Sunday, 19 May 2013

Amber Forever – A Precious Lesson on Business Ethics

In the summer of 2003, I led a business delegation from Chambers of Commerce to Copenhagen Denmark. The entrepreneurs and small business owners enjoyed the interactions with their counterparts in Copenhagen. We also had regular orientation workshops, industry visits and other opportunities to understand doing business in Denmark.

During the weekends, the delegation also had an opportunity to explore Copenhagen and soak in the local culture, do a bit of sight seeing and shopping. During one of these explorations, our business people came across stores selling “Amber” stones. Amber is actually fossilized resin from ancient forests. During this process, it traps debris like seeds, leaves and insects. Amber stones with insects are considered very valuable. Amber sold in Denmark is considered highest quality and is approximately 30 – 90 million years old (source: internet)

All of them were naturally fascinated by its honey and bright orange (amber) colour and also curious about the insects trapped inside (see inset picture: Source: Wikipedia) Some of them wanted to buy and even enquired the price. Strangely, even after visiting several stores selling Amber, nobody actually purchased any thing. I thought to myself, maybe the price put them off.

On monday morning, when our host for the day wanted to know the experience of shopping in Copenhagen, few of the 'shoppers' were excited about the Amber shops. Our host acknowledged their excitement and wanted to know if any of the curious shoppers brought any Amber. The response came as a chorus from our delegation: “We did not buy, as we are not sure if the Amber sold in these shops are genuine” The host seemed to be taken aback by this 'genuine' question. He took his time to gain his composure then asked them another question: Where did you see the amber stones? The response was in “Amber Stores” Then the host shot back: “If the shop says it is selling Amber, it is selling Amber” From his Danish perspective, he could not even understand the reason behind such a question from our Indian guests. For us fakeness, corruption and mediocrity being the order of the day, it seemed a reasonable question. Whereas in the Nordic Countries that enjoy high level of integrity and transparency in all aspects of life, the question itself struck a jarring note.

Let's pause here a bit while I want to take you back to an incident that occured in “namma' Chennai during the famous Mango Season. Few of my German colleagues were visiting Chennai on a business trip and on their way to airport, asked me if I could get them some mangoes to take with them. I jumped at the opportunity to showcase our King of fruits and went to a fruit seller who had neatly packed “Export Only” cartons of Alphonso Mangoes. After usual haggling on the price, I chose a carton which had “Genuine Alphonso Mangoes” Export quality etc colourfully marked on the sides. I could not resist the temptation to take one more box of this export quality for my own consumption – after all why should only foreigners eat export quality mangoes?

After dropping them at the airport with the neatly packed mangoes duly delivered, I smiled all the way back impressed with my alacrity. My happiness was short lived. When I went home and unpacked the “Genuine Alphonso” cartons, there were only few rotten mangoes and the rest of the package was only paper stuffed in the shape of mangoes. Even the rotten mangoes looked like the local variety and not the colourful Alphonso mangoes advertised on the sides of the carton.

I felt terrible not just for the fact that I had been cheated by “genuine” mangoes but felt sorry for our German guests and what impression they would have when they discover the truth. Later I wrote an email apologizing for the incident.

To get back to the Amber story. It taught all of us a lesson that day of what it means to be truthful and genuine in business and in other walks of life. Of course, the delegates went back to the Amber stores and purchased them – a precious acquisiton - not just because it was 90 million years old, but because it taught them the importance of being genuine in transacting business.

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