Wednesday 28 November 2012

Barmering Around - Part 2

Barmering Around – Part 2
Every Trilogy Has a Dark Middle

“KARACHI!!??”  desperately exclaimed in a deeply-disappointed, almost horrified holler…”I thought this was the flight to VEGAS!!”

Most good things come in threes. The Holy Trinity, the Three Musketeers, Threesomes (particularly entertaining that one), and everyone knows any good tale/play/script/disaster is best executed in three acts (thanks Shakespeare and George Lucas) – the middle act serving as the nadir..that dark point where the audience is left in near-despair amidst the enfolding darkness of disaster and a seemingly no-light-at-the-end-the-farm conclusion. We all need King Lear’s dive into near-dementia, Skywalker’s hand falling into the abyss, light-sabred-off by his newly-found father in Empire Strikes Back, to provide balance to a masterly trilogy. Trust me though, it isn’t quite as much fun when you are in the middle of it. So here we are, thrown into Part 2….

Nov 2010 - Flight EK602: Dubai to Karachi. 6pm on Thursday.
…“I thought this was the flight to VEGAS!!”. Probably not the right thing to say surrounded by a large crowd of quiet, dour and quite religious-looking Pakistani travellers, awaiting boarding of the heavily-laden aircraft to the commercial-hub and “safest part of Pakistan”. Heads turned, eyes widened, mouths crinkled in disgust, the scene was set for a squirming two hour flight…seems our fellow passengers had not quite caught-on to the irony of the wittily (strongly subjective opinion) delivered observation – oops, great start to the trip. Even more worrisome was the very intimate proximity certain fellow passengers enjoyed maintaining – “personal space” was not high-on the list of the pre-flight check. The Vegas-lover wistfully pondered why he really wasn’t heading there instead. “Boarding now” – pre-sensing the announcement, an instantaneous mad-rush of Tahrir-Square-like-proportion toward the frightened-looking Emirates staff manning the gate – too late, Sin City would have to wait.

The start of the weekend in the UAE is normally a veritable cornucopia of family-laden greetings or alcohol-fuelled attempted gropings –depends if you are an ex-pat in desperate need of touching-reality-in-the-region, or one of the few and increasingly rare indigenous Emiratis. Neither was the case for these two Karachi-bound intrepid “problem-solvers”, taking their umpteen trip to visit the oh-so-promising lands of their agriculture endeavour. Hopes were high. Expectations were rapidly lowering. Tensions had been raised in the last several days and there were hard-nosed discussions with the farming team ahead of them…but these two professionals had dealt with multi-billion-dollar-negotiations and prevailed, they had duelled with the best the financial world had to offer and vanquished – what match would a collection of Pakistani foremen prove to be in the face of these slick, wily corporate titans..what match indeed?? Yep, turns out those poor, unsuspecting fools were doomed – and the foremen were in for an entertaining display of ignorance to boot.

EK602 was making its final approach to Quaid-E-Azam Karachi Int’l. The flight crew paced up and down the cabin making last-minute checks. A kerfuffle originating from further down the plane, firm requests from one of the feistier stewardesses could be overheard, increasing into a panicked plea “to stop doing that NOW!” – the two wearied would-be-farmers could hardly bare to look around, anticipating the worse, unfortunately still shocked with what met their bewildered eyes – a cross-legged figure sat in the middle-of-the-aisle, blanket draped over his head, bowed towards the floor, smoke rising from below his visible shoulders…was he trying to detonate an improvised explosive device?..had he been meditating and achieved a state of controlled-combustion? stewardess yanked the blanket off his head and found the passenger….calmly puffing away on a cigarette!!. His expression almost denoting surprise that he had been caught, despite his crafty disguise! If getting there was half the fun…

Abu Dhabi – June 2010
The business had been up and running for several months. The members of the “hAy Team” had aged several years. One member in particular had begun his farming experience a youthful looking Emirati gentleman..seldom smiling as it was before to be honest.. but had now descended into a rather accurate rendition of what one might imagine Dante’s Inferno to look like if imprinted on a person’s face.  The “overseer” issue had been resolved by a rapid expedition to the farming-mountains of Lebanon, the promise of riches, the romance of farming God’s land and a hell-of-a-lot-of-lies and “missing” details. At this point in the tale, he was uncomfortably ensconced on the farm, a private porta-cabin at his disposal (luxury edition mind you), an extra-large can of mosquitoe repellant, endless acres of running-ground for a lovely (ahem) brisk morning jog and nothing but a mobile to connect him to someone that spoke his language…but hey..he was still alive.

