Steep and perilous is the road to the modern day C-Suite, even more so for Hispanic professionals who may lack the long-standing familial, institutional and nepotistic advantages of those whose bloodlines trace back more than three or four generations. It goes without saying that a group of individuals whose families have only recently emigrated to a country would be underrepresented in the top spots of private enterprise, populated as it is with the children of the elite and others who received a good start.
The names on this list represent just that — a good start. Considering that His- panic influence in the CEO position nationally was all but non-existent just 30 years ago, the fact that we can point to these paragons of corporate success as beacons for the next generation is a positive.
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Innovative minds like that of George Paz, who worked his way from rural farm town to running the industry-leading pharmacy processing service, and hard-working dynamos like Robert Sanchez, who runs transportation giant Ryder System, have lessons to teach for ambitious Hispanics — or anyone, really — who aspires to the top rungs of the business world. Let’s hear what they have to say.
Gerardo “Gerry” Lopez — AMC Entertainment, CEO and President
The experience of being an immigrant can toughen an individual, and in the case of Gerardo “Gerry” Lopez, it helped foster a mentality to push through adversity and build success. The CEO of AMC Entertainment said as much in an interview with Mary Sanchez published on these pages last year. “It’s a drive and to me, gives you a mental attitude that allows you to tolerate a lot of discomforts,” he said.
It’s clear that it’s benefitting him considerably. Lopez was born in Oriente, Cuba six months before Fidel Castro took power, and his family left the country for the U.S. in his first year of life. He earned his bachelor’s in business from George Washington University and an MBA at Harvard. He then took on several management roles at companies including Frito-Lay, Pepsi, Procter & Gamble, and International Home Foods. He then became executive vice president of Starbucks Coffee Company, where he led the company’s global growth strategy.
After taking over the CEO spot at AMC in 2009, he led talks to seal the $2.6 billion purchase of AMC by Dalian Wanda Group, China’s largest entertainment company. The blockbuster deal created the world’s largest cinema owner and ushered in a new era for Chinese-Hollywood relations. Not a bad destination for such humble beginnings.
Ralph de la Vega — AT&T Mobility, President and CEO, age 61
Many people shy away from facing obstacles. Not Ralph de la Vega. The Cuban-born CEO of AT&T Mobility relishes them because they’ve been his keys to success. When de la Vega’s family decided to leave Cuba after Castro took power, the authorities would only let Ralph leave and made his parents stay behind. He ended up spending four years in the U.S. without his parents and without much money. “Going through that ordeal was one of the most challenging things I had to overcome,” he says. “Despite all those obstacles, I could succeed.”
But he got tougher. Again in high school, de la Vega was faced with an obstacle when he wanted to become an engineer and his counselor told him he should become a mechanic. His grandmother inspired him to stick to his guns and he did. “Don’t let anybody put limitations on what you can achieve,” de la Vega says.
He has translated that philosophy to the job. It was a challenge to become president of Bell South Latin America during the crises of early last decade such as the Argentine economic crisis, guerrilla warfare in Colombia and a coup in Venezuela. But de la Vega saw it as an opportunity. And again, when he was COO of Cingular Wireless, many people thought his company’s purchase of AT&T Wireless would be a losing bet. They said it again when AT&T lost exclusivity of the iPhone. But the naysayers were wrong. De la Vega faced the challenges head-on and won. It’s no surprise, then, that de la Vega wrote a book called “Obstacles Welcome.”
Joe Echevarria, Deloitte LLP, CEO
For Joe Echevarria, life was never easy from the start. Echevarria grew up Puerto Rican and without many resources in a single-parent home in the South Bronx. Fast-forward to now and he’s responsible for some 60,000 professionals in 90 U.S. cities and India, he often speaks to top media outlets like CNBC and the Wall Street Journal, and is an active panelist in Washington. To find out how he got there, we can consult the advice he wrote his daughter on Father’s Day. The first suggestion he gave her was to live passionately. “Regardless of what profession you choose or how you spend your life — do it with a sense of purpose and design, or risk cheating yourself,” he said. Second, he advised her to be flexible amid life’s many twists and turns. “When you see something that you know is right, pursue it too,” he said. “Even if it means a change in direction.” And lastly, Echevarria told her it was important not to compare her life with those of others, but rather to recognize she controls her own life. One of his favorite sayings says it all: “The best way to predict the future is to create it.”
