Kelm, Orlando R. 2011. “Breathe Pure Chile: Teaching about the Cultural Differences in International Business.” Global Business Languages 16:83-99.
Company: Breathe Pure Chile
Businesses that serve a function in society that is little known from the general population are always interesting. A good example of this is air purification technology that is used in the perishable products industry. We seldom think about the effects of molds and bacteria on the fruits, vegetables, or meats that are transported in cold storage rooms from the processing areas to their final destinations. The cold chain industry works best, in a sense, when nobody is thinking about it.
Of course this implies that somebody has to be thinking about it, such as the employees of Breathe Pure, a clean air technology company. Although a casual description does not do justice to the technical nature of the business, their basic procedure is to create reactive oxygen species (ROS), a process of modifying oxygen molecules, which oxidizes and destroys airborne carbon-based molds and bacteria.
From a business standpoint, Breathe Pure began as an incubator idea by students from the University of California at Berkeley who were studying the potential of various emerging technologies in 2004. Quite by coincidence, as these students were making a presentation of their business and internationalization plan, a visitor was present at the exhibition and who decided to acquire the technology and invest in the project. Today Breathe Pure has its global headquarters in Boston, with its Chilean offices in Santiago.
Ernesto Arocha is the company’s South America Business Manager of the Cold Chain Solutions division, reporting to the COO at the home offices in Boston. Ernesto has been with the company ever since its inception and he vividly recalls the initial meetings. There was a lot to organize in order to create the infrastructure, including the identification of clients, and the transfer of technology and know-how. They were intense times. The founders knew that they wanted to include Chile into their design. From its reversed growing seasons with respect to the United States to its economic stability, Chile was attractive from the very beginning. Today Ernesto has to keep a “world clock,” as he is continually talking to people all over the world in either sales meetings or conference calls. And this is where the cultural side of things is evident. As he puts it, “I have to implement the commercial and operative aspects of the company in Chile and this implies understanding Chilean culture. But I also communicate this back to the Americans who are part of the company, and that implies understanding North American culture.”
For example, Ernesto often meets with potential clients in Chile, many of whom are wealthy landowners who live in smaller cities outside of Santiago. “They really don’t like phony young executives who wear suits just to impress people with their big city looks,” Ernesto observes. So he is careful to not give the impression that he is somehow better then they are. He purposely changes the way that he dresses when he goes on these visits. The clients live in the campo and they really don’t like it when you dress like a gringo. However he is also quick to observe that this is not to imply that these people are not professional or not educated. In fact, he has worked with a man who earned his MBA in Florida, and had a Ph.D. But when he returned to Chile, he preferred to run his business in a more traditional Chilean way. “When I visited him at his finca he showed me around for three hours. We were scheduled to meet at 8:00 am, but we really got started around 9:30. Then we toured around the finca for three hours.” Ernesto likes the fact that these people do things their way. It does not matter that their education was in the U.S. They adapt their education and know-how to local situations. Similarly, Ernesto had another appointment where he drove nearly three hours to get to the meeting site. When he arrived, the other person had forgotten about the meeting and nobody was there. However for Ernesto, “It was no big deal, no problem, he just forgot.” Ernesto realizes that his client was an important man, and in the countryside things were just a bit more informal. And if they are less formal, Ernesto has learned to be the same way with them as well.
The challenge for Ernesto is to move from that type of scenario to other situations where he works with North Americans, who have their own working style. For example, observing how much Ernesto has learned from his American colleagues’ use of agendas, he says, “They are spectacular! It sounds simple, but at the beginning of a meeting they will write the agenda items on a white board and then they follow all of the points in order, one by one.” He was recently at a meeting where he suggested that a given point be added to the agenda. His American partner did so, but he put it as the fifth and final item on the agenda. Then his American colleague went back to the original four items that were scheduled for the meeting. “After discussing our original four items, we then moved on to address the fifth. It was,” Ernesto quips, “spectacular!” He is also quick to add that if a similar scenario happens among Chileans, the general tendency is that everyone would have started talking about that new point and everyone would have been diverted from their agenda.
As to other adjustments that Ernesto has learned from his American partners, none is greater than their style of negotiating. First of all, he has noticed that Americans even use the word “negotiate” much more than Chileans do. Chileans think of the word “negotiate” as an ugly word, so euphemisms are used to avoid saying it. Americans directly say, “I am negotiating with you.” or “We want to negotiate these five points.” Chileans just do not talk like that. Another American characteristic, according to Ernesto, is the American tendency to say, “I want to work with you.” Americans are much more experienced in the concept of collaboration, in understanding one another’s bottom line, or in working towards a win/win situation. “Some Chileans just think that Americans are naïve to be so open about what they are negotiating, but I believe they are just good at putting things on the table. Chileans seem to still negotiate by feeling and there is a reticence to revealing too much too quickly.”
Another area where Ernesto has learned to adjust to North Americans is related to their management styles. He has seen, for example, that Americans want a lot in writing. They like written reports and memos. They love to be informed about everything and so you have to write to them a lot. Ernesto also finds himself spending a lot of time reading what they have written. “Here in Chile, it’s a little different in that if your superior says something, even if it is said informally, you have to do it.” With the Americans, however, casual oral comments are just that: casual oral comments. If not written down, there is much less of an expectation that something has to be followed up on. “I like this because it takes some of the guesswork out of the process,” he adds. In Chile he finds that you are always second-guessing, going with a feeling because things are less specific. In fact, Ernesto believes that Chileans almost take the opposite approach; they do not trust the written word. For example, Chileans sign every page of a contract. “It’s as if people don’t trust others and everyone expects another person to go and change something on a certain page of a contract.” Americans, on the other hand, just sign the final page of a contract. Another adjustment Ernesto had to make in negotiations with Americans is the presence of lawyers. The truth is that many of the American partners in the company are lawyers, so one gets used to having lawyers at negotiating sessions. In Chile there is still a negative association that lawyers mean problems. The attitude is more that of trying to keep away from them as long as possible.
Finally, Ernesto has learned a lot about what he calls “American efficiency.” He has noticed a small example – the different ways that Americans and Chileans consider lunch. “I’ve been in a lot of meetings with North Americans when they show me a small menu from which we order some sandwiches. Then ten minutes later the food arrives at the office.” Americans like to order out and have their lunch delivered because it helps them keep the rhythm of work flowing. In Chile the tendency is to go to a restaurant, meaning that one has to stop the workflow, spend the extra time in traveling and dining. It just “eats” up all the time before getting back to the office again. It is also one of the reasons why Ernesto thinks that Americans are better at leaving work at the end of the day. “Here in Chile we linger longer, where everything the Americans do allows them to be more effective.”
One gets a positive feel from Ernesto’s description of work at Breathe Pure. There is an interesting blend of modern technology, a sensitivity to the environment, a mixture of Chilean and American culture, and a pride among the over 40 employees that work there. One final question remains. How do Chileans pronounce the name of the company? “We just use the English pronunciation because here in Chile we associate American products with high quality.” But Ernesto also admits that sometimes people come out with some pretty interesting versions of Spanish sounding things like “bre-a-ta-pu-re.”