George Baker (firstname.lastname@example.org)
The former general manager of NCR's manufacturing plant in Puebla tells the story of how, when he first came to Mexico in the early 1980s, he was told by his staff that the weekly shipments of components and assembled products routinely passed the border without incident. "I decided to pay a call on the local customs official at the border, just to satisfy myself that there were no present or future issues that needed my attention. At the customs office in Nuevo Laredo there was a tough character out of the movies: the corpulent official, sitting behind his large desk is cooled by an old fan that groans and threatens to stop at any moment. At his side are two even tougher characters each sporting an Uzi machine gun. After some discussion the official says, 'I don't care what they told you in Mexico City. Here on the border you do what I say.' Clearly implied was the demand for extra-official transit payments--without which the plant's shipments would not arrived in a timely fashion, if at all."
The story is worth retelling, not because it tells us anything about border crossings in Mexico or anywhere else; but because it points to the set of ongoing communications problems--of crisis proportions, we will argue--facing the 1,500 or so international companies in Mexico. We identify two problems:
We want to better understand how falsely optimistic assessments get started, accepted and funded by corporate parents eager for profits or market share--if not now, in this year's P & L, then at some not-too-distant future year. (The not-too-distant profits philosophy is one that, during the Salinas years from 1988-94, cost the shareholders of major U.S. and European oil producers roughly $100 million dollars in staffing up for a policy opening upstream that never happened.) In other words, we want to understand how corporate expectations get wrongly framed and ultimately go unfulfilled. "Mexico," as some us say, "is a beautiful place to spend money, but a terrible place to try to make money." Why?
In her books on local and international management styles in Mexico, Eva Simonsen de Kras has already touched on many of the human issues, those involving the business education and cultural expectations of managers and representatives assigned to Mexico. Our view is that the problem is so serious that it goes beyond the power of the printed page to more than hint either at its character or at possible solutions.
Let's go back to the border fifteen years after the time described in our opening example. What has changed? The new customs official is in an air-conditioned room, there are no guards with Uzis, the official sports a Herm=E8s tie and a graduate degree from a U.S. university, and, most strikingly, appears to be perfectly bicultural. The plant manager now hears the same story that he had heard from this official's look-alike counterparts in Mexico City. Still, there's something wrong with this picture. What is it?
Part of what's wrong is the phenomena that we call the "Mexican ex-pat in Mexico." Where, in earlier years, Mexican government officials were in contact with the hard realities of local politics and interest groups (and that may or may not have spoken English), today the top several layers of the Mexican Government all speak English and in many respects are more at home in the U.S., Canada or England than they are in Mexico. Evidence of this lack of contact with local realities on the part of senior government officials is overwhelming in the matter of the stalled attempts to privatize Pemex's petrochemical plants during 1995-96.
The meaning of the so-called "Tortilla Curtain," therefore, needs to be revised. The problem is not, as Alan Riding told us, that the U.S. and Mexico are distant neighbors, but that Mexicans are distant neighbors from each other. The Tortilla Curtain is now not found at the border, but in every office of the Mexican Government and its de facto representatives in the U.S., Canadian and British embassies. The Tortilla Curtain is found in the mindset of local managers and reps who view Mexico as a "market" for their goods and services. If we have learned anything since January 1, 1994--and, to judge by Andr=E9s Oppenheimer's new book, Bordering on Chaos (1996), it hasn't been very much--it's that the term "North America" points to a fact of geography, not one of international commerce. The harder fact to assimilate is that Mexico operates basically by a command economy. Decisions to invest are rarely made by reference to market or pricing signals; they are made by what Mexicans call "concertacesi=F3n," which means back-room negotiations (now smoke-free in deference to the Mexican graduates from UCLA, Stanford and Berkeley).
What is the solution to this costly and inefficient culture of communication between local reps and the home office?
By following these rules, corporate parents can save several
million dollars a year in avoiding false or premature starts, delays and
staff burn-out. Local reps and managers will perform their jobs better
knowing that (1) the home office no longer expects them to have a crystal
ball about Mexico and (2) that having access to outside sources of
information and analysis is not an admission of an inability to perform
George Baker, based in Houston, is directs Mexico Transnational Strategies
Albert Antebi, based in Mexico City, directs the Petrochemical and Political Risk Advisory Services of Baker & Associates (74174.3375@Compuserve.com).
Tel: 713-627-9390 Fax: 713-627-9391