we would if they weren’t nagging us quite so often to go out.
Top 10 work moments
10 Thomson-CSF Japan: first job out of grad school (in Japan) – I am bored with the intensive Japanese language coursework in Nagoya and one day pick up the English language newspaper. There is a job as a financial comptroller for a European defense company. What’s a financial comptroller? I have no idea at this point, but it’s a job, it’s in Tokyo and it has to do with defense. After doing a masters in Japanese economics and security studies, it seems like a good fit. I enter a unique linguistic environment where 50 Japanese workers are bilingual (Japanese-English), 50 Japanese workers are bilingual (Japanese-French), the French boss doesn’t speak Japanese and he is being savagely beaten by his French hierarchy for not having a robust financial management system. I initially have no idea what I am doing, but neither does my boss, so he can’t tell. I learn on the job and deliver a better functioning business and get recruited by another business unit for a secretive defense program.
9 AAR Corp – Am based in Washington DC but my girlfriend lives in Chicago. My job actually has me commuting on a weekly basis between my team in Washington DC and my team in Seattle Washington. So it’s Monday through Friday in DC, fly Friday pm to Ohare. Hope not to get stuck at airport. Spend week end with Peta in Chicago, fly out on Sunday night to Seattle. Next Friday, fly from Seattle to Ohare, hope not to get stock at airport, spend week end with girlfriend, than back to DC. I do this for nearly 2 years. Then I come to my senses and though the job in DC is super cool, it’s enough. So what to do?: I find an aerospace company in Chicago, write to the CEO and after some research tell him that his $1B group is in need of strategy and that he specifically needs to diversify and up his European content. I take up the position of VP of strategy at the time when oil climbs from $40 to $147 a barrel, which pretty much creates havoc in the aviation industry. My strategic guidance is to leverage all the skills and talent of the company to enter the promising field of wind energy. To no avail as the company simply doesn’t make the (small) leap.
8 Center for Strategic and International Studies: Part Time job while in college at UCLA – it’s all menial tasks, but I get a front row seat at all the weekly conferences by visiting dignitaries. My boss is Russian and it’s all about the US-Soviet Cold War that is playing out its last days.
7 Ethnicities: When I finally move to Chicago to be with Peta, it occurrs to me, for the first time, that perhaps there was life outside of aerospace. While fascinating on an intellectual level, the problem with aerospace jobs is that the customers, vendors and employees tend to be all middle age white men interested in technical stuff. What customers would I PREFER to work with? Well of course, hot babes and preferably in an environment that might deal more frequently with my creative side. Hence was born Ethnicities. Peta and I agreed to reboot completely and try our hand at starting an ethnic furniture import business. The logic is that we would travel to countries together that might offer opportunities to import high end art and craft items. We start in Argentina, which I had visited frequently for a radar project. We love everything about Buenos Aires – the music, the architecture, the art… The result is a two year adventure that takes us to Argentina many times as well as to Uruguay and Peru. There are gorgeous and colorful paper-mosaic benches from Mapuche Indians, colored concrete tables, hand carved leather purses and a growing range of high quality furniture from talented Argentinian artists. To market these, Peta and I attend over two dozen trade shows – from Chicago to New York, from High Point North Carolina to San Francisco. It is a unique opportunity for us to work for the first time as a “couple”. Peta has very little exposure to business prior to this and soon morphs into a PR studette. Articles written about our company left and right. Alas, we eventually conclude that we can not make enough money with Ethnicities. Sadly, but with great satisfaction at the fun we had for two years, we shut down Ethnicities and I get back to Aerospace.
