International Business in “The Dark Ages”

In today’s world with Fedex and DHL, Google Translate, maps with GPS on your phone, scanning, Zoom, PDFs, email, text, WhatsApp, fast wifi, broadband internet, cheap SIMs and phone cards in foreign lands, people don’t realize just how hard it was to do business internationally in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

Selling tofu ice cream abroad as early as 1984 then building a 27-member global hempseed supply chain in the ‘90s, the friction then in what today are very easy communications was profound.

For instance, our rural German seed processor had no English speakers except one employee’s wife at home. On my side, only my assistant for a few years spoke German. Translation services were slow, cumbersome, and expensive. We had to use the telephone, fax machine or Telex to communicate, while phone charges could be as high as $20 per minute. Renting a cel phone in Europe for a week cost more than buying one does today. To drive to their location I had to rely on paper maps. Once I drove an hour the wrong direction at night at 140 mph on the Autobahn; with no speed limits it’s a great way to get lost even faster. Because it was hard to book a reservation at a hotel from afar back then, the company I visited would routinely do it as a favor. And writing contracts in two languages was a nightmare.

That was just Germany, it was even harder negotiating and communicating with China, agriculture and food companies were under the control of the CCP back then. I also worked with businesses in Singapore, France, The Netherlands, England, Wales, Switzerland, Canada, and Italy in the ‘90s, and Australia and Japan in the ‘80s.

The Brits were the easiest to communicate with but the hardest to work with. My Welsh partner was a dear dairy farmer/processor trying to keep up with the times by making vegan ice cream and cheese. All the Dutch spoke English, as did Australians (if you could understand them). We did about 1/3 of our tofu cheese business in Canada, were in all the supermarket and natural food chains with legal labeling despite running afoul of Provincial dairy laws, and even had products made there.

Before the Euro became the common currency in most of Europe, one had to travel with Pounds Sterling, Guilders, Francs, Marks, and Lira for England, The Netherlands, France, Germany, and Italy. I had all these little ziplock bags full of odd coins and bills from each country.

And then there are the cultural aspects on top of all that, it’s so easy to inadvertently insult someone in another country, or to accidentally appear boorish. For example, the “OK” finger sign has a vastly different and unfortunate meaning in some places, that’s why the thumbs-up sign became popular instead. No doubt that means FU somewhere else, it’s hard to keep it all straight.

My concentration in graduate business school was International Business (and also Marketing), just because at the time the subject was as hard as it was important for my international food company, originally called Rose International. We later had a distributor in Switzerland and called the venture HempNut Europa.

Richard Rose