Hundreds of hours had been spent on “conference calls” (read: shouting matches), in the middle of hot, humid, sticky Middle-East evenings, merrily-dancing-round…and round…in endless circles trying to understand the very business they themselves had created. Occasional movements, rather lurches - made in the name of progress – sporadically achieved by a brief pause for air and enough blood reaching each participants brain for long-enough to make a logical decision. The presence of a crackly-near-incomprehensible-accent in the form of Falah, our man-in-Karachi, calling from the fairytale-like farming lands complicating matters and successfully aggravating with subsequent unprintable renditions of abuse.

Water Everywhere!
The major issue was flooding. That’s right. Flooding. We’re not talking a slight over-flow of water in the backyard here, necessitating a call to the plumber, a couple of yanks and problem solved. No..think SuperStorm Sandy being made to look like a whimpering-3-yr-old-tutu-wearing-ballerina compared to the floods we’re dealing with here. Who would have thought too much water was bad for a farm. On that note, who would have thought a bunch of investment bankers would be good at farming? Oh well. Too much water, not so good.

“What about the money we spent on irrigating the land!?” screamed the elder-member of the hAy-Team. Normally such a reticent, content and easy-going character, his demeanour – not to mention increasingly impressive smoking capacity – had taken on a newly-twisted-life. He only spoke in degrees of shrieks now. A low shriek for when things were simply unbelievable - “No work today because I have car crash and cow fall on my head from truck”. A medium shriek for when Falah really irked him - “No work today because army make surprise raid for the farm” and a shriek - more a cry filled with demonic undertone, undulating into a frequency that only dogs and other certain wildlife have the evolved capacity to hear, gloriously exhibited now, “You said you knew exactly where to dig the flood canals and that the water would prove one of our best assets!”. A long pause with nothing but the sound of car-horns and daily-Karachi-life blazing away in the background (note to reader: Falah should have been on the farm and said he was. The farm is over 100km away from Karachi and dead-quiet). Falah finally retorts, “No problem sir, we still have 30% of the land not-flooded, very good for us, other farms lose all. We are very lucky.”

The rapidly depleting Emirati could take no more, “Lucky? LUCKY!? You think we are lucky? We’ve piled-in our entire inventory of seed and fertiliser into land that is now 70% useless. We’ve burnt through 18 months of earmarked capital in 6 months, we were promised our first shipment over 3 months ago and now you are telling us that we cannot even ship a single tonne of alfalfa until the end of the year!?. How exactly is that lucky FALAH??”

Falah seemingly paused to prepare his answer here. He surely understood the disappointment and vehemently incredulous position his employers were taking. There had been a clear, well-planned and viable business plan with an equally well thought-out budget in place. He and his farming team understood the basics of accounting and cost-control. Didn’t they? “There is no problem my friends. Alfalfa will come in few months for surety. You send more money, we fix problem.”

Thinking back, a slight prediction of problems to come may have been the initial agriculture-related foray made by a couple of the team members several months prior. They had sourced, from related Pakistan farm-land, what was thought to be a high-quality flour and presented it to the best-know-baker in town. After several expensive transportation exercises and testing procedures, the conclusion was presented to the eagerly awaiting duo sat in the kitchens of the impressive baking operation, set-up by a passionately French master-baker “zee problem izz dat zeee brrrread simpleee turrrns to GOOOOE.” The always optimistic and normally gregarious member of the future hAy-Team, more used to biting into a succulent croissant at a power-breakfast than sitting in a heaving industrial-kitchen, covered in dustings of airy-white-flour, thought he had heard wrong, “sorry, it turns to what?”. “Gooe. you know it iz goeeeyyy. I put eet into zee oven, et voila, eet turns to gooe.”

The flour was low-quality and gooey. Now our farm was turning to gooe.

Run Tractor Run!!
Costs were spiralling out of control. Even with the overseer in place. It wasn’t his fault. We had vastly underestimated the cacophony of corruption, natural disasters, incompetence and sheer bad-luck we would endure. Mobile phones and their calling-charges seemed more expensive than chartering NASA’s space shuttle to hop from London to Nice. Food and water inventories were rising even though as we increased our “mechanisation”, we apparently had less people working on the farm. And as we purchased more machinery, our diesel costs (already astronomical and capable of financing the Harvard MBAs of half of Karachi University’s students) were beginning to resemble the figure for Qatar’s GDP.

