Venezuelan mogul passes away, leaving strong global legacy.
BY JOACHIM BAMRUD
Long before Mexico’s Carlos Slim, Cemex and Grupo Bimbo or Brazilian multinationals like Vale, CSN and Ambev expanded internationally, Gustavo Cisneros was busy making major deals in the US and Europe.
“At a time when most Venezuelan — and indeed Latin American — business leaders were concentrating in their home markets, Gustavo Cisneros pursued a bold international expansion,” Moises Naim, a distinguished fellow at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who served as Venezuela’s trade and industry minister in the 1990s, told Latinvex in a 2013 report on the change of management at Cisneros Group that year.
In the 1970s and 1980s multinationals were almost exclusively a developed-country phenomenon; very few companies based in poor countries operated abroad, Naim pointed out.
“The concept of emerging markets had not been coined and globalization was far from being the common idea that it is today,” he says. “Protectionism and barriers to international trade and investment were rampant. In this context Gustavo Cisneros used his group’s base in Venezuela to pursue business opportunities abroad and infused his company with a strong international orientation. In this sense he is undoubtedly a pioneer.”
Cisneros, 78, passed away December 29, 2023 in the United States, a little over a decade after he passed over day-to-day management to his daughter Adriana Cisneros.
“Gustavo Cisneros was an inspiring, visionary leader who worked tirelessly and energetically to advance Latin American business, education, and culture globally,” Susan Segal, President and CEO of the Americas Society/Council of the Americas, said in a statement. The Council of the Americas includes leading international companies doing business in Latin America, while Americas Society focuses on education and culture in Latin America.
John Thornton, Executive Chairman of Canada-based Barrick Gold (the world’s largest gold producer), singled out Cisneros’ valued advise.
“Gustavo was an irreplaceable source of wisdom, judgment and insight for decades. He had an uncanny ability to get right to the core of the matter, to see around corners and to give sound, practical, forward leaning advice when one most needed it,” he said in a statement. “His generous and entrepreneurial spirit and his personal and professional integrity will be missed by all of us.”
Cisneros was an independent member of Barrick’s board from 2003 and a member of the miner’s International Advisory Board, which advises the board on geopolitical and other strategic issues.
Asked about what he himself considered his key legacy, Gustavo Cisneros told Latinvex in 2013: “Primarily, having bolstered Cisneros’s international expansion, thanks to a strategy based on diversification and synergy, was one of my greatest achievements. Even during the seventies, I had a clear vision of where we were going, and we started laying down the foundation that would allow us to take the decisive step of becoming an authentic multinational company in the eighties.”
While Jorge Lemann and his Brazilian 3G capital raised eyebrows for its purchases of three symbols of Americana (Budweiser beer, Heinz ketchup and Burger King) more than a decade ago, the Cisneros group owned Spalding, which invented the first basketball in 1895 and remained the world’s top basketball maker for years, as far back as the 1980s, specifically from 1984 to 1996.
While Mexican mogul Slim created headlines for buying European companies like Dutch telecom KPN and Spain-based construction firm FCC in 2021 and 2016, respectively, Cisneros bought Galerias Preciados, one of Spain’s top retail chains, 41 years ago — in 1983.
Gustavo became CEO of the Cisneros company in 1968 at the young age of 23. However, he was still older than his father Diego when he founded the Cisneros group in 1931 at the age of 20. Diego had started out his career by acquiring a trucking company two years earlier. During the subsequent years, Diego expanded the company into auto repair parts, ice cream production, soft drink bottling and TV broadcasting.
Gustavo is credited with taking the legacy of his father and expanding it strongly both at home and abroad.
“Growth is undoubtedly an outstanding accomplishment of Gustavo’s leadership of the Cisneros Group since he took over from his father … at a very young age, and multiplied their dimensions exponentially in a very short time, breaking fully into the multinational arena, and joining the big leagues of global business,” Antonio Herrera-Vaillant, who ran the Venezuelan-American Chamber of Commerce for 16 years during the 1990-2006 period, said in an earlier Latinvex interview.
The company Gustavo inherited from his father included having the Pepsi license for Venezuela, which made the South American country long one of the few in the world where that brand dominated against its rival Coca-Cola. In 1996, Cisneros soft drink unit Hit de Venezuela made worldwide headlines when the company switched to Coca-Cola. The following year the company was sold to Mexico-based Panamco for $100 million.
The Venezuela operations also included Venevision (the top TV station, a major exporter of soap operas and the producer of the extremely popular Miss Venezuela pageant).
In 1984 Cisneros acquired Spalding & Evenflo companies. Spalding was one of the top sports equipment producers in the world (especially in basketball and golf), while Evenflo is a manufacturer of infant and toddler car seats, gates, and bathing products. The company was sold to KKR in 1996 for a reported $1 billion.
One of the most prominent deals was buying US Spanish-speaking broadcaster Univision, along with partners Emilio Azcárraga Milmo (the longtime head of Mexican media company Televisa) and Los Angeles-based investor A. Jerrold Perenchio for $550 million.
“One of our most successful operations was the purchase of Univision in 1992,” Cisneros said in his interview with Latinvex.
The three investors sold Univision in 2007 to a group of private equity firms for $12.3 billion.
Another key milestone was the creation of Galaxy Latin America in 1995, the first all-digital direct-to-home satellite television service in Latin America, along with partner Hughes Electronics. The venture competed with Televisa’s Sky TV venture with Rubert Murdoch and Brazil’s Grupo Globo. Cisneros sold his stake in 2007.
