Power Players of Mexico: Carlos Slim Helú, Alberto Bailleres, Lorenzo Zambrano, Ricardo Salinas Plieg


 Mexico is well represented at the forefront of every major industry.

In Mexico, tourism and the picturesque resorts that dot every coastline capture most of the headlines in the international press. While it is understandable that these manmade Edens are a good fit for glossy magazine stories, Mexico’s biggest movers and shakers do most of their moving and shaking quietly and behind the scenes.

During the middle of the 20th Century, Mexican industry underwent unprecedented development across the board. It was so impressive, in fact, that the period of economic development and industrialization that coincided with years of political stability is known as El Milagro Mexicano (the Mexican Miracle). The family fortunes of some of the tycoons profiled in this piece began accumulating during this period. Minerals, construction, and transportation were often the bedrock on which today’s companies were built. Today, however, many holding companies have expanded to include a thoroughly modern and global mix including finance, media, and commerce. This evolution, which seems to have gathered momentum during the last 20 years, is responsible to a large degree for the wide-scale progress in Mexico’s business world.

A name that has been on everyone’s lips of late is Carlos Slim Helú. Known to many Americans in recent months as “the man who bailed out the New York Times,” his involvement with the Times shone a light on the growing importance of Mexico’s business force. Slim himself is the second wealthiest man in the world (at certain times he has been considered the richest) and derives much of his wealth from holdings in the communications industry but is also heavily involved with building Mexican infrastructure through transportation, construction, energy, and natural resource projects. Last fall, he bought a 6.4 percent common-stock stake in the troubled American newspaper and, in January 2009, he came forth with a $250 million dollar loan, prompting speculation that he may be interested in buying the beleaguered Times Company outright. While no one knows exactly what his plans are for media expansion, it is likely that we will be hearing more about him in coming years.

Alberto Bailleres, the second wealthiest man in Mexico, is the force behind holding company Grupo Bal, a major mining company and the largest source of silver in the world. He has diversified his holdings into a chain of department stores and the only entirely Mexican insurance company.

Like Bailleres, Germán Larrea Mota-Velasco’s fortune originated in the mining industry. His late father founded the company Grupo Mexico, which mines zinc and silver as well as copper, the ore that accounts for much of the corporation’s vast wealth. Larrea expanded into the transportation and logistics sector, and owns Mexico’s largest railroad.

The proliferation of cities drove the growth of many companies within Mexico. Lorenzo Zambrano is a great example of someone whose industrial fortune has evolved into much more than that. He is the Chairman and CEO of CEMEX, one of the largest cement companies in the world. The company, inherited from his father, has seen phenomenal growth under his savvy guidance. Zambrano is a member of a number of boards including IBM, Citigroup, Grupo Televisa, and others. Fortunately, the mogul does take time to pursue fun now and then: cars are his hobby of choice, specifically fast ones; he owns the world’s largest collection of Ferraris.

More recent fortunes have been built on commercial ventures. Jeronimo Arango founded, along with his two brothers, the Aurrerá chain of discount supermarkets. His inspiration came from a 1958 visit to New York, during which he was first introduced to the idea of a discount store. Given his affinity for American ideas, it is little surprise that he joined forces with Sam Walton in 1991 and was responsible for bringing the first Wal-Mart to Mexico, where it was later rechristened Walmex. His company also owns the international restaurant chain VIPs.

Ricardo Salinas Pliego is the head of Grupo Salinas, an important media and banking empire. He weighed in on the future of his company’s expansion, sharing his valuable insider’s point of view with Haute Living. “The future for Grupo Salinas lies in international expansion,” he explains. “We are currently present in eight countries outside of Mexico. Here in the United States our flagship operation is the Azteca America television network, which serves the Latino community. We also have banking and retail operations in Brazil, Peru, Argentina, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Panama, and we expect them to continue to grow nicely in coming years.” Salinas recently and notably purchased a major stake in Circuit City, which began to liquidate in January, 2009. So, will there be a greater focus on international expansion than ever before? “At our retailing and consumer finance business, Grupo Elektra, about one-fifth of our stores are outside of Mexico. However, international operations were our strongest growth area last year, and we expect to continue this trend through the next decade.” Looking inward once again to comment on the growth of business within Mexico, Salinas said his focus was on emerging communities. “Our hope for the development of Latin America is that more companies will begin to see the advantages of serving communities at the bottom of the pyramid. For instance, industries like banking serve only the top 15 percent of the population in Latin America. We’re changing the concept with Banco Azteca.”

The emphasis on Mexico’s lower classes was a widely echoed sentiment. Alfredo Harp Helú devotes much of his attention to aid and development these days. Born in Mexico City, Harp is the ex-owner of the biggest Latin American and Mexican bank, Banamex (now part of Citigroup), and owner of the telecommunication company, Avantel, the second largest telephone company in Mexico. A billion dollar beneficiary of Citigroup’s buyout of Banamex, Harp now spends much of his time tending to his nation’s poor. Through Fundación Alfredo Harp Helú Oaxaca, he oversees development aid to the state of Oaxaca, located in the south part of the country. He continues to act as chairman of the board of Banamex’s holding company.

Physically, too, the face of Mexico is changing, thanks to a number of projects initiated by the government and the private sector and the work of talented Mexicans. Enrique Norten is the country’s most famous architect. He was handpicked to design the Guggenheim in Guadalajara, a testiment to his versatility and excellence. (Though that project is on hold for the time being, it is expected to continue in the near future.) Norten is busy with a number of other projects, including five in New York City and the massive and ongoing construction of a park and UNESCO world heritage sight in Mexico City called Xochimilco. “The mayor of Mexico City and I have been discussing this project since before his election,” Norten explains. “The area was named a UNESCO world heritage site in 1987. Its history is totally unique; pre-Columbian settlers had built islands within the lake that is located in the south part of the city. These were preserved but over the years the surrounding area had been victim to urban encroachment. The lake had become polluted, and the protected area was shrinking.” The enormous undertaking, which does not have a set end date as of yet, will drastically reconfigure the area to bring public space, entertainment, and business to the poorest section of the city. Business-wise, there are plans to revive a marketplace that used to exist on the site, stimulating the micro-economy of the area via new employment opportunities and industries. Norten, who spends time in both New York and Mexico City-he has an office in each-says Mexico City is going through a very good time in terms of innovation in arts and architecture. “The generation younger than myself is very cutting edge. The New York Architectural Society has an annual lecture series called ‘Emerging Voices’ and, this year, three of their five honorees were from Mexico.” Norten also mentions the growth of the Mexico City international art fair, Zona Maco.

The renowned resorts that line the coast are also keeping up with international standards of luxury. Recently, the amazing Hacienda Tres Rios garnered media attention for its advances in green tourism. Tres Rios is a pristine 326-acre nature park in the Riviera Maya that was designated as such by the Mexican government. The resort’s developers spent two years studying the ecosystem before commencing with the construction. Located less than an hour from Cancun, the property represents the sustainable tourism model that many new resorts are embracing.

From resorts to resources and artistic innovation to international development, Mexico is well represented at the forefront of every major industry.