Josue Robles, USAA, CEO
Numerous times, USAA has been ranked number one in the country for customer loyalty. Owning or managing assets of $182 billion, the company has served military families for nearly a century and is best known for its excellent service. The company serves 9.4 million members and 96 percent of active duty officers. Josue Robles, the CEO of the financial services company, lives by the same tenet of loyalty. The Puerto Rican native, the eldest of nine children, demonstrated his fierce loyalty by serving in the U.S. Army for 28 years, in active duty posts in Germany, Korea, Vietnam, and Operation Desert Storm in the Middle East. He received numerous medals and honors and has since been awarded honors such as the Christian Science Monitor’s “№1 Veteran in Business.” Robles wears several hats as well: he’s chairman of the Christus Santa Rose Health System, and serves on the boards of the American Red Cross and the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, San Antonio branch. And he did all this without the precedent of higher education in his family. His father quit school in the fourth grade to help support his family, while his mother stopped after ninth grade.
George Paz — Express Scripts, CEO
George Paz is in a line of business many Americans don’t even consider: processing pharmacy claims and helping health plans keep the costs of prescription drugs down. While Paz’s work might go quietly to the average citizen, he’s a giant to those in the know. Ranked number 24 in the Fortune 500 in 2013, Express Scripts became the largest company in its industry measured by retail prescription claims when it bought Medco Health Solutions last year. Express Scripts stock rose 21 percent in 2012, and Paz’s compensation rose 50 percent in value that year, according to the Wall Street Journal. Paz comes from humble beginnings: he grew up in a rural, farming community and was attracted to the business because it seemed to offer a different kind of life. “I remember seeing people like Ward Cleaver on television coming home from jobs in business and leading a different kind of life, and it looked very attractive to me,” Paz told PODER earlier this year. Paz has been with the company since 1998 and was named CEO in 2005 after serving as senior vice president and chief financial officer. He’s also on the board of directors for Honeywell and has a bachelor’s in business from the University of Missouri — St. Louis.
Paul Raines — GameStop, CEO
The CEO of the world’s largest multi-channel video game retailer spent much of his childhood in the Barrio Cordoba area of San Jose, Costa Rica. The son of a Costa Rican mother and American father says the neighborhood with barred windows and kids playing street soccer wasn’t an easy environment. “I had a funny name and wasn’t as good a soccer player like everyone else,” Raines says. “I had to assimilate.”
That experience, along with growing up in a military family, motivated Raines to get used to change, a willingness that helped him on his way to running a Fortune 500 company. An industrial engineer, Raines worked at a potato chip factory, in merchandising, home improvement and now in video games. “You get used to a lot of change and it’s not that scary,” he says.
Now he’s applying that wisdom at GameStop. While four years ago the company was only in the console business, these days it’s adapting to a market that is changing due to the newfound power of mobile gaming. Today, the company operates websites, does digital sales and is in constant talks with startups in Silicon Valley about possible new acquisitions. Raines also created a relationship program called PowerUp Rewards, which connects consumers through a global community.
And Raines is conscious that the company’s success has a profound impact on its employees. “The best part of my job is seeing our team grow,” Raines says. “I’ve tried to make the people around me successful. If you can make the team successful, ultimately you will be successful.”
Henry Cisneros — CityView, Founder & Chairman
When Henry Cisneros was mayor of San Antonio in the 80s, he realized that what he enjoyed more than anything was “watching progress for the city come out of the ground in the form of physical development.” It’s no surprise, then, that Cisneros later became Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under Bill Clinton and in 2000 founded a company called American City Vista, which is now called CityView.
CityView, which has its main offices in Los Angeles, describes itself as one of the nation’s top institutional investment firms focused on urban real estate. It is responsible for billions of dollars in urban investment in some 60 communities across 12 states. Targeting housing that middle-class families can afford, the company provides homes for firefighters, teachers, civil service workers, and artists. Investors include banks, private corporations, and funds.
Cisneros, who is 64 and lives in San Antonio, doesn’t expect to retire. “I concluded that this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” Cisneros says. “The highlight of my life these days are those Saturday mornings when we open new development and I’m able to see families get the housing they’d never imagine they would.”
Oscar Munoz — CSX, Chief Operating Officer
Oscar Munoz grew up in a working-class family in Southern California where education as a vehicle for upward mobility wasn’t a huge priority. “My Dad was a meat cutter,” says Munoz, whose family is originally from the Ciudad Juarez area of Mexico. “He had no education past high school. The expectation was that I would graduate high school, get a job, get married and live happily ever after.” That changed when a counselor at high school asked Munoz where he was going to college. Munoz wasn’t even sure what college was. But he applied, got a full-ride and was on his way. That experience has motivated Munoz to help young Latino students now that he’s successful. He has set up his own foundation that has helped 67 kids get to junior college, trade school and even Juilliard.
