Saturday, December 19, 2009

Dutch or not Dutch

Douwe_Egberts_koffie_kop Every morning, I start my day with a steaming cup of rich, dark Douwe Egberts coffee, made in a battered press coffeepot. (Or, as my Italian friend puts it, that coffee-flavored tea that the Dutch seem to prefer).   I take small bags as gifts back to the US with me, along with stroopwafel and chocolate, it’s the bit of the Netherlands that people in the US seem to enjoy most.

On this trip back to the US, I sat next to an auditor with the Sara Lee corporation.  The company is a giant in baked goods headquartered where I grew up in Deerfield IL.  Talk turned to the Netherlands, it turns out that they have their European HQ outside Utrecht, and we talked a bit about the Vecht area nearby.

I wondered how Sara Lee prospered given Dutch tastes in baked goods; everyone heads around the corner the the bakkerij rather than to the frozen food section of the local AH.  He admitted that Sara Lee can’t sell baked goods in the Netherlands, instead they concentrate on beverages and personal care items.

Such as Douwe Egberts.

Oh, yes, he continued, we’ve owned it for years.  The only other place we’ve had success with coffee is in supplying Dunkin’ Donuts in the US.

Worse and worse: my beloved Douwe Egberts is really Dunkin’ Donuts coffee in a red bag?

No, no, we kept the local blend and there’s no crossover between the two.  The Dutch coffee is still the local, if not completely traditional, blend.

It turns out that Sara Lee manages a surprising number of products that I would have thought where wholly Dutch: Senseo coffee (I thought it was Philips), Pickwick teas (I thought were British), Sanex lotions.

I’m feeling very conglometerized today…

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Having, and getting, the proper papers

Security:    Boarding pass and identification please.

My passport is gone, left with my UK Tier 1 Visa application back in the Chicago.  No matter, I smile and hand the agent my Dutch residency card.  It’s all in being confident, as though I did this every day.

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Reflecting back, the final act of the application process was anticlimatic: I never even visited British embassy at the white Wrigley Building along the Chicago River.  Rather, I visited a well secured immigration facility on South Pulaski, amidst rail yards and warehouses, to have my biometrics taken by the US government.  Then a short hop to meet the expeditor, A.Briggs, on Jackson St; he thumbed through the exhibits and pronounced it complete.

The UK visa application process is an exercise in avoiding mistakes rather than in doing things right.  I can’t imagine getting it right without help, and First Migration’s stamp has the added benefit that someone the examiner knows and trusts has already done the hard work.  Hopefully, he has confidence passing me through the process when he has a recognized firm’s imprint, adherence to a standard format, and a cover presentation indexed to regulations.

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Te agent Security turns over the card slowly, squints at the baby-pink plastic.

Security:    What is this?

The Netherlands, government-issued residency card.

The agent shines a UV lamp on it, creating a lovely purple glow, but revealing nothing.

Security:    This card expired November 1 .

True, IND hasn’t given me the new card yet although my application has been approved.  

I smile and give a copy of my US Drivers License, made before the Dutch exchanged.

Security:    I need a supervisor.

It’s dawning on me that I no longer have Government-Issued ID of any sort.

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The UK application process cost significantly more than the equivalent Dutch process.  In the Netherlands, I paid €1000 for the support person, €400 for the application fee (it’s recently been raised to €700 now, and about €100 for document fees: €1500 total.  The UK permit was £550 for the preparation, $200 for the expeditor, $1200 for the application fee, and about €400 euro for document preparation fees from accountants and banks: maybe €2000 in all.

On the other hand, the UK permit is good for 3 years and the Dutch must be renewed annually, so the lifetime costs may be closer.

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A truly huge agent ambles over and sorts through my array of worthless government-issue cards and copies.

Security:    Major credit card?

I hand over my American Express Gold with Delta SkyMiles benefit but no photo

Security:    All set, thank you.

I slink though, feeling like a player in one of the old Amex commercials, “Do you know me?”