6 Thomson-CSF Japan: The phone rings in my Kansas City loft, it’s from Tokyo. My old (French) boss tells me that he is embroiled in a bit of a “situation” – as head of Thomson-CSF’s Asia Pacific branches, he has been integral to France selling military frigates to Taiwan. Problem is, the program has attracted much global attention and Taiwanese military officials are dying left and right because of some grand corruption scandal. My Tokyo-based boss is instructed to “leave Asia and come home (to France), for his own safety”. Meanwhile, there is a vibrant business in Tokyo that needs urgent leadership and has nothing to do with the Taiwan affair – there is a catch: the CEO needs to speak English, French and Japanese. Oh, and he must be able to hold his own with Japanese defense officials. More importantly, there is a need for a “soothing” influence for the workforce of 100 japanese who have ever only known one French boss since the founding of the company 20 years ago. I know everyone well, as I had lived in Tokyo years ago and worked as financial comproller for the same group of people. Do I want the job? Hell yes. Back to Tokyo… Electronic warfare systems for the Japanese airforce, dipping sonars for the Japanese navy and lots, lots more I can’t write about.
5 Thomson-CSF Washington: Now type-cast as the French-US guy who happens to be selling military systems to the Japanese government, I appear to be the right fit to replace the CEO of the Washington DC government relations outfit of Thomson-CSF. My background in security studies is a pre-requisite, as is my US security clearance, and all the business units that seek to work on the US market know me from my current similar role in Japan. This is the coolest job in terms of enjoying Washington D.C. as an “insider”. Sonar systems for the US navy, mortar systems for the US Marine Corps…
4 Wilcox Electric: Through a quirk of history, a company I had known years prior in the context of a technology transfer program, suddenly is in need of a new CEO. This 50 year old business, Wilcox Electric, is a household name in the aviation industry due to its consistent development and manufacture of landing aids, the stuff that helps aircraft land safely. That’s not where the excitement came from – it was the fact that this $40million business is thrown into a marriage basket and when I come to lead it is “merged” with its decades-old competitors in France, Germany and Italy. Talk of cross cultural issues in business! Each business leadership team thought it was more qualified to head the group, each thought its products were superior, its customers more loyal etc… Bottom line: the Kansas City business is still alive today, despite an evil plot by the German group CEO to shut it down because “it’s easier to fire Americans than Germans”. The “moment” was when we won a strategic contract from the FAA, essentially making it impossible for our German bosses to have their way and kill the company.
3 Boeing ATM: Imagine entering a world where money is no object and organizational power is only matched by political influence. Boeing simply set out to reorganize the world’s Air Traffic Management system. The logic: with an antiquated global air traffic management system, Boeing’s ability to sell aircraft would soon be paced by the inability of air traffic system to handle more planes. Recruited due to my trans-atlantic credentials as the objective was to get Boeing and Airbus to cooperate and kickstart a “first” cooperation program on the side of the notorious global competition to sell aircraft. As Director of Strategy, I could articulate a vision unconstrained by the “how to make it happen”, this was Boeing after all. In my first “leadership team meeting”, I learned that we would kickstart the global program by launching “our own satellite” – I asked how much that would cost. Answer: $50M. I asked “we have enough money to do this?”, was met with snickering – Ben, you’ve got to think Boeing now, money is no object if it’s the right answer…Today, the US FAA calls the program “Next Gen” and it is the largest environmental program in the aerospace industry. Used satellite-based data to give pilots more control over their trajectories, leading to less jetfuel waste, thus less pollution.
2 MSE: Stands for Mobile Subscriber Equipment – this battlefield radio is a $4Billion European-American defense program, and the largest successful trans-Atlantic defense program to date. I am fortunate to be at the right place at the right time, with a US passport and French passport for a job that requires security clearance on both sides of the pond. Four years of extraordinary productivity and team work with a US and French management team to replicate a North of France factory in Kansas City, MO. I become Director of Manufacturing after several manufacturing assignments, and learn on the job industrial management and made great friends. Boyd – this one’s for you! The radios we produced in Kansas City were whisked from production floor to US Army users in the first Gulf War. There is nothing more satisfying that a massive challenge and a talented team of people who come together to make the impossible a reality.
1 CO2 BAMBU: Eco-enterpreneur – launched from scratch a bamboo reforestation project. Still as of this writing a question as to its longevity due to last minute disappearance of expected investor, but the excitement of a start up, combined with the unique opportunity to interface with Nicaraguan farmers, government officials while having a significant environmental impact is a memorable life experience.