“The Pope wasn’t available so we got the President of Italy instead.”
-William the Fixer
“So what line of work are you in?” I asked. It was a common enough question in the West but it elicited a glance between the gentleman and his wife. I waited with a smile for an explanation. His place card said “Paul Botha”. His tuxedo and his manner suggested he was a special operator. From his accent I guessed correctly he was South African.
“Well…” he said slowly, his wife scrutinizing my face for a reaction, “I’ve spent nine years on the speed dial of Sheik al-Wafa.” As a former aide to a three-star Special Operations commander, I thought I had an inkling of what that meant. I soon learned I did not.
A Rare Breed
Whether you realize it or not, there is an alternate reality playing out all around us; a reality inhabited by powerful men. I’m not talking about the ones, like heads of state, that represent large organizations (though some of them count). I’m referring to the independently powerful men; the kind that may or may not be involved in politics but are uniformly fabulously wealthy. The type of men that move economies and shape politics with their whims. These men — there are very few women that fit this description — live at the supercharged nexus of money and information, where one generates the other in a virtuous cycle that produces pure power; the ability to get they want.
These men are inventors, captains of industry, entrepreneurs, and occasional criminals. Sometimes they are lucky. Very often they are calculating, even ruthless. They are almost never artists though some appreciate art. Their inherent authority means they don’t often have to exert themselves and it is a good thing they don’t. In general, they are content to run their businesses and enjoy their lives but once in a while they want to change the world. When they do, they occasionally succeed for better or worse. To their employees they are referred to as “Principals” and they require another type of man to support them; a rare breed I call the Fixer. Paul was Sheik al-Wafa’s Fixer. My friend William was Najim’s.
Children are the World
William picked up the phone with a raised eyebrow. It was his longtime friend Lance, well-known in the music industry for producing videos that launched the careers of many popular artists. Lance explained he was working to promote a song written by a reclusive billionaire but couldn’t determine how to go about it. His client, Najim, was in his 70s, had no connection to the music industry, and had an “interesting” singing voice to put it kindly. William was a successful music producer and promoter. He was the man that brought Metallica back to Indonesia after all and Lance needed his advice. William agreed to go to Las Vegas and talk to Najim. As he hung up the phone he had no idea he had just committed a year of his life to a song.
Najim lived for his business. He was a ruthless man, or at least had been. He had clawed his way to success, often leaving a trail of broken fortunes and — William later suspected — people, along the way. Now in his 70s, he wanted to do some good and he wanted to be famous for it. He wrote “Children are the World,” an anthem about love and equality, perhaps as an act of contrition that William recognized as a “pretty good song actually.” Over lunch in a Vegas cafe he gave Lance the idea that would grow into a massive project.
“Why don’t we take Najim around the world to iconic locations and show him singing his song with crowds of children in traditional garb?”
The idea was simple enough and Najim liked it as much as Lance did. William joined the team and began making arrangements for Najim, Lance, and a small documentary film crew to travel to Brazil. “How hard can this be?” he thought.
Filming at the Christ the Redeemer statue was simple enough but they wanted the video to be real. For that they needed to take their billionaire into the favelas, those famously violent and poverty-stricken neighborhoods that housed most of Brazil’s urban poor and nearly all its criminals. Security became a concern. Contractors wouldn’t touch it, neither would the police. Only the Army would enter some of the favelas and how does one get the Brazilian Army to put soldiers at risk on request? William thought back to his experience with the Indonesian Army which had provided security for Metallica in Suharto’s Indonesia. “Make it happen.” he thought and then dialed a Brazilian musician who contacted the President’s brother. Four days later, Najim danced safely in the streets of one of Brazil’s poorest slums while William negotiated access for the next phase of the project.
The Sheik’s Watch
Paul’s wife explained the difficulty of her husband’s situation. “The problem with working for a guy like Sheik al-Wafa” she said, “was that you never really know if you still have a job. As long as your phone is ringing, you’re good. When it stops ringing, you begin to wonder.”
Paul piled on. “It’s why you tolerate bizarre requests at two AM; because you can only say ‘no’ so many times. It’s also why most members of his staff don’t last a year. I have worked for the Sheik for nine.” His wife shook her head emphatically.
I pondered the difficulty of planning a life under those conditions and began to understand why they initially described Paul’s job the way they did…’Nine years on speed dial‘…Good grief.
“The secret,” Paul shared, “was to be very clear from the beginning that I would not do anything immoral. For that kind of thing he’d have to call someone else.” Paul didn’t specify what that might entail but I could imagine. He continued. “To this day I don’t know if he’s had those kinds of requirements but he’s never asked me to do something I was uncomfortable with and that’s kept me out of trouble and helps me sleep at night.”
I was enthralled now. Paul explained how he ended up here. He was a former Captain of Artillery in the South African Army on some sort of assignment in Kuwait. At the time he was considering leaving the service so he readily accepted when the Sheik asked off handedly for a favor. Paul accomplished the task whatever it was, and was rewarded with a great deal of cash and another request. So it continued. He would succeed with a job and receive another. Just like that, one at a time. Nine years later he was still at it, describing tasks like moving plane loads of expensive booze into the country at night as “routine” (alcohol is strictly illegal in Kuwait). I asked Paul for an example of something that wasn’t routine.
