March/April 2011

Canadians Abroad

Around the world in a briefcase: Snowden’s Bob McCarthy has become a savvy traveller

By Heather Ednie

Beauty and the beast. Bob McCarthy stands atop a waste dump overlooking breathtaking countryside, in the state of Minas Gerais, Brazil | Courtesy of Bob McCarthy

Bob McCarthy has never actually relocated outside Canada, but it has often felt that way. The general manager at Snowden Mining Industry Consultants sacrificed a lot of time outside his native Vancouver while his kids were growing up, and he has even lived in different cities than his family. But McCarthy’s a pragmatist. “It’s never been a big issue; you just adapt,” he says. Still, he is glad that now the kids are big and his wife has retired, they can do at least some of the globetrotting as a family.

A dangerous decade

McCarthy got his first taste of intense international business travel under the most difficult circumstances imaginable – just two weeks after 9/11. “It was an interesting time,” recalls McCarthy, who was with Luscar Coal at the time visiting clients in Japan, Taiwan, Germany and Brazil. “Security was through the roof, and I earned triple Air Miles – an incentive to try to get people back on the planes. We visited steel companies and their mills, never staying in one place more than two nights. I remember being virtually dragged through airports and train stations by the marketing guys.”

Besides security nightmares, McCarthy has spent time in countries where he would fear for his safety. After Luscar, he joined Modular Mining and, as a new product manager, he visited Africa a number of times to study potential applications for the underground environment. “It was the first time I really did not feel at home,” he says. “I was much more concerned about my personal safety. The same went for South America around that time. I was once chatting with someone there who had, only a week before, been carjacked at gunpoint.”

Carjacking fears aside, McCarthy has enjoyed most of the trips, finding time to visit game farms and explore breathtaking countrysides. He has spent time immersed in a number of different cultures, learning to appreciate both the similarities and the differences between locations.

Since Snowden scooped him up three years ago, he has travelled to Australia, Mexico, South America (including Chile, Columbia, Peru and Brazil) and the United States regularly.

The savvy business traveller

After all the miles he has clocked, McCarthy has learned a few tricks to help make business travel easier and more successful. Most importantly, he says, do your homework before you expand your business into another country. If you want to succeed, you have to learn about the culture, especially how business is done there. For example, he says, in Brazil, where Snowden currently has numerous projects in the works, there are a number of labour protection regulations we do not have here in Canada. “There are certain labour rules we must adhere to, such as how the country dictates raises,” he says. “There’s a nation-wide salary adjustment. So you wait for it, then decide whether to give more. It’s all good in the end – you just need to educate yourself first,” he adds.

Then there is how to survive the gruelling task of getting from point A to point B in one piece. After some incredibly long trips – it once took him 49 hours to get from the Amazon jungle to Vancouver (it was a real “planes, trains and automobiles” story) – he has picked up some practical travel habits to help make the whole ordeal much easier.

The first major rule he follows is to pack light so he has only carry-on luggage, whenever possible. “I’ve even done two weeks with carry-on,” he says. “The potential to have your luggage lost is huge and, on short hops, it never catches up. It can be a real headache, and best avoided. You learn these things over time.”

His second rule of thumb is to always be nice to fellow travellers; you never know when you might need each other. Once, heading from Tucson to Vancouver during a thunderstorm, McCarthy’s flight was delayed over and over. “I got on the plane to Phoenix, but there was no hope of making the connection to Vancouver,” he remembers. “I befriended someone on the plane, though, who invited me as a guest in the lounge in Phoenix. I knew there was one flight going to Seattle, so I cruised up, got tickets, had a beverage and got on the plane without any of the normal stress.”

A final travel tip is to try to learn the local language. McCarthy is currently learning Spanish, although says he is not yet fluent. “Working in another country, it’s important to speak their language, really, there’s a responsibility there,” he adds. “I’m spending at least a month per year in South America, so I need to learn.”

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