Our competitive advantages of, “fertile location”, “low labour cost” and “low and speedy transportation to market” were being made laughably redundant by oblique “polticial costs”. Everything surrounding our farm that had been unaccounted for was related to a “political cost”. Why was our cost of diesel increasing so rapidly? Well, that would be because we had caught the attention of the local-councillor-equivalent who had decided he would impose a new “diesel tax” on our company’s purchases. Funny that. Why were we now finding it so difficult to bus in the required manpower that was so amply available just a few weeks back? Ahh, that would be because our ever-so-neighbourly farms had grown jealous of our operations and had kindly decided to block the only major road into the farm with their “broken down” tractor, making it impossible to get not only the labour in and out of the farm but the very product they were supposed to be farming!

Then there was our incredible Head Farmer himself. No character a writer would ever conceive of in fiction, would compare to the ridiculous reality of this man’s ability to confound, infuriate and pathologically lie.  A few choice quotations so you can get to know our man, Falah: “my friends, with the will of Allah it will surely be done…by the end of the month”, repeat that one once a week, every week, for 12 months. “For surety it will be conclusive”, I still don’t even know what that one means. “As long as the car makes it over the rough-land in the morning without the wheels breaking, I will make it to the farm”, I see. “I hope the workers are not busy milking the cows tomorrow so that we can seed”, “We need some more diesel since our last can was stolen by the neighbour”, “The neighbour’s wife was taking a bath and all the men stopped working for the day to watch her”, followed by, “all the workers are so shamed they go to pray and no more work today” – most neighbours ask for a pack of sugar and offer you a cup of tea, not effing steal your cans of diesel and bring religious shame to your workers!

The tractors we had purchased were using more diesel than a Bugatti Veyron careering down a deserted-highway at top-speed (that’s pretty fast if you aren’t a motor-head). There was no logical explanation for this. No matter how we calculated it, there was simply far too much diesel being used. An entire Panzer-division could have been fuelled with what our agri-machinery was pumping through in a day! So in the absence of logic, we developed suspicions that on alternate days, major tractor-racing competitions were being held on our farm. We envisaged thousands of supporters, of various tractor-trekking-teams with colourful names like “Kone Krushers” and “Caterpillar Crazzees” making their way over our carefully laid plots of alfalfa, enticed by the rumbling roar of high-powered-diesel-engines revving amidst our mooing cows, as they headed to place their bets via the quite lucrative book-making scheme masterminded by our Head Farmer. “Tractor racing, what is this?”, said Falah when we once mentioned it on our daily call, “my God, you rich Arabs people are very crazy”  – oooohhhh that Falah..he had a certain knack for irritating the shit out of us all.

 “Hey-baby, I’m good with my hands…”
Anywayyyyyy..your narrator’s blood is beginning to boil. Such is the effect and vivid memory of Falah’s infuriating melody-of excuses. Let’s take a break and think back for a second. Why had we wanted to get involved in this business in the first place? Relatively modest capital outlay for ongoing high-profit margin. Check. A veritable cash-cow (all pun intended). Check. Creating a real business and working on something ethically sound and morally rewarding. Right? Yep, that was it. Or was it? Propped up at the Zuma bar in Dubai one evening, a couple of the proud-looking future hAy Team members (when the delights of the farming exploit were mere words and charts on PowerPoint) were sumptuously chatting-up two lovely young ladies. Charming, intellectually curious and devastatingly attractive, with more than a penchant for their chosen profession – art-dealing – the ladies were stranded amidst a sea of testosterone-fuelled sharks. The future farmers saw their opportunity to break away from the clich├ęd “check-out-what-a-big-banker-I-am (say it really fast) approach and appeal to these two lovely ladies’ more sensitive, maternal side. Mother nature and all. A natural fit. “So what do you do” the inevitable Dubai-opening question thrown at the smiling approaching duo, “We’re farmers”, came the confident reply, “We’re good with our hands”. Beaming smiles. An invitation to drink accepted. Farming was soooo the way forward.

Field of dreams..
Let’s swing back to the “make-or-break” farm-visit after flight EK602. After the pleasantries and a warm welcome – resulting in very little food or drink being consumed due to some “delicate stomachs” possessed by the hAy-Team visiting duo, honestly, not because they didn’t trust eating or drinking anything that was placed before them (nah) - a full investigation of the accounts and farming practice was undertaken. I will not bore you with the details, suffice to say the excuses and horror-stories re-told above were amplified, permutated, grotesquely multiplied and then retracted and re-emphasised in a totally different manner, several times over. An exhausting experience. The conclusion was clear. We were barely standing. We had been beaten black and blue from every conceivable angle. Our gooey farm was a disastrous money-pit and something radical had to be done, quick.

