Latest Import to Argentina: Fast-Paced US Work Culture

It takes only a little while in Argentina's sunny capital to understand why its people so vehemently protest the country's economic transformation.

Exports are soaring, but as local companies increasingly link up with multinational corporations, a cherished slow-paced business culture is on its way out.

In downtown Buenos Aires, the three-hour beefy lunches followed by siestas once indulged in by businesspeople are long gone. Jokes about the "typical Argentine company" - where ghost-like employees were paid to roam office corridors and secretaries covered for their bosses while they were lying out in the pampas sun - are now common.

"We had executives who had been twiddling their thumbs for years," said Gerry Palfeneer, an American who coordinated the $209 million buyout of Terrabusi, a local biscuit company, by US food giant Nabisco in 1995. Nabisco needed to shake things up, he explains: "Because of nepotism, many top managers had been carrying out functions that they simply weren't capable of. We had to demote a lot of those people."

While many Argentines are outraged that work increasingly encroaches on family life, others see the change as healthy. But for better or worse, the pace of work is changing for factory workers, shopkeepers, and executives alike.

"Now I have to pamper the client like crazy," says indignant Humberto Marino, owner of a family underwear store in the Buenos Aires suburb of San Martin. The arrival of five foreign competitors, including Wal-Mart, has cut his profits in half. Mr. Marino now offers a level of service that is a far cry from the traditional unresponsiveness of local retailers.

"If the customer wants to exchange his briefs, I exchange them. If he says there is something wrong, I give him his money back. We have to." But he draws the line at working on Sunday, a sacred day of peace and prayer for his family.

Energetic young recruits getting good jobs at foreign-owned companies, welcome the changes. In the long run, they argue, companies will be better run and customers more satisfied.

By contrast, in the old days of protectionism and hyper-inflation, people got used to managing their money instead of their company. A prevailing business mentality of executives was, "Everything is fine if we are making enough money for ourselves."

Supporters of change say that, in some ways, workplaces are becoming more humane. Bad management often fueled petty power-games among employees. Mr. Palfeneer says that at Nabisco, "It was like wiping the slate clean. Those who had been bossing people around based on support from above were suddenly exposed as tyrants."

Alejandro Masco, a human-resources manager at Wal-Mart, credits the "American way" with improving customer service and creating more cooperative work environments where all workers feel they have a stake in the company.

But these shifts have not struck a positive chord with everybody. One promising employee at Wal-Mart turned in his resignation after his wife stood up at a company conference outraged at Wal-Mart's insistence that the employee see the company as his family. The former employee, who requested anonymity, says, "Companies like Wal-Mart have it all so clear that although they talk about respecting the individual, they do not have the flexibility to be open to ideas which challenge their philosophy."

Some Americans such as Tray Spaulding, who arrived on a mission to streamline a local company, have even come to lament the new values they are instilling.

"I can't help but feel sad at what is in store for Argentines," he says, admiring their devotion to family. "I see them as much happier than most Americans."

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