Hong Kong was magical. March of 1979. Exotic. Huge hotels along the waterfront. Me running along the bay, on the Kowloon side, in dark blue sweats, in the early morning. The Star Ferry crossing the bay between Hong Kong and Kowloon, amidst big ships, small junks, basking in the view of the peak.
I was in Hong Kong scoping out a transfer from Mexico City to Business International in Hong Kong. Most mornings I woke up early and ran two or three miles along the Hong Kong bay before showering and going into work at Business International’s Hong Kong office. Many of those days I woke up early enough to take the Star Ferry across the bay and run on that side, then take the ferry back.
I’d been there twice before, as a tour guide (that’s in my story elsewhere here: “1973: Around the World in 31 Days.” Hong Kong was a sensory explosion, the first time, a deep dive into a romantic Asia of movies and dreams, after the relatively tame and disappointing days in Japan. Exotic food smells in the streets. Neon light show at night. A bright shining star among cities.
This time, however, I was there to stay, in theory. Business International was transferring me there from Mexico City. I wanted that transfer badly. I’d worked towards it for two years, negotiating with the Latin America and the Asia group. Then I was there, at Business International’s expense, staying in a hotel, taking six weeks to work with the Hong Kong office, find an apartment, and prepare to move my family.
Intriguing as that scene might be, the real story here started the previous January, in the once-upon-a-time Berry family home at 23260 Eastbrook Ave., Los Altos, CA. I was along in the very early morning doing pushups in the streaming morning sunlight near big glass doors in the living room, when my dad walked in, in a bathrobe, carrying a cup of coffee.
I was up from Mexico City visiting there for two reasons: first, I needed another operation on my nasal polyps, and for that I wanted Dad’s friend Bill Baxter. Second, I was fed up with Mexico City, Business International, and business journalism. I interviewed with the three big San Francisco based banks hoping for a job in international banking. At dinner, the night before, I shared my disappointment: the best interview I had was a straight shooter man who told me I had little or no chance with my journalism background (not business) and without an MBA.
I stopped with the pushups when Dad sat down on the couch and plopped down a copy of the San Francisco Chronicle business page, indicating he wanted to talk with me. I treasured one-on-one talks with Dad.
He showed me that the lead story that day was about the skyrocketing starting salaries of Stanford MBAs. I was making about thirty five thousand dollars a year, working three jobs in journalism. Stanford MBAs were getting hired for $60, $70, even $100 thousand dollars a year, according to that story.
“Dad, I can’t possibly do that,” I said. I was grateful for the thought and made that clear; but it seemed impossible. “Married, three kids, I can’t go back to school.” And furthermore, the story said they were accepting only about one of every 25 applicants. And it was expensive. Stanford.
“I know, I know,” Dad said. “But just do me a favor. Do yourself a favor. Apply for it. What do you have to lose?”
I did apply. I drove over to Stanford that day, got the forms, and filled them in. Over the next few weeks, I did the essays and took the GMAT. I had Notre Dame and University of Oregon send my transcripts. I paid the application fee. But I didn’t have high hopes, because it was so hard to get into Stanford’s MBA program.
From Los Altos I traveled to New York, at Business International’s expense. They were good to me. They arranged business meetings in San Francisco so they could pay my airfare there for my operation. Then they flew me to New York for more business meetings. And I took those New York meetings as an opportunity to wrangle my transfer to Hong Kong, because we were sick of Mexico City. and I’d pretty much forgotten about the pending application to Stanford because acceptance seemed unlikely and the money seemed impossible.
The Hong Kong office wanted me. The work was similar to what I had in Mexico City, business journalism refocused on the information needs of large multinational corporations. I missed my fluidity in Mexico and years of acclimation, plus the language. I was invited to dinner in a would-be colleague’s high-rise apartment. It was small, cramped, unimpressive on the way up, but they did have a gorgeous view of the bay from the inside. I checked out apartments on the west side of the island, where more expats lived. I arranged to buy a used Honda Civic from a man who was being transferred out as I was transferred in. Another colleague invited me for a whole day out on the bay in the Chinese Junk he and his wife leased. We visited two small islands. It was indeed far, far away from Mexico City and the United States. I agreed to buy a used Honda Civic from a Business International expat who was getting a transfer out while I was coming in.