At work, he has been just as motivated. As COO, Munoz has helped boost transportation supplier CSX’s market cap from $6 billion in 2003 to almost $24 billion today. “It’s one of the more significant turnarounds of not just a company, but an entire industry,” Munoz says. “It was a strategic focus on making railroad stocks sexy again. We have an incredible ability to really support the American economy.”
Gloria Santona — McDonald’s, Executive Vice President, General Counsel and Secretary
It’s no small feat to be the chief legal officer of the world’s leading global foodservice retailer with restaurants in 118 countries. She is in charge of the company’s worldwide legal, regulatory, compliance and corporate governance issues. As part of the company’s senior leadership team, Santona also contributes to McDonald’s strategies for growth.
To get there, Santona drew upon the qualities of persistence and curiosity that she developed growing up in Indiana in a Spanish family with a mother who grew up in Cuba. “I really have this thirst for knowledge,” Santona says. “Growing up as I did in a very multicultural environment was great for me. The idea that I could learn how to be an effective negotiator with people who were very different from me was big when I was starting out.”
Santona has also been loyal. After graduating from law school, she interviewed for a job at McDonald’s. She was offered the job within 24 hours and has been with the company ever since. Now, Santona’s challenges include making sure the company is complying with laws all around the world amid seemingly-constant regulatory change and figuring out how to navigate the legal impact of social media.
Robert Sanchez — Ryder System, Inc., Chairman, CEO
Robert Sanchez’s parents came to the U.S. from Cuba 50 years ago with just a few dollars in their pockets. He learned a great work ethic from his father, which has helped him master nearly every facet of Ryder’s operations. At first, Sanchez wasn’t sure he wanted to go into transportation as a career. But when he was offered a job at Ryder, his wife told him she thought he would learn to love trucks. “She was right,” she says.
Sanchez began as an IT specialist, then moved to finance, asset management, transportation management and was CFO during the recent financial crisis. Now as CEO of the Fortune 500 transportation company, Sanchez loves the opportunity to find new solutions to customers’ challenges. “The most important thing I can do to support that goal is to listen to our employees and listen to our customers.”
What fascinates Sanchez most about Ryder is how much it drives the economy without people even knowing. Because Ryder’s trucks help transport other companies’ products to consumers, it’s a crucial component of commerce everywhere. “The razor you use in the morning was likely distributed and transported through a distribution network fully managed and operated by Ryder,” he says. “The cereal you ate for breakfast was likely packaged or moved at some point by Ryder. Even the toothpaste and soap you bought at your local drug store could have been delivered by a Ryder employee on a Ryder truck wearing the uniform of the drug store company. Ryder is really operating undercover in most aspects of the economy.”
Cesar Conde — Univision Networks, President
Of course, it’s a big deal to be president of the leading media company for Hispanic America. But it’s even bigger at a time when the burgeoning population and growing political weight of Latinos have made Hispanic media more important than ever before.
Conde told PODER in an interview in 2009 that Univision could become the country’s number one network in any language. That isn’t inconceivable. Univision’s ratings have been strong since Conde took over as CEO, while its English-language counterparts are struggling.
Conde’s experience can help him get there. The son of a Peruvian-born father and Cuban mother has worn many hats at the company, from the interim president of Univision Interactive Media to vice president of Galavision Network, from vice president of corporate development to vice president of sales and business development.
He doesn’t only focus on the success of his company, recognizing that helping Latino youth is key for local communities and the nation as a whole. He’s the chairman and co-founder of the Futuro Program, a non-profit providing workshops for Latino high school students.
Darren Rebelez — 7-Eleven, Executive Vice President and COO
As COO of the world’s largest convenience store chain, Darren Rebelez is a crucial component of 7-Eleven’s aggressive growth plan. He oversees the company’s strategy to add new stores to the around 7,600 it already has in the U.S. and Canada. He also manages the company’s facilities, construction, and maintenance programs, as well as being responsible for the company’s gasoline business, asset protection and business transformation projects. He’s also in charge of a plan to franchise some 1,000 stores that are still company-operated in the U.S.
Previously, Rebelez was in charge of ExxonMobil’s distributor fuels pricing program and franchising for its convenience operation called On the Run. He was also vice president of merchandising for Thornton Oil Corporation, leading the company’s strategic planning, marketing, and category management. Rebelez is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, has an MBA from the University of Houston and a bachelor’s degree in engineering. Most recently, Rebelez has been in the news. He called on thousands of franchises to review their hiring practices after nine 7-Eleven franchise owners and managers were indicted by federal authorities for alleged identity theft and immigrant exploitation.
For read more articles by Jens Erik Gould, go to jenserikgould.com