In 1990 I went to Schladming, Austria to fix a resort that the bank I worked for had just taken over because it was failing miserably. It was there that I met some of the most unforgettable people in my life, and I thought I’d tell you about them.
The first people I met were Richard and Liz, a husband and wife who were in charge of the resort. Richard and Liz were from Scotland. Actually they told me they weren’t from Scotland, they were from the Hebrides, a group of islands to the west of Scotland. This is important, because Richard and Liz seemed to speak an entirely different language than English.
I will always remember when Richard started talking at our first meeting. When he’d finished I just stared at him blankly, because I hadn’t understood a word he said. I looked to Liz for help, but she just nodded. I had no choice but to find an English person to translate. I soon found myself in the very weird situation of having an Englishman translate English into English. After about two weeks my ears tuned in to their accents and I was able to understand most of what they said. Still, I had an easier time understanding the Germans.
My first order of business was to hire a new sales manager. I found my guy in the Canary Islands and immediately hired him to come to Austria and help me turn things around. Gez was one of the most remarkable people I have ever met. A fabulous “people person,” Gez charmed everyone, including the very serious Austrians. It was only a couple of days before Gez talked his way into a better room than I had, with a better TV than I had, and convinced the maids to do his laundry for him. There was an unused building that Gez quickly hijacked as a retreat for his sales team. In short order, the game tables were open, the refrigerator stocked with food, and a bar set up that rivaled the resort’s restaurant. This was Gez’s private club for his sales people, and no one else was allowed. I had to threaten to fire them all unless they let me in too. It wasn’t long before I figured out who was running the resort, and it wasn’t me.
Two of my favorite characters were in charge of the restaurant and bar—Werner and Karl. I was sitting at the bar one night when I noticed a dust-covered bottle on a dust-covered shelf. I asked Karl what it was, and he replied that it didn’t matter because it was something only Americans drink. When I reminded him that I was an American, he told me that if I would drink it I could have it for free since he needed the shelf space. I didn’t tell Karl that my food and drinks were free anyway, but instead told him to pour me a glass of what turned out to be Jack Daniels. By the time I’d finished that bottle, I had switched my drink of choice from Scotch to bourbon.
Werner ruled the restaurant with an iron fist, as only the Austrians can do. Sitting at my table in the restaurant one night, I found myself short of Austrian schillings and needed to convert some dollars. Werner told me he could change some dollars for me. I asked for the exchange rate, which was officially about eleven shillings to the dollar. Werner said he would give me eight schillings to the dollar. When I protested that I could get a much better rate at the bank, Werner replied, “Bank not open. Bank of Werner exchange rate is eight shillings.” I took the Bank of Werner rate.
Sales people anywhere tend to be very interesting people, and there are several who should be mentioned. The first one would be Mario, an East German who’d escaped from East Germany two weeks before the Berlin Wall came down. While escaping he was shot at twice, and fortunately, both shots missed. If he had only waited two more weeks.
Mario was extraordinarily good looking, and his dream was to go to Hollywood and become a major movie star. I haven’t seen him in anything since, so I doubt he made it, but he was constantly after me for stories about Hollywood and America.
Sue was an English woman who was (and probably still is) one of the most talented sales people I have ever known. She was so good that people didn’t even realize they were being sold. Sue ended up traveling the world and bringing her talents with her from Europe to India.
I can’t leave Austria without mentioning the two guys who were in charge of marketing—Stephan and Bernt. I had some problems with these two characters. They knew I didn’t speak German, and so they would speak only in German when I asked them questions. Sometimes they would reply in halting English, which was frustrating because I knew they spoke English perfectly. I finally solved this problem by hiring a woman who was fluent in both English and German. I asked her to pretend she didn’t understand German, but to report back to me everything they said to each other. It wasn’t long before I shocked them by exposing what I had learned and demanded that our meetings be conducted only in English. From that time on, no one spoke anything but English when I was around.
Those were great times, and there are lots more stories to tell about this interesting group of people, but that’s fodder for future blogs.