It took two or three weeks for the glamor to wear off. I had wanted the transfer badly, so it was hard to see the downside. But I did, eventually. It started with salary. Business International wasn’t offering me the luxury life of the corporate expat. It was going to be hard to find an apartment we’d like. The private schools were expensive. We wouldn’t have enough money to get off of the island with the kids. The sparkling beauty of it all became cloudy, humid, and oppressive. I was afraid I was making the wrong decision. In Mexico City we had the extended family, Vange’s mother helping with the kids, good times on weekends, and we knew the territory.
Towards the end of my Hong Kong stay, I lived with a persistent knot in my stomach. I’d painted myself into a corner, made a bad choice, and seemingly left no way back. To make matters worse, I was alone with my decisions. This was 1979. There were no cellphones, no Internet, no email, and phone calls even with calling cards were $2 and up per minute. I did not have the benefit of discussions with Vange. I could only guess what she’d want.
When I finally got back home to Mexico City, Vange had been holding a telegram from Stanford. I was accepted to start the next September, 1979.
And thus began a flurry of worry. Meetings, long discussions, lots of stress, all about Stanford vs. Hong Kong. The whole extended family in Mexico City cared and joined in the discussion. We were even invited to dinner at the home of Hans Krombacher, German, head of ITT in Mexico City, boss of Vange’s mother’s boss, the ultimate businessman. Krombacher said go to Hong Kong, get business experience; academia was useless. I asked Luis Orcy, my favorite mentor, US-Phd head of economic studies of the Mexican Central Bank, who said Stanford. The family was divided. Vange and I just didn’t know.
Money was a big deal. I had guessed right on the 1976 devaluation of the Mexican peso, and we’d bet on that by buying a buildable residential lot on long-term payments, in pesos. At the time we thought we were going to stay in Mexico City for decades. But with Stanford, we could also turn that win into about $30,000 of savings. We knew that wouldn’t last; but it could get us started. Once there, we thought, I could set part-time work. I was already working lots of part-time writing things (tourism brochures, advertising) in Mexico City. Maybe we could make it work.
It was particularly hard to not take Krombacher’s advice. I had tremendous respect for Eva, Vange’s mother; and she had tremendous respect for Krombacher. He’d taken ITT in Mexico from also-ran to major corporate player. Eva had watched as he did. She was secretary to his head of marketing, so she had an inside view.
Finally, it came down to two key moments. First, we decided that if Stanford gave us the married student housing on campus at Stanford, Escondido Village, we’d go. Escondido Village meant a two-bedroom two-story town house on campus for $245 per month. Aside from that special situation, rents in Palo Alto were astronomical. And Escondido Village was on the Stanford campus, in a complex made for Stanford families.
Second, it came down to an important moment, for me, with Vange. At the moment of truth, when we had to make a decision, she said: “Let’s take the risk for Stanford. That’s what you want. We’ll take the risk together, and if we fail, we’ll fail together.”
We got the housing. We said yes to Stanford and no to Business International and Hong Kong. We sold the lot. We really never looked back. As I write this, in 2022, 43 years later, I shudder to think of having ever consider Hong Kong instead of Stanford. We made the right choice.
By June of 1979 we left for Stanford driving our 1975 Rambler station wagon. The picture here below was taken during that driving trip. That was in San Diego, the day after we’d crossed the border into the United States.
A week later, in early July, we moved into 100C Escondido Village. We had a tiny two-story two-bedroom townhouse on campus at Stanford. My classes were walkable. The kids’ nursery school and elementary school were walkable. Stanford was paradise. Skies were blue instead of purple, everything seemed clean and bright, and we all loved those two years at Stanford.
August of 1979. Five cousins on the couch at Escondido Village. Vange’s sister Laura and her sons Raul and Rodrigo came up to visit several times while we lived there. This was their first visit.
I had to absorb anger from people in Business International. The guy whose car I was going to buy in Hong Kong was disappointed. Norman Wellen, CEO of Business International, called me to shout at me. “Why didn’t I tell them I’d applied at Stanford?”
“Because you wouldn’t have given me Hong Kong if you knew that?”
“But we spent money on your transfer.”
“You would do the same thing.”
Norman was furious. But the same week we moved into Escondido Village I started doing market research consulting for Creative Strategies International, in San Jose, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Business International. Norman didn’t block that. And five years later he asked me to become CEO of Creative Strategies International, when founder Larry Wells was threatening to quit. So he got over it.
I worked for Creative Strategies for three years and had a good time there. I kept up with some of the people in Business International, but never had any contact with the Hong Kong office again.
For the record, just a few years later, Krombacher killed himself by jumping out of an eighth floor window of the Waldorf Astoria. But that’s a different story. He was in a second marriage after dumping his wife of 30 years, and had business problems.