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Frenemies

Hackie

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It was five minutes past the scheduled pickup time, and I was worried. I should have pinned this down earlier when I took the call, I thought, castigating myself as I sat idling in front of Hotel Vermont on Burlington’s Cherry Street. The customer had been unclear about the name of his hotel, and I hadn’t pushed him on it.

Hotel Vermont is new, but no longer brand spanking new — so I couldn’t hang my hat on that excuse. I was simply confused about the two hotels sitting side by side. The original one was a Marriott, but wasn’t Hotel Vermont a Marriott, as well, and owned by the same guy? To make matters worse, my customer was named Joaquim Takahasha, throwing a wrench in my go-to ethnic profiling if I were to get out of the cab and search for him in the lobby. Was the dude Latino or Japanese? As a veteran cabbie, I was chagrined to find myself in this situation. I didn’t even have a cell number for him.

I abandoned my post at Hotel Vermont and tried the circular driveway of the next-door Marriott. An Asian man was standing just outside the entrance, suitcase at his side.

“Sorry I’m a little late,” I said, leaving it at that. When you screw up, I’ve come to learn, the customer couldn’t care less about the reason: Everything after “sorry” just sounds like an excuse.

“Don’t worry about it,” Joaquim said as, on my offer, he climbed into the shotgun seat. For the life of me, I couldn’t place the man’s accent. It wasn’t Japanese, that much I could tell. “I don’t want to be late getting to the resort, though,” he added. “There’s a meet-and-greet happening before dinner.”

I was taking Joaquim to a business conference at the Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe. I recalled driving another man to this same conference last year, and he had been a heavy hitter. So it seemed this annual gathering attracted leader types, the corporate officers with the “C” acronyms, as in CEOs, CFOs and COOs. In other words, the “chiefs.”

“You have quite the unusual name,” I said as we made our way up toward the highway. “I bet you get that a lot.”

“I do,” he replied, and his chuckle let me know my inveterate talkativeness was not going to be a problem. “My heritage is Japanese, but I’ve spent my whole life in Brazil. My grandparents migrated there when my father was a child, escaping dire poverty at the time. I don’t think it’s widely known, but Brazil has the largest Japanese community outside of Japan.”

“Really? I didn’t realize that. Anyway, that certainly explains your name. I gather your parents wanted you to have a typical Brazilian first name.”

“Exactly. This was the classic immigrant thinking. I never even learned Japanese. And all my schooling was in Portuguese.”

“First time attending this conference?” I asked.

“No, I was here last year, too. I find it quite valuable, and that’s why I make the time. It explores bringing the techniques of mindfulness to managing large organizations.”

“What’s your company?”

“The company I work for acts as the clearinghouse for all the financial institutions of Brazil. It’s incredibly complex, as you could imagine. And we’re expanding rapidly, as well, tracking our country’s dynamic economy.”

“My head is swimming just thinking about it,” I said, and I wasn’t kidding. When my monthly checking statement arrives, I require mood stabilizers. “So what’s your position in the corporate structure?”

“Oh, I’m the CEO.”

The man was humble — I could tell by his demeanor, the tone of his voice. I got the sense he wouldn’t even have mentioned his title if I hadn’t asked. Something else motivated this guy, something beyond ambition and public acclaim.

“So, mindfulness, huh? Stuff like meditation?”

“Yes, exactly. More and more, these so-called Eastern practices are being brought to bear on large organizations like mine. I’ve instituted a number of mindfulness techniques in my own company.” He paused for a surprisingly hearty laugh. “I know I drive a lot of my people crazy, but that’s OK.”

“I bet they dread your return from a conference like this. I mean, all charged up with new ideas.”

“I suppose they do,” he said, chuckling.

“And your board of directors goes along with you on this stuff? It must be a progressive bunch.”

“To tell you the truth, I don’t even bring it up with them. Here is where, in a certain way, big business is very fair — as long as my bottom line meets or exceeds expectations, they really don’t care how I manage.”

“Could you give me an example of your philosophy in action?”

“OK … do you know how in every meeting there’s inevitably a person who — how do you say it? — pushes all your buttons? Well, I coach my team to be grateful for such people. We actually have exercises to instill this value. It’s something I learned from the Dalai Lama when I was invited to a talk he gave to a roomful of business executives. He said that we should be thankful for our enemies, because an enemy is more helpful than a friend. A friend won’t challenge you, because they love you and support you. An enemy has no such qualms, and that’s how we become better people and more effective at our jobs.”

“And sometimes your best enemy is your wife,” I suggested.

Joaquim laughed, saying, “Oh, yes — the very best enemy!”

As we approached the Trapp Family Lodge, the trees were alive with color, the hillsides glowing in the early evening sunset. Joaquim said softly, “I think I know why the Trapp family came to settle in Vermont. The land here is very charged with energy. These mountains are something special. Do you know what I mean?”

I glanced over to meet the warm and open eyes of this impeccably dressed, high-powered CEO. This was not some aging hippie or New Ager voicing these sentiments. The world is changing.

“I know just what you mean,” I said. “These mountains drew me here as well.”

Hackie is a twice-monthly column that can also be read on sevendaysvt.com. To reach Jernigan Pontiac, email hackie@sevendaysvt.com.

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