On the road in Spain

What a beautiful and frustrating country! I'd read many articles about doing business in Europe and all agreed English is the spoken language in the business world. Not true in Spain. Many business executives do NOT speak English. Why? It was explained to me this way: During General Franco's long iron-fisted rule Spain was pretty much in isolation not dealing with outsiders. As a result, the generation of current executives never learned English. So, I had to deal with security people who didn't speak English, receptionists who didn't speak English, executive secretaries who didn't speak English and executives who didn't speak English. Combine that with the lousy Spanish postal service (many companies said they never received my advance material) and Spanish companies annoying habit of always keeping you waiting even when you have an appointment and it all equals a very disappointing experience.

Spanish people love to walk. Every city visited, old people, young people, families take walks. It didn't matter where they walked or what time of day: along boardwalks, up mountainsides, window shopping on retail streets or through garbage dump sites. It's the walkingist country I've encountered. Spain is big on dogs and many take their dogs on their walks. Unfortunately nobody seems to ever clean up the dog poop which makes it frustrating to sit on a bench and not be able to take a deep breathe without getting a whiff of some dog's doo-doo. I notice people in northern Spain are more prone to having German shepherds and in southern Spain it's poodles.

Vending machines in Spain are interesting in that most carry soft drinks and beer. Matter of fact, McDonald's serves beer here. From 12 noon to sometimes 4:30 PM many businesses shut down for lunch or siesta. Then again many work later until 7 or 8 PM before heading home.

Banco Bilbao Vizcaya SA

It's the middle of January, it's snowing and I'm at London's Heathrow airport waiting for the plane to be de-iced so we can get the heck out of here. Two hours later I land in Bilbao, a city of a half-million people in northern Spain. The temperature is currently 70 degrees. Great biking in the surrounding hillsides and mountains. Big things are happening on the downtown riverfront. The biggest being the nearly completed, titanium-clad, futuristic Guggenheim museum. This branch museum of New York City-based Guggenheim Foundation will house contemporary art and be the focal point of the redevelopment of the former industrial waterfront area. Many public buildings in Bilbao have machine gun totting police from various agencies (city, regional, federal) guarding the exteriors. Turns out, this part of Spain is home to ETA, the terrorist group, which wants to split off this area of Spain into a separate country.

In terms of assets (US$135 billion) it's Spain's third biggest bank, in terms of having the tallest building in Bilbao, Banco Bilbao Vizcaya (BBV) is number one. Built in the 1960's the 19-story glass and copper-colored clad structure with a plaza area out front isn't anything special. I speak to Managing Director Pedro Luis Vriarte's secretary and find they never received my advance material however, I'm in luck as Gregorio Egurbide, public relations, agrees to meet with me.

Though over 750 employees work here there's no cafeteria only vending machines. Senior management gets to park in the underground parking garage and smoking is allowed anywhere in the building. I can't see the managing director's office because of meetings but I do get a walk around the 18th floor, which houses the boardroom. The company's art collection is comprised of old Spanish masters. BBV has dual offices, here and in Madrid. Revenues in 1995 were US$11.5 billion.

Compania Sevillana de Electricidad, S.A.

Leaving Bilbao I followed the Spanish coastline west and then headed down through Portugal and eventually to beautiful Seville. With its Moorish architecture, orange tree lined wide streets and super climate it's a great place to be in the middle of winter. The impressive Cathedral of Seville, the world's largest gothic cathedral, holds center court in the city. I'm impressed by the city's infrastructure (new train & bus terminals, good roads) and expansive bike and pedestrian ways which resulted from Seville holding Expo 92 here.

One tends to forget how powerful Spain once was and there's no better indication of this than at the Sheraton hotel (which I spent several nights). Though the current king, Juan Carlos of Spain resides in the Royal Palace in Madrid, there's a very impressive royal palace here which he uses several times a year. Around the term of the century Spain hosted a world exposition in Seville. Though the exposition was located a measly five blocks from his magnificent palace, King Alphonso deemed it too far away and had a 150 room pad built only two blocks away from the exposition which I guess allowed him to be closer to the action. It's now the five star Sheraton Hotel and it's a beaut.

Several miles from downtown I find Sevillana de Electricidad's fortress-like six-story dark-glassed headquarters. Built in 1969, entry to the grounds is possible only after passing through a guard reception office and turnstile. Five security guards man the entry. After 10 minutes of calling around I'm told my advance material was never received. Never-the-less, Salvador Salazar Sandoval, head of corporate communications, says to come on in and he'll answer my questions. My bike isn't allowed on the grounds, I guess because they think it might have a bomb.

I'm really impressed with the extensive tour and warm reception extended by Sandoval. Sevillana de Electricidad, a utility company, has between 600-700 employees working here. The six conference rooms are named after company power plants. Work hours are from 8am to 2pm and 4pm to 6pm with lunch between 2pm and 4pm.

