News Column

Corporate Elite Face Steep Challenges

January/February 2008, HISPANIC BUSINESS Magazine

Jonathan Higuera

Uphill climb

This year's Hispanic Corporate Elite operated in a volatile economy; a year dominated by rising energy prices, growing threats of global warming, and a tsunami-size subprime mortgage crisis. Their response was to soldier on, keep producing the results that got them to their lofty posts, and adjust and execute business plans their companies set in place.

While their sheer numbers remain small, their impact is being noticed. They include such corporate leaders as Ralph de la Vega, president and CEO of AT&T Mobility, who moved into his position in October. At AT&T, Mr. de la Vega presides over the nation's dominant provider of cellular service, whose digital voice and data network is reportedly used by over 80 percent of Fortune 500 companies.

Another high-profile exec is Deirdre Connelly, president of Lilly USA, one of the nation's largest pharmaceutical companies. She started at Lilly as a sales representative in 1983 and worked her way up the ranks before she was named president in 2005.

Ralph Alvarez, president and chief operating officer of McDonald's Corp., leads one of America's most recognizable brands. His long career in the restaurant industry included jobs at Burger King and Wendy's before moving over to McDonald's in 1994.

For the high-level executives in this year's Corporate Elite Directory, some of the traits of success are readily identifiable. The overriding characteristic is that most, if not all, have advanced educational degrees coupled with a distinguished results-oriented corporate resume. And they constantly seek out learning opportunities, whether it's a management program or experiential learning.

Many have also gained international credentials in addition to their domestic assignments, reflecting the global portfolio of the Fortune 500.

Mr. de la Vega served as president of BellSouth Latin America for several years before becoming chief operating officer at Cingular Wireless, which eventually merged with AT&T.

In his current position, Mr. de la Vega's goal for his unit is "to be number one in every key metric for our industry."

His accomplishments such as overseeing the launch of high-speed internet service while at BellSouth, leading the rollout of Cingular's third-generation wireless broadband deployment, and inaugurating an Internet protocol TV service for AT&T put him in line for his current role.

"I think I've developed a real understanding of what it takes to roll out new technologies on a large scale," says Mr. de la Vega, who came to the United States when he was 10 years old. "I also have a real appreciation for how quickly things change in our industry."

Corporate Elite executives work in a range of industries, from high tech to telecom, from pharma to fast food. Most work in industries that offer direct consumer products. And while not prerequisites, many have engineering backgrounds and/or MBAs as part of their pedigree.

"Two thousand seven was a year of growth for Hispanic executives but with it came some challenges," says Lourdes Hassler, chief executive officer of the National Society of Hispanic MBAs (NSHMBA). "We started to hear a lot more about leadership roles given to Latinas and Latinos."

The Hispanic Association for Corporate Responsibility's research of Hispanic representation on Fortune 500 boards found about 1 percent of corporate executive officers were Latino in 2006. Hispanic representation on corporate boards was slightly better at more than 3 percent.

Carlos Orta, president of the association, points out, "If you look at the CEO of a Fortune 500 or 1000 company, it took 25 to 30 years for that person to get to that point. If you go back 25 to 30 years in our community, we didn't have a lot of folks in corporate America."

Dr. Louis Olivas characterizes it as a "leveraged position to empower others." A business professor at Arizona State University and publisher of DATOS, a database focused on the Hispanic market, he adds, "When you have someone like Alvarez [chief operating officer of McDonald's Corp.], he has the ability to hire vice-presidents that can be in line to be the next CEO."

In 2008, corporate America will face a challenging environment. The economy seems to be tilting toward recession, and further declines in hiring and consumer spending could push the dominos. The weak U.S. dollar, which has foreign investors nervous about investing in the U.S. bond markets, is another worry.

"The macro economy is always a factor, of course," Mr. de la Vega observes. "But we have not changed our expectations. Sustained top-line and bottom-line growth is our objective and we fully expect to achieve it."

Ms. Hassler, head of NSHMBA, predicts that 2008 "will require more creativity from the standpoint of having to leverage all the resources you have to reach expected goals." "It's imperative," she says, "that companies continue to focus on the pipeline. Those that don't will wake up and say, 'Where have we missed the boat?'"

Missing the boat is something Maria Alvarez Mann doesn't appear to have ever done, at least professionally. The 45-year-old first-generation American is chief technology officer for JPMorgan Chase's Retirement Plan Services, a position she moved into in 2007. Previously, she worked in Chase Card Services, where she handled assignments such as launching the bank's credit cards in China and selecting IT processes for the post-merger organization.

But she credits much of her success to her 10 years as a co-owner of an IT consulting company. While the first five years went smoothly enough, providing services to privately held companies, the 1990 recession almost put her company out of business.

"In about two months, we went from thriving to barely hanging on," she recalls. Faced with this daunting reality, she and her partner devised a new business plan that emphasized going after government contracts.

It worked and it turned out to be one of her proudest accomplishments. In 1995, she and her partner sold the company, and she moved back into the corporate world, working for Vlasic Foods Company. In 1999, she joined Bank One, which eventually merged with JPMorgan. Several successful assignments there led to her current role.

"One of the things that has been part of my success in the corporate world is that I think like an owner," says Ms. Mann, who oversees a team of about 150 IT professionals. "I think in efficiencies. There are no sacred cows for me. When you are a business owner, you are always thinking about how to do it quicker, faster, cheaper. Those same attributes are needed in corporate America."

She'll need those attributes as JPMorgan Chase vies with such major companies as Fidelity to provide retirement services.

"I'm in a business that's going from medium-size to going against large competitors like Fidelity," she says. "More discipline and more subject matter expertise will be required."

Subject matter expertise is something Mr. David M. Velazquez has spent a career building in the energy business. As president and CEO of Conectiv Energy, he oversees a company with 400 employees and $1.3 billion in plant assets.

In fact, the company, which sells energy wholesale, announced plans in December to build a new $470 million power plant in Pennsylvania that uses natural gas and fuel oil.

It was one of Mr. Velazquez's biggest career accomplishments.

"It took people involved from the environment, real estate, engineering, accounting, and legal," he says. "To see how the team pulled together and how efficiently and quickly they worked was very rewarding."

The son of a Puerto Rican career military man and an Austrian mother, Mr. Velazquez, 48, has spent most of his career in the energy business.

"There's real value of having been around a long time," he says. "It's not just the contacts but the intimate knowledge of the different facets, from generation to the retail side to training and development." Indeed, Mr. Velazquez notes, "If you are not learning something every day, then something is wrong."

>>View the list of the 2008 Hispanic Business Corporate Elite.


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Source: HISPANIC BUSINESS Magazine and Hispanicbusiness.com, Copyright (c) 2007 All Rights Reserved.