For more than 27 years, I have been involved in the business of selling auto parts into export markets. The exposure to customers and vendors outside the American domestic market has enriched my career in ways I cannot describe, not to mention the many lifelong friendships I’ve developed with great people from all over the world. One country in particular that holds a special place in my heart is Panama and more so, its people.
Back in the late 80s, I was a parts manager for my family’s Ford dealership in Miami and exporting to Latin America was a new enterprise I was lucky to have pioneered for us. Panama became a great market as more Panamanians were coming to live and work in Miami back then. At that time, Narco-General Manuel Noriega foolheartedly figured he could be both a drug dealer and a dictator in Panama. It all ended bad for the general in 1989 with the U.S. military’s intervention, in big part motivated by the general’s infamous machetewielding video taunting the U.S. to come and get him, and they did. The general has been in a Miami, and more recently a Paris, prison cell ever since (at least the general can pick great towns to be incarcerated in).
But time marches on and Panama is a much different country today with a booming economy and a skyline that’s multiplying and outpaces even Miami’s famed skyline. With its real gross domestic product (GDP) averaging more than 10.4 percent from 20062008, the Panamanian economy has been among the fastest-growing and best managed in Latin America. It boasts single-digit unemployment and a bounce-back to double-digit GDP forecasted for the first half of this decade. About 75 percent of this robust economy is based on services, particularly those related to the Panama Canal and the Colon Free Trade Zone (second busiest in the planet behind to Hong Kong) supporting the world’s largest Merchant Marine fleet. As such, a significant share of the auto parts manufactured in the Far East that we all sell, make their way to our markets via Panama.
Just like developing relations with export customers has been an enriching experience in my career, so have many of the bonds forged over the years with our export vendors. One group in particular that has done a great job partnering up with us and all of their customers, are the folks who run Federal-Mogul in the region. This group, based out of Costa Rica, oversees sales for the Central American and Caribbean region.
Under the leadership of their director, Ronald Rivera, they have developed a very comprehensive program focused on increasing the collective business acumen of this group, through a series of high-level annual training sessions taught by MBA teachers, who are also business professionals. For the past nine years, they have organized yearly seminars attended by more than 80 auto parts businesses based in the region, averaging 120 individual participants per event. This year’s event was just held in Panama and it gave us all the opportunity to experience this booming economy first-hand. It was by far the largest group to ever attend the training sessions, with the added participation by their customers from Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela, as well as corporate representation from Federal-Mogul Mexico.
The annual training sessions have always been held by teachers from our industry’s own University of the Aftermarket or the INCAE Business School. The INCAE Business School is widely recognized as Latin America’s leading MBA business program, with campuses in Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Finding its famed roots all the way back to JFK and the Harvard Business School, their programs have generated some of the leading business minds in the region. This year’s training session in Panama was presented by one of their finest professors, Juan Carlos Barahona PhD. Barahona is an MIT graduate who teaches technology and innovation at INCAE.
How about that a professor of technology and innovation! His presentation was superb, focusing on the need for businesses to innovate. His MBA classes teach business professionals how to use digital technologies and social networks to promote the dissemination of ideas and behavior modification to change corporate structures to innovate. This is so important for all of us in the auto parts world; as we’ve said before in this column many times already, be ready to innovate or step aside, because your competitors will.
The need to innovate has clearly become a required core competency in our times. The desire to learn how to innovate is out there; a quick search of Amazon.com shows that they carry more than 11,200 books with the word “innovation” in the title, just under their business section for books.
Pro. Barahona went on to share some revealing statistics on the cost of not innovating. Based on a 2001 study by Foster & Kaplan aptly named “Creative Destruction,” analyzing the Forbes 100 business list from 1917 to 1987 reveals that:
60 percent of the original businesses no longer exist.
Only 18 percent remain in the Top 100 Forbes list.
All new entrants into this select group displaced an existing business based on an innovative core competency their competitors lacked.
Barahona further challenges us to have the audacity and discipline to continuously reinvent ourselves and be a protagonist of the major leap undertaken by our species in this new technological world-order.
So the question is clear: are you ready to innovate?
Mandy Aguilar is a regional vice president for Jacksonville, Fla.-based The Parts House. Visit his blog at www.mandyaguilar.com.