I count nine tombstones and two real plants in CEO Emilio Zurutuza Reigosa's office. His furnishings includes a pink sofa, light green carpet along with a 101 year old bound book on the company's foundation back in 1894. Framed on a wall hangs the company's first stock certificate from it's first stock offering back in 1895.

The wood paneled boardroom on the second floor seats 22 but I only count six chairs.

As I start to ride off on my bike a security guard runs after me. Turns out they want to have a picture for the company newsletter which means I get to bring my previously banned bike onto the premises.


On the road in Madrid

With three and a half million inhabitants Madrid is the third largest capital city in Europe after London and Paris (though I guess with Germany's capital moving from Bonn to Berlin it'll be fourth). I visited the royal palaces in Sweden, Denmark, Norway, The Netherlands and England but the Palacio Real in Madrid so far, has them all beat. Another impressive place to visit, the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum houses an unbelievable collection of artworks.

Union Electricia-Fenosa SA

Built in the 1960's, the 10-story head office of utility company Union Electricia-Fenosa looks dumpy from the outside and IS dumpy in the insides. I'm told they hadn't received my advance material sent to the two co-managing directors but I'm directed to a waiting room on the second floor and told to wait. This room with it's stained green carpet reeks from the stench of cigarette smoked in here through the years. It's been over an hour, my eyes are watering and I have a headache from the damn cigarette stench, which seems to be embedded in the walls, blinds and carpet. I decide this visit isn't worth waiting for as I make my way to the elevator and then out the front door.

Banco Central Hispanoamericano SA

Occupying a cluster of seven inter-connected buildings in the old town part of Madrid is Banco Hispano, Spain's fourth largest bank (1994 revenues $8.4 billion). This is the old financial district of town. One doesn't have to be a genius to figure out which of the buildings houses the executives: it's the ornate six-story structure built in 1919, which houses the main banking hall. The other company buildings are stuck behind or to the sides of the good-looking edifice (the outside of the structure is listed by the National Trust).

Though I'm told my advance material hadn't been received, Patricia Gutierrez Vallejo, assistant manager-press department, is more than accommodating in seeing me on such short notice. About 1,000 employees work in the various buildings. I can't see Chairman Jose Maria Amusategui de la Cierva's third floor middle office due to "security reasons" The boardroom on the third floor is very traditional (very bankerish) with a elongated antique table and three chandeliers overhead.

Vallejo says the bank probably has the best art collection in Spain and after seeing some of the works first hand and thumbing through a bank catalog of its contents it could easily be true. Limited to Spanish artists there're sculptures, tapestries from the 1500's, antique safe boxes, ceramics and porcelain from the 16th and 17th centuries and table top clocks from the 1700's. Then there are paintings by old masters such as El Greco and Juan de Sevilla plus of course works by Picasso.

Telefonica de Espana SA

Located in the old town part of Madrid, Telefonica de Espana's 14-story head office building stands out for two reasons. One, it's height (the next tallest building in the area is about half as tall). Two, its design--built in 1927 it's art deco look is definitely out of the ordinary here. Turns out, the architect was an American, the well-known Louis Sullivan (built buildings in Chicago and New York).

With 1995 revenues of US$14 billion, Telefonica was originally founded in 1924 by ITT. It was later nationalized and today, the Spanish government still owns 20%.

Javier Vidal Ragout, corporate communications, answers my questions. My first, why is entrance on the side instead of the through the grand looking doors on the front? Turns out most of the first floor and part of the second is occupied by a company telephone and art museum-who's entrance isn't through the front doors either but through a side door on the opposite side of the building.

Hours of work are from 9am to 8pm with a lunch break between 3pm and 5pm. There isn't a cafeteria or executive dining rooms. Smoking is allowed anywhere (the two security guards and receptionist were puffing away in the lobby) and there's a numbered 13th floor in the elevators. For "security reasons" I can't see managing director German Ancochea Soto's ninth floor office but Ragout says he has a corner office and a view of the nearby Royal palace. The boardroom has wood paneling and no windows.

Before leaving I mosey over to the company's two museums. The telephone museum, put together in timeline fashion, is very well done and the company's art collection limited to Spanish artists and Modern, includes works by Pablo Picasso, Juan Gris, Luis Fernandez and Eduardo Chillida.

