A wayward entrepreneur’s search for peace
It’s November 1989, late spring, the time of year when it can rain long and hard. I like the rain, though: the calmness, the shades of grey and the purity of it all. It soothes me and slows me down. What I love most about rain on the West Coast is that it often falls without wind. There’s so much comfort in the rattle of a downpour on a corrugated iron roof, especially if there are a few flames dancing around in the fireplace. Yep, that’s what I like. It doesn’t matter if I’m feeling a bit down or not, the rain makes whatever’s going on feel alright.
I’m watching the six o’clock news. Well, not really. I’m drifting off into a little commentary in my head about the standard of it. Our news is dross – stories of insignificant events cobbled together with opinion, completely devoid of fact and delivered in bite-size bursts by shiny people. It has to be the most sensationalised reporting you’d find anywhere. I reckon our news is one of the reasons we’re a nation of depressed bastards. I lash out at the television screen. “Give us a break! You’re supposed to be the umbilical cord connecting us to the rest of world! It’s a responsibility, mate!”
They seldom appreciate or recognise what we do, either as individuals or as a collective. They just hammer us down. Sometimes I wonder how they get away with it.
I say to Monica, “Look at this prick. He earns a shit-load. You just wait, I bet he’ll end up on the Queen’s Honours list in a few years’ time.”
Glancing out of the window I’m drawn to the purple and grey mountains shimmering on the surface of the lake. I focus on the reflected colours: the shapes and movement of light captivate me. Instantly I feel calm and relaxed. My attention moves to the green foliage on the black-trunked trees in the foreground. I love the stillness and peace.
I’m about to turn the television off when my attention is drawn to the most amazing footage. “Monica look, there are people coming through the Iron Curtain in Berlin! People are coming through a gap in the wall.” I’m stunned as the events unfold in front of me. A New Zealand journalist is trying to interview someone, but no one is interested in talking to him. Why would they be? They’ve probably been dreaming of this moment for a lifetime and the last thing they’d want to do is yak to some journalist about it.
He’s got the attention of an old woman. She hasn’t even had a chance to see what it’s like on the western side and yet she’s got the humility to stop and talk. Shit, life’s been hard for her. Struggling with emotion, she seems bewildered that someone from as far away as New Zealand is interested in her plight. She looks as if a lifetime of fear is at last beginning to dissolve.
My throat is uncomfortable. It’s difficult to swallow. I’m trying to contain the distress. Monica has come into the room and I turn my head so she can’t see my face. I don’t want to cry in front of her. The weight of emotion overpowers me. I swallow hard and tears start dribbling down my cheeks. The feeling continues for a minute or so. I have no idea what that’s about. Sadness, I guess. Sadness for what this woman has lost, for all those years of an unfulfilled life. It’s as if I am physically in the presence of this unknown woman. As my distress subsides I wipe away the tears from my cheeks. What was I experiencing? Why was I so overcome? After all, I don’t even know this woman.
Monica, also wiping her face, says, “How amazing was that. Don’t you just feel for her?”
“Shit, yeah,” I respond, stunned by the significance of what’s happening right now, not only for this particular pensioner but also for Berlin and the Eastern Bloc and the whole world. Even though I live on the other side of the planet, the Iron Curtain has been a harsh reality for as long as I can remember.
I’ve always believed that there were many ways in which the Wall was a symbol of fear and repression, but it would’ve been cool to visit Germany before this happened. West Berlin always seemed like a party town. I’m excited suddenly about what might exist on the other side.
“Man, there must be some business opportunities behind that wall!”
From the time I was a kid I knew I was going to do something big, and this could be it. I could do something big in the Eastern Bloc! I spend the rest of the evening devising ways to raise money. I have absolutely no idea how to go about getting there and making contacts, but it doesn’t matter. As my grandmother used to say: where there’s a will there’s a way.
Later I lie in bed unable to sleep. I realise that I’m forever bombarded with an endless stream of thoughts. But to be honest, I’m sick of all this thinking. Sometimes it feels as if I’m walking around in a bubble, caught up in an ongoing dialogue in my head, and the world around me seems like a foggy backdrop.
