The Craziest Experience I’ve ever Had in Consulting
September 8, 2016 - Willie Ehlers, COO of Monocle
A few years ago, we were asked to assist a bank with their methodology for credit risk models. It was a relatively usual request – with one glaring difference. The bank wasn’t exactly around the corner from our slick London offices; it was in the Faroe Islands. In case you haven’t zoomed in on a map for a while, let me refresh your memory: somewhere where the North Atlantic Ocean meets the Norwegian Sea (take a left at Norway, if you hit Iceland you’ve gone too far) sits a cluster of 11 rocky islands. Not the sunny, clear-watered islands featured in alcohol adverts; the cold, wet, windy islands featured in National Geographic documentaries about deep-sea fishing. Or extreme mountain climbing. Although today, they’re an autonomous country within the Kingdom of Denmark, the Islands have a history as rocky as its mountains, ravaged by Scandinavian Vikings, and invaded by the British in 1940. In short, no, it wasn’t on my list of holiday choices. To be honest, I didn’t even know they had banks there…
And yet, there I was, on a plane, heading to my Island meeting. Essentially, landing a plane in the Faroe Islands is just slightly more dangerous than landing a plane in the actual sea. We’re getting closer and closer and in front of me, I can just see – through the thick fog that’s delaying our landing – peaks of rocky outcrops. There’s barely room to breathe, let alone fly a plane between the mountains. At the last second, the plane banks, so the wingspan can fit snugly between the jagged edges. And then suddenly we were making a bee-line to the ‘runway’. I use ‘runway’ loosely here. At the end of the runway is a lake, the final destination for unlucky touchdowns (a very reassuring sight, I’m sure you can imagine). I was clinging on for dear life, hoping for the best, as the plane’s tyres screech to a halt seconds before Lake City.
My colleague and I were supposed to be accommodated in one of only five hotels in Tórshavn, the capital of the Faroe Islands, but it turns out we were visiting Faroe in its five minutes of bustling holiday season, and all hotels were fully booked. Fortunately, the bank’s project manager kindly offered to have me stay in his personal home. Unfortunately, that meant sleeping in his child’s single bed, underneath a duvet covered in dinosaurs. Nevertheless we were received with the warmest hospitality and great food.
The next day, we headed to the bank to consult on their credit risk modelling methodology; a space in which I was far more comfortable. Considering the Islands are about as far from civilisation as you can get, the bank was incredibly sophisticated – and the meeting went well. Of course, no business trip would be complete without a little sightseeing, and soon we were huddled at the harbour, crawling into thick, weather-proof suits.
In a speedboat, we crashed through the waves of the freezing North Atlantic, with the rain and backsplash trying unsuccessfully to penetrate our weather suits. We stopped at an even smaller island and hiked up the rugged trail through a small village, wind at our backs (and fronts, and sides) to a local’s home. But the welcoming entertainment wasn’t a cocktail on the deck, but a show; of the local stuffing a puffin (no, that’s not a euphemism). The bird stood no chance against his skilled hands.
Despite the fact that a stuffing isn’t always my aperitif of choice, our next stop was back on the mainland, for a meal at one of their fanciest, finest restaurants. Nestled at the top of a hill, the place is straight out of a Tolkien novel, overlooking miles of tiny houses, complete with traditional dark-wooden panelling and insulation-friendly grassy roofs. Whilst admiring the beautiful view, sipping an ice-cold beer and feeling proud of my adventures of the day, I suddenly picked up a strange odour. Without even seeing the menu, I was presented with a plate, offering five different local delicacies; likkja (that is whale biltong to us), whale blubber, skerpikjøt (or wind-dried mutton) which smelled more like it was buried for a few days so that it had begun to rot, dried shark, and lastly potatoes (or so they said). I needed a strategy, and fast. Luckily, the locals believe that the best way to have a beer is to chase it with a strong schnapps, which meant there was ample amounts of Dutch Courage to help me through. I followed each bite with a quick shot of schnapps. But after the dried shark, I respectfully retired from the table, and headed home to crawl into my Dino bed.
While the world of consulting is often filled with interesting characters and outlandish last-minute presentations, my time in the Faroe Islands was by far the most fascinating few days on the job. Did I learn anything in particular? Yes. Never underestimate your clients based on where they’re located. Be prepared for a challenge. And always check the end of a runway before you land a plane.