By Ernie Tadla
After twenty-five years of management experience with Johnson & Johnson (J&J), Bristol Myers-Squibb and Quadra Logic Technologies, (QLT), I became a “corporate refugee,” a middle-aged, middle manager who was downsized in the recession of the ’80s. There were thousands of us walking around in a daze. After years of education and successful corporate performance, we were out on the streets.
When you can’t get a real job, you become a consultant, which is why I founded Odyssey Consulting International Inc. I was doing for my own stable of clients what I had been doing for my corporate employers.
My corporate management track record consisted of two elements:
I was a people person and had a talent as a change agent. When I graduated, I was hired as a pharmaceutical sales rep for Ortho Pharmaceuticals, a division of Johnson & Johnson. I became the guy they moved from territory to territory to clean up the mess made by a previous sales person, to help launch a new product or to work in the field with new reps.
As I matured in the industry, I began doing this at divisional and regional levels. At QLT Pharmaceuticals, it expanded into a corporate start-up role and in China. Later with PPI and DMG, I made an entrance onto the international stage.
Growing up in the business, I observed there were two kinds of managers: cops and gardeners. The cops worked with their people by handing out tickets. You did this wrong. You are not supposed to do this; you are to do it this way, my way.
Gardeners focused on the strengths of their people, caught them doing the right things and were more interested in growing their business by growing their staff.
Always an observer of results, I noticed that the gardener managers had less turnover, higher morale, better increases and higher profits.
I aspired and trained to be a gardener. Gardening was easy for me, but I was not a good cop.
Second, I was a change agent, a builder, and a pioneer. Because many people fear and resist change, some called me a shit disturber. So be it. I am a firm believer that if you keep doing what you have always been doing, you will continue to get the same results. If you want different results, better results, then you need to change what you’re doing. To me, the change process was not about an external rearranging of the deck chairs, changing the systems, reducing costs and the other superficial techniques we read about. Real change comes when people change their behavior.
This type of change process has three steps.
1. First, change your attitude, your perception of yourself, your job, your customers and your company.
2. When that is embedded, you’ll automatically experience a change in behavior.
3. A change in results follows only a change in behavior.
It usually took me two to three years to build, fix or turn around an organization. When I had completed the assignment, the profile of the job changed from builder to operational maintenance. I wasn’t a good administrator. I became bored and my boss became impatient because I no longer fit the bill for what he now needed. So I moved on, gaining invaluable experience in another setting, another industry, another corporate culture and now, another country. This was a great asset for a consulting/coaching career or for writing a book.
I had built up this philosophy over the years, after, of course, much trial and error. I learn quickly and well from what does not work. This was my corporate history, my consulting style, and my confidence base.
A good consultant should always be doing himself out of a job.
Scouting and prospecting for new assignments and projects is a constant and important function. I was in that mode when I learned that a Chinese TV commercial production house was looking for a contract director of business development.
We were living in Richmond, B.C. — a high density Oriental suburb of Vancouver — and I was active in the Chamber of Commerce. I had worked with Chinese member business people on several committees and knew they were interested in expanding their businesses to the non-Asian business market.
I assumed that the Chinese television commercial production house was Vancouver-based and wanted a gweilo to establish business liaison for them in the gweilo business community in Richmond and Vancouver. In China, foreigners are called foreign devils or gweilos.
Ten years earlier, I had been approached by a headhunter for QLT, a biotech research company with a separate division in a three-way joint-venture partnership with Lison Chemicals Inc., a Hong Kong company and a Chinese government pharmaceutical company in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, China. The joint-venture company, QLT Pharmaceutical Inc. was looking for an executive consultant familiar with the pharmaceutical industry in North America to determine the feasibility of establishing a manufacturing plant in British Columbia to produce finished product from Chinese raw material for the North American market.
While conducting my research, I had traveled to China, Hong Kong, South Korea, and Taiwan for three two-week trips. My wife, Lovy, accompanied me on one such trip. This was my first introduction to China in the late ’80s. I met and worked with some very capable people. While back in my Vancouver office, I experienced great difficulty, frustration and exasperation communicating with my Chinese contacts and getting them to do what they had promised.
