Not everyone gets to be in the middle of an authoritarian regime change as a foreigner, but I did. The crisis we see as the state of Venezuela didn’t always look like it does today. I was there as the page turned.
In 1998, OPEC (The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) was reaping the benefits of a pre-dotcom bubble expansion that was driving every economy on the planet. Nearly 25 years earlier, Venezuela had nationalized their oil and gas operations by forming a state-owned company known as Petroleos de Venezuela, or PDVSA for short. There were four vertically integrated subsidiaries that had been created out of the foreign-owned interests to create some internal competition in the country. This structure worked well until the late 1990s when the duplicate structures were no longer cost-effective. PDVSA wanted to achieve some economies of scale.
In December 1998, Hugo Chavez was elected President. He took office in February 1999. Chavez represented a new wave of Venezuelan politics that put an end to the 40-year reign of the Punto Fijo Pact, and began his so-called Bolivarian Revolution that continues today under Maduro.
It was into this situation that I had arrived the year before.
The "T-BIRD" STORY
I graduated from Thunderbird in 1975, and started to work in the oil and gas industry. My second language was Spanish, and I looked forward to living and working in Latin America. It took two years until I landed my first oil and gas job in Venezuela, after a posting in Egypt. I grew a strong love for the country of Venezuela and its people. After a few years I was transferred, but I always ached to return.
Some years later in 1997, after years of working elsewhere, I returned to Caracas, Venezuela. I had accepted a position as Senior Manager Consultant with the Arthur D Little consultancy, specializing in oil and gas. I was excited to be back in the country that had beckoned to me for some time. I was assigned as the Lead Consultant for a project within this realignment of the PDVSA. The project sought to create a Shared Services structure for 12,000 employees who were no longer needed in the new PDVSA structure. The existing employment laws prohibited layoffs so the Shared Services entity became necessary. In this role, I had an office at the PDVSA headquarters in Caracas. I also had access to PDVSA senior management and I reported directly to the President of the Shared Services entity.
When Hugo Chavezwas elected, you could sense the seismic shifts about to occur. In May 1999, my boss at ADL called me into her office. She had been the Minister of Finance under the previous president, Rafael Caldera, and she understood the political storm approaching. She told me that Chavez, upon hearing that a North American had an office at PDVSA, grew very angry and said in no uncertain terms, “Get that American out of my country.” He further stated that he did not have to keep the 12,000 people employed under Venezuelan law.
Not wanting to test the limits of a new authoritarian leader, I packed my bags and returned to the US in early June 1999. Sometime later, he fired 18,000 people from PDVSA, many of which were the 12,000 people I was trying to reorganize during my 18 months in Venezuela. "Chávez took office in February 1999. During his first year in office, his approval rating reached 80 percent"
Not everyone gets the chance to receive a direct mandate from the supreme leader of a country to leave their country, so I guess I checked that rare item off my bucket list. Once I arrived back in the US, I reflected on the experience and thought about what I learned and how informative the situation was. I thought about the people who were fired in a difficult job environment and how my position was so rapidly taken away from me - the situation proved to influence my next career move.
My role as Senior Manager Consultant at ADL in Caracas included mentoring and coaching junior ADL consultants. During my time there I had received many positive comments about my abilities in this area.
So back in the US, I began to look into additional training and certification for management and executive coaching. And after a brief stint with Arthur D Little in the US, I opened my coaching practice in 2002, where I am today. I also work with people in job transition.
Venezuela will never really leave me and I’ll always be connected at some level.
Before I left, I had filed my Venezuelan tax returns and was due about $3,000 USD in refunds. I have not seen this refund, nor is it likely to arrive in my mailbox.
About Jess Dods ‘75
After graduating from Thunderbird in 1975, Jess Dods has worked all across the world with companies like Arthur D Little, Exxon Mobil and Tenneco Gas. His global experience has led him to create an executive coaching practice aimed at helping high achievers take their careers to the next level. His focus on leadership development, executive and management coaching and job search assistance allow him to work with individuals from all over the world. He has worked with many TBirds to date in this capacity. You can read more about his work atwww.jessdodscoaching.comor email him email@example.com