What It's Like To....Be an American Abroad

Paul Ingevaldson, Senior Vice President for International and IT for Ace Hardware, is retiring at the end of 2004. In the past 12 years, he has logged an estimated 1.2 million miles on six continents.

When I joined Ace in 1979, I didn't have a passport. And other than my military service in Vietnam and some R&R in Taiwan during active duty, I'd been to Canada and Mexico; that was it.

About 13 years into my tenure, I started traveling extensively, to the point where I now travel more than 100,000 miles a year. I've been to more than 70 countries where Ace does business, including Saudia Arabia, Israel and China. I feel comfortable virtually everywhere, and I have friends all over the world.

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Paul Ingevaldson at the grand opening of the Ace store in Riyadh, Saudia Arabia

Of course, that wasn't the case at first. Part of my job was to develop Ace business in other countries, so there was often a social component to my visits. The dealers always wanted to talk about American politics, and I quickly realized that they knew more about the subject than I did. They asked me questions about our economy and foreign policy that I couldn't easily answer. That made me uncomfortable, so I started reading more about the world.

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Now when I visit my dealer friends, I can hold my own during discussions of foreign affairs. But I have to be careful what I say. I can't express too strong an opinion (and I do have strong opinions), because I don't want to offend my hosts. The sensitivity of these conversations puts some pressure on me, but I've come to enjoy my diplomatic role. Sometimes I breathe a sigh of relief at the end of a five-hour discussion, but I never feel drained. I'm exhilarated. I've worked hard so that I can have the opportunity to experience different cultures and to have intelligent conversations about my country. Had I remained culturally ignorant, I wouldn't have built so many relationships, and relationships are everything in international business.

—As told to Meridith Levinson

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Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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