The one positively memorable part of that visit, likely the high-point of the entire site-visit, was an impromptu rendition of Russell Crow’s Gladiator barley-field scene, ambient music providing the official soundtrack and all. Walking deep into the long-stemmed alfalfa leaves, hands at his side, caressing the end-product of all this grief, the earthy feel of the rustling leaves against the skin, man and nature combined, music gracefully echoing behind him, the hAy Team member briefly remembered what this was all about – getting back to man’s agricultural roots and interacting with nature’s beauty. Profiting on the back of growing from the land. A momentary state of calm and happiness washed over his soul. Then he turned back around and was greeted by the bemused faces of a dozen farmers and foremen, who suddenly burst into laughter.

Call back-up, now!
The potential was still there. The hard-work had been done. Yes, the costs had spiralled. Yes, the entire experience had been harrowing but success was still enticingly close. Everything at that point in time was going wrong. It seemed everything was against us. There was nothing else that could add to the disasters that had already befallen us. King Lear’s redemption must be round the corner.

Enough was enough. We couldn’t sit back and watch such a potentially lucrative business be destroyed in the hands of a bunch of nincompoops - sorry, couldn’t think of another nastier description without delving into seriously debauched language. We had made a decision. We had done further research, made enquiries, held video-conference calls, taken a leaf out of our global-institutional experiences, our analytical approach to corporate restructuring, consulted with the best-of-class farming advisors and world-leading agri-experts and decided: The hAy Team were going to bring in the big guns…

 …we were going to bring in zee Germans.

 And hey, despite our worst expectations, the overseer was still in possession of all his bodily organs. It wasn’t all bad.

To be continued in Part 3….

Wednesday 21 November 2012

Barmering Around

From living on a trading floor to living off the land

As some of you may be aware, in the not-too-distant past, I embarked on an agricultural “venture” with a group of like-minded and equally ignorant colleagues. Success is often lauded, but nothing gets a laugh better than the jolting, multiple failures one is greeted by on an unpredictable path of oversized ego-bashing-humble-pie-feeding insanity. Read on and laugh away!

Part 1 of an on-going series….

A massive, spine-tingling, emotion-fused and almost desperate scream down the phone: “ If you don’t get on top of this immediately I am going to fly out there and stick my FIST so far up your…*&!X (children were nearby)….you’ll be biting down on my knuckles every time you chew!”

 A scene from the trading floor as a senior banker screams at his prime broker? A real-estate mogul angry that he is about to lose a big deal? A film producer trying to get his actor to perform in the desired manner? If only it were that simple and unimportant!

How about a supposedly placid farmer having a word with his foreman…yep..Welcome to the age of BARMERING around. From banking to farming…we get BARMERING.

From “buy 1,000 contracts at a limit of 15”…”Quick, calculate the necessary amount of ammonium nitrate required to achieve our desired yield per tonne”. From the Bloomberg keyboard to the Krone baler - the world’s worst by the way and a whiney old-maid of a machine, prone to breaking down at the merest thought of work. The farming world had been infiltrated by a bunch of newly impoverished and hugely mislead ex-investment bankers - only one side would survive unscathed.  

A bit of background is probably necessary at this juncture. Anyone that recalls the subtle effects bankers’ actions brought to the world of mortgages (subtle – yeah right!) will surely be hiding their eyes behind their trembling hands wondering, waiting, and worrying what on earth these investment bankers managed to screw up this time? – and in one of the world’s most important (and previously simple) industries – agriculture!

This is the beginning of a story of one team’s desire to pull away from the morally inept and hated industry of the financial world, to move to something wholly more ethical and well-looked upon and respected - the farming world.

Sounds so nice and easy doesn’t it? Hmmm..not quite. The following is based on a true story, with some admittedly exaggerated moments of stupidity, to enhance the levity of the situation and prevent the writer from re-lapsing into a period of despair and depression. As with most (fictional) stories, the promise of a happy-ending is what keeps us reading.

Please join me as I therapeutically take you on a ride of unimaginable idiocy and optimism…

5am, Karachi, Pakistan – February 2010
The sun rises across a truly barren and eerily beautiful landscape. A couple of large cows graze quietly on the green grass as the hens begin to croak and awaken the remaining flocks. We drive in noisily on a land cruiser packed with excited and ignorant city-dwellers – for some, the first time they have ever visited such agricultural lands. More used to the restaurants and bars of the world’s most celebrated urban dwellings rather than the smells and sights of nature’s own breeding grounds. “Fish out of water” doesn’t even begin to accurately express the absurd appearance of the group.

