Lessons from a frozen lake

By Datuk Mohammad Medan Abdullah

IT was an unforgettable experience, fishing on a frozen lake in temperatures of -30 degrees Centigrade somewhere in the middle of the countryside of Suzdal, Russia on a beautiful day in the mid-winter of early 2010.

The ground was covered in knee high fluffy snow and the snowflakes were still floating down from the sky like some slow motion drops of pure cotton wool which gradually covered the trees surrounding the lake. It was truly a winter wonderland.

A huge pike was the lucky catch that day and it ended up on our dining table at a local restaurant later in the evening.

But first the context and setting.

Suzdal in winter.

Suzdal is one of the oldest Russian towns. Apparently, in the 12th century it was the capital of the principality, and modern-day Moscow was then a small town and just one of Suzdal’s subordinate settlements. The city of Suzdal is the administrative centre of the Suzdal district of the Vladimir region with a population of just about 10,000 people.

Nowadays, Suzdal is the smallest of what is called the ‘Russian Golden Ring’ towns, but is a major tourist attraction.

I have not seen so many cathedrals in one place as in Suzdal.

Several of its monuments are listed as Unesco World Heritage Sites. And Suzdal is like a living museum with many historical sites and Orthodox Church cathedrals with their moorish styled domes adorned with their Russian Orthodox crosses.

How did a tropical jungle boy from Ulu Baram in Sarawak end up in Suzdal in the mid-winter of Russia?

Well, a few months earlier in the summer, at a meeting in London with Gazprom Marketing & Trading Ltd, someone remarked that we should have one follow up meeting in Russia.

At that time, I was the chairman of our European entity tasked to expand Petronas’ gas trading activities in Europe, especially to support our investment in gas storage and the LNG receiving terminal in Wales.

When I was asked whether I would be amendable the idea of a meeting in Russia, I said I needed to reflect on it and said, “Yes, if we are able to do a meeting in Moscow in winter it would be quite interesting. But then I heard it’s really cold!”

After the meeting, one of my staff asked me, “Boss, are you sure, about this meeting in winter in Moscow?” I said, “After thinking about it, I am now convinced it’s a good idea. You see, everyone thinks and says that the Russian winter is very cold and as a result of which visitors would rather flee from Moscow, rather than visit it, let alone for a meeting.”

“But then don’t you think it would send a powerful message to our counterparty that when others refuse to come to see them, we make it a point to do so? We do the opposite. And in winter, at that. Yes, yes, I think we should do it!” I said empathically.

So, the Moscow trip was not exactly pre planned, but more of a tactical move in the overall negotiations strategy.

It was a calculated move on our part to turn up in the middle of winter in order to demonstrate to our future business partners that we were serious, and would even see them in the winter in Moscow, at a time when others would not even imagine it.

Two days before we found ourselves on the lake, our team had arrived on a flight from London. On the way from the Moscow airport to the hotel, I was seated in a car with Andrey Mikhalev, the managing director of our counter-party who was also on the same flight coming for the series of meetings that have been lined up for us to explore ways and means to develop a long-term relationship.

Marvelling at the winter sights and the thick snow that covered countryside on either side of the road, I asked him a rather innocent question: “Andrey, what do people do in the winter?”

Knowing that I played some social golf, Andrey said, “Well, people do play golf in winter!”

“Really, how’s that?”, I asked.

“Well, actually they use brightly coloured balls, so that they could find the balls easily!” he said.

“Would you like to try?” he asked.

“Oh no, Andrey, I don’t think I can survive out there in the cold, let alone play golf in such conditions. No, thank you!” I replied.

Still in the car and recalling something that I read about ice fishing in winter, I continued the conversation and asked him, “Do people still do ice fishing here, where they drill a hole in the frozen lake or the river and fish?”

A hole drilled in the frozen lake for fishing.

 Andrey replied, “Yes, they do and actually I love to do ice fishing too!”

I knew from our earlier interactions with him that one of Andrey’s hobbies was fishing. In fact, he was such an avid angler, that he would go fishing anywhere on his vacations. So, two days later, upon his insistence, we found ourselves hunkering over a hole in a frozen lake in the middle of the Russian winter, trying to lure some fishes to bite on our live baited fishing lines.

