The Expat: Max Donatello

Max Donatello.
Max Donatello.
From: Stockholm, Sweden
Age: 24
Profession: Entrepreneur and CEO of Taste Abroad
Education: Barely finished high school
Music recommendation: Breaking Benjamin
Last film seen: The Prestige
Gadget: iPhone

Following a three-month road trip that took in the north of Argentina with some friends, Swedish entrepreneur Max Donatello moved to Buenos Aires in order to launch a sauce business.

He says: “The first time I was here was between 2009 and 2010 and I was visiting with two Swedish friends. One had been living on an estancia in Chaco so that was one of our destinations. We bought a car so we drove from Buenos Aires to Chaco, Iguazú, Paraguay, Bariloche, Mendoza and Córdoba. It’s like doing a European trip because of the climate differences because if you compare Iguazú with Bariloche, they are two different worlds. It was interesting to do that journey by car as you can slowly see how everything changes.

“Once, I was driving on a tilted road with ditches on each side and it had been raining. As I was driving along, a fish suddenly jumped across the road to get to the other ditch so I basically hit a fish! No joke, it’s true.

“Then I went back to Sweden to continue working in my sales insurance job, moved into sales finance and after two years the opportunity emerged to start my own company in Argentina, my Béarnaise sauce business.”
Given that Max had been headhunted for his finance job, he had the confidence of his new boss to pitch his saucy idea.

“He was tired of working with numbers and wanted to put his money where he could put his passion. After a few weeks of research, he said he’d put in the money if I’d be willing to go to Argentina to do it. And I only had to quit the job where my investor was my employer, so I rented out my apartment and was in Buenos Aires within 30 days.”

Work has largely dominated Max’s life, given that he was setting up a brand-new company, but Buenos Aires had airs of familiarity, given that he had spent two weeks in the city as part of his road trip.

“I remember when we were travelling, Buenos Aires was like heaven for us on that trip as we went out partying! So when I moved here, I had some kind of an idea but as I started working so much, a different picture forms. I realized it takes a tremendously long time to do anything. Even doing the groceries takes longer than it does in Sweden everything does, basically!

“My contact and now commercial director Luigi Ronchi had set us up with a little office downtown, then we opened a factory in Avellaneda to produce Bearnesa de Pablo Massey Béarnaise sauce. But what has been really difficult to adapt to is the time aspect. I’m always on time and prefer to be five minutes early, but that has since changed and I’m now always 10 minutes late. I hate that about myself and that I’ve been affected.

“People also reason differently here, and there’s a lot more emotion compared with the logical reason we have in Sweden. More people have screamed around me here than they have ever done in my life back in Sweden, and sometimes the passion can overwhelm me! The people around that person accept that they want to scream, but in Sweden we’d think that this person is mentally sick and needs to be in a hospital right now!”

Living and working in a more relaxed, albeit highly charged, environment has rubbed off on Max. He says: “I’m definitely less Swedish than I was two years ago. When I came here, I always had a suit for every meeting and took notes at every meeting even if it wasn’t very important, but I’ve realized you can still get things done without being so strict on yourself. You can go with the flow. I guess I’ve been argentinizado in good ways and bad ways. I do hate showing up late but I’m more relaxed than I used to be!”

But conversely, setting up a new business in Buenos Aires has been positive.

“As I’m quite young I don’t have many years’ experience working but working abroad is very positive. Being a foreigner, and especially from Scandinavia, has quite a novelty factor to it and so I think I get further by being a foreigner in some situations. For example, we’re not that big a company but we have managed to place our products in Carrefour and Wal-Mart so being foreign has helped.

“Everything takes a lot of time so that’s the biggest reason on paper not to do business in Argentina, but since everything takes so much time, it also comes with a great opportunity. We pay on time, we deliver on time and our clients appreciate that. We have just taken advantage of something that doesn’t work and made it work.”

Thanks to the brand that he has created, Max has also got to know celebrity chef Pablo Massey, the face of his sauces.

“I think we were seen as Swedish moneybags in the beginning but we have a friendship, as well as a working relationship now. Once we had coffee with his friend (musician) Fabián ‘Zorrito’ Von Quintiero and everyone was staring. Although I’m not immune to fame, for me they’re just two people who I met before I saw them doing anything else.”

Of course, it’s not all work, work, work for Max. He has also found time to fall in love and move in with his Argentine girlfriend Astrid. “We met a year ago at an event my company was hosting. Luigi had invited her as they were friends. Basically, I only talked to her for about three minutes as I was busy organizing everything but after those three minutes, I was certain I was going to ask her out. The big obstacle was that she is 11 years older than me and that she might think I was playing around if I asked her out, so I waited two weeks before inviting her for dinner. And ever since we went for dinner, we’ve spent every day together. We had a few serious conversations early on in the relationship as she was about to move back to New York, but she’s working on her immigration papers and we are planning to move to Sweden next year.”

Naturally, with an Argentine girlfriend come Argentine in-laws. “It was hard in the beginning as I came across as a threat who would once again take their only daughter on a romantic exile to a far-away land. But I was polite and showed them I loved their daughter and wasn’t playing around. I come from a working-class background in Sweden — my mum is a tailor and my dad a carpenter — so nothing fancy pants at all, while my girlfriend’s mother is a top judge and her father had a law firm. Although I am nothing like my parents as I have my own company and my own future, we come from different worlds. But they have now accepted me in Astrid’s life.”

However, one area of his life that Max knows he needs to work on is his Spanish.

“I speak English to Astrid’s mother and the best Spanish I can to her dad. It’s my biggest failing here. I understand about 80 percent and speak about 50 percent — but a lot of the people working with the company speak English. Only the people working on the production line don’t speak English but I know factory Spanish now, so to speak! But my lack of Spanish has never been a barrier to my work, but sometimes I’d like to pick up the phone and ask for something to be done myself.”

In two short years, Max has lived in various neighbourhoods but it’s the area where he has set up home most recently that is his favourite. He says: “We live in Las Cañitas to be close to my girlfriend’s parents who live nearby and try to spend as much time as we can with them. I’ve lived on Plaza Italia, San Telmo and Microcentro, but I prefer Las Cañitas. It has lots of restaurants, it’s very cool, and there’s not that many offices. It feels more like home. My local shop-owners know me, it’s really friendly. We have a little Jack Russell now so it’s nice to walk her at night as we can let her off the leash as there aren’t many cars.”

Buenos Aires Herald, September 28, 2013
If you’ve enjoyed this piece, meet Canadian photographer Jocelyn.

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