Banco Santander SA

When riding through northern Spain I passed through the city of Santander (population 200,000) and stopped to visit the head office of Banco Santander, Spain's largest bank. The five-story, turn-of-the century edifice with its ornate iron grill out front along with eight statues atop is a real beaut. Trouble is, Santander is only where the company is registered--the head office is in Madrid. Having visited over a 100 banks I've learned this is a common occurrence. The banks like people to think they've kept their "roots" in the small towns where they began but in fact they have dual offices with executives spending 95% of their time in the big financial center office. The security guard/receptionist called up the Madrid office and puts me on the phone with David Gutierrzol, chief of staff to general director Ana Patricia Botin. Gutierrzol confirms the Santander office being where the company was registered but executives worked out of Madrid. I told Gutierrzol I was making my way to Madrid and would be there in about a month.

The widest and grandest street running through Madrid, Paseo de la Castellana, is THE street to have a head office. Twenty years ago many of the banks and other prominent companies left the old town area and moved into fancy high-rise office buildings on Paseo de la Castellana. Many of Madrid's ritziest hotels also grace the tree-lined avenue. It's on this street where I find Banco Santander's offices.

Banks and government buildings have extensive security in Madrid primarily because of the bombings, killings and kidnappings by the ETA terrorist group. Banco Santander has security guards outside patrolling and my bike isn't even allowed on the grounds. Turns out this isn't where CEO Emilio Botin hangs his hat but in a unmarked glass building several doors down.

I try for four days to contact Gutierrzol but every time it's another excuse such as he's in a meeting or out of town. I'm told he'll leave a message at my hotel but he never does. It's a definite run-around. I find out later in the week, it might have something to do with CEO Emilio Botin being named in a recent Forbes article as Spain's wealthiest person, with a fortune estimated at $1.6 billion. Company revenues in 1995 were US$12.8billion.


Also on prestigious Paseo del la Castellana and a few blocks down from Banco Santander sits Argentaria's beautiful yellow building with its massive black iron railing fence enclosing the building and grounds. The turn-of-the-century structure looks to have been former palace or grand residence at one time. On the third attempt to visit, Iím told by a public relations person, via the lobby phone that part of the government-owned bank is to be privatized shortly and "it's a bad time to visit".


Still on Paseo de la Castellana but several miles up the road from the banks I finally find a company in Spain which received my advance material: Repsol. The big oil, gas and chemical concern with 1995 revenues of US$20.8 billion is Spain's second largest company and still 10% owned by the government.

The four-story black glassed building has a sinister Darth Vader-look to it and upon walking into the place I'm immediately struck by how cold it is in the lobby and I mean that literally. Two receptionists sitting behind the counter are bundled up in full length winter coats and I count three portable heaters going full blast. Though it's late January and it's cold outside there's no reason for this bone chilling cold inside. Maybe the Repsol didn't pay its fuel bill?

On being led to Emilio Obregon Saracho's office, head of corporate communication, I find the cold weather culprit: after passing through the lobby metal detector I pass through a large OPEN air atrium. Though he thinks his English isnít up to snuff and has a translator come in his office to help out, it really isn't necessary because nice guy Saracho does a great job.

The company leases the building and has been here since 1987 when it was built. Over 1,000 employees work inside yet, there's no company cafeteria only vending machines. Work hours are from 8am-5pm and there's enough parking for everyone.

I can't see Chairman & CEO Oscar Fanjul's fourth floor corner office because he's in a meeting. What's the CEO's view? Well, directly across the street is the practice field for the Real Madrid soccer team and Fanjul has a birdseye view. So? Being from the USA where soccer ranks somewhere with field hockey and bowling I admit to knowing nothing about the sport. I'm quickly informed that Real Madrid is probably the #1soccer team in Europe. Saracho says on practice days, one can see dozens of women fans/groupies? hanging outside the entrance. Checking out the boardroom I find orange leather chairs surrounding the oval-shaped boardroom table and though there's nothing on the walls such as paintings or portraits of past CEO's. I do however count 11 mineral rocks place around the room. Either the company likes orange or else they got a special deal on orange furniture because the 150 seats in the company auditorium are also orange.

Before leaving Fanjul confides they were uneasy about my pending visit because they weren't sure what to expect.


Several other companies visited in Madrid where I was told my advance material wasn't received and no one had time for me were Cristtaleria Espanol and Empressa Nacional de Electricdad. Except for Repsol, every company I walked into in Madrid either the receptionist and or security guards were puffing away on cigarettes. How bad is smoking in Spain? You know how upon walking into furniture store or expensive clothing boutique it has that smell of new? Well forget it here because no place is exempt employees and customers smoking not even supermarkets, banks or post offices.

Gas Natural SDG SA

What a lousy reception at government-controlled Gas Natural SDG in Barcelona. I enter the four-story turn-of-the-century building on a downtown shopping mall and the non-English speaking security guard directs me across the lobby to the investor relations department. A woman in the department goes and makes several calls, returns and says they hadn't received my advance material and no one was available to talk to me. Being the persistent guy I am I try to get her to check with other department but evidently someone in her department calls security and a guard walks in and points for me to leave the building.