DEC International

In the early days of DEC, 60% of the business came from outside the USA. When I joined PDP-15 Marketing this was down to 40%, but in the case of the PDP-15 it was still 50%. We were 3% of sales but 5% of profits.

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Mike McCarthy
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DEC International

Postby Mike McCarthy » Fri Jul 03, 2015 5:04 pm

DEC was a multinational business almost from the beginning. As discussed elsewhere on this site, overseas end user prices were kept artificially high, and parent-to-subsidiary finished goods transfer prices kept artificially low, in order to park as much profit as reasonably possible in the subs at low European corporate tax rates rather than at the relatively high domestic US rates. I say European because the PDP-15 business numbers, which I knew by heart during 1974 and 1975, broke down roughly as follows. In order of decreasing rounded approximate business volume I recall ...

USA ............. 40%
Germany ....... 15
UK ............... 10
Netherlands .... 10
France .......... 10
Canada ......... 10
Italy .............. 5
Japan ............ 5
Total ........... 105% (because of rounding errors)

Other groups had significant overseas business volume so that overall DEC International was probably 40% of the corporate total, but the PDP-15 was extreme. As you can see, more of our business volume came from Europe (50%) than from the USA (40%). For this reason I traveled regularly to western Europe to visit major and minor accounts alike, in order to show the flag and to maintain traditional close relations between the customers and -15 Marketing.

There was business in South America to be sure but it was at a low enough volume that when rounded as shown above it disappeared. Still, I remember hearing of a -10 sale to, I think, the University of La Paz in Bolivia. This was a typical -10 order worth about $2M. All DEC shipments were "free on board DEC plant", in this case FOB Marlboro. This meant that a) title to the equipment passed to the customer as soon as a system shipped, and that b) the customer therefore was responsible for insuring the shipment. The system's destination was an astronomical observatory high in the Andes, the final leg of the journey by cargo helicopter. Regrettably, and for whatever reason, the Universidad had neglected to insure the shipment. The helicopter's cargo sling broke, dropping the entire shipment into the Matto Grosso jungle or some such place. The University asked DEC to replace the system at no charge, which DEC quietly did in order to maintain good relations with the worldwide community of universities.


I traveled to Europe at least once a quarter, often more frequently than that. I also traveled extensively in the US. All told I was on the road for a total of a week to ten days each month, making an average of about a trip per week. I kept a packed suitcase by my desk in Marlboro, and I always carried my passport with me at all times, in a large wallet of the kind favored by experienced international travelers, along with a no-limits Diners Club credit card and left-over foreign small currency from previous trips.

Also in my suitcase was a half dozen or so pocket Berlitz phrase books. In high school I discovered a talent for languages, and between high school and college I ended up speaking fluent French, passable German, limited but okay Russian, and I could make myself understood in Dutch, which I had picked up on the job. In fact, I remember an evening in Amsterdam when Barry Rubinson and I had stayed late to complete the setup of a PDP-15 booth and demonstration computer system for a DECUS meeting that would be held at a convention hotel. Our work completed, we tried a series of doors that should have led to the outside but that wouldn't work for us. At one point a guard saw us and called out in Dutch, "Alle die doorgangen sein gesluiten". I knew I was making progress with the language when I understood the guard directly without having to translate. He had said "All the exits [literally doorways] are locked."

I always made an effort to try to speak at least a few words in the language of whatever country I was in. Count to ten, please, thank you, good morning, good evening, water, bread, another beer, that kind of thing. If I was with customers I would be even braver, attempting full conversation in the local language but lacing it with English words whenever I didn't have the correct one. Since most customers, and all DEC salespeople, spoke decent to excellent English, I usually ended up smilingly speaking a self-invented patois -- Swedelish, for example -- that sooner or later would make people laugh as I made grammar and pronunciation errors. At that point people would beg me to switch to English, which I was always relieved to do. It was all great fun, and it was a terrific way to win people over.

