Businessweek Archives

Play It Again, Irving


Letter From Casablanca

PLAY IT AGAIN, IRVING

It's Irving Press's first day on the job, and he's standing outside the Casablanca Sheraton Hotel, waiting to be picked up. He scans the sunbaked boulevard where horse-drawn delivery carts rattle past high-rise office buildings and billboards in Arabic script. "Wow!" he says. "This is a different experience."

Press, 63, a former New York garment company executive, retired to Florida three years ago. Retirement was fine for a while, "but I got tired talking about medical problems," he says. "I said to myself: I gotta get out of here." So Press did what thousands of other retired American managers have done: He volunteered for a retiree work corps in a developing country, to share a lifetime of expertise. He'll spend two months in Casablanca, helping a Moroccan garmentmaker cut costs on children's clothes it exports to France.

Along with Egypt and Sri Lanka, Morocco has one of the biggest of these groups, with some 25 volunteers a year--although Eastern Europe is coming on strong. The programs are run by International Executive Service Corps in Stamford, Conn., which has 13,000 potential volunteers waiting in a data bank to be matched with foreign requests. Volunteers say they like keeping their minds at work, seeing a foreign culture close up, and doing some good in the bargain.

Tag along with 72-year-old Roland Brassard, and the payoff quickly becomes clear. The retired Boston textile executive is spending two months at a sprawling textile, clothing, and mattress factory in Casablanca's dusty suburbs. He's having the time of his life.

"Look at that," says the tall, white-haired Brassard. He stops at a ground-floor weaving room, where a loom has halted so that workers can replace a spent cone of yarn with a new one. "If they tied the end of the yarn to a new cone, they wouldn't have to stop," he says. "The extra output would equal eight looms instead of six." Brassard intends to set up a model loom, with several such innovations and more modern maintenance techniques. Except for some outdated Russian looms, the mill's equipment is first-rate, he says, but it is not being maintained properly.

Upstairs in this concrete complex, 97 women in yellow uniforms sit at sewing machines, making jogging suits for export to the U.S. and Europe. Brassard frowns. "They're facing the wrong way," he says. Not only is daylight glaring in their faces--instead of shining over their shoulders as it should be--the operators are facing their supervisor. "When they see him leave, they slow down," he says. "These are small points, but they're important." Brassard's eyes gleam. "It may sound crazy," he says, "but solving these problems stirs me." It must: Brassard has done 10 volunteer stints, mostly in Latin America.

CULTURE SHOCK. These post-retirement foreign work programs don't always pan out. In Morocco, some 25% of volunteers fail to accomplish their missions, figures Dimitri Barton, a retired San Francisco real estate investor who runs the country's program. Culture shock is one culprit, he says. Other times, the organization's headquarters picks a volunteer whose skills don't quite match the need. More often, he says, "Moroccans expect us to wave a wand and produce miracles."

One new volunteer in Morocco, Frank Schiller, has quickly hit against that problem. Schiller is a retired senior vice-president of Arrowhead Springs, a Los Angeles bottled-water company. He has come to Morocco on a 10-day job, to study the feasibility of bottling spring water in the Atlas Mountains. Schiller has learned that local authorities expected him to plan the entire project, from building a plant all the way down to such details as designing a bottle and label. And they dreamed of a high-speed bottling facility from which they could export to the Middle East--until Schiller explained to them the $50 million cost.

But Schiller isn't discouraged. "I think I've opened their eyes," he says. He is proposing a modest $3 million bottling plant to begin production gradually. Whether his hosts buy his proposals or not, he is having a great time. "I had tea with the provincial governor in his summer palace," Schiller exclaims, obviously pleased as punch. "The local pasha put on a feast. It's not like being a tourist. You really meet the locals."

The Moroccan program has lots of success stories. Over the years, three volunteers have worked for the country's biggest cookiemaker, Bimo. They have passed on such critical Yankee knowhow as freezing chocolate chips so they don't melt while being baked into cookies.

At Brassard's textile factory, managers say they're delighted with the advice they're getting. When his tour of duty ends, Brassard has promised to keep the ideas coming by phone and mail. And the textile company owners want him to return for a follow-up in six months or so.

That's proof they see a payoff--since host companies must pay for the volunteers. Their services cost $6,000 for the first month and $3,000 for each subsequent month. The U.S. government's foreign aid program picks up the rest of the bill, which will run $10.4 million for five years.

One of the program's goals is helping Moroccan companies find new export markets in the U.S. Volunteers have lined up American buyers for $11 million worth of Moroccan olives and olive oil over the past two years. Currently, they're helping boost exports of pottery, Berber jewelry, and other crafts. Such products have been shipped abroad in small quantities up until now; work corps volunteers are finding customers for containerloads.

WINDING DOWN. The American retirees get no pay. But all their travel costs are covered, and they get a per diem allowance for hotels and food. In Casablanca, per diem is $130 a day, which volunteers say cover living costs, but just barely. Spouses' expenses are paid for stints that last longer than one month. Most spouses go along, and many teach English in local schools. Volunteers usually get by with English or use an interpreter. Textile expert Brassard, born in Montreal, speaks French.

Now, Casablanca's workday has ended, and Irving Press has returned from his baptism as a volunteer. Since it's an alternate Tuesday, he has gone to the 12th floor of the Sheraton, where the hotel throws a biweekly cocktail party for long-term residents, including all of the American corps volunteers.

"You should see this place," Press tells Brassard. "Every item goes from one worker straight to the next, so the slow ones pace the fast ones." He sips a gin-and-tonic. "And they cut loose threads off the clothes by hand--with scissors. I couldn't believe it. If they had fuzzers, they could eliminate six workers." Three years after retirement, Irv Press is back in harness.STEWART TOY


Toyota's Hydrogen Man
LIMITED-TIME OFFER SUBSCRIBE NOW
 
blog comments powered by Disqus