Setting Up Shop in Latin America

June 1, 2003
Doing business in Venezuela: "It&squot;s Byzantine," says Bauder of bureaucratic complexities

 Doing business in Venezuela: "It's Byzantine," says Bauder of bureaucratic complexities. Photo: Mary Bauder


The culture of American business has penetrated Latin America almost as completely as have Coca-Cola and Marlboro. Still, Duke graduates working in the region maintain that, from more personal workplaces to greater corruption, Latin America remains a very different place to operate.

" It is staggering the amount of corruption there is in these countries," says Christopher Bauder '85, the general manager of consumer products manufacturer SC Johnson--makers of Johnson Wax, Pledge, and Windex, among others--based in Caracas, Venezuela. "It's difficult in business to deal with all the government entities here. It's much more bureaucratic than you'd find in the U.S. These are vestiges of how Spanish and Portuguese colonizers ran the show. It can be very frustrating in terms of having to deal with a lot of rules, a lot of taxes and regulations. It's Byzantine."

Bauder, who worked in Brazil for nearly three years before moving to Venezuela, says that in Brazil, for example, strategies of circumventing bureaucracy have become institutionalized. "There's a word in Brazil--jeitinho--which literally means 'a little way.' It's a way of cheating the system. It's kind of an attitude that they have that you can get around anything if you're creative enough. And that word sort of developed in the Sixties when it was a military dictatorship. It was just a way for everyday people to get around the rules. And you hear it a lot in business today, 'If you do things by the book, it's going to take X time, but if you use jeitinho, you can cut that in half.' So people who are able to be creative enough to figure their way around the system do well. And it's accepted. Even the government would accept that."

Having divided his life between Panama and the United States, Jaime Aleman J.D. '78 has seen the inner workings of institutions throughout the Americas. At age eleven, he came with his family to Washington, where his father served as the Panamanian Ambassador to the United States. He remained in the U.S. while studying law at Duke and then for a three-year stint at the Inter-American Development Bank. He now practices corporate law in Panama City.

According to Aleman, there is no fundamental difference between the business culture north and south of the equator. Rather, it's a question of degree. "Corruption can happen in a variety of ways [in Latin America]. People can be persuaded by friends and political connections to move in a corrupt manner. Corporations might eliminate a bidder on a technicality. There may be instances where there was actually money paid off. And it's not that it doesn't happen in the States. Just to a lesser degree. The main difference is that in the States, if you get caught, you are going to pay the price, because the judicial system is so much stronger. Here, often there are no consequences for people who do get caught in these circumstances."

The culture inside Latin American offices, says Bauder, is different in a positive way. "It's important to meet people, very important to get to know their families, to go to dinner with employees--things that aren't really done in the U.S. There is a lot of discussion about your life and about your family during work. And it's incredibly important that you are close to people on a personal level. That's very different from the U.S., where you hear people talk about the 'work-life balance,' as if your work is somehow different from your life outside of work. Here it's much more intertwined. I think that's good in a lot of ways. You really do get to know people. You talk about family problems, boyfriend problems. It's important when leading the company that you have that kind of a relationship with people and that they feel that you know them and that you know their family."

On the other hand, says Aleman, operating near but outside the United States has some advantages as well. "Most lawyers here have been trained in the U.S., so most of our staff is fully bilingual. We might actually have a more sophisticated staff. It's more international. Here, many are forced to study abroad or want to study abroad. In that sense, we might have a better grasp [on global perspective] than people in States who might be more provincial."