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.

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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.”