Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Delhi Trials and Triumphs

American Airlines’ Philip Lewin had to first learn what to expect and then to be surprised when he moved to Delhi. But becoming more Indian is something he has accepted — more or less

Published: Apr 15, 2010 07:05:28 AM IST
Updated: Apr 15, 2010 07:26:49 AM IST
Delhi Trials and Triumphs
Image: Madhu Kapparat for Forbes India
Philip Lewin, Country Manager- India, American Airlines

Life is about the richness of the experiences you can pack into it. For me having the opportunity to work and live in a variety of different cultures and environments is an essential part of that. As a kid I have lived in Romania, Bulgaria, Seychelles and Switzerland. But so far, I had spent my career in the US and Europe and wanted to take a role outside Europe. So when my company asked me if I would like to move to India as country manager, I jumped at the opportunity.

I had come to India before in 1990 and I remember the noise, colour, charming chaos and the frustrating experiences at the airport. My wife had never been here before and I had to really sell the idea to her.

We took time to carefully research what we were getting ourselves into. We tried to build as strong an image as we possibly could of what we could expect both in terms of the positives and some of the more challenging aspects. We came to India on a four-day fam [familiarisation] trip. This was very important for my wife — it made the difference between India as a theoretical place and India as a real place.

After the trip we had the option of going back to Switzerland and saying this won’t work. So we drove around Delhi. We looked at different apartments, got a sense of the standards of living, met with people we got to know at the US embassy and visited international schools. We were quite impressed with the range of apartments we saw.

I moved first, living in a hotel for two or three months. I was going through a steep learning curve, trying to understand the business and the operations here and the people involved. But I also had to get some basics in place before my family arrived. One day I found myself interviewing prospective maids in this maid agency office in Chanakya Puri. It was surreal. This was totally different from interviewing someone for a professional position at work where everyone comes with a certain background.

We have had our odd challenges on the way like unreliable water supply. When we moved into this apartment we knew that there was no water mains connection and we would need water tankers. What we didn’t know is that there would be so many stakeholders involved in ensuring that we got the tankers supply – the maid, guards, building manager, building owner, the water company! Our guard would monitor our water tank and alert us if our water supply is short. We would tell our maid who would talk to the chap who ran our building and he would then organise our water supply. There were times when the communications chain broke down, water didn’t arrive on time and the tank was empty. It would get a little frustrating.

We have a lovely apartment. But things do go wrong quite easily and quite quickly. The basic quality of fitting out and finessing of apartments here is probably not as high. Things kind of wobble a bit sooner, bulbs blow out. But we manage it very well. We did an annual maintenance agreement with a company called Formula One. When anything goes wrong in our apartment, we call them and they came and fix it in 24 hours.

My children came from a very protected environment. We lived in a lovely village outside Zurich. This is their entry on to the world stage, so to speak. Life is kind of laid bare in India. On a typical journey to school, you’ll pass by cows and you’ll see beggars. They felt quite shocked when they first saw all this. But now they are quite nonchalant.

My wife and children have got a completely packed schedule of activities — Bollywood dancing, horse-riding, tennis, the list goes on. Here we get to do lots of things that we wouldn’t ever be able to do in Europe or even afford to because of lack of time or cost. Where else could you rent an elephant for your daughter’s birthday party, for instance?

The work environment here is very different. When employees in relatively junior positions are forced to take a call that they may not feel comfortable doing themselves, there is a cultural tendency to go up the chain to somebody at a greater level of authority.
We probably have a more serious working environment here than what we have elsewhere.

In Europe, you have a lot of chit chat in the office. You never had a sense of different kind of rankings within the hierarchy. People here are a lot more careful about who they laugh and joke with and what they say. There just tends to be a much greater respect for different levels within the hierarchy. When I came up to somebody’s desk, they would stand up. It was a bit strange for me. The challenge for me is to be me or allowing myself to be me. I like to walk around the office and laugh and joke with people. I try to make sure that I go to people rather than summoning them to me. My own way of working is different from hierarchical style — it took a while for people to get comfortable with that.

I often have what I call ‘Indian moments’: When I am at the airport I usually grab a coffee — a small AmericanO — from the Café Coffee Day in Arrivals. The other day I went up to the coffee stand and asked for it. The guy said, “Unfortunately, today we have just large-sized cups. I can only sell you a large coffee.” I said, “Surely you can put a small coffee in a large cup.” He said that his system wouldn’t allow that. It took me insisting that he call his manager, followed by a three to four minute internal discussion for him to relent and eventually sell me a small coffee in a big cup — I often have to challenge, push and not accept things at face value to get what I want.
I haggle for things more than I did before. I often take autos around my neighbourhood or on longer trips like from Old Delhi to Vasant Vihar. When they quote a high price, I walk away and go to another auto driver. I keep doing that till I get the price I want. Sometimes I call somebody and ask, “I am standing by an auto right now and he is charging me Rs. 200 from Old Delhi to Vasant Vihar. What do you think?”

I roll a lot more with the punches now with some aspects of day to day life. When I am in traffic jams for instance. Or getting used to the fact that public spaces here are not as well maintained as in Europe. You just get used to it and accept it. It all kind of blends into the background.

In that sense I have become Indian — I don’t always like it, but it is what it is. That’s one of the things in my acclimatisation. And it’s a small price to pay for a truly incredible experience — in the most positive sense of the word!

(As told to Neelima Mahajan-Bansal)


(This story appears in the 16 April, 2010 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)