Friday, December 12, 2014

37. WATER 3


Clair and I jetted to Geneva on other business.  

While strolling the promenade along Lake Lemann, two ideas struck me.  The first dealt with the old League of Nations building, which, derelict for many years, was finally being renovated to become Centre d’Environment.  

As such, it might provide an ideal setting for our water project.  (Herbert had already determined that he wanted a European address for our venture “to internationalize it.”)  

The second idea dealt with a name for our water business.  Inspiration struck when I contemplated Geneva’s Jetto, the landmark fountain that shoots water three hundred yards straight up into the air.  

Jeatteau International.

Clair and I gobbled steamed dumplings inside the Noga Hilton’s Chinese restaurant, Tse Yang, with a view of the Jetto.  Toasting our new name and address, we composed a jocular letter to Herbert, back and forth, about “pollution busters” and “saving the caviar,” each adding a phrase to complete the other’s thought, laughing our heads off.

We’d already deduced that Herbert was erratic—which meant he was custom-made for our L.Q. 

It was during this trip that we inadvertently found ourselves with Prince Albert of Monaco, at his invitation, in his clock tower office.  We told him about our water project with Herbert and asked if he would like to play a role.  “Of course,” replied the Prince.

At our next meeting in New York, Herbert introduced a new character named Andre into the mix.  Herbert was vague about what Andre’s role would be; later, I discovered that Andre was himself puzzled about what Herbert expected him to contribute.

By now, Clair and I sensed that Herbert operated not by instinct but by impulse.  The simple reality was that Herbert had no real plan; this venture would evolve whimsically—the ready, fire, aim approach.  

Rather than question or object to this management style, we simply deferred to whatever bout of whimsy Herbert displayed during five meetings through the summer.  (Clair was a great believer in putting in an appearance, even if it had to be contrived, because it meant face-time and continuity.  Without that, a busy, important client might easily forget about you.)

In early autumn, six months after we’d begun, it was becoming clear that Herbert might never, as promised, identify a business manager to spearhead our water enterprise.

Joy had moved to Israel, on Herbert’s retainer, to study water projects in the Middle East, and Andre turned up in Tel Aviv, where Joy became spooked by his incessant e-mails to her.

With this insanity going on around us, I decided to choose my own business manager, and posited this to Herbert in late October.

“Sure,” he shrugged.  “I’ve been waiting for you to suggest that.  Bring him to see me.”

Enter Alan, marketing background, good with numbers, very sharp.  Not a water expert, but no matter.   I recruited him over a latte at Starbucks.

Two weeks later, Clair and I introduced Alan to Herbertville.

Herbert put Alan on retainer.

We needed an office to anchor Alan.  Herbert instructed us to find one.

Alan and I toured office accommodations in the Washington area and settled on a three-room suite above Sutton Place Gourmet on New Mexico Avenue—space once occupied, poetically, by The Circus.

Alan wrote an invoice to cover everything and we Fedexed it to Herbertville.  The funds—over one hundred thousand dollars—arrived by wire next day.

Alan went to work, and we soon learned that water, as a subject, is as dry as the Aral Sea.  

A whole industry already functioned to save diseased rivers and lakes throughout the world.  Know-how and technology was available.  However, most countries were unwilling to swallow the building and operating costs of such technology, preferring to pour their money into weapons and ammunition. 

Heads of government did not wish to pay to clean the water, preferring that the World Bank pay to study the problem and then pay even more to fix it with humanitarian aid coming from elsewhere.

Joy soon became aggressive, trying to undermine our efforts while promoting her own agenda.  Apparently, she was not happy as an Israel-based consultant.  She felt she deserved to run the whole shebang.  To this end, she maneuvered herself around Herbertville, plunging a knife into Alan’s back at every opportunity.

When I informed Clair, he simply sighed, “It’s the history of the world.”

We responded by cutting Joy out of the loop, and no longer routed our findings and plans to her.  When she called, we listened to her whining and fed her generalities.  Then Herbert unwittingly came to our rescue, decreeing at a meeting attended by all of us that Joy stick to the Middle Eastern philanthropic side of things and stay out of our commercial operation.

After two months of intensive, diligent study, Alan identified a commercial opportunity for breaking into the water industry.  He drafted a detailed business plan.  Alan and I shuttled to New York to present it to Herbert.

Enter Dick, newly appointed “financial chief-of-staff” to Herbert.

Herbertville felt tense, this trip, as if Herbert’s erraticism had given way to power plays.

Alan and I, and Clair, stumbled into a cutthroat no-man’s-land that appeared to exist with Herbert’s blessing, if not outright encouragement.  The hostile bickering jutted through the surface like an iceberg.  But rather than be embarrassed by it, Herbert seemed to relish such infighting; after all, his minions were fighting for his attention.

A smarmy sort from Herbert’s office was brought forth to meet us, and he acted like we were applying for jobs.  Arms folded (defensive body language) he asked each of us, “So what is your qualification in water?”

When he got to me, I returned his smarmy smile with my own and pointed to Herbert.  “I’m his partner.”

It was a dispiriting experience, and especially unfair to Alan, who had worked hard, putting in long hours to harness what evolved into a brilliant plan to enter the water industry and overnight become a formidable entity at a relatively low entrance fee.

The ax fell soon after, wielded by the soft-spoken Dick, who arrived in Washington with a charter to neuter Herbert’s penchant for creating new companies at whim.  

That was how Dick explained it to Alan:

“We’re looking for 30-40 percent returns on risky ventures.”  Dick pointed out that the water industry operated at lower margins, about twenty-five percent.

Of course, our water project had been borne out of Herbert’s idealistic streak, not as a money-spinning enterprise. As Herbert early on told the spymaster and me, “This isn’t about selling a product.  I can make money selling soap flakes.  This is much more important.”

Dick graciously told Alan that Herbert would honor his two-year retainer and that Alan could use the pre-paid office to develop new projects for himself.

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