I remember thinking, “What’s going on here? We’re partners; we have a common goal. Why the foot dragging, the delays?”
But in spite of my frustration, the QLT Pharmaceuticals board in Guangzhou, China, unanimously accepted my report and I was hired, as the first employee, to implement it.
The plum of this joint venture was to be able to establish a finished goods manufacturing plant in Vancouver. Dr. Jim Miller, one of the founders and CEO of QLT, was ready to use this as a fundraiser for government money. However, my research and report did not recommend this as a feasible idea. The market was on the East coast.
I found that with the powerful alliances of the Hong Kong and Chinese partners that to develop a market for Chinese bulk vitamins and other over-the-counter products was a feasible plan.
Two events eventually forced QLT to end the joint venture, and my contract. The major investor, Cyanamid, a U.S. company, wanted QLT to focus on its photodynamic cancer therapy product, and at the same time the Tiananmen Square episode caused a rupture between China and the rest of the world, making business and joint ventures difficult and touchy.
I had learned much during those years and developed a great respect for what China was doing and wanted to do as it was opening up to the West.
Tiananmen Square and the approaching date of when Hong Kong would be handed over to China caused a tidal wave of immigration to the Vancouver area. While many Richmondites grumbled and complained about the Chinese invasion, I was impressed with what they brought to our community, even though they were from Hong Kong and Taiwan, not Mainland China. I enjoyed and respected their hard work, their drive, their wealth, their ambition and the studiousness of their children.
They loved Richmond because it was close to the airport and they often flew home. Every thing has meaning to the Chinese. Richmond, with its reference to “rich,” also made settling there attractive. In the twenty-five years we lived in Richmond, we saw the ratio go from fifteen per cent to sixty five per cent Oriental mix. I know what it feels like to live in Canada and be a member of a visible minority.
I was interested in an opportunity to work more closely with this new, burgeoning community and felt that they could learn from me about Western and British Columbia business and business practices. I believed I could make a solid contribution to their Asian business in B.C.
My first contact with my soon-to-be employer was a fellow Canadian, Paul Van Dergarten, who had just spent five years working for Dan Mintz in Shanghai. Paul missed the mountains, skiing and fresh air and wanted to return home. Dan asked him to find his replacement when he returned home. Dan, from New York City via Los Angeles, liked working with Canadians. We didn’t have Hollywood-sized egos and the exchange rate then made it attractive for a Canadian who would be paid in U.S. dollars.
At our first meeting, I discovered the position was not in Vancouver, but in Beijing and Shanghai. Realizing that this was not what I had expected, (I am quite transparent) Paul asked if I was still interested in the project.
“No,” I said.
“Tadla, why are you saying no?” my other self asked.
“I am saying no because I do not speak Chinese.” I told my other self and Paul at the same time.
Paul said I could learn to speak Chinese if I wished, but since I would be dealing with marketing directors of foreign multinational firms, it wasn’t a requirement and wouldn’t affect my performance.
Even though he was still talking, Paul faded into the background as I was frozen by a blizzard of thoughts. Things were happening quickly. Move to China? Leave everything? What would Lovy say? I needed to sleep on this. But my gut, intuition and other self barked, “Go for it, Ern!”
We had established good rapport. We made arrangements to have lunch the next day at TGIF on Robson Street in Vancouver. Thank God It’s Friday (TGIF) was his favorite place in Beijing and Shanghai, as it would later also become mine.
“What do you think about me taking an assignment in China?” I asked Lovy when I returned home after the first meeting.
“Well, we don’t have a cat or a dog, the kids are on their own, let’s go!” she said.
The magic of many marriages, friendships, partnerships, and alliances is when two parties of different, almost opposite views and talents can accept their differences and work together, complementing each other bringing synergy and power to the union. Such were the differences between Lovy and I. She was steadfast, practical, levelheaded, the stabilizing factor of our marriage. I was the dreamer, the idea person, and the big picture guy. She worked for the same boss for twenty-seven years. I changed bosses every two to three years. When she said, “Let’s go!” in what seemed a role reversal, I understood perfectly.
