Maxim Behar and James Shields, Estero, Florida, January 2024

James Shields, the re-discoverer of Bulgaria...

Thanks to its talented American expatriate, James Shields, the century-old US company AMOCO Corporation was the first to discover that you can do good business in Bulgaria

"Hey Max, they told me your company can make business cards..."

Even though I was still in the early stages of my business and my office had only one assistant who hadn't even finished a university degree yet, those words affected me quite a bit.

Come on, have we come to the point of only making business cards for the world’s 5th largest petroleum company, I asked myself and was thinking that they came here purely by coincidence.

I was almost ready to leave James Shields, the newly appointed Managing Director of AMOCO Bulgaria at his temporary set-up offices at the – then–only 5-star hotel in Bulgaria Sheraton, when

I just looked into this person's eyes.

There, I saw only kindness, depth, and a desire for serious work- in 1996, in Bulgaria, this was quite rare.

I took the hand extended to me for a handshake, and thus began our everlasting friendship with Jim Shields, the man who, in the first years of our fragile free market, kept saying he was firmly convinced that this country is worthy of AMOCO’s aspirations.  Shields said market studies reassured AMOCO that Bulgarians are a people with a strong work ethic, very intelligent, and well-educated.  

“See, Max, beyond knowing that Bulgaria has a remarkable history of a people with perseverance and a country with spectacular scenery but Bulgaria is also commercially vey attractive as an important crossroads with good transportation links.”

We spent long hours with Jim,

sometimes from early morning until late at night,

drawing up many bold plans; and not always in agreement but always both of us committed to stay the course . It was emotions, business and creative, the whole atmosphere, the whole project.

AMOCO announced plans to build up to fifty petrol complexes in Bulgaria over a 5 to 10 year period. To build 50 full-service retail businesses across all of Bulgaria was absolutely unprecedented as an investment at that time, with only one exception … the Belgian "Solvay," which logically and for historical reasons acquired the soda ash plant in Devnya.

Jim said, "we will always conduct our business with

complete honesty and become known as good citizens

 who contribute in meaningful ways to the Bulgarian society for the good of its people.  All Bulgarians should know that we are one of them; only then will they will believe in us," Jim was constantly saying this to his entire team of native and citizen Bulgarians.  Then, we would sit down for dinner in a Sofia tavern to think about how to put this into practice.

We officially inaugurated the first unique AMOCO full-service convenience store with deli wand fully-automated carwash in Burgas... "with great fanfare," it would be an understatement if I used that worn-out phrase. The then-American ambassador, Avis Bohlen, a brilliant diplomat and a great friend of Bulgaria who was unwaveringly by our side throughout the preparation, delivered a heartfelt speech about Bulgaria in a beautiful Bulgarian language, winning the hearts of the people at the event, which practically amounted to almost half of the city.

For Bulgaria, these moments were truly unforgettable;

we lived with the unique feeling

that it wasn't the explorers discovering America, but this time America re-discovered  Bulgaria and giving it new life.

Shields emphatically stated, "Max, we did it, and you know, after AMOCO, many more investors will come when they see what we've done and this will transform Bulgaria. There will not only be new investments and new jobs but, most importantly - lessons on how to behave in a free market, deal with competition, and profit and reinvest some of those profits back into society... Just like we are doing in America for decades," Jim often shared with me these words during our endlessly long meetings, and the sparks in his eyes spoke more than any words.

We returned from the Port city of Burgas on the Black Sea to Sofia more than happy; newspapers and TV channels informed the whole of Bulgaria about this investment.

Just two weeks later, it must have been well past midnight when my phone rang, and Jim, with a very businesslike and cold tone, asked me to meet him exactly at seven  o’clock for breakfast at the "Sheraton" at "our table."  At the time, I didn't know, but for years now I know that if you're asked to have breakfast with someone at seven in the morning,

it's very rarely a good sign...

At the table, I saw Jim joined by an unknown gentleman with small, rounded glasses, who, from a distance, looked not different then an ordinary elegant and efficient bureaucrat. Without much ado, Jim Shields straight informed me that AMOCO will be closing its businesses in Bulgaria and would soon sell it. The entire restaurant, with its huge crystal chandeliers, spun before my eyes, and I "descended" back to Earth when the gentleman in the gray suit and glasses said to me: "I'm coming straight from Chicago; today we're releasing a press release with five sentences, let's say we're pulling out of Bulgaria, and tomorrow I'm flying back..."

But that was really too much for me.

I just had started my business, explaining to the whole world that only foreign investments would put Bulgaria on the global business map and how AMOCO is coming to stay forever...

And I almost exploded,

so emotionally, that the few early guests for breakfast in the hotel restaurant stopped eating and looked at me quite anxiously.

"So that's it! You came, you promised, met with ministers and mayors, and now you're telling me today to write five sentences, and let's go back to Chicago.  No way, gentleman!".  I was already standing upright and leaning on the chair as if I was about to pounce on the stranger, who was blinking slightly fearfully and innocently as if telling me that it doesn’t depend on him, there were such instructions, that's what he would do…

With a dramatic gesture, Jim Shields stood up from the table, came exactly beside me, and said, "See, Max is right. We've talked to over a hundred journalists in the last few months; we need to invite them all again and explain this corporate decision.  WE must do it now.  WE will go before all of the journalists in major cities in Bulgaria and explain the corporate decision." Indeed, the quite unstable Bulgaria at the time was not the reason for this decision; the company decided to withdraw simultaneously from all three countries; Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria.  Subsequently, in 1998 we learned that British Petroleum announced it was acquiring the AMOCO Corporation.  It was only then did we think that the very successful launch initially announced in 1994 may have become a casualty in the pre-planning of the ultimate BP acquisition of AMOCO Corporation four years later in 1998.

We held long and detailed press conferences in major cities from Sofia across Bulgaria to Burgas bordering the Black Sea. I still keep pictures of how my journalist colleagues barely held back their tears. Leaving Bulgaria was not only AMOCO but also one of its first and most consistent "re-discoverers"...

Jim Shields, however, stayed for months afterward to make sure AMOCO employees received very suitable severance packages and to conclude the business in the best way possible which the equally influential and well-known Shell then bought. Shell also retained most all of the team of Bulgarians that Jim Shields had recruited and trained to be best-in-class leadership.

Jim returned many times to Bulgaria … meeting friends, journalists, and business partners. And before departing back to America he always invited us to visit him.

More than two decades later and just months ago,

I finally accepted Jim’s

long-standing invitation to visit and be his guest to stay at his home in America.

We met in the beautiful small Village of Estero, very close to Naples in Florida. When I entered his modest office (or also referred to as cabinet) in his home, the first thing I saw facing his desk was a remarkable bronze sculpture (entitled “The Dying Buffalo”. This wonderful work of art was created forty years ago in 1984 by the renown Bulgarian artist Vejdi Rashidov.  That work of art was proudly positioned on a five foot column-style pedastol and was surrounded by dozens of photos and memories from Bulgaria... I looked at him in amazement, and he said, "I love discovering new places, but a beautiful country like Bulgaria, wonderful people like Bulgarians, I have never met before, and now they are always here, right here, with me..."

He looked at me and pointed to his heart.

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