The Expat: Benjamin Lodmell

Benjamin Lodmell by Mariano Fuchila.
Benjamin Lodmell by Mariano Fuchila.
From: Alabama, US
Age: 42
Profession: Independent financial adviser
Education: Economics, Hispanic Studies and International Relations at Connecticut College, Masters in International Relations at Tufts University
Last book read: Martín Fierro
Last film seen: Lincoln
Gadget: Samsung Galaxy Note

When father-of-five Benjamin Lodmell decided to move his young family to Argentina five years ago, he had some knowledge of the capital city on his side.

“I was the country representative for Crédit Lyonnais in 1995 to Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina,” he says, “I studied for a year in Spain then did an internship in Lima I was a bit of Latinophile. Being in the region of course led me to Argentina and it had quite an effect on me. It was beautiful, full of infrastructure and very sophisticated. I thought that I might come back one day — and I did, although I hadn’t been back until five years ago. But it had always been on my mind.”

The 13 years between those date-markers have seen Benjamin cast his net far and wide: he stood for Congress on the first Obama campaign (“that did not work out,” he says), building a girls’ orphanage in Sierra Leone, living and working in Brazil.

“But it was time for a real bold break, so I said to my wife Mara, ‘honey, let’s go to Jakarta, Dubrovnik or Buenos Aires take your pick! Actually, we chose together as I don’t think I’d have had the courage to move to Jakarta!”

Although Benjamin aimed to translate his financial advisory skills to Argentina, the process of setting up shop hasn’t been as seamless as he’d hoped and he has come up against various hurdles along the way.

“I had the intention of growing a business in the region, given that I work as an independent financial adviser — there’s a lot of smart, talented people in Argentina. I started to go through that process but it’s really difficult to deal with complying properly with labour laws, training people, retaining talent. There’s so much raw capacity but not a great meritocracy business-type culture.

“The intention was to grow a team of analysts and sales people but I’ve ended up not really going down that road or engaging clients locally. So I’ve been sitting on the sidelines, waiting to see if things liberate up again and everyone gets back to business. Even bringing in money legitimately though the Central Bank is difficult. I remember taking out a little office and before it was even up and running, someone knocked on the door to tell me ‘we’re watching you, AFIP is onto you.’ I hadn’t even turned the key in the lock! It’s been a learning experience!

“I speak the language, I speak Portuguese, I’ve lived in Spain, Peru, Mexico, Brazil and Africa. I founded a charitable organization called World Children’s Relief and helped build dozens of schools and wells, as well as sponsor thousands of girls to go to school in northern Ghana. I’ve been around and I don’t think of myself as naive but this is one tough place.

“Despite this, I work in the region and have clients in the US so I’m active, but this has meant that I can enjoy the quality of life here.”

Given that he has more free time than he might perhaps like, Benjamin relishes walking the streets that inspire his poetry and also presides over the American Society of the River Plate, an organization that aims to being US citizens together. A self-confessed foodie, he’s always keen to try out a new-to-him restaurant and enjoys going to the Park Hyatt’s gym and pool to work off some calories after a working lunch. In short, he and his family are content with their new-found life in Buenos Aires.

He says: “We came here with our bags, and have taken the local route. Our kids go to a local school and we had the intention of settling in, raising a family, building up a business: an immigrant mentality. We’re in it for the long run now so we don’t destabilize our kids and their growth.

“Since I’m not going to sit and twiddle my thumbs, that’s when I started to get involved with fund-raising for non-profit organizations and along came this opportunity to bring the American Society back from its deathbed. The idea is to have a contact database and start driving events, such as the Labour Day picnic we held with guest speakers last Monday, and bring interesting people together.”

Given this new role, Benjamin meets a wide cross-section of US citizens who have come to Argentina for different reasons. He says: “Lots have married Argentines, and while some have gone back to the US, others have brought their credentials and made something happen. Others get into corporate circumstances locally, while others are entrepreneurial.

“Recently there was an article in La Nación about the number of foreign couples living here, and that it is a neutral ground. That’s certainly the case with us, as my wife is from the Tukulu tribe in Senegal and I’m from Alabama. We’re both immigrants here! We’ve had to lean a lot on each other but it’s been good for the marriage.

“But the corporate crowd is dwindling, mainly because a Colombian is more likely to be the CEO of a multinational in Argentina than a US citizen. Multinationals are very practical and not patriotic these days. Maybe their home base is in New Jersey but they are corporations that need talent as cheap as they can get it.

“There’s also a surprising number of retirees here, some of whom left Argentina when they were very young, in the early 1950s, who are naturalized Americans, and now they are back. Then there are people looking to arbitrage, have a better quality of life for less money, then they end up scratching their heads and doing something entrepreneurial. Lots of these folks are my friends — it was my birthday last weekend and about 25 of them came to Carmen de Areco, where we have a farm, to celebrate. None of them are corporate, just good old boys!”

Benjamin also has a small group of Argentines on whom he can count.

“It’s been slow but I feel like we’ve made some good Argentine friends. People aren’t very quick to become close to you but I like that because when they do open up and allow you into their world, they’re authentic.”

Building a weekend home in Buenos Aires province has been of real value to the Lodmell family, and not just from a clean oxygen perspective. Benjamin says: “We wanted to get the kids out of the city, plus there’s lots of four-day weekends — more every year! Next week, we have nine days without school! It’s nice to let the kids play in the countryside and that’s what drove our decision to build. The idea is to make those seven hectares self-sufficient, have an organic garden, there’s room for an orchard — and I’m even working out the cost of having a bull to see if it is realistic, along with a slaughterhouse. I don’t think we would have so much infrastructure in the countryside if we were in the States — it’s not so common to have a big, closed community that is truly rural.

“On a typical weekend, I’ll take the whole morning to go from the butcher to the fruit shop, the vegetable shop and the cheese shop. I get to say hi to everyone, they are all really friendly and not sophisticated porteños and it takes the edge off life in the city. It gives me a more balanced perspective about being an expat here, and it makes me feel much better about my experiences in this country having based enough of it out of the city — this is a tough town! People are very sophisticated — and I mean that in a double-edged way.”

Benjamin also enjoys walking the Buenos Aires streets but it’s with a sense of purpose: to seek inspiration for his poetry. Although he loves living in distinctive Recoleta, a neighbourhood he calls “very special,” he likes uncovering different parts of town.

“I’m an amateur poet and write every single day. I’ll take a two-hour walk to Constitución and as I’m a foodie, I’ll eat at one of the different cultural centres, such as the French-Basque one. All that helps inspire me to write about the city and the people.”

Buenos Aires Herald, September 7, 2013

If you enjoyed this interview with Benjamin, you might like to read more about the Four Season’s Mexican general manager Rebeca Selley.

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