Dean Clough

February 23, 2024

Portico Darwin: London Calling, Chapter 4



6 Minute Read

Happy Friday, and this is the fourth installment of London Calling.

Preface and Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3

A British Invasion Welcomed by Yanks
Seaco's due diligence trip to Genstar's HQ in San Francisco did much to cement me and others into the picture. 

For one, we drank together, both in SF and also on an all-day Fugazi special to the Napa Valley for wine tasting and a plush meal afterward.  I got on great with my counterparts from Sea Containers Limited, and as I mentioned, it would prove somewhat revealing who came to San Francisco:

  • Steve Whittam, CIO
  • Malcolm Graveling, VP System Operations
  • Chris Bushell, VP Software and British snob
  • Jim Lawrence, Director, System Operations
  • Randy Smee, Director, Telecom

The non-gin-mill aspects of their due diligence visit to San Francisco went equally well.  I believe even then it was clear to Seaco that our team at Genstar had already done (or at least were preparing) a lot of what the merged entity was going to need.   

Specifically, we had written a fantastic Request for Proposal (RFP) for a new, Internet-oriented global data network, and had begun planning in earnest a migration of the company's workstations and servers to Microsoft's Windows NT.  The combined companies were going to need that and even more.

Fortunately for me and my London dreams, Seaco had essentially nothing but a mishmash of yesterday's technology, interspersed with an occasional nod towards modernity.  I vividly recall that Martin Denny - the head of telecommunications for Seaco - did not have an Internet email address at the time, and used a typewriter for correspondence.

From my trip and now theirs, it was obvious to all involved that this joint venture was going to need upgraded tech.  It was also obvious it would be foolish to recreate things that already had been done, and since I had led that team, it was logical for me to be at or near the center of things moving forward.

In other words, right where I wanted to be.

The early relationship-building that started in London continued in San Francisco.  Fugazi, to his credit, knew that to be important, and helped by encouraging the party to not stop.  

A fond memory was having a blowout dinner at a top Italian restaurant in SF, and then retiring to the swank bar at the equally swank hotel, then and now, at which the Seaco crew were staying, Campton Place.  We were all buzzed, but I was on my best behavior and in full-on smooth consultant mode.  I was seated next to Boss Whittam and I decided to take the opportunity to further burnish my credentials for leading the tech refresh for the joint venture.

Now, a reminder this was likely the guy that put the "stiff" into "stiff upper lip."  Steve Whittam was the epitome of a stuffed-shirt British executive.  He even had a company car and driver, FFS.  He likely wore a tie while swimming.  And to date, he had revealed exactly no personality, and even less humor.  

So after I had regaled Mr. Whittam with my knowledge of what was needed technically, he tossed his Scotch back, signaled a nearby waiter for another, looked at me and said, in pitch-perfect British deadpan:

"Portico, my friend, you really need to lighten up.  Now stop talking and have another whiskey."

It was then I thought I might have a chance at winning Whittam over.

It must be emphasized here that my charm probably wouldn't have been enough.  The Genstar staff that would be joining the joint venture IT refresh were key, and the Seaco leadership got to meet them on their visit to San Francisco.

As with their British counterparts, Luigi Ferrari and Willy Aluminium, this whole thing likely blows up without these next two gentlemen.  Because of the 5 people in Genstar's telecommunications group that I was managing, 3 took the lucrative severance package, and only two decided to stay and jet around the world for the next 11 months.

I am glad it was these two guys; they were each perfect in their own way for the roles they would soon assume.

George Valiant Walker
I hardly knew George at this point.  Before the joint venture, he had stayed in the shadow of the acknowledged Windows NT pro at Genstar, Gorey Mouse.

But with Gorey taking the money and running, I talked with George on several occasions about what a career-builder this would be for us all.  Defining, designing, and leading a multi-national Windows NT deployment - i.e., George's role - was a cool resume item to have back then. 

George bought in, but at the time I did not know - nor did he - if he could pull it off, but we'll get back to that (preview:  he fucking crushed it).  But he did his part early on, during Seaco's visit to SF.

Then as now, he's one hell of a nice guy to be around, and Seaco took to him immediately.  Those who know George know that that is no shocker.  Add his expanding Windows NT expertise, and he's going to London, too.  And beyond.

There is so much more to the George Valiant Walker story.  He, his wife Sherry, and their family are among our closest friends to this day.  Here they are with their first-born Troy Walker, soon after our return from London in September of 1998.  Troy is now attending the University of California at Irvine.  Yes, this is an old tale.
IMG_20201121_111425605~2 (1).jpg

Andy Gill
Pre-merger, it was Andy with whom I worked the closest, as he and I wrote Genstar's wide area network request for proposal (RFP).  In English, and as I've mentioned, this was a comprehensive document where we asked the world's largest telecommunications providers to submit bids for establishing new communication links to connect all of Genstar's offices, which existed on all continents, save Antarctica.

