News Column

Hispanic Executives Continue Their Rise to Power Amid a Shaky Economy

Jan. 28, 2009

Michael Bowker, for Hispanic Business Magazine

corporate elite, hispanic executives

Bleak forecasts don't faze Trinidad Aguirre. In rapid time, he rose from office technician to Area President, South/West of Verizon Telecom.

Grace Lieblein began her ascent as a co-op student in the assembly division of General Motors, soaring to president and managing director of GM de Mexico in 2008.

At Microsoft, Henry Vigil has helped grow the company into the world's largest software maker. As senior vice president of Consumer Strategy and Partnerships, Vigil is the mastermind behind Microsoft's online advertising and audience strategies.

With a mountain of economic uncertainty resting on their shoulders, these corporate executives are among Hispanic Business Media's 2009 Corporate Elite, 25 leaders who have defied expectations and obstacles to rise to the top of their industries.

They survived the turmoil of 2008, but are keenly aware of the economic blizzard that awaits in the first half of 2009.

"Yes, we're facing a challenging economic environment, but the tech industry is still experiencing good performance," Mr. Vigil said. "The speed of the recovery depends on the collective work of people and businesses. Our focus this year will be on expense management and driving efficiencies. But, 2009 is also a year of opportunities, where products and services that provide value for a reasonable cost will be in high demand."

Not in our wildest dreams could we have predicted the precipitous fall in 2008 that saw the markets and housing prices dive more than 30 percent. But, while the stomach-turning events of '08 proved that predicting the economic future is tricky at best, without anticipating what lies ahead no business can prepare for the challenges that are likely to emerge.

Despite that mystery, members of the Corporate Elite agree that in 2009 flat will be the new "up" and competition to survive this pivotal period of razor-thin margins will be fierce.

Innovation in products, services, and systems will be critical. This should bode well for Hispanic-owned companies and those driven by Hispanic managers because innovation has become a part of the way many already do business.

The Hispanic consumer sector will continue to expand, with spending power predicted to top $1 trillion by 2010, according to HispanTelligence, the research arm of Hispanic Business Media. This will provide increased opportunities for trained and talented Hispanic employees as companies seek better customer relations with this emerging market, the Corporate Elite agree.

"I've very optimistic about the economy," said Verizon's Mr. Aguirre. "What lies ahead is a rapidly changing environment where there will be a convergence of the telephone, cable television, and Internet industries. We're in a race to develop products that allow consumers access to all of these things from the same device. Whichever company can develop those products fastest and most efficiently will be the final survivor. But the consumer demand for products is definitely there and this sector will continue to grow."

Mr. Aguirre is responsible for marketing, sales, and operations in 15 states, including huge Hispanic markets in California, Florida and Texas. In 2009, his main goal will be to drive up revenue.

The battle for technological supremacy, Mr. Aguirre believes, will benefit qualified Hispanics.

"It's going to open the door wide for Hispanic engineers and other qualified Hispanics," he predicted. "The game is changing fast. Soon we'll have cell phones that are video-linked, have access to all television channels, and can be used to surf the Internet more easily.

"The future is tremendous for those Hispanics who embrace technology and prepare themselves for a career in it," Mr. Aguirre continued. "That's why education is so critical for us. With it we prosper. Without it, not only will Hispanics suffer, the entire nation's economy will drop."

Members of the Corporate Elite in the sectors of banking and finance are somewhat more cautious.

"We aren't making any predictions, nor will we comment on the current financial situation until much later in 2009," said Carlos Minetti, executive vice president of Discover Financial Services.

Mr. Minetti moved from American Express to Discover in 2001. At American Express, Mr. Minetti held positions in customer management, credit operations, global mail solutions, operations training, and risk management. Now he leads operations for all card member services functions, a wide responsibility in these unstable economic times.

The financial and insurance sector remains perhaps the most troubled sector. How long it will be before the credit crisis is resolved is a tough call because it is a worldwide problem and dependent on a number of factors. The general consensus is it may be well into 2010 before financial institutions are back at full capacity and that might even be optimistic. One ominous sign regarding consumer confidence in the markets was that at the end of 2008, zero percent U.S. Treasury bonds went on sale for the first time since the 1930s, and there were a number of buyers.

Few feel the stress of contemporary economic pressures more than Corporate Elite Dave Gonzales, senior vice president of State Farm Insurance's Great Western Zone.

"Yes, we've been negatively impacted by the downturn, just like everybody else. But we are financially strong and we invest with a long-term view and over the long-term, we, and our customers, have been very well served by those investments."

With Hispanics growing in numbers in the insurance sector, its strength is vitally important. The bailout of insurer AIG was a major signal that the U.S. government recognizes the critical nature of the large firms, which must now prove they will no longer make the mistakes of the past.

"We have to use all the tools available to us to measure risk as accurately as possible," said Mr. Gonzales. "We also must provide quality products and world-class service." The latter statement has long been the mantra of many businesses, but in 2009, achieving those goals may make the difference between survival and the alternative.

Observers say look for increased mergers and consolidations, belt-tightening measures, careful risk management, tough credit, and unfortunately, relatively high unemployment in 2009. For many companies, it is a year that may prove a narrow and often treacherous bridge to the promise of recovery in 2010 and beyond.

The symbol of the financial collapse of the country might be the fall of the American auto industry. General Motors and Chrysler have stumbled heavily and sought a government bailout. But one of our Corporate Elite, Grace Lieblein, proves there's a silver lining in every cloud.

Ms. Lieblein in late 2008 was tapped to head GM de Mexico. She rose to the heights at GM after a humble start as a student in GM's assembly division. Ms. Lieblein wanted to follow in the footsteps of her father, Rolando Larrinua, who was an hourly employee at GM's Los Angeles plant.

As she rose up the ranks, Ms. Lieblein led the drive to produce smaller, more fuel-efficient sport-utility vehicles. She and a team of engineers created the 2008 Buick Enclave, marketed as the brand's first luxury crossover vehicle, which received huge publicity last year thanks to professional golfer Tiger Woods' endorsement in television commercials.

In her new post, charged with maintaining GM's lead amid declining market share in Mexico, Ms. Lieblein is revved and raring to go in 2009.

"All challenges also bring opportunities," Ms. Lieblein told Hispanic Business Media. "As the market changes, we will continue to evaluate our product portfolio, to ensure that we are matching supply with demand. The GM de Mexico team has a proven track record of having a 'can do' attitude in the face of adversity that will benefit us during this difficult time."

To read more about all 25 of Hispanic Business Media's Corporate Elite, including the list from previous years, visit

Source: (c) 2009. All rights reserved.

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