World Savvy: Never burn a bridge

I always liked the Brinks — Paul, Jeff and Greg. More than 20 years ago, when I opened a Minneapolis office for Euramerica, an Ogilvy Advertising-owned language management and international advertising firm, the Brinks didn’t disparage me, but rather welcomed me to town. Why? Now there would be two firms in town with the same marketing mantra: You have to pay extra for professional language services, more than you would pay a freelancer.

Together we raised the professional bar, though we constantly competed. They won some, and we won some. Sometimes with firms such as Allen-Bradley, we even did work together, as one division would use one of us, and another Allen-Bradley division would use the other.

The Brink-run firms eventually became Merrill Brink, part of the Merrill Corporation publishing empire. As is often the case after an acquisition, the acquiring firm went in a direction the principals of the acquired firm wanted to follow. There is a lot of that. In the 20 years I have been in the business, I estimate there have been some 300 mergers, acquisitions and combinations of language service firms of one sort or another. The former president of Euramerica once told me that former Euramerica employees had gone to or started 51 separate companies. is one of them. He himself had started four at last count.

Look at my former firm Euramerica. It was bought by Ogilvy and then sold to Berlitz. Berlitz was acquired by Bowne, and Bowne was acquired by Lionbridge. Did I get all that right? I am hard-pressed to think of even one person in our space who has stayed with the same firm he or she started with. If you are one of these Ripley’s Believe-It-or-Not individuals, please let me know!

Back to the narrative. So five years after the acquisition, with the expiration of the non-compete, the new firm BGS euroscript has entered the US market with Jeff and Greg as principals. This is a joint venture between the Brinks (Brink Global Solutions) and euroscript International, a top-ten ranked language service provider (LSP) based in Luxembourg. Over a recent coffee with me, Jeff said of his return: “It’s sort of like the mafia. Once you are part of the family, you cannot leave.” Hey, we could use that approach: “Let me make you a quote you can’t refuse!”

Then he tried to be more intellectual about it: “The language service industry holds you like a strong gravitational force. Once you are in the LSP orbit, it’s difficult to break free from the gravitational pull. I tried moving to another solar system, but was eventually drawn back to language service.”

The larger lesson of all this coming, going and returning is that even if you think you’re gone for good, you cannot burn any bridges. Burning bridges is an American English expression playing on the imagery of destroying the pathway between you and another person, synonymous to the point of no return when a relationship becomes irreparable.

The Brinks have found that many of the people they met over the years want to talk to them if not work with them again. Jeff explains that “we have been on airplanes virtually every week since early this year with face-to-face meetings — all over the United States and Europe. Although we are technology savvy, we subscribe to the theory that there is no substitution for personal contact.” By contrast, just think of how many corporate websites exist where no person’s name appears. You’re supposed to just call or e-mail the company and “someone” will be in touch with you.

There was a little bit of déjà vu that Jeff said he found upon his return — the personal approach and the dynamics of the business hasn’t changed. “Time stood still. After being gone, I was surprised at how little had changed within the industry. Technology is evolving slowly, and few companies employ large in-house staffs or linguists. Most LSPs still use the same 4,000 freelancers and operate with a cottage mentality.”

This really is a small industry, one where you might have been competing with someone you could in a short time be working with — a veritable merry-go-round. As with just about anywhere, the deadlines, wanting to do a good job, going for a promotion, cutting costs, quarterly reviews and whether you get a bonus or not lead to a lot of stress. But the message still comes out loud and clear: never burn a bridge. Although at the end of the job you might really want to tell someone whom you had been working with off, that person might be part of your professional life again. If you left that person on less than pleasant terms, you will prejudice further work and indeed cooperation.

OK, I might sound too professorial and above the fray, so I must admit that I did have it out once with a former employee. He then put a note on our boss’s desk, which read “Could you please tell Mr. Freivalds to stop threatening my life?” All I did, really, was threaten to throw him out the window for not giving me a timely quote for an important project I was working on. But what was the big deal? It was only out the seventh floor of a much taller high-rise office building.

A friend of mine once told me, “What goes around comes around. Don’t fret. The opportunity will come to pay back that individual in kind.” That happened a few years ago to someone I once heard about. He sold his firm to a much larger one, made a lot of money in so doing, lived through the non-compete years and then decided to reenter the language service industry. The trouble was that he had so angered his former customers and employees, bribed and tried to blackmail customers, sexually harassed female employees, mistreated if not cheated vendors, that when he came back no one wanted to do business with or even work for him.

And in today’s cyber and social media world all this is truer than ever. It is not world savvy to burn a bridge. For example, just a couple of months ago I got an e-mail from a woman who lives in the Philippines and spotted me on Facebook. She wanted to reestablish a professional relationship with me after apparently enjoying what I said in a speech I gave in Manila in 1983, a mere 28 years ago!