When we left the first part of my Consulting blog, I was headed to Yugoslavia at around the time of the Bosnian war with the Serbs. At that time the war had not yet started, so we had no reason to be concerned.
Arriving at the border was interesting. There were about half a dozen soldiers with machine guns in long, brown trench coats standing around and staring at us. We were in a 1969 Ford Econoline van, and with me I had a German, a Brit, a Greek, two Austrians, and a guy from East Germany who had escaped two weeks before the Berlin Wall came down. He had real bad timing, but again, that's another story.
The border guards made us pull over to the side of the road and collected all our passports. The guy in charge took our passports into the small office and left two young guys with machine guns to guard us. I was getting nervous when we were still sitting there after about 20 minutes, and the guards were starting to give us the hairy eyeball. Finally, the guy with our passports returned and wouldn't look at us. Now I was really nervous. As he approached the window a huge smile lit his face, and he yelled, “Welcome to Yugoslavia, my friends!” We all smiled, laughed, and shook hands. We’d made it.
Arriving at the Hotel Dubrovnic in downtown Zagreb, we checked in and set up for our presentation in one of the meeting rooms. At six o'clock, forty couples arrived for our presentation. I decided to do the presentation myself, but I suddenly realized that I didn't speak Serbo-Croatian, and none of the couples spoke English. There was a half hour delay until a translator was found and we could begin.
Now, I like to inject a little humor into my presentations, and it usually works pretty well. Not so much in Yugoslavia. It went like this: I would tell a joke and then turn to the translator. The audience would turn from me and look at the translator, who would then tell the joke in Serbo-Croatian. When the translator finished, the audience would nod thoughtfully and then look back at me. Not a smile in the bunch. Uh, oh, I thought, this isn't going well at all.
About halfway through the presentation I thought I heard a couple of truck backfires. I was writing on the chalkboard at the time, and when I turned back around, there was no one in the audience. I was a bit taken aback for a moment, until I realized they were all hiding under the tables. They knew something that I didn't. Those weren't trucks; those were gunshots.
In truth, the presentation worked pretty well—seven of those couples bought from us. The bank had strictly forbidden us to accept any money at the time of sale because it was illegal to take money out of Yugoslavia, and the bank didn't want us to be arrested as smugglers. We had to make arrangements for the buyers to smuggle the money out themselves and meet us in Graz, Austria the next week. This actually worked, and the following week, all seven buyers showed up on time and with their smuggled money.
After a celebratory dinner at the Kordic restaurant in the basement of a local church, we headed back to the hotel. In the distance we could hear what we now knew to be gunfire, and I decided it was time for us to get out of Dodge.
We checked out of the hotel about midnight, piled into our trusty Ford van, and started to leave the city. Taking a right out of the hotel, we only went a block before we saw that the street ahead was blocked by a tank, with more of those brown trenchcoat guys with rifles. A quick left, and we tried another route. Again, another tank and more soldiers. After about six false starts we finally get out of Zagreb, and quickly head for the Austrian border and home.
The very next day the war began, and Zagreb was the center of the action. We were lucky to have escaped, and I called the bank the next morning and told them that I quit. No more war zones for me; I'm headed back to the good old US of A., where I'm smart enough to stay out of South Chicago. They waved another large check at me and offered me a position as a vice-president of the bank. I'm a free spirit, and I knew I could never survive in a corporate environment, so I turned them down again and headed home. But I was bringing something special with me.
The week before we arrived in Yugoslavia, the government had devalued the dinar, the local currency. The way they did this was ingenious: They just crossed off the last four zeros. If you had 100,000 dinar on Monday, on Tuesday you now had 10 dinar. Clever. In any case, whenever I bought something, I was given change in the “old” money. I arrived back in the US with 2,300,000 dinar in my pocket … which was worth $1.15 according to the exchange rate at the time. No problem. I just gave every kid in my neighborhood 100,000 dinar and let them all think that Mr. Hagberg had just made them rich. I'm nothing if not a good sport.