Nobody knows me until they seen The Card.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Sights around the town

  The days are turning colder, –4C in Brussels last night, snow expected around Maastricht. 
  It’s a festive time to be out, even though it’s with hands shoved deep into pockets and chin tucked beneath a scarf .  Shop owners are opting for edgier window displays this year: it certainly grabs attention even when I can’t be sure what they are selling.
My favorite is the New Year’s woman, unwrapped like a bottle of fine champagne complete with twist-tie at the back of the dress, and her weird albino-lingerie harem.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

…and the Brussels Christmas Market

The flight from Brussels departs at 10 am, not enough time to take the express in from Maastricht, even with the new high-speed link.  One of the big downtown hotels was having a special, though, so I slipped over the night before.  I arrived in time to take a quick walk through the central Market, unique in it’s way as all of the others before it.

The Brussels Market weaves across the city center, neither confined to a public square, nor distributed across venues. The path through the market is highlighted with street decorations, so it’s easy to find the way along it.

The main venues are the Town Hall and the Ice Rink, capping the two ends of the street walk.  The Town Hall display is a wonder: a continuous light show synchronized to opera and rock music piped over the square.City Hall Christmas The Ice Rink has most of the vendor’s stalls and the skywheel, several blocks of light and color.

 

The main differences in Brussels are that the food is higher class (foie gras, truffles, cured sausage. and escargot) and there are more causes (lots of political organizations and, strangely, a venue celebrating Mongolian culture).

The fun continues everywhere until January 2, and more pictures are posted at Facebook and on my Flickr site.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The 10% Rule

One of the most famous aphorisms in projects is the 80-20 rule (Pareto’s Principle): it says that the last 20% of any project will take 80% of the time and effort.  Getting things right and complete is hard, and there are legendary “Death Marches” to product release that engineering veterans tell over hot drinks on cold nights.

A related maxim is knowing when 80% is good enough.  Many times, in brainstorming, feature definitions, or negotiations if you get 80% of what’s there to get, 80% agreement among participants, you should be satisfied and not waste increasing effort and resources on diminishing returns.

I’m putting together a fireside talk for business students in Cambridge: they’ve asked me to recount some real-world experiences and advice for those moving beyond the business plan to actually implement their funded ideas.  It should be fun, a chance to reflect on what’s happened the past year as well as to get some ideas of how I might have done things better.

As I make my notes, I’m surprised at how often 10%, not 80%, recurs.  Maybe it’s the magic number for researchers and entrepreneurs.

  • In budgeting, always leave “10% for the arts”, slack in the budget for creative product / process improvement.
  • In market planning, there  needs to be at least a 10% diagnostic incidence or therapeutic improvement to make the project worth doing.
  • Set aside 10% of your time for training: keeping up with your field and learning new techniques.
  • In almost all medical capital equipment businesses, 10% of revenues flow to the bottom line.
  • 10% of customers will be early adopters of any new product idea.
  • Pay yourself 10% of every paycheck, first.
  • Exceptional performers perform among the top 10% of all employees or students.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Aachen Christmas Market

Aachen Chrsitmas Market 01

I was going to make my annual trip to the Koln Christmas Markets this weekend: my parents wanted some German stollen, the kids collect the Gluhwein cups, and it was a good excuse to enjoy the city at it’s most festive.  But a friend suggested that I could get all of the same benefits closer to home by giving the Aachen Market a try, 20 minutes drive rather than an hour away from Maastricht.

Aachen Chrsitmas Market 06Aachen Chrsitmas Market 12

The Market did, indeed, turn out to be wonderful, about twice as large as Maastricht’s and with more of the traditional German booths for crafts, foods, and gifts.  The thundering big gingerbread men are a bit intimidating and the crowds are dense in spots, but it is a proper Market with lots to enjoy.

The Market occupies the squares on both sides of the Town Hall, curling around the building right and left.  There’s free parking about 10 minutes walk away, and a 2-euro shuttle bus if your feet give out (or you have too much eierpunsch). The nearby streets are festive as well, and offer quieter places sit and talk. 

The Market was happily bustling and easy to navigate if I was willing to stroll a bit.  Compared to Koln, there were more sausage vendors and stalls for the city’s unique cookies and liqueurs, which gave a nice regional flavor to things. Aachen Chrsitmas Market 07 I was especially charmed by a warm goat’s milk (Eifelmilch) with honey liqueur (Bear Fang?) that would be perfect before nodding off to bed on a winter’s night.

I picked up a couple of 2 kg stollen logs, lovely with powdered sugar and fruits, some of the  traditional cookies made with anise. 

Aachen Chrsitmas Market 09Aachen Chrsitmas Market 10DSC09312DSC09266DSC09270DSC09276 DSC09295DSC09299