“A column about little things that are deceptively similar, yet decisively different. Read and be prepared.”
When the boss is NOT!
“How-ya-go-in’” I* say for the twenty-third time today. It’s necessary because, as the manager here, I have to remind each employee that I respect them. To just walk by without greeting one would be insulting to them. They would think I am a rude, arrogant ex-South African (actually they would neglect to add the ‘ex’ prefix), upon which they would tell their mates and then productivity would become markedly lacking.
I know this to be true only by default combined with bitter experience. The first time I noticed was when my foreman, Jim, didn’t talk to me, which I found strange because if he doesn’t talk to me he can’t possibly know what needs to be done – a fact I had made clear to him just the day before. By way of clarification, let me explain that the factory I had purchased had only twenty-three people, of which at any given time five are ‘on the road’ so to speak (out selling, I hope, but who knows if they are surfing some days), so the other seventeen take their instructions from Jim, who gets them from me. Well, after all I do own the place. And that’s how I’ve always operated in South Africa.
While on the subject of ownership, be careful when you buy a business here. Most businesses carry an inflated ‘market value’. That is due to the fact that ‘market value’ is based on a formula derived from annual profit and an ‘earnings multiple’. Now the earnings multiple is a mystical number that relates to a specific industry, usually based on the average price of listed companies’ stock in that industry, divided by their earnings per share for the last year. But to make matters worse, or better if you’re the seller, in private companies, directors’ remuneration is added back to profits before applying the multiple. So is depreciation. This means you might be buying your own salary for the next two to five years if you’re not careful; besides being stuck with old technology.
But don’t try explaining that to your Aussie business broker (the person mediating the sale of the business you’re interested in) because they don’t do the books or accounts, do they? In any case, if you don’t want the business at that price, there’s always someone else who does, especially now that buying a business is the most popular way for SA migrants to obtain residency visas. Uncertain as it may be for the first three years, persistence seems to have paid off for most of us who took the pain.
Back to Jim: It was only day two of week one and I’m perplexed because I don’t know what I’ve done to offend. So, in typical South African fashion, I call him aside and ask Jim. That’s when I discover what they really think of us: “Me and the boys think you’re too direct… rude and…arrogant!” he tells me in his most refined Queensland dialect.
Wow, I am left wondering how it’s possible for two cultures that look alike and speak the same language (well, almost) to interpret things so differently. It took me a lot of weeks and hundreds of ‘How-ya-go-ins’ to work it out, but it eventually dawned on me that I am the impostor here and I should be thankful for the lesson in cultural adaptation. It matters not whether I own the shop or sweep the floor. In Australia we are all equal. You can’t tell people what to do. It’s way better to ask! Now that’s different!
* This was based on a true story, but disguised to protect the innocent; and the guilty.