On a different trip I found myself in the north of the Netherlands, in Groningen, a city not far from the German border. One of the local sales people decided to test my ability to speak his language. "Say this name", he said, handing me a piece of paper with "Scheveningen" written on it, naming a town in the south part of the country. He assumed that I would pronounce it like a German -- shay-ven-ing-en. Instead I said it in impeccable Dutch, without an accent, s-khay-ven-ing-en with "khay" instead of "shay", the "kh" sounded as it is in Russian or Arabic, like trying to clear your soft palette of phlegm. He tested me again, this time with "'s'Hertogenbosch". I nailed it. They were all very pleased that I liked their country so much that I was doing my best to learn to speak their language their way.

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Re: DEC International

Postby BlueStrat » Mon Jul 27, 2015 2:36 am

Just one more similarities we have in common! I also tried to pick up the basics in German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and a dabble of Mandarin & Korean. I didn't mention French, because I was brought up in a Canadian speaking household, and that passed close enough in France. However in Paris, I was often "snubbed" because I sounded Canadian, and one shop owner told be I would be better off speaking in English, because most Parisians detest Canadians, something to do with "deserting the homeland" no doubt ! At one point, I was spending around 40% of the time overseas, and another 15% in domestic travel. Not much of a home life, but at least the kids were all mid-teens or older by then. I chuckled at the "Prep-Kit" for travel, you are so right about that. Every seasoned traveler had to learn the hard way, and be ready at a moments notice. I had travelled TWICE around the world, within a two year time span, and I not so fondly remember spending 24 days in mainland China, only to return and have the Steve Fireman ( my direct boss & brother of Paul Fireman, owner of Reebok, International) ask me "pretty please, can you go back there just for two more weeks? There was a design crises, and the entire new prototype product line had to be totally re-made. Well being the easy going guy that I was (and doing anything asked, because of pending massive layoffs) I checked with the wife, and told them ok, but JUST FOR TWO WEEKS! well, 22 days later I returned home worn to a frazzle, carrying an entire new line of prototypes, that was well received by brother Paul and the review board. :P

Mike McCarthy
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Joined: Thu Apr 16, 2015 8:07 pm

Re: DEC International

Postby Mike McCarthy » Fri Jul 31, 2015 1:38 am

One of the languages I spoke fairly well during the late 50s and early 60s was Russian. This led to an interesting experience the other day at the railroad museum ...

I was standing around in our large parking lot for some reaoson or other when a strange vehicle entered the museum grounds. It was a US Army artillery carrier -- the kind that transports artillery of, say, 12-inch muzzle diameter. On the artillery carrier was a locomotive tender that I didn't recognize. I did, however, recognize the accents of the three people who were delivering the tender -- they were Kazakhstanis. (Kazakhstan is where the Russian space program is based, at Baikonur.) I decided not to speak to them in Russian, or even to let them know I knew their ethnicity. Instead I simply asked them whether the load was to go to the roundhouse.

Yes, was the answer. I told one of them to follow me on foot so I could take him down to meet our Master Mechanic, Mike Spera, who surely would be expecting such a load if anyone was. (And yes, he was expecting it.) As we walked I simply asked the Kazakhstanis why the tender was arriving on such an unusual vehicle. "We collect military vehicles" said one of them. "We were asked to deliver the tender as a favor to Mike Spera."

That's all, nothing more to the story than that my ear for Russian accents is still fairly good. Moscow is a tough city, rather like Chicago during the thirties, or NYC around the turn of the century, but I know that I could be happy there if push came to shove. My wife, however, would hate it even if she spoke the language, which she doesn't.


I've been in touch with Werman recently. He's feeling poorly and may or may not be willing to see us. Rather than force ourselves on his hospitality I"ve told him that my wife and I will be staying in Stockbridge instead of at Stonover Farm. This will let him rent the suite he would have comped us with, without having to worry about whether or not we will actually get together.

My message here is that the museum visit is still on, but we'd meet in Stockbridge, I suppose, and would check in with Werman later in the day to determine whether he's up to seeing us. Please email me your phone number and I'll call you the evening before to set things up for the morning.

This all may mean that the Tom Werman section of this site will end up being written by me rather than him. I'm okay with that. His is an important story that deserves to be told. I think that these days I'm his biggest fan, not just because we were boyhood friends but because I recognize his special brand of musical genius, which the industry refuses to credit him with for some reason. More about this in the Werman section in a month or two.

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