It’s August 1990 and I’m still living on the West Coast. It’s nine months since the corroding Iron Curtain finally fell. To be fair, I’ve been a bit ambivalent about getting in there. It’s funny, because I’m forever taking the piss out of Clifford for being traumatised by his ongoing inability to make a decision. But I’ve been thinking about it lately and I realise that I too have trouble with big decisions. I investigate so many possible paths that I become muddled. One minute one particular way forward seems ideal, the next minute another solution pops up. I worry every hypothetical outcome to death. And once a decision has been made, I berate myself for making the wrong call. It’s so exhausting.
I always feel as though my current difficult situation – whatever it is – results from a series of flawed choices that keep leading me down the wrong path. In the end I’ve just got to make a decision so I can get on with life. So over the last few days Monica and I have revisited the idea of doing business in the Soviet Union.
We’re sitting in our living room. Monica is reading a book.
“You’ll be interested in this,” she says.
“It’s a quote from Goethe about commitment. I’ll read it to you if you want.”
“OK,” I say, thinking, “How does she come across this stuff?”
The key to success in any endeavour is commitment;
when we commit 100 per cent to a goal it’s as if the universe lines up to support our intent 100 per cent.
Inconceivable material outcomes and synchronicities are presented to help us in achieving the outcome.
But sometimes we say we are committed to doing or achieving something
but a filament of doubt holds us back. This subtle apprehension, or
opportunity to use the “back door”, detracts from our focus, and diminishes
the energy and intensity we have available to complete the task. In these
cases we really aren’t committed 100 per cent and, unfortunately 95 per
cent is about as good as 0 per cent. It just doesn’t work. Whatever we do,
we need to play big and commit.
I think about this for a moment and realise this has been my experience in so many situations in my life, but I’ve been in a phase recently where I haven’t really committed to a clear goal. I say, “OK. Are you on for getting into the Soviet Union to do business?”
Monica says, “Yeah, why not? Let’s do it.”
I say, “OK, let’s get in there somehow.”
An hour later the phone rings and a voice says, “Hi Greg, my name is Merv Johns. I’m the managing director of Ashfield, a subsidiary of a global commodity trading company. Someone suggested I call you because you have the relevant experience for an aspect of our business that is growing quickly.”
Merv explains that he’s impressed by my role as the on-site project manager of the construction of an abattoir two years earlier. He goes on to say that the link between New Zealand butter and the Soviet market has been a long one, and that Ashfield sells huge quantities to the Soviets. Ashfield has signed contracts for the construction of five food-processing plants in the past 12 months and they need someone on the ground in Russia and Kazakhstan to co-ordinate the construction of their abattoirs. There could be an opportunity for me to join the team and head to Russia. Am I interested?
He suggests that I fly to Wellington to meet him. If the visit is successful I would travel to Russia to get an understanding of how things work, plus it would give the Ashfield guys a chance to see if I was the man for them or not.
I get off the phone. “Can you believe this? That theory about commitment really works,” I say to Monica, assuming she has overhead me. She shakes her head in disbelief as I tell her about the possibility.
Two days later I’m on my way to meet Merv at his office in central Wellington. I catch a taxi in from the airport, find the building, make my way past the secretaries and am shown into his office.
Standing up, Merv thrusts his oversized hand out in greeting. He’s a big boy, with a belly even bigger than mine. This bloke has lived hard. He looks about 55, but I know he’s about 35. He’s wearing a well-tailored shirt, probably cut from Egyptian cotton, with cuffed sleeves buttoned together with cufflinks, dark suit trousers and shiny slip-on black brogues. Slip-on brogues at work? And that moustache. It’s been a while since I’ve had much to do with anyone with a moustache, but Merv has got one hanging over his top lip. Mate, moustaches went out 10 years ago! Where’ve you been?
After shaking my hand he invites me to take a seat. As I do so I glance at the framed photograph on the wall behind him. It’s of a naked woman crouched on all fours in a car that looks like a 1940s Ford. The car is parked in front of austere gardens that lead to a huge, gothic-looking structure built from stone. The scene is slightly disorienting. This isn’t my idea of the Soviet Union, or of what a Russian girl would look like, or of what the CEO of a company like this would have hanging on his wall.
He explains how, in the past couple of years, the business has moved into a number of remote regions in Russia, effectively pioneering direct trade with local regional governments and state production facilities. To do this Merv had side-stepped and displaced the centrally controlled state trade organisations. He’s been doing deals with the general directors of coal mines, steel mills, oil-producing entities, copper mines and the huge state farms.
