CARACAS — Personal tragedy forged Lorenzo Mendoza’s values. When his father, Lorenzo Mendoza Quintero, died suddenly at age 55, his mother was forced to take over the family business, Empresas Polar. Leonor Giménez de Mendoza taught her six children leadership skills by example, recalled Mendoza, who was 22 at the time. She insisted they continue studying and meet other challenges. Her grace when faced with a formidable and unexpected situation helped prepare her son to take the helm of Venezuela’s largest food and beer producer 12 years later.
Leadership is about “knowledge and conviction and not about your last name,” Mendoza said in answer to Latin Trade questions e-mailed to him in Caracas headquarters . Being a corporate leader means being committed to employees and passionate about making the business succeed. “There are no gray areas,” he said.
Trust, conviction and straight talk help Mendoza navigate the current business challenges, from the political to the economic, in Venezuela today.
Privately held Polar is the country’s largest beer maker and was the creator of pre-cooked corn flour used in arepas, a staple of the Venezuelan diet. The country’s largest industrial conglomerate employs 30,000 workers and operates 17 plants that produce and distribute products ranging from rice and vinegar to ice cream and laundry detergent. Brands include the namesake Polar, as well as global names like Pepsi-Cola and Frito-Lay.
Before joining the company, Mendoza earned an MBA at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and worked in investment banking in New York and London. When he did take the helm, his executive style blended family-business traditions with innovation. After taking over as CEO of Empresas Polar in 1999, Mendoza undertook a major restructuring that included acquiring new businesses and streamlining operations.
The youthful CEO said the company’s greatest asset are its employees. “I believe and trust in people,” Mendoza said. “My main concern is the company’s workers.”
But Mendoza believes a company needs to be a model of good citizenship.
“The reality of our region is one of huge inequalities, where the difference between the haves and the have-nots is enormous,” Mendoza said. “This reality demands a commitment beyond creating companies, a commitment to society and the communities where we work and live.”
Empresas Polar’s socially related efforts date back decades, long before corporate responsibility became fashionable, Mendoza said. He is a long-time supporter of Ashoka, a global association of social entrepreneurs.
The 30-year-old Fundación Empresas Polar oversees a wide range of health, education and community development programs.
The Lorenzo Mendoza Fleury prize, an annual award for scientific achievement, is named after Mendoza’s grandfather, founder of the family beer brewery in Caracas in 1941.
The CANIA program funds a health clinic in the Caracas neighborhood of Antímano to treat infant malnutrition. The San Francisco Professional Training Center instructs Venezuelans who lack formal education and helps them find jobs within the Polar group. DANAC, an agriculture institute, carries out research on sustainable farming.
The foundation also publishes the Dictionary of Venezuelan History, drawing on the expertise of some 300 historians, and funds cultural and athletic programs.
Empresas Polar’s concern with social responsibility stems in part from the company’s commitment to Venezuela.
“We are passionate about Venezuela: its good and bad things, its realities and its people, its challenges and difficulties.”
Mendoza said the company also focuses on athletic events. “Sports are fundamental to us,” said Mendoza. The 44-year-old, who has six children with his wife María Alexandra Pulido, plays tennis, runs marathons and enjoys the outdoors. He views sports as a way to foster discipline and cooperation and to smooth over Venezuelan social differences. “On the playing field, there are no socioeconomic or ideological differences,” he said.
The business sector in Latin America has often acted in a shortsighted manner, concentrating exclusively on profits, Mendoza maintained. The private sector must work with the government and local communities to promote progress and close the economic gap, he said.
“The key to success for a business executive is to understand that we don’t work for ourselves, but for many people,” he said.
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