A Different World

It would not be exactly a news flash to say that the banking world of the 1990s is a vastly different world than that of the 1950s. The differences are gigantic: banks cover the whole country and count their deposits in billions, computers sit on desks or are carried home and have capacities greater than roomfuls of computers of the 1960s, and products are so innovative they make the physical bank almost obsolete. For some of us, the pace of change is a little frightening.

In a way, I guess that’s why I’m glad I’m out of it now after 42 years of private and public sector banking and regulation. It’s a young person’s game these days. By the time I retired from the Resolution Trust Corporation in December 1993, my skills were not of much use, even in the community banking arena, where I spent my private sector career. But an interesting thing has happened. I found that the skills I had accumulated, although they were out of date in this country, could be useful somewhere else.

Just before I retired from FDIC/RTC, I answered an ad asking for bankers to go to Romania to work on marketing programs for a private bank there. The ad was run by Citizens Democracy Corps, a Washington, D.C.-based agency started by President Bush to send American businessmen to eastern bloc and former Russian states to share their expertise and experience.

In short order, I took leave without pay and flew to Cluj-Napoca, Romania for two months. I spoke no Romanian and had no training or preparation for the assignmentu00e2u20ac”just a six-page fax that covered the scope of work. The scope of work turned out to be nowhere near what I wound up doing. I spent three days in Bucharest learning important things like the Romanian national anthem, taking a tour of the city (still scarred from the uprising), and learning Romanian words that would be useful. Then I endured a five-hour, hair-raising ride across Romania into the mountains of Transylvaniau00e2u20ac”and my new home. Very soon, I began teaching American banking and marketing through a well-qualified translator.

While I was there, I got to see Dracula’s Castle near Brasov and had dinner in the King of the gypsies’ house in Sibiu. The students were wonderful peopleu00e2u20ac”eager, intelligent, and very hospitable. It was a remarkable beginning to my volunteer world.

It was a year before CDC called me again, this time to teach marketing in Warsaw for two months. My wife, Donna, came too, and we spent a wonderful summer there. With a Pole-rail pass, we could visit Berlin, Gdansk, Szczecin, Kracow, Zacopane, and lots of little towns in between.

In Warsaw I was lucky to have a great companion, Bob Stahl from Winnetka, Illinois, my old home town. We had some wicked changes in our assignment but both wound up teaching relationship banking to staff members of BIG Bank in Warsaw. One problem was that they would never give us more than three students at a time, and it got pretty boring. Plus, I had a translator who would get ahead of me periodically. I would give a short message and wait for him to translate. After a few weeks, I noticed he was getting longer and longer explanations of my remarks. I would stop, look at him and say, “Go ahead, tell them.” He would grin and say, “I already did.” He actually knew the material as well as we did by the end of our stay.

Warsaw was a delight in the summer with music everywhere. Donna, a music teacher and wonderful pianist, especially loved it with open air Chopin piano concerts, string quartets in old castles, and the opera in a gorgeous 2,000 seat house. We still miss those summer experiences.

Shortly after, I was asked to go to Petrozavodsk, Russia to teach 23 bankers from the Central Bank of Russia. Luckily, my fellow teacher, Gene Bradvold from Minnesota, was as innovative as I was. We were only there for 10 days, but after the second day, a matronly student named Olga told my translator I was the first American she had ever seen. She was from Olmsk, Siberia; apparently no Americans had been that far east. Later, the class took us to the island of Kizi on Lake Onaga on our weekend, and on the boat Olga came over, announced that Americans really weren’t all bad, and kissed me soundly in front of the assembled class. That really broke the ice. The farewell dinner at the end of the week featured numerous traditional toasts, all with appropriate amounts of vodka. I was asked to dance and did, despite my protestations. Later Gene told me: “Willett, you glided across the floor like water!” Vodka will do that to you.

Next I traveled to Kampala, Uganda to construct a training manual for branches of a co-op bank. Kampala is a city of one million people with one stoplight. Traffic, needless to say, was a mess. This one-month assignment ended up being more work than the other assignments put together. I toured many of the bank’s branches, crossing the whole country from east to west. The branches were using methods and procedures I remembered from the 1960s. The most advanced machinery was an old NCR postronic posting machine that had to be 25 years old. Several of the branches had nothing but hand-posted ledgers, as electric power was sporadic at best. The bank was extremely labor intensive and the pay was unbelievably low, but the staff seemed cheerful and happy just to have work.

In retrospect, though it was a lot of work, I may have done more good in that bank than in all the others. Simple solutions were available to speed up procedures. There was no incentive to cut staff, (personnel was far cheaper than machinery), but it was necessary to speed up some of the systems, which we did.

