*At the time of this interview Luis held the role of Vice President, Handling Operations at LAN Airlines
Going back to your pre-MBA career, you did a stint at Bain and left for a role at Carrefour, a multi-billion dollar retail company. What made you decide to go back to consulting post-MBA?
It’s an interesting story, because when I left Bain I promised myself I would never go back into consulting, which is not a reflection on the firm itself, but more one of my specific circumstances. I liked the work, and found it to be extremely interesting, but I started in a new office that still needed to establish itself, and in a market that was not used to consulting pricing at the time. As a result, we worked with understaffed teams, which made the lifestyle unsustainable. In business school I had a few friends who convinced me that consulting was different in the U.S., and because I liked the basics of the work, I decided to give it another shot – the worst that could happen was if I didn’t like it, I would leave after a year or so. I loved Booz, and ended up staying at the firm for much longer than expected.
After spending almost seven years at Booz, you left the firm as a Principal to go back into industry at Wal-Mart as Senior Director of Strategic Planning for Latin America. Why did you decide to leave Booz when you did, and why for that role in particular?
Going back to the industry was my plan since I joined Booz. I was doing well in consulting, and truth be told, I got too comfortable – I was really only passively looking until two years into Principal, when this opportunity showed up and I knew I had to make the decision of whether I would push for Partner. When you’re at Partner level, you’re really in consulting for the long-haul, and when I asked myself if it was what I wanted, the honest answer was “no.” Consulting was great, and I loved the people, but it was not something I desired long-term.
As for the role I chose to take at Wal-Mart, it was an exciting opportunity for a couple of reasons. It was a very large company, but the Latin America office was smaller and offered an entrepreneurial environment, and that combination really appealed to me. The role also broadened my international experience, and exposed me to the whole of Latin America rather than the few places I knew from consulting and my Brazilian background. It was a tough decision, and I spoke with a lot of the Partners about the pros and cons – in the end, I decided it was the move for me.
For your transition back into corporate, what was it like going from external to internal strategy? How was your transition into corporate different than that of you pre-MBA experience?
It was a very different experience. Pre-MBA, I went from consulting into a line role, which was exactly what I wanted to do and I knew what to expect. In that sense, the pre-MBA transition was relatively easy, whereas the one from Booz into internal strategy was more of a learning curve. Internal strategy has its pros and cons. For pros, you never leave a project behind, and get to bring the suggestions, analogies, and recommendations from consulting through to implementation. You check in with all of the groups / international teams to make sure it is being done correctly, you follow-up, and get to factor in the budgeting process and long-term planning. For cons, it is actually much harder to push change, which might seem counterintuitive considering internal strategy lies within the actual organization. The sense of urgency from an external project is lost on an internal team. Internal teams are on an annual salary and are in the office regardless, whereas external consultants can be staffed for just a few weeks at a time, there is a lot of money involved, and you have access to top management in order to get done what you need.
From your strategy role at Wal-Mart, you left retail to move into your current role as a Vice President of Handling Operations for LAN Airlines, a leading air cargo operator, with a P&L of over $300mn and over 3,000 direct reports. How did your previous internal strategy experience help prepare you for your subsequent operations role? What have been some of the challenges, and do you have any suggestions for consultants who are targeting a P&L role in the future?
The move itself wasn’t something I had initially planned. My current company at the time moved its headquarters out of the country, and while I had an offer there, it didn’t work for me personally, so I decided to leave and started looking. I had always wanted a line job rather than a strategy / business planning role, but the problem was that after several years in consulting people don’t see you for those types of positions. I had the understanding that I would have to “start over” at a new company, and was prepared to pay the toll and work my way up at my next firm. Through a friend’s referral, I got the interview at LAN Airlines for a hard core ops job dealing with processes, improving costs, and negotiating with suppliers. I didn’t think I would get the offer considering my background (I didn’t expect to skip the toll!). It turns out that my team is made up of very strong operators, and the company was looking for more of a strategic vision. I was brought in to challenge their core, and change processes when necessary.
For consultants looking for a P&L opportunity, you need to be clear about what you want to do. With everyone I talked to (Partners, headhunters, etc.), I had a consistent story: I told them I understood the toll I would pay, but that a line role was something I really wanted. While at Booz, I’d also like to think I went about it the right way. I got involved in a very important project, and when I knew I wanted to move, I started telling the Partners I knew and trusted and asked them for advice. They provided an absolutely amazing network, which is also something consultants should remember – it can be frustrating if you feel “burned out” on a project etc., but never jeopardize your network. It becomes your crash pad later on when you’re looking to move elsewhere.
Having spent most of your career with a focus on CPG and retail, what prompted the move into transportation services? What are your initial thoughts on the industry?
When I moved into my current role, I was more worried about the function and getting the right experience than the industry itself – I have had exposure to many industries through consulting other than CPG and retail, so learning a new industry isn’t all that scary. Initially, I was actually worried that I wouldn’t find it that interesting – how hard can it be to transport cargo around, right? It’s actually incredibly complex, and each operation and country has its own set of issues (cost of labor, type of cargo, availability of suppliers, etc.). I find it extremely exciting and entertaining.
Having grown up and spent your pre-MBA career in South America, much of your post-Booz corporate career has been focused on that geographic region. Was it a conscious decision to double down in that area? How do you think your international experience has affected your outlook / approach as an executive today?
Going into my first post-Booz role in the Latin America office of Wal-Mart, it helped that I spoke the language, and that I had familiarity with a hot market people wanted to talk about (Brazil). Now, my role is very much a global one, and I have P&L responsibility for stations all over the world. In a global role, I think it’s important to understand how to balance both the generalities and peculiarities – each place has its own specific circumstances, but if you think of how you will address things in terms of every single location, you lose all efficiency and economies of scale. You need to have a strategy and system that can work broadly and be calibrated to each different market. Coming from Brazil, it helps to know how one of our large markets works from the inside out, making conversations with teams easier, etc.
What are your plans for professional development and growth? Do you see yourself in big corporate for the long-term?
Yes, big corporate is the career I’ve chosen for myself. For the long-term, the target has always been to become a General Manager at some point – in taking my current role, I knew operations would complement my previous experience in strategy, marketing and sales, and took it as a way to round out my experience as a General Manager.