Luckily for me, Andy was a fucking savant on this stuff, and a great person, to boot.  He researched the living daylights out of what a proper RFP looks like - I sure as hell didn't know.  This got far enough along that we had received responses and developed a methodology for assessing them, with AT&T's proposal being graded the best.  

But then the joint venture was announced and that was tabled.

I think, to this day, it was the WAN RFP we (really, Andy) had done, along with Gorey's NT plans, that made us too good for Seaco to pass on.   It also helped that, like me, Andy had a touch of arrogance, and was not intimidated by any of this.  That was useful, believe it or not, as it demonstrated we felt ready ourselves to take on this monster of a project.  

So Andy Gill was as key as anybody in the program's eventual success.  And wait until you hear his travel schedule as a central participant.

Today?  Mr. Gill is an IT executive, and he lives in Seattle.  We remain in touch, although I have not seen him or his lovely family in years.  I don't have a picture of Andy from this era, but here is a more recent photo.

Upper Class (Virgin Atlantic Variety)
With their visit complete, my new British pals flew home and now things really heated up. 

The most tangible evidence of that was that both Genstar and Seaco wanted me in London regularly, to work with their team to sort out what the IT environment for GESeaco was going to look like.

And folks, while The World's Most Expensive Man may have recently passed, his birth occurred at this time. 

You see, and while it is hard to envision today, GE Capital's policy at the time allowed for employees (and somehow me as an outside consultant) to fly business class internationally.  That meant I would be flying in the front of the plane a whole bunch, and soon.  It was a dream come true, and that wasn't all.

I of course did my own research, and holy shit, am I glad I did.  Because while Genstar personnel and of course the Seaco chaps preferred British Airways' SFO - LHR nonstop offering, I learned there was another carrier flying the route:  Richard Branson's Virgin Atlantic.  And at that time, nobody and I mean fucking nobody, was doing it like they were, in what they called then and now Upper Class.  They had no first or business class - Upper Class was their premium offering. 

I am not sure premium (or even Diamond Certified) rightly describes just how swank it all was.  By my count, I flew to London or San Francisco nonstop on Virgin at least 6 times, and frankly, each time was better than the last.  It is important to remember this was all before 9/11.

  • In SF, a black sedan to and from the airport was included with an Upper Class ticket; in London, transport to/from Heathrow was via a Range Rover.  

  • Upon arrival at SFO, uniformed Virgin Atlantic staff would walk out to my car, take my luggage, and hand me a boarding pass.  I never visited a ticket counter nor traditional security checkpoint.
  • But that was nothing like the experience of flying Upper Class out of Heathrow, because one got the above but also admission into their then (and likely now) completely off-the-hook lounge, known as The Clubhouse.  The place was so insane it had a soundproofed room with extraordinarily high-end audiophile gear (from Linn, FFS), where one could sip a bevie and crank the jams.  

You're Goddamned right I did.  Another time, I got a haircut and manicure in the Clubhouse's salon, before a sushi lunch that would have been good in Japan, all before boarding.  And I still remember vividly taking the wide-eyed George Valiant Walker around the place at the end of our March 1998 tour de force in London. 

  • The experience onboard?  

On a flight home to SF, I can still remember the female flight attendant's inquiries, asked in the Queen's English:  "Mr. Darwin, we are ready for your hand massage in the bar now - may I escort you?  And may I bring you another single malt Scotch or perhaps a glass of Champagne to enjoy whilst you receive your treatment?"

There is not a lick of exaggeration to any of the above.  Suffice to say, I got accustomed to this jet set thing very quickly, but 10 Seconds of Seriousness:  This entire experience showed me what I wanted from life, and provided a lot of motivation going forward.  Heck, at this point and just 33, I hadn't understood this world even existed.

No, the seats weren't the lay-flat beds in private cabins one sees now, and I apologize for the blurry picture.  But that is a bar, and I can assure you, it - and the entire Upper Class experience - worked just fine.

Up Next:  Wash, Rinse, Repeat


On Wednesday, Julie and I had cocktails with Margie Butler and her husband, José Vega, here in Sonoma.  I had - in one of those small-world things - run into José the previous day, and he insisted the 4 of us meet for drinks before we left town.  It seems they just recently moved here from SF.

Unwashed she is not, and any daughter of Perry's . . . is certainly worth meeting at Starling Bar.   

What a family - that's brother Aldy with the King himself, and the very kind Margie, in a photo from 2019.

10 Seconds of Seriousness:  It's hard not to admire Mr. Butler and his family.  They are the real deal, their work speaks for itself, and it has for 50+ years.  
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Released in 1997, then and now it is a staple at KLUFHere is the underappreciated Morphine, and their Killer Like Swimming.

About Dean Clough