The scenery was an unforgettable experience. It was like something out of a fairy tale movie — stunningly beautiful and white everywhere.

The snowflakes were still drifting from the sky and landed everywhere. The snow-covered trees around the lake, were covered in flickering diamonds as the sunlight reflected upon the snow crystals on the leaves of the trees surrounding the lake.

I was mesmerised and more fascinated with the scene around me then focusing on the hole in the ground waiting for some lethargic fish to take a bite. In fact, after just 30 minutes, some of the guys in the group also got tired of waiting and slowly packed up and left.

After some while, maybe sensing that I was more engrossed with the scenery then the fishing, Andrey asked whether I would like to call it a day and get back to the cottage nearby, to join the rest of the team, where it was nice and warm with plenty of food and hot drinks ready.

But to my mind, knowing that he was such an avid angler, I reasoned that he would be disappointed if I gave up too easily and especially if we did not catch anything.

I mean, he brought us all the way to this lake, and if all that would happen was just a short stint on the lake before every one drifted back to the comforts of the cottage, I imagined that Andrey would be quite disappointed, to say the least.

Understandably, the rest of the guys were not anglers so they must have felt like, “Wow, this is a tough job out here in the cold just waiting for a bite on the line! Better to be in the cottage then here in the open.”

As a fellow angler, I knew the feeling that it’s very difficult to leave or give up so easily until you have caught something.

No angler likes to return home empty handed, unless it was a catch and release fishing trip. As I turned to him, I said, “Andrey, it is so beautiful out here. I never imagined to be in such a place like this, let alone fishing on a frozen lake in the middle of the Russian winter. Thank you for taking us here. Could we stay on a little bit longer?”

Remember I said that the temperature was minus 30 degrees Centigrade, versus 25 degrees on the day we arrived. He nodded with a knowing smile indicating his complete agreement.

There was no need for words between two kindred souls. A smile was enough.

After quite a while, and patiently waiting on the lake, frequently changing locations, checking the lines and so on, we managed to finally catch a huge pike.

After we brought it up from the frigid water, Andrey asked me what should we do with it?

Being the jungle boy that I was, I said, “Let’s take it back to the cottage and show those guys what we have caught! And then later we should eat it as well.”

A jungle boy on a hunt will never part with his quarry.

Andrey and I taking a proud photo in front of the cottage.

Especially, this particular one which was taken in extremely tough winter conditions, albeit a beautiful and surreal experience for me.

As we arrived at the cottage, Andrey slowly pushed open the heavy wooden door for me, and I walked in, holding the huge pike in my hands, I exclaimed, “Surprise! We have come home… and with a big one!”

On seeing us in the doorway, everyone started clapping. Then someone said, “Ooh, let’s drink a toast to them! This is a cause for celebration!”

I looked around at everyone in the room and could see the excitement in their faces.

I advanced forward and said, “Hold on, I want to say something first.”

“You know, in life we need to have patience and perseverance. If we do, then success will certainly come our way. Like today, after just 30 minutes, you guys returned here to the cottage. To the comfort of a nice fireplace and with plenty of food and drinks.”

With their full attention now, I continued, “… But Andrey and I, we stayed put. We waited patiently, tending to our lines. And you know what, we were rewarded with this huge pike!”

I drove home my point. One could hear a pin drop in the silence, “Now, doing business and developing a long-term relationship, is the same…”

I continued. “… You need patience and perseverance. Today, Andrey and I waited patiently on the lake and look what we have got — we were rewarded with this huge pike. Now, I want us never to forget that.”

I emphasised. “Let this be a valuable lesson for us. Okay, now you can have your toast!”

I quickly concluded. I think I have not heard such a thunderous and spontaneous applause, mixed with good natured laughter, ever since. A good lesson was unfolded that day in Suzdal’s mid-winter.

One that Mother Nature has gifted to us. Hopefully, an unforgettable imprint in the memory bank of all in the cottage by the lake that day, was made.

Some years later, Andrey and Vitaly, his CEO approached me and asked me to help them manage their Asia-Pacific operations operating out of Singapore. That was how I ended up being headhunted by them.

In reflection, I think that fine winter day on the frozen lake in Suzdal has had something to do with it. In life, destiny’s hand often works in a mysterious way.

The writer is the chief executive officer of Bintulu Port Holdings Berhad (Bintulu Port).