A long time ago in the last century – a timid biology student – I was temping at Cargill, a big international corporation that trades in just about anything. Their offices in Hamburg were rather inconspicuous: not in one of the areas you’d think a big business would be located, and certainly not in a posh building – any old company could have been in there.
So I remember vividly when, one day, I had worked late and a fax came in while I walked by. What does a good temping student do? Pick up the fax and dutifully put it in the appropriate pigeonhole.
Staring intensely at it while looking over my shoulder Accidentally catching a glimpse of what was on the fax, I was scandalized to see that this was some kind of budget statement over tens of millions of D-Mark. Never mind the question of what this was doing coming in on the main fax line – I had no idea that this joint was making that much money! Although, looking back, it might have occurred to me at some point, considering they have branches all over the world and their brokers were making big deals all day long in the next room. Anyway: at that point in my life, even knowing about that kind of money scared me.
Fast forward to my job with the US Antarctic Program years later. There, it quickly had to become routine to watch over relatively big budgets covering all consumables and equipment used on a science cruise. I had to make a case for the purchase of instruments that cost way more than my annual salary on quite a few occasions, and track spending from a budget many times that amount.
Of course, this pales in comparison to being involved in a project that costs over one billion euro. Although, once you get used to it, the numbers start rolling off your tongue quite easily – construction will cost a few hundred million? – not so surprising perhaps, since we’re digging a 3.6 km tunnel in the Hamburg metropolitan area that has to be fitted with high-tech equipment. An individual country contributing a few per cent to the total cost doesn’t sound like much, until you convert this to the actual amount of some tens of millions of euros.
In the end, as always, budget numbers simply need to add up.
What’s in a billion, eh?