Interview with Cristina Henriquez
Love… Likely the most powerful emotion known to human kind. As literature, poetry and all other art forms have always told us, it is the one feeling that allows unparalleled euphoria as well as downright misery; that gives strength beyond measure or the best excuse for cruelty.
In the particular construct of the family business, love is in its ambivalent nature fuel and obstacle alike. While the love we feel for the family can be the reason for our passion and loyalty for the business, it can also become a burden and the source of guilt, making us unsure of how to make our own decisions.
Cristina Henriquez, third generation member of the Henriquez Group from El Salvador, tells Tharawat magazine the wonderful story of her family business, explains why it is hard to love and to be loved, and why, in spite of that, it is the one emotion we all live for.
The Henriquez Group – A short history
The Henriquez Group is a third generation family business from El Salvador, which was founded by Mario Cohen Henriquez. Mario, originally from Curacao, was left an orphan at an early age. His brothers and sisters were put into the care of aunts and uncles. In a bold move to take charge of his own destiny, Mario went from Curacao to Panama and then from Panama to El Salvador where he joined a German family that owned a retail store. In 1926 he became the owner of the store partnering with a man called Herbert De Sola and so forming the partnership De Sola – Henriquez. In 1951, Mario and his two sons Raul and Luis bought out De Sola and formed the company M.C. Henriquez & Co., which continued to focus on the retail sector.
Cristina Henriquez as one of the seven third generation family members takes pride in her family’s achievements but also describes her grandfather’s willful character with a good sense of humour. “Very soon my grandfather and in fact my whole family was well known for jumping at business opportunities. Consequently, as a business we never really developed a core activity but rather always had a portfolio of different investments. Until today we are a holding company of several investments.”
Usually the question of succession in a family business is dealt with by asking whether the next generation is interested in the family’s activities. Mario Henriquez was certainly not discouraged by the fact that his sons’ passions rested in sectors other than retail. He knew how to convince them to join the family firm. “He just made it happen,” declares Cristina. “My uncle, Luis, was interested in banking so my grandfather bought shares in a bank . My father was passionate about coffee and agriculture so my grandfather purchased a farm. His motto being to keep it in the family.”
1979 brought a civil war to El Salvador and the family faced difficult times and choices. “We found out that my father and uncle were in danger of kidnapping and so the family decided to relocate to Miami for a while,” explains Cristina. They hoped that it would be a temporary stay, however, six months turned into year and more. Luis and Raul decided to get offices in Miami. Cristina resumes, “So there they were, in their rented office in Miami and at the beginning, all they did was read the newspaper in search of new opportunities. They began from scratch. If anything good came out of that difficult period it was that the family learnt how to stick together more than ever.”
As a rule, each generation has its own story that makes a mark on the family history, in the Henriquez clan, it is the loving relationship between brothers Luis and Raul that has defined the business and family future decidedly. “As different as they were in character, they were inseparable and always had each other’s back. It was an understanding that was beyond anything. They shared the same bank account until my father’s death,” says Cristina. “My father and uncle married my mother and aunt. They were cousins who loved each other as sisters. The four of them were very close. They even married within a week of each other so they could go on their honeymoon together.” Luis and Raul led the family firm in what appeared as perfect harmony. Complementing each other by their different characters they set an example of ideal understanding and love for their children.
Love then and love now
Cristina Henriquez was only 32 years old by the time both her father and mother had passed away. She describes the sorrowful consequences frankly. “When my father Raul and my mother Vilma passed away thirteen years ago,” says Cristina, “my uncle Luis became the sole patriarch. It forced me to get to know my uncle in a different way. I had an image of him as a very stern and serious man but now I wanted to know him as a human being. I wanted to understand his and my father’s relationship and the love that had kept them so united and loyal to each other.” For Cristina’s generation it has been a journey of understanding and pain to make the family business work without both of the brothers to lead it. She adds, “But I also think that what ultimately has kept us together is the example my father and uncle set.”
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“My uncle Luis naturally wanted his children and us to have that same extent of feeling towards each other that he and my father had shared. So there we were, the third generation unable to fulfill the entry requirement into the family business,” Cristina smiles now though painful these discussions have been for her and her family. “Of course we all love each other as cousins and siblings, however, it can’t be compared to what my uncle and father shared. After the civil war began, some of us left El Salvador and others stayed behind and so to some extent we all naturally grew apart in interests. It has been very hard for my uncle to understand that unity doesn’t come from being tied into the business together but that it has to be a choice and come from the heart.”
As the only one left from his generation, Luis Henriquez has tried to gather the family closely around him. “The person that is the most involved in the family business is my older brother Mario,” states Cristina. “He was there when my father and uncle had to start over in Miami, so he has the clearest involvement and probably values the family business the most. The rest of us are still making choices regarding our level of involvement.” Cristina herself has over time gotten involved in shareholder and also the family council.
Love and guilt
While the love between the second generation brothers was and still is what keeps the family together it also put considerable pressure on the third generation. “We felt guilty that we could not love like them. There was a feeling of failure with my siblings and cousins because we couldn’t make it work the way our father and uncle had.”
The family went through a process of nearly a decade to cope with the loss of this harmony and with the involvement of the third generation. “What has kept us together is this core foundation of love that we grew up in. The hardest thing in this journey, that has lasted over a decade is to understand that part of love is fighting, part of love is struggling and disagreeing,” says Cristina adding that this might seem obvious to some but for the Henriquez clan who had grown up by the standards of love and harmony set by Luis and Raul, it has been a difficult thing to learn. “Sometimes, when we’d have different opinions we felt like we were committing treason. We had to learn how to fight with each other and show up being ourselves.”
“For me, the one person that I think made the biggest difference was my sister-in-law who is married to my eldest brother,” responds Cristina when we ask her how they overcame this difficult phase. “She is a phenomenal woman who transformed my understanding of love. Often I would get upset because of a difficult shareholder’s meeting and my sister-in-law would remind me why I was doing it all. She and my brother both have this way of keeping the bigger picture in mind,” she says gratefully. “As an outsider, she could see the benefits of fighting for the family better than I could.”
“I think in the beginning we were all so scared of being ourselves. The idea of love was so idealistic and we were all trying to live up to it.” Cristina tells us that she even left the family business for a few years to gain some perspective. “I understood that I had to go away and be happy and understand what sustains me apart from the family in order to bring that happiness home. I had spent my thirties trying to be my mother and hold the family together. I thought I could be this ideal of love. Then I came to the point where I had had enough and I left. I became more true to myself and as a result my relationship with everyone else became more real. I wasn’t afraid to get angry in the boardroom, I wasn’t afraid to challenge my uncle anymore. I have lost my fear of not being part of the family. I could come back and love them as myself.”
In fact, the Henriquez family gradually learned how to make their love for each other into an asset again. “We really care and that is enough. Love is in that. It’s more real, not the ideal version we thought we had to live up to. It has ups and downs and there is space,” Cristina sighs contentedly. “I am going ahead with my life and it doesn’t mean that I don’t love my family. On the contrary I have more communication with my brothers and sister than ever before. There is more range to this emotion. The challenge of our generation, which followed that brotherly bond, was to accept that when the family grows, the definition of love must grow as well. There are many more people, and many more kinds of love involved in the process.”
The Henriquez family has overcome a difficult hurdle and has defined its legacy aside love. “The spirit of entrepreneurship. We are people of our word and we have integrity and courage. That binds us together and that will carry on. These are values my uncle adheres to,” declares Cristina resolutely.
Tharawat Magazine, Issue 25, 2015