Abroad: Part 2

We left Barcelona after Christmas in cold and clear weather and arrived in Singapore in heat and humidity.  We had spent the holiday and New Year’s at the Hotel Boix in the mountains of La Cerdanya in the eastern region of the Pyrenees in northern Catalonia.  We had spent many weekends at the Hotel Boix during the summer and autumn.  The hotel was famous for its remote tranquility and Michelin starred restaurant.  We were always the only Americans there.

Spain had not been a happy time.  The uncertainty of where we would relocate, the merger, the lack of all of our household goods, our furniture, the boys’ toys, winter clothes, the false starts in London and Dusseldorf all lent to impermanence and deep discontent. Never good, our marriage was falling apart.  Singapore was perhaps the last place on the planet my wife wanted to be.  She felt trapped and expressed her unhappiness in extreme behavior that freighted the boys and terrified me.

Christmas was still in full swing when we arrived in Singapore.  The city was a blaze of lights.  Our boys were delighted driving through the walls of lights covering every building: Christmas amidst orchids and the red blossoms of Tamarind trees and native poinsettia.

I had made a trip to Singapore prior to our move, renting an apartment in a service hotel, anticipating a move to a permanent place.  We never left.  The Ascot, at the juncture of Scott and Orchard Roads—the heart of the city—was a high-end service hotel that catered to expats on their way to someplace else.  While not Spartan, it was nonetheless a hotel.  We had a kitchen, two bedrooms, a living room, a pool on the roof overlooking the lights of the city and a daily maid.  Our boys soon thought it was normal to have doormen, elevator men, a staff, twenty-four hour concierge, and a food court in the basement.

We enrolled David in the English Tanglin School.  It was closer, with a better reputation, than the American School. It proved to be a good choice, despite the bus ride each morning from downtown.  David arrived home a little ball of sweat in his Tanglin uniform.  Nevertheless his teachers were fine and the school itself was shady and outside the hustle of the city.  Sam was still at home.

The day before departing for Singapore I was told that my job had changed.  Instead of running an agency, I would be closing it.  Prior to my appointment, the local DDB office had already been merged with Needham.  Neither managing director would relinquish their respective roles.  Of course dual managing directors was doomed to failure.  Stephen Quinn, the DDB MD, left the agency, founding his own and against his contract taking most of his former clients.  I was told that Theresa Chan, the Needham MD, had decided to leave the agency and I was her replacement.

My first duty, on my first day, was to terminate the entire staff of fifty-five Singaporeans.  I was meant to meet the DDB Needham regional president, Alan Pilkington, who would support me in explaining the sorry situation.  He never showed.

The staff believed I was coming to turn around the fate of their seriously disrupted office.  Instead I was the ugly American who fired everyone.

In my entire career I’ve never known anyone who had to terminate an entire agency.  I was completely on my own.  Nothing had prepared me for this.  Unable to face the prospect of meeting individuality with each of the employees, none of whom I had ever met, I gathered the staff in our conference room and explained the situation trying as best I could to do this with empathy and compassion.  A decent severance package was in place contingent upon staying for three months to fulfill the terms of our client agreements.  Nevertheless by the next day half the staff was gone, including the CFO. I had no idea how much money the agency had and as it turned out nor did the regional CFO back in New York.  A young accountant from Ernst & Young was put in as the acting CFO.  He, too, knew nothing about the agency’s finances.  Together we would stay up to midnight studying the agency’s books, trying to figure out which clients owed us money, were our media commitments made, did we have enough money to pay out the severance.

My first month working in Singapore was worse than a joke. If I hadn’t lived it, I wouldn’t believe what happened.  Some of the drama was funny, some bewilderingly impossible.  I had been told we had one company car which was mine: a twelve-year-old green Mercedes-Benz.  The driver’s side door fell off the first time I used it.  But when my CFO investigated the books we discovered the agency owned more than ten cars.  I had no idea who had these. No one volunteered this information.  It was likely that many of the cars had departed with the ex-employees.  I spent a month searching car parks looking for matches to the license numbers we had on file.  Miraculously I located all but one.  This one I discovered was being used by an employee still at the agency. I remember Tang Eng Lock to this day.  More about Eng Lock and his car later.

On the morning of the mass terminations, our messenger, a young Malay with a limp, came to me and pleaded to keep the agency’s motorcycle in lieu of severance.  He had a family to maintain and said having a cycle was the only way he could be hired as a messenger somewhere else.  Of course I said yes.  How could I otherwise?  What I didn’t do was properly transfer the title resulting in a year’s worth of traffic tickets.  All the traffic lights in Singapore are monitored by video cameras, automatically issuing violations.  Apparently our messenger rarely stopped.

I had also been told the former MD would be around to help with the transition.  I had met her at a previous international conference.  She never appeared.  I had no idea where she was and assumed she was taking time off.  On my second day in the office I received a phone call from Theresa’s father, a senior government official.  He asked me who had decided to replace his daughter with me.  This wasn’t the story I had been told.  Barely holding back his contempt he told me Theresa had been fired.

With the office in shambles (all our video equipment, and even the bookcases flanking the front entrance, disappeared within the first few days) I had to go client by client and explain what was happening.  I remember one brunch during those early days at the Shangri-La Hotel with Alan Pilkington who nonchalantly claimed the closure would take maybe three weeks tops.  My wife, a corporate attorney, couldn’t believe this absurd assertion, and told him so.  In fact it took a year.

