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Inside Brazilian TanneryInterior of a Cow Leather Factory in North Brazil
Photo Credit: Otavio Araujo Blogspot

When I began working at Italbras Leather Producer & Exporter Ltd.,* I did not think that I would survive the three-month probationary period. My body had a hard time adapting to waking at 4:00 a.m. After oversleeping one morning during the first week on the job, I started waking every hour to check the time. The stress took its toll. Before my probationary period ended, I had suffered two bouts of the flu.

Never before had I worked in such a noisy office environment. The Export Manager, her assistant, and I shared a spacious, open office with the Industrial Director (a paulista from the State of São Paulo) and his two production assistants, and the Import Manager. We occupied the top floor of a three-story building constructed within the leather factory. Half-walls of glass gave us a view of the factory floor.

The incessant rumbles of giant, rotating drums, blended with the cacophony of other machinery, disrupted my concentration. The constant movement and chatter of factory staff compounded my distress.

The company’s two cultures presented a graver challenge. The one-year-old company was a Brazilian-Italian joint-venture. The Italians provided the machinery and technology for finishing cow leather for upholstery. The Brazilian meat processing group, based in São Paulo, supplied the hides. The ‘wet blue’ tanned hides used at Italbras were tanned at another location.

In addition to being part of the export team and working under the watchful eye of the Industrial Director, I had to answer directly to two external bosses. Mr. Leonelli,* the Italian Commercial Director, supervised my control of payment receipts from overseas clients. For my control of export financing through Foreign Exchange Contracts (Contratos de Câmbio de Exportação), I worked closely with the Brazilian Finance Director in São Paulo.

Every three months, Mr. Leonelli—with whom the Export Manager maintained daily contact by phone—visited our factory in Cascavel, Ceará. Our first encounter was a disaster. I had committed some grave error in handling the account for our major American client. He had a fit. In a loud, agitated voice, he reprimanded me—in Italian.

Everyone tuned in to witness my public whipping. Seated still and attentive, I kept my eyes on him. When his tirade ended, I asked the Export Manager, fluent in Italian and English, to interpret what had just transpired. Knowledge of Italian was not a prerequisite for my post, but it became clear that I would need to learn the language.

I never got used to his verbal outbursts in Italian. Inevitably, in spite of my diligence, mistakes did occur. In assuming responsibility for my mistakes, acting on his criticisms about my work, understanding his vision of our goals, and learning new ways of handling a task or problem, I succeeded in establishing a productive, professional relationship with him.

Over time, I came to appreciate Mr. Leonelli’s excellence as a global commercial executive. Under his tutelage, I became a ‘top grain’ international trade professional.

* Fictitious name