When he finishes he says, “So, have you brought the boring stuff like your CV?”
“Ah, I had it sent by courier on Monday.”
“Tell me about yourself.”
Clearly he hasn’t read it. I give him my well-oiled patter, moderating any propensity I have to embellish my own importance. I tell him how since graduating with a degree in mechanical engineering I’ve been driven to grow my management capability and engineering knowledge. I love challenges, but the thing I love most is overcoming them.
“Engineering is one thing, but working and living with the Soviets is an altogether different thing,” Merv says, looking down at a gold pen he is rotating clockwise and anticlockwise in his right hand. “It definitely hasits challenges. The Russian is like a child. Give him a lolly and very quickly he wants the whole bag.”
Merv looks at me.
“Are you married? Do you have children?”
“Married without children. But my wife is prepared to go anywhere.”
“The job we have in mind would make it difficult for a partner to live in Russia. As the projects coordinator your responsibility will include supporting five construction sites and supervising the site managers. Although the job is based in Moscow, the role will require continual travel. You’ll probably get back to your Moscow apartment for only three or four days a month. There’s also not much support in Moscow for the wives of foreign businessmen.”
This catches me by surprise. “So the role is a single man’s job?”
“Is that a problem for you?”
“No, not at all,” I assure him. I hope Monica can fit into this equation somehow. God knows how, but I’ll have to make it work.
“Do you drink?”
“I enjoy the odd drink.” Mate, I can drink as much as the next bloke, especially you, ya fat bastard. “Good. It’s a necessary part of the job. The Russians enjoy drinking. If you aren’t prepared to participate or keep up, then you’re not serious. It’s their way of getting to know us. It’s an opportunity to see who we are, whether we are trustworthy and if they want to do business with us. In the end, people want to do business with people they like.”
“Sounds great to me.” Drinking to excess has in fact been an integral aspect of my adult life. These Russians won’t be a problem. Full of enthusiasm, I say, “I’ve been interested in working in Russia since the collapse of the Iron Curtain and this sounds like a very exciting business.”
“It has its moments.”
I don’t know what that means and he doesn’t seem inclined to explain.
Merv has a huge presence, but he’s a trader and one thing traders have in common is that they’re born poker players.
After less than 20 minutes the meeting comes to an end. I stand up and point to the picture on the wall. “That’s an interesting photo.”
Turning to view the scene, Merv says, “Yes, it was taken by Lord Snowdon. The building in the background is the Moscow University and the car is an iconic symbol for the Communist élite – it’s a Chaika. It was probably taken in the 1960s, about 10 years after the building was constructed. It’s a fine depiction of the complexity of Russia.”
A taxi is called and I bid farewell to the man with the moustache. My dreams of greatness are on the cusp of being either fulfilled or dashed. I’d love the challenge of this job. It’d be a chance to play big in the world arena and develop some super-sized skills. Plus I’m keen for the early retirement this could provide and, hand in hand with retirement, the elusive peace and contentment I want.
Two days later the phone rings.
“Hi, it’s Merv here. I’ve had time to consider your suitability and, assuming you’re still interested, I’d like to take you with me to Russia. Next Friday I’m flying over there for 10 days. It would be great if you were able
to come with me.”
“Fantastic! That’s great news.”
“Excellent. It probably won’t be much use to you, but I’ll get someone to fax the itinerary to you.”
Two days later the fax squeals and chugs out a copy of the itinerary. With the help of The Reader’s Digest Great World Atlas, purchased by my old man in 1965, Monica and I follow the circuit of unpronounceable cities and regions. The most remote region is the Altai, bordered by Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China. Then I read up about what’s going on in the Soviet Union. Gorbachev is restructuring the political and economic system with an initiative called Perestroika, and for the first time since the establishment of socialism nearly 70 years ago he has introduced openness, or Glasnost. From what I can gather, the changes are unfolding rapidly and randomly. There appears to be no clear direction or idea where it will all end. As with change anywhere, it’s inducing fear and uncertainty. He and George Bush (Senior) had announced recently that the Cold War was over. Shit, during a visit to the Pope, Gorbachev even acknowledged the importance of spirituality in people’s lives.
Published by Mountford Media & Publishing
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This edition published 2014
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