My first trip was to visit our client Swiss Air.  To say it was a frosty meeting would be an understatement. As I explained the departure of the former MD I was interrupted with the statement, “Don’t lie to us.  Theresa was at a Swiss Air marketing conference in Zurich when your Mr. Pilkington called to fire her then and there on the phone.  Please leave now.” Oh joy.

I remember these days as though they were yesterday.  I remember sitting in my office on the top floor of our building on Beach Road looking out over the Straights, local junks avoiding container ships from across South East Asia. And all day and night  F-16’s from the Singapore Air Force circled the tiny city-state in perpetual fear of an unlikely invasion by the Malaysians.  The office air conditioning was frigid, in contrast to the heat outside.  My office windows were tinted against glare which rendered the view as though at dusk.  I would wonder oh god where am I.  What am I doing here.  Where is my life going.  I was alone, out of touch, disconnected from reality.  My days at work were surreal.

Our office was adjacent to the old Chinese part of the city, its chophouses having narrowly escaped the wrecking balls that wiped out the rest of old Singapore. We were across the street from the then unrestored Raffles Hotel, whose fate was in the balance. It was a decayed relic of a lost time when Somerset Maugham lived there.  There were threadbare tiger rugs on the floor and tourists would come to drink their Singapore Slings on long tables outside in the garden.  Inside, its one restaurant still managed to serve its mid-day Tiffin Curry, a tame English version of what locals ate.

A month after my arrival I was notified by Singapore media that the agency owed more than $2 million to the government owned television network and print media.  We had barely the funds to meet our dwindling payroll.  Every client, without exception, refused to pay their bills, trumping up one excuse after another.  As the head of the agency I was told I was personally liable for the debt if not paid in four weeks.  I could be put in jail. I called our regional CFO who assured me I could access a $3 million line of credit at the Hong Kong-Shanghai Bank.  When I called at the bank I was told that the line of credit had been entirely used and the agency was in fact paying interest on it.  No one in New York knew this. The company wired funds to the media and the crisis was averted at the last minute.

All of our clients had to be sued to pay their bills.  These were for the most part major multinational companies.  With one exception they settled literally on the courtroom steps.  More unreality.

The exception was McDonald’s, the office’s largest client, the country’s biggest advertiser, and a major global client of the agency’s.  In Singapore, all the McDonald’s franchises were owned by a young and very rich man, Tommy Quan.  His father had bought him the first McDonald’s in the country and on its first day it instantly set the record for opening day sales.  Tommy then opened six more outlets, each setting similar sales records.  McDonald’s was phenomenally successful in Singapore.

To his lasting credit, Tommy and his wife befriended my family and me.  We would have dinner at his Hollywood caliber house, a house with no walls to the outside, surrounded by trees and water.  We would go out together.  They were lovely.  Tommy had an ulterior motive as it turned out, but one that had mutual attraction.  Rather than close the DDB Needham agency, he proposed that the agency buy the company of a friend of his.  In return he would give us his business.  This was an extremely attractive proposition.  New York agreed.  Tommy and I set about making the necessary arrangements.

Amazingly, my management in New York pulled out of the deal at the eleventh hour.  Without my knowledge they had been negotiating with the former DDB MD Stephen Quinn to buy his agency.  Only eight months before management had seriously considered suing Stephen for stealing clients. Now they were in bed with him.

Tommy was furious.  He knew I had been duped and vowed revenge.  Unknown to the regional management, Tommy’s first cousins owned all the McDonald’s franchises in Hong Kong and Taiwan. You can’t make this stuff up.  His cousins put the business in review with the eventual result DDB lost the accounts.  Tommy continued to be our friend and we corresponded for years afterward.  I wonder how he is now.

Our last days in Singapore continued, alternating between comedy and anxiety.  Our life back at the Ascot remained reasonably intact.  We had made friends with two families, one Chilean and one South African.  We spent a lot of time together.  I remember one trip we took with the Chileans to the beach on the China Sea in Malaysia. I wish I could remember their names.  We drove through rubber plantations. Monkeys ran everywhere across the roads.  The beach was so hot we couldn’t walk on the sand. Driving across the causeway separating Singapore from Malaysia was a trip from the 20th century to the 19th.  In each direction were signs saying Mandatory Death Sentence to Drug Traffickers.

My final drama in the office was getting Tang Eng Lock to return his car.  Every week was another excuse.  Finally I had to threaten police action.  On the day he was meant to return the car he called and told me I would never believe what happened.  He said a snake had fallen from a tree and slithered into the engine block. It would take weeks to repair.  I was furious and told him, “You may think I’m a stupid American but no fucking snake slithered into the fucking engine.  Get that car back here immediately.”  He did.

I still had two years on my international contract.  During my time in Singapore I had become friends with the former Needham regional president, an Australian from Melbourne.  He gave me safe passage.  We didn’t really want to move to Australia.  We thought it would be like the States in the 1950’s.  I made trips to Melbourne, once again renting a house and finding a school for the boys.  This was becoming all too familiar.  Flying from Singapore the plane crossed hours and hours of nothing but red desert. I flew alone, into the unknown.

I rented a fine house in Black Rock a block from the beach.  The house was owned by the captain of the recently won America’s Cup Race.  I enrolled our boys in Haileybury College.  Both decisions turned out to be the best I could have made.  We stayed more than three years. Australia wasn’t anything like we had imagined.  A degree of normalcy entered our lives.

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