Bringing your 8-year-old to a business meeting wouldn’t be typical for most working parents. But for Gustavo Cisneros ’68, H’19, it was just one of the many ways he introduced his daughter, Adriana, to the family business.
Together, Gustavo and Adriana Cisneros represent the past and the future of Cisneros, a multibillion dollar conglomerate with subsidiaries throughout Latin America. In 1929, patriarch Diego Cisneros founded the business in Venezuela. His son, Gustavo, took the helm in 1970 at age 25. In 2013, 33-year-old Adriana stepped into the CEO role.
The father/daughter Cisneros family duo joined Lauri Union, executive director at Babson’s Institute for Family Entrepreneurship, for a conversation about succession in family businesses during Babson’s recent Centennial Celebration.
A Father/Daughter Bond
“I had chemistry with Adriana and she had chemistry with me,” the elder Cisneros says. As a child, she traveled with him to business meetings. “She was always interested in bringing coffee for us and listening in to the business,” he says, cupping his ear playfully. “She gets it.”
For her part, Adriana says she connects with her father in a way that goes beyond love and emotion. She describes often feeling alone in the room as the one with new business ideas. But, with her father, it’s different.
“The times that we’ve decided to make the boldest changes or the biggest bets, the person who’s understood me has been my father. Everyone else is perfectly willing to learn or to follow along, but he’s the one who is like ‘OK, we get it, now how are we going to execute.’ It’s really special and it’s really fun.”
Passing the Torch
Unlike many family business families, the Cisneros family has a long history of embracing the transfer of leadership. “There’s no mandate that leadership in a family business has to come from within the family,” Adriana says. “Over the years, we’ve had many [outside] CEOs.” So, when she and her father began discussing her future, she says there was never a guarantee, “never a sense that it had to happen.”
She recalls asking her father, “Why the rush? You’re in great health, your brain is sharper than ever, why don’t you demote yourself from chairman and come run the business again. It’s a lot of fun, you’d be great at it!”
Instead, the elder Cisneros said, “Adriana, I took over when I was 25 and it was a hot mess. I needed so much energy and passion in order to be able to fix things and grow things. You’re going to need to not sleep, you’re going to need to run a marathon at sprint speed. The only way you’re going to be able to do that is if you start now, and not when you’re in your 40s.”
A Direct Link to the Past
“We would have never bet on the businesses that we’re in today if it hadn’t been for the businesses we were involved with in the past,” says Adriana. She credits the businesses her father and grandfather set up with shaping the bold thinking and strategies she and her team work on today.
“I remember these incredible stories, starting with my grandfather who brought Ford Motor Company to Latin America, and my father, who brought Apple computers, Burger King, and Pepsi Cola.” It was a formative part of Adriana’s upbringing, and gave her the spark she needed to pursue Facebook.
“We weren’t invited to be part of the RFP,” she says, “but we found our way in. The only way I could explain to [Facebook] why I thought we could do a good job was by telling them our history of representing great American brands in the region. And, we won. Even the youngest of companies, when they become grownups, realize that having a partner that has been around for 100 years is actually pretty cool.”
With nearly 100 years of experience also comes sage advice and perspective. “If you are part of a family business, make up your mind early on and voice your opinion about whether you want to be part of the business or not,” advises Adriana. “It takes an equal amount of courage to join the business as it does to say, ‘I really don’t want any part of it.’” The latter, she warns, is often the most difficult, especially if there are family expectations.
For her part, Adriana came to the decision to step into family business leadership with her eyes wide open. “I knew when I made the decision that it would be what I would do for the rest of my life, and I knew that it meant my life was going to be radically different from the life that I thought I would have.”
Gustavo emphasizes the importance of strengthening the parent/child relationship. “Talk to them, and have them talk to you,” he says. “It’s a two-way street, and you have to do things together to unblock [your relationship]. Go skiing, go fishing, and be active with your children.”
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