Paul straightened his bow tie and took a sip of wine (alcohol was permitted here at the US Embassy’s annual formal). “I received a call last week.” he began. “The Sheik told me he had just purchased a watch in Switzerland for which he paid a million Euros.” He paused to let that sink in. “He told me I needed to arrange transportation for the watch.”
I thought that sounded simple enough. The Sheik must have a plane he could send but it wasn’t that easy. “These types of transactions are never complete until the piece has been delivered” Paul explained. “so we had to avoid passing through any airspace where we might face customs issues. The real challenge,” he said with a pause, “came after a phone call I received halfway through the flight.”
Fixer in the Square
Filming in the Vatican was particularly tricky as even billionaires can’t simply take over St. Peter’s Square to make a music video. Papal bureaucracy is one of the most storied mysteries in the history of power but such things never stop a good Fixer. After a period of directed research, William discovered the path to St. Peter’s was through the Church of Assisi. The representative of the church explained that Najim’s project would be made easier by a significant donation to the Order of Friars Minor Conventual in Assisi but there was a condition. Najim, a Muslim, had to convert to Catholicism. Undaunted by the demand, William managed to convince Najim not just to change his religion, but to turn his conversion into a public event to benefit the project. Perhaps William didn’t detect my astonishment over the phone because he continued without inflection. “The Pope wasn’t available so we got the President of Italy instead.”
William’s story astounded me as he told it. Persepolis, the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall of China, the Church of the Nativity, the Eiffel Tower…North Korea was the only place they failed to go. As an alternative, William set up a lunch for Najim with President Kim Dae Jeong of South Korea — a Nobel Laureate. Everywhere they went William and Lance held press conferences to generate excitement. Najim wanted the world to see what he was doing and his Fixers made it happen.
“What the hell?!” Paul’s knuckles whitened as he gripped his cell phone unconsciously. The tone of his voice awakened his wife though she remained under the covers. It was two AM in Kuwait but she was used to this. Paul grunted affirmatively as he listened to the voice on the phone. “Thanks” he growled, hanging up the abruptly. He swore and jumped out of bed while dialing Sheik al-Wafa. It was going to be a long night.
The call had come from the Sheik’s broker in Zürich. A rival buyer had put in a solid bid of 1.6 million Euros for al-Wafa’s timepiece, solidly outbidding him and generating a time sensitive emergency for Paul. As difficult as it was to plan a route that would bypass governments likely to enforce customs rules on transit flights, Paul now had to find a way to turn the Sheik’s Gulfstream 550 around as it sped towards Kuwait at mach 0.885. If the watch entered Kuwaiti airspace the transaction would be considered complete and the Sheik could be on the hook for some exorbitant fines and the additional 600,000 Euros if he decided to keep the watch.
Paul’s task was formidable. Finding and contacting the plane was hard enough; without the right satellite communications systems, the pilots could only be contacted by the very air traffic controllers they were trying to avoid. Finding the right people in the right places with the willingness to help was a daunting task under the best circumstances. Doing so in the middle of the night was a farcical near-impossibility. But Paul was no ordinary operator. He was an experienced Fixer for an important Principal. His Rolodex was thousands of names deep; he could count on other Fixers to answer the phone when he called. That night he called a lot of them.
Fixers come in a variety of guises. They may be bankers, brokers, celebrities, or spooks. Legions of aides and attendants fit the bill as do military men like Paul and smooth talkers like William. No matter what their background they operate on a set of rules that keep them and their Principals in business. First and foremost the Fixer believes in getting the job done, no matter what it is. “Make it happen” is a phrase common to the Fixer. This doesn’t mean succeed at all costs — Fixers are usually (but not always) moral men — it means find a sensible way to meet the Principal’s intent.
The second rule of the Fixer is: maintain the Principal’s confidence. Without it, the Fixer is worse than useless, he is a liability and will be unemployed — or worse — in a flash. It is a sensitive art and success is only part of the game. There are times when a Fixer must moderate or redirect the whims of his Principal in ways that are achievable, and hopefully, legal, moral, and ethical. Very often they have to make decisions without guidance or speak on behalf of the boss. This is a very dangerous thing to do because obligating one’s Principal inappropriately is the worst sin a Fixer can commit. Paul and William knew how to do all that without crossing lines or overwhelming their Principals with requests for guidance.
Fixers with a network of other Fixers get a lot of things done in this world. They are the grease that makes great things happen. Men like Paul and William are worth their weight in gold to the causes their Principals pursue and without them, most of history’s great events would never have happened. Certainly without Paul, Sheik al-Wafa would have paid far too much for his watch. As for Najim…The final phase of his project took place at the main venue of the Cannes Film Festival where he sat next to Brad Pitt and George Clooney for the debut of his video. Children are the World was an international sensation and so was Najim.
A reminder that all the names in Project Stranger have been changed to protect the guilty. In this case, the name of Najim’s song has also been changed to protect William who doesn’t need an angry billionaire suing him over the fantastic story of how the video was produced and promoted. As for Paul…He certainly doesn’t want to end up on the bad side of the Sheik.
Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, CEO of Navisio Global LLC, and an occasional Fixer for powerful Principals. Someday he will employ Fixers himself. Until then, what do you need done?