What I learned at Harvard Business School

By Scott Westerman

Tangible Value
Clear Strategy
Committed Team
Excellent Execution

Those are the four take-aways from my experience at Harvard Business School. The professors were excellent. I was surrounded by smart people who were engaged and eager to learn. The atmosphere was conducive to learning, the technology was top notch and the food was first rate.

But if I had been paying attention, I would have learned everything I needed to know the moment I got off the plane.

When I heard I was going to Cambridge, I have to admit that my heart sank. I would have to endure Logan Airport and the Daedalusian maze that Bostonians call ground transportation.

I’ve written before about my preference for trains. The travel tips the college provided ignore the T, Boston’s rail transit system, and probably for good reason. Although it costs a fraction of a cab ride, it’s a hike to get from the Harvard Square Station to the HBS facility, and the footbridge across the Charles River is not conducive to wheeled luggage.

That left the taxi cabs. I don’t have a beef with Boston cabbies. They have a well deserved reputation for eclecticism in ethnic origin and personality. But the cab line at Logan’s Terminal C will instantly generate strong commentary from the regulars who must endure it’s winding queue.

It didn’t help that my connection arrived at 6:40 and that the opening reception was scheduled for 7. When I travel, the company considers Sundays an adjunct to the five day work week. And since my family time is my most prized possession, I do my best to book the last boat out. Airtran delivered on it’s promise this particular trip, and thanks to my strict carry-on luggage policy, I was at the end of the queue at 6:50 on the button.

The muttering of the regulars seemed to concur that from our remote position, we had an hour wait for a ride into town. That’s when Salem appeared and my lesson in the four take-aways began.

“Where are you going?”

He seemed to be taking a transportation survey among those of us at the tail end of the cab line. Many simply ignored his question, but four of us mumbled answers.

“We can do that. Follow me.”

A woman left her place in line and, with group dynamics in full sway, the rest of our quartet followed. We reentered the terminal and rode the escalator to the departure level.

“What’s this all about,” I asked the guy in front of me.

“You’ll see.” The guy knew something I didn’t.

Beyond the sliding doors there stood a spotless mini-van, a transportation company name stenceled on the door panel. The rear gate was open and Salem began tossing our luggage in the back.
“The front door of your hotel, 20 dollars,” he said to the first woman. He rattled off prices to the rest of us, finishing mine with a final flourish, “Harvard Business School, 30 dollars.”

I scanned my memory of Harvard transpo memorandum. “Cab rides from Logan airport typically cost between 40 and 50 dollars.” Tangible value. This would be cheaper. We all climbed aboard.

” always pick my own customers,” Salem said as we sped away from Terminal C. ” find people who are going in the same general direction, charge less and take as many as I can.”

The Thomas P. Oneal Tunnel connects Logan with the rest of the world. We were headed in that direction now and I could quickly see a line of about 150 cars crawling three abreast toward the toll booths. Salem seemed to be ignoring them as he raced along in the far right lane.

“Do you have one of those toll transponders that let you bypass this mess,” I wondered?

“‘m special,” was Salem’s grinning response. At that instant, we arrived at the front of the toll line and he cut the wheel to the left, sliding into a non-existent space between a vehicle and the toll booth. Salem waived his left hand in a friendly greeting that was met with a sonorous blast and a hail of epithets. We were now at the front of the line.

” pick my own customers, charge less and give them excellent service,” he said. Clear strategy.

We shot away from the toll booth and were soon threading our way among the traffic in the tunnel. The speed limit therein was 45 miles per, but my eyes saw the speedometer top 60.

“Nobody gets people to where they want to be more quickly than me. My cab is the cleanest and I never make my customers listen to these.” He pointed to an array of CDs clipped to his visor. It was an interesting mix of heavy metal and Arabic. Salem seemed to read our thoughts.

“After 9-11, people are afraid of anyone who looks like an Arab,” he said. “But I love the United States and I love Americans.” “And this…” he turned to look at us with his right arm outstretched, “is the realization of my dreams.”

We were on the freeway now, doing 80. Fenway park slid quickly by on the left. Salem’s lesson continued. “My daughter was born here. She will go to college on scholarship, perhaps to medical school. I tell her, ‘you give your best and good things happen’. This is how I work. To be the best. To show her that this is true.” Commitment, clear and simple.

I watched as he dropped off each customer. All gave him more than quoted fee. He had earned 30% in
tips by the time we pulled up the front of McKinley Hall. The entire experience had taken place in 20 minutes. By my calculation, I would be checked in and in the reception hall with time to spare.

Excellent execution.

I gave him fifty dollars.

I thought of Salem many times during the next five days. The Harvard experience was well worth the investment. But even now I smile as I think of how I learned the essence of sustainable success… from a Boston cabbie.