“With his satellite network, Galaxy Latin America, Cisneros, 52, has the content and distribution to become the Rupert Murdoch of the next century’s Spanish-speaking Western Hemisphere,” Vanity Fair wrote in 1997 when it declared him one of the 65 most influential people in the world. (The seven other Latin Americans included five presidents).
While Gustavo Cisneros often resold assets he had acquired – mostly at a hefty profit – he did not purchase at a whim. Instead, he spent considerable time to prepare for the purchases in cases like Univision, Dileep Rao, a professor in management and international business at Florida International University, pointed out in a Forbes column in 2013.
“Gustavo Cisneros… led the Cisneros Group from one of Venezuela’s great companies to one of the world’s great ones,” Rao wrote.
In 1996, Cisneros also wanted to acquire the Miss Universe organization.
“During my tenure with Gustavo Cisneros, one episode that stands out was the 1996 breakfast meeting between Gustavo, Donald Trump our counsel, Bert Fields and me,” says Eduardo Hauser, who worked closely with Gustavo Cisneros for more than a decade. “We were in the midst of a competitive bid for the Miss Universe organization, with our sights set on growing its media operations and monetizing its global TV rights, leveraging our experience with Miss Venezuela. Mr. Trump, on the other hand, was focused on the event’s potential to enhance his hotel and casino properties. At the suggestion of Bert and the bankers, we decided to meet about forming a partnership where each party could pursue its intended benefits. The meeting lasted a few hours, including some curious moments and we concluded the meeting with an ambiguous understanding we try to work together and acquire the business jointly. However, Mr. Trump subsequently made a preemptive offer, effectively sidelining us.”
This incident was mentioned in The Art of the Comeback by Trump, though the related chapter was later removed from the book, Hauser says.
Over the years, the Cisneros group also attracted some of Venezuela’s top talent, including people like Hauser; Jose Antonio Rios, who served as chairman of the board for Latin America-focused telecom Millicom until recently, and Beatrice Rangel, a former chief of staff for Venezuelan President Carlos Andres Perez who joined the Cisneros Group in Miami in 1994 as a chief strategist and worked there for ten years before founding her own consultancy AMLA Consulting.
Hauser was executive vice president for AOL Latin America for six years before founding news generator DailyMe in 2005 and ran it until its sale to ePals in 2011 and more recently served as senior vice president at the Discovery Channel’s parent company. He worked as Managing Director of the Cisneros companies for more than a decade after starting out as an intern while studying law in Caracas.
Rios, a former high-ranking executive with Telefonica and Global Crossing, spent 13 years as corporate vice president at the Cisneros Group before continuing to work indirectly with Cisneros as CEO of DirecTV Latin America.
“Gustavo Cisneros has left an important mark on the Latin America and US Hispanic business landscape,” Hauser says. “Gustavo and Ricardo Cisneros, along with a very strong team of executives launched hundreds of companies, propelling Venezuela into the spotlight as a key player in international business. Gustavo Cisneros’ mentorship forged new paths for hundreds, if not thousands of professionals and helped shape the careers of many executives. His strategic vision has had a lasting impact on the business world, not just through the jobs created but also through his substantial influence on Latin American entrepreneurship, corporate leadership and philanthropy.”
Both Hauser and Rios praise Gustavo Cisneros’ leadership qualities.
“He had an extremely advanced sense of “connecting the dots” between people, between countries, between organizations,” Rios says. “That talent allowed him to create a more accurate sense of the immediate future than what executives or investors normally have. Gustavo also had the rare quality of “thinking while on his feet,” connecting, digesting and responding to issues without being paralyzed. Not too many people have that quality.”
Cisneros had a very clear and disciplined decision-making process, which included extensive consultation with both internal staff and external contacts, then key meetings to narrow down the options before making a final decision, Rios says.
“Among the qualities that most impressed me about Gustavo Cisneros were his profound understanding of people, his remarkable memory, his unwavering persistence, his passion for diplomacy, and his remarkable discipline,” Hauser says. “Gustavo Cisneros possessed an uncanny ability to decipher human nature, engaging individuals on a deep level and rallying them around common goals. His memory was nothing short of exceptional, allowing him to retain intricate details that were crucial during complex negotiations, business opportunities and strategic plans.”
Cisneros’ persistence was another strong skill in his enduring success, exemplified by his approach to long-term projects with unwavering dedication and zeal, Hauser adds.
“He was virtually always “on.” I recall times when he would travel across time zones, and we had to extend the office switchboard hours to 24/7 to ensure he could communicate with us at any hour about a deal or provide important updates and instructions,” Hauser says. “This round-the-clock dedication was a testament to his commitment of global business leadership.”
Lastly, Gustavo Cisneros’ understanding of global diplomacy shone through in his strategic use of business and policy to enact positive change, he adds.
During more than four decades, Gustavo Cisneros built an impressive roster of friendships and relationships with a Who’s Who of political and business leaders around the world, including the elder and junior Presidents Bush, the late Henry Kissinger, the late Italian mogul Gianni Agnelli and two of the wealthiest people in the United States, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.
He often used those contacts to help promote ideas such as free trade and better education in Latin America.
Apart from building Cisneros Group into a major multinational, some will also say his legacy was naming Adriana as his successor. The move was well-planned several years in advance and widely praised at the time. “Gustavo has shown great judgment and leadership in choosing Adriana,” AS/COA’s Susan Segal told Latinvex in an earlier interview.
In his later years, Gustavo Cisneros spent most of his time in the Dominican Republic, where he became a citizen in 2014. The Cisneros Group is behind a sustainable luxury real estate project in the Caribbean country, which will feature a Four Seasons hotel. The Tropicalia project also includes a foundation that carries out programs in education, environment, productivity and socio-cultural advocacy in the Miches area where it is being developed.
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