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Executive `Peace Corps' taps talents of retired businessmen

Everett Lawson couldn't believe it. The exhausted workman standing in the Cairo maintenance yard had carried a 75-pound piece of machinery while hitchhiking 200 miles across Egypt. ``It was a brake band from a dragline, about three feet in diameter,'' says Mr. Lawson, shaking his head over the inefficiency of the man's journey, but with admiration for his tenacity. ``When the brake band was relined, the guy was going to have to turn around and hitchhike back with it to his job.''

Lawson, a jovial, hearty Californian with 33 years of experience in the art of machinery maintenance, had gone to the desert of Egypt to help the Egyptian Dredging Company of Cairo improve its efficiency in keeping hundreds of miles of irrigation canals in the Nile Delta free from obstructions and brackish water.

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Agriculture in the soil-rich delta region depends on the free flow of water. Suction dredges and all support equipment need to work efficiently. But the dredging company desperately needed help to reverse a staggering record of breakdowns and repairs.

As a volunteer for the nonprofit, partly government-funded International Executive Service Corps (IESC), Lawson is one of 9,000 skilled executives and technicians from all over the United States who have been sent to 77 countries since 1965. The volunteers, who are asked to refrain from involvement in the politics of the countries they visit, share their knowledge with private businesses and governments on specific projects in developing nations. Most IESC volunteers are recently retired.

Seated in his comfortable home in northern California, Lawson talked about his three months in Cairo and about some key advice he gave. ``One of the things I recommended was that the dredging company get six pickup trucks to be used in hauling parts back and forth instead of on the shoulders of workmen,'' he said.

To an American trained in efficiency, the idea was obvious. But what almost all IESC volunteers have learned from their experience in developing nations is that American work ethics and management strategy, however well regarded in the US, have to blend with the differing cultures and customs of struggling, impoverished nations.

Lawson had to wonder: If six pickup trucks were suddenly to appear in Cairo, would there be six people able to drive? Could regular maintenance be assured so that the trucks would still be operating in three months? Who would be responsible for preventing theft of the trucks or their parts? Who would teach the often illiterate workmen how to read so they could drive the trucks safely?

In addition, the dredging company relies almost solely on foreign aid from many countries. If the company made a request for six trucks, would the trucks arrive a month later -- or a year later?

Mr. Lawson and four other corps volunteers, who were also assigned to the Egyptian canal project, made their final recommendations in a written report after three months with the company. They also had periodic meetings with the president of the dredging company. But even while they were in Egypt, staying at the Nile Hilton and being paid a per diem of around $72 by IESC, they carefully brought about some smaller changes.

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Willard Jackson, a machinery manager from Milwaukee, reorganized the main repair facility in Cairo and created a quality-control department. George Archer of Columbus, Ind., trained workers in diesel repair and maintenance. Allen Steel of Southbury, Conn., conducted training in hydraulics. Robert Plummer of Gloucester Point, Va., worked on dredge and small motor bearings, welding techniques, and ways to control the dumping of refuse into the canals.

Lawson, who took overnight field trips on several occasions with department engineers to assess field maintenance, became acutely aware of the effect of his presence. ``At one of the first stops, I pulled out the dipstick on an engine,'' he said, ``and there was no oil in it. The engineer turned to the workman and physically abused him right on the spot. Boy, I didn't want that happening every time I pointed out a need, so after that I set up a simple checklist for oil and lubrication at each field stop .''

It was the US Agency for International Development (AID) that laid the groundwork for the creation of IESC, whose purpose is to use the skills of retired executives and export the benefits of free enterprise. David Rockefeller served as the corps's first chairman in the late '60s.

IESC, now headquartered in Stamford, Conn., has been described as a ``Peace Corps'' for executives. It is funded by four sources: AID, fees from overseas clients, 160 US corporate sponsors, and some governments of foreign nations. Thomas S. Carroll, former president of Lever Brothers, is now IESC's president.

The many men and women who are recruited as volunteers for corps projects find themselves involved in enterprises ranging from the making of handbags to the running of steel mills. Through the years, more than 18 percent of the projects related to basic human needs have been in the food area, such as helping in agriculture and fisheries projects, or in food processing and packaging.

Equally as important to IESC's purpose are the friendships that bloom while the projects are under way. ``The people were just fabulous,'' said Lawson of his three months in Egypt. ``I can't get over how nice they were to us. It's my fondest memory.'' His wife, Thelma, accompanied him, as do most spouses of the volunteers.

The program attracts volunteers through a mixture of low-key recruiting and word of mouth. Many participants have simply read or heard about the program; other retiring or soon-to-retire executives were contacted by recruiters who were given workers' names by the corporations they work for.

When IESC sends dozens of volunteers to a country, the goal is to help the country graduate from ``developing'' to ``developed.'' In 1978, after 14 years of contributing toward Singapore's transition to a ``developed'' nation, the corps stopped sending volunteers there.

Conversely, in Jamaica, more than 150 volunteers have been involved in projects, including the computerization of the Jamaican Railroad.

The volunteers have to be ready for anything. When Lyman Lacy, a former executive with a roof and tile company, was in Guatemala, he used Italian on the job. ``The plant superintendent at the brick company couldn't speak English,'' Mr. Lacy said, ``and my Spanish was not that great. But I do speak Italian and when some Italian words slipped out, the superintendent's eyes lit up. He knew Italian and from then on we spoke in Italian.''

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