Despite the work and the working conditions of these volunteer projects, there are some incredible side benefits during these excursions. Once, I got to participate in an unforgettable weekend safari in Queen Elizabeth National Park. Seeing wild animals up close was an eye opener, in spite of all the “National Geographic” specials I had seen. At an outside dinner on the first night of the safari, I looked over and said, “That’s a hyena two tables away!” And it was. It had smelled food and had come to investigate but left when it saw so many people. And earlier that year, I had taken a trip to Egypt and had visited Cairo and seen the Nile Delta where it empties into the Mediterranean. While I was in Africa, I got a chance to visit the park where the Nile begins, flowing out of Lake Victoria. So I saw the beginning and the end of that great river in the same year.

The next project was the weirdest of all. I was asked to go to Khabarovsk, in the Russian Far East, to work with a small private bank. I was met at the airport and went through the usual briefing, city tour, and language course. I noticed, though, that the staging period was going on quite a bit longer than I expected. The assignment was to last only one month, and after 10 days, I was still just doing odd jobs. It was obvious that something was wrong. Finally, the regional director confided that they couldn’t find the banker. In Russia, that is not an unusual occurrence. He was at a loss as what he, or I, should do, but he suggested we wait a few more days. (That wasn’t hard to do, since Air Alaska only flew out of Khabarovsk once a week.) Unfortunately, it was March, and there was still some bitter weather, snow, and ice left over from the rough winter, so there wasn’t much outdoor life. Finally, since the banker was still missing, I took the Air Alaska flight home, but promised to come back later if there was a need.

So it was that in June, I returned, this time with my Warsaw friend Bob Stahl. The Russian banker was back, well and happy, and had been in Moscow fighting the bureaucrats. There was never any real explanation about his earlier disappearance, but as everyone seemed satisfied, I didn’t complain. The bank we were to help was in Yuzhno-Sakhalin, a two-hour flight from Khabarovsk on a nightmare airplane ride that bucked and bounced across the mountainous countryside. Bob and I spent two days with the bank president and the accountant, trying to decipher the bank’s financial statements. Assets listed on their balance sheet turned out to be claims on the government that were just wishful thinking. After two days, we were convinced that unless the government lived up to some promises it had made, the bank was not only insolvent, but illiquid as well. On the heels of that happy news, which was no real surprise to the banker, we flew back to Khabarovsk.

This past summer offered another assignment, again in the Russian Far East, and this time it was for both my wife and me. I had one banking project in Komsomolsk, 250 miles north of Khabarovsk, for two weeks while Donna stayed in Khabarovsk to work with the Children’s Musical Group and to work with English teachers. I spent my two weeks setting up personnel policies from one of my old personnel books from the 1970s era, which really fit the bank. Again, I had a talented translator who was the key to my rapport with the management and staff. We had birthday parties for staff members, a party at a dacha outside town, and a nice farewell party, complete with toastsu00e2u20ac”although this time it was cognac.

In Vladivostok, we worked on projects that were involved with increasing tourism, both incoming and outgoing. We worked first with the Vladivostok State University for Economics and Service and their student-run travel agency Vladintour, then with Primorpogranservice Travel Agency. (Our first suggestion was to shorten its name.) Travel agencies in Russia are far different than in the U.Su00e2u20ac”for one, they can’t write airline tickets.

Vladivostok is a unique city and has been open to visitors only since 1992. It is the home of the Russian Pacific Fleet and has several critical military bases, so it has been closed to visitors, even Russians, for years. The city is highly political, and the territory governor and city mayor never agree on anything, so the municipality gets little support from Moscow. Its infrastructure is very poor. Power shortages, lack of water of any kindu00e2u20ac”let alone hot wateru00e2u20ac”and roads that have potholes bigger than the cars that drive over them, are the norm. There are almost daily demonstrations at the Central Square on the waterfront, where the old Soviet flag flies as a symbol of the unrest. Through it all, though, many of the people simply shrug and say: “But that’s Vladivostok!”

Our last project was in Magadan, a city on the Sea of Okhotsk, which defies easy description. It was founded in the 1930s as a place where prisoners sent from Western Russia could be processed and assigned to the prison mine systems. The area is full of gold, silver, and even uranium, all of which were mined by cheap labor: prisoners. Millions passed through Magadanu00e2u20ac”and millions died in the labor camps.

Today, Magadan is trying to live down its seamy past and offers gold mining to tourists as part of its bid for tourism. I panned for gold, found a few flakes, and promptly lost them when I put them in my handkerchief and later, forgetting my riches, blew my nose and also my fortune.

To say that these experiences are for every banker would be a mistake. There are moments, many moments, when you question your sanity for accepting these assignments. The organizations are not perfect, the projects are often considerably different than promised, the accommodations are only adequate, and language, food, and bathrooms all pose unique problems to be overcome. But volunteering adds a dimension to life that is invaluable; a feeling of being useful, of contributing and finding your skills are of benefit to others. There is a great deal of satisfaction in knowing that you have extended a hand to people and to institutions that are struggling desperately to cope with a new and different world.

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