The stinging, stinking, smell of effluence hits your straight out. It is intense, unrelenting and forces you to get used to it. There is no choice but to breaaaaathe it in with every gulp of air. Either you put up with it or… don’t breathe – simple.

We walk through and around our “fields”. The fruits of labour of 9 months of hard work from the team assembled on the farmland to carry-out the work funded and worryingly invested by four financial-industry-types looking for a new career direction. Hopes pinned on this farm acting as the beginning of their “agricultural empire”…haha..believe me, at the time, it didn’t sound as funny to us at it just read to you now.

It was 2009 – the aftermath of the financial crisis was in full-swing. The hatred towards the instigators and perpetrators played over and over again across the world’s oh-so-puritanical media. Job losses and austerity the repeating and fashionable themes. Re-possessions and bankruptcies the seeming norm for the have-nots. Champagne-lunches and caviar-laced amuse-bouches the consistent norm for the super-rich. Income disparity commencing its, still-on-going, widening. Dissent and anger at the tailors-of-doom of the crisis at its highest, with occupy Wall-Street and other mass protests beginning to gather pace.

What better way for a bunch of bankers to rid ourselves of feelings of emptiness and ridicule than to delve into the most basic and required of occupations? – farming. Dealing with the land. God’s land. Nature. Growth and replenishment. Nourishing millions and assisting the livelihoods of the many. Brilliant! Rather than living off other’s entrepreneurial flair and wealth creation, destroying long-built savings with evil-innovations of mathematical trickery, we would revert to the most basic and ethical of professions. What could possibly go wrong?

Abu Dhabi , a comfortable villa in a quiet neighbourhood - January 2010

The four self-proclaimed “hAy-Team” members (geddit?) sit around a meeting table discussing the move from banking to farming. For this purpose, they are relying on the skills and experience of an Abu Dhabi farmer, Falah we shall call him. We all sat patiently around the table listening to the impressive array of machinery and equipment that would be required to run the farm. It seemed like something out of a movie – so close to reality and the wonder of nature, and so in the hands of God. We prepare the land, we seed the land, we plant and nurture and then we sit back and wait for the glorious reward. Where was the catch??

We all trusted Falah-the-farmer. He seemed to know what to do. Not only make us a viable farm to supply animal feed to the UAE, but to send us on our way to honest hard-earned riches. Not those easy riches that the likes of Mitt Romney and others pay only 13.9% tax on. No carried interest here. Nooooo. Simply blood, sweat and tears to etch out of the fertile land that was placed before us.

Why Pakistan? Easy. Again…Just like we viewed everything in farming to be, we assumed it would all be so straightforward. Pakistan is close to the UAE (2 days transportation by barge), has great fertile ground, cheap labour and with a correctly associated military general here or there, security. What was the reality? With everything in get what you pay for. We paid very little. We got very little.

The headache started on Day 1. We didn’t realise the extent the land would need to be flattened and removed of rocks and other intrusive natural elements. We spent hours and hours on the phone, shouting at people that didn’t actually understand a word we were saying anyway. We may as well have been gesturing wildly on a silent Skype conversation. They must have thought we were mad. We thought they were mad. We tried to buy a tractor, it took four weeks just to arrange the purchase of a second-hand rust-bucket that honestly refused to work on any day ending in “y’”. What were we to do?

Four investment-banking minds ingeniously voted to bring in a trusted on-the-ground overseer. Easy enough to select a competent individual happy enough to sit on a farm for days-on-end surrounded by nothing but filth and more filth, right? Nope. Cue the endless discussions centred on the right type of fit. Would they kill him for being white and out of envy for showering every day? Would they kill him for being the wrong religion? Would they kill him….woah…was I hearing things correctly? The discussion was not “would they carry out his orders” but whether he would “survive” the first week of his new exciting employment with his internal organs INTACT! What had we gotten ourselves into!?

It was probably at this point we should have taken a moment to pause and ponder the situation we had found ourselves in. Let’s call it a “Wonder Years” moment – where Kevin has a pure objective ethereal perspective on his immediate life experiences, calmly commentating on the various lessons and life-affirming developments he is presently witnessing. If only we had sweetly deduced right there and then, that we had embarked upon a far more dangerous and volatile venture than we could handle – plenty of white hairs and sleepless nights would have been avoided. Shame real-life doesn’t mimic classic TV shows!

To be continued….