Four years earlier, Lovy had been diagnosed with terminal kidney disease. Both kidneys had shut down and she had been on dialysis for two years, which we both knew was not a long-term solution. Our son, Dana, donated one of his kidneys and gave his mother an extended and new lease on life and living. Having stared death in the face, she had started living with a new zest. She had been granted an extension and she was going to take full advantage of it. Even at that point, we were aware that a kidney transplant also has a limited lifespan, seven to eight years. But she had undergone a personal transformation. We now knew life was short, unpredictable and uncertain.
Life is for living. It was this attitude of hers that made those three years together in China the best of our forty-three years of marriage.
I was sixty-one years old, with 40 years of Canadian pharmaceutical sales, marketing, management and training experience. Sort of been, there done that, wore out the T-shirt. The independent consulting business was slow and sporadic. It seemed like the timing of a China adventure with a New York/Los Angeles entrepreneur in the film production business was a good next step for us.
Lovy had started packing.
That was fine for Lovy, new lease, new life and all.
While she was packing, I was wrestling with my other self.
To change jobs, bosses, companies and move to Ottawa, Toronto, Edmonton, and Vancouver was OK. Change and variety motivated me, but this was different. To move to another country when I didn’t know the language, the culture, or the industry and work for a small, independent entrepreneurial company with a mercurial, New York Jewish boss, was different.
My initial eagerness was being tempered now with self-doubt and second-guessing. Lovy was ready! Was I?
I want to address the issue of self-talk. It goes by many names. Essentially, it’s called thinking, the inner dialogue we all carry on within ourselves. Some call it ego or conscience; to some it is right brain/left brain chatter, your positive self vs. your negative self. Back in the 1960s, Paul Meyer, who founded Success Motivation Institute in Waco, Texas, used this concept as affirmations.
While most of us entertain self-talk on a more or less random basis, depending on our reactions, moods, and upbringing, Meyer’s affirmations were deliberate, intentional statements about what it was that you desired. Statements were in the first person and in the present tense.
The dialogue above was just my ponderings on what I should do. As usual, the emotional/heart, right brain response is always positive, trusting, forward moving. The other side, the intellectual, rational, left-brain, chatter is logical, fearful and doubt driven. That’s why I initially was for this, and now was hearing from my other side. I had to entertain and answer these questions because others would ask them.
“Wait a minute, Ern. Just pick up and go to China? What about your business here, your contacts, the people who know you, your family, the comforts and knowing your Canadian culture? Leave that behind? “Have you thought about this, the ramifications? You’re not a young man who can bounce at all, never mind bounce back, if it doesn’t work out. What do you know about China? Have you been reading the papers? It’s a godless, communistic dictatorship without respect for human rights. You have no idea what they can do to short, stocky gweilos.”
Then, there was:
“What do you know about TV commercial production and selling this to marketing directors of global multinational companies in Canada, let alone in China?”
“And what about your new boss? The guy you’re trusting with your wife’s and your present and future. Your preliminary due diligence and intuition tell you he is a young, typical New York entrepreneur: edgy, high energy, quick paced, impatient, controlling and demanding. He will chew you up and ship you back as soon as he finds out your weaknesses and all the stuff you don’t know and have never done. Are you out of your mind? Go back and do some more networking at the Richmond Chamber of Commerce meetings. You’re good at that. People know you. They like you. Get some business there!”
There were no such questions from Lovy. She believed in me and knew that there was more for me than I was then involved with. My normally practical, common sense wife felt, intuitively, that this was good for us. She was ready. She was right!
Like her rebirth after her kidney transplant, this opportunity also held too much appeal, mystery and adventure for me. How could I not take advantage of this? I couldn’t spend the rest of my 20 plus years here wondering what we might have missed. Lovy’s experience had taught me what we all know: Life is great, but unpredictable and impermanent. Carpe diem!
“Without uncertainty and the unknown …you become the victim of the past, and your tormentor today is your self left over from yesterday,” author Deepak Chopra wrote.
I left for Beijing with trepidation, apprehension and excitement.
Ernie Tadla, www.odysseychina.net