Interview with Guillermo Sención, Executive Vice President, Grupo Sención, Dominican Republic
In some ways, Grupo Sención could be considered an outlier in its home country, the Dominican Republic; as a multi-generational family business with over 40 years behind it, there are not many to equal it in the market. Today, the group operates across the construction (Constructora Global and Antillean Construction Company), energy (Sigma Petroleum Corporation and Sunergy), and health services (Macrotech), with minor interests in design and furniture, education, defence, and security. Thanks to a strong foundation in innovation and governance, Grupo Sención continues to maintain its story of success as one of the Dominican Republic’s top multi-generational family business.
One of the key figures charged with ensuring that Grupo Sención will thrive well into the next generation is Executive Vice President Guillermo Sención Suárez. As a civil engineer with more than 17 years of experience in the country’s real estate and infrastructure sectors, Guillermo was appointed Vice President of his family business five years after obtaining an Executive Masters Degree in Business Administration from Barna Business School in 2009.
In this interview, Guillermo discusses his family’s entrepreneurial roots, the challenges and opportunities in building a business in the Dominican Republic and what the future has in store for Grupo Sención.
Perhaps you could begin by telling us a little about your family business history. How has Grupo Sención become such a successful family business in the Dominican Republic?
Everything started with my father around 40 years ago. I’d say he is a natural born entrepreneur. My father started with no capital or inherited heritage but the will to create, to be better, to improve himself and the environment surrounding him. His values have always been hard work, honesty and creativity as well as helping others. He is always thinking about how to create something new, something that betters people’s lives.
When I was around 18 years old, I was studying civil engineering in university when my father created a construction company with the idea of providing opportunities for his two sons, my brother Joel and me were studying at college. At that time, we had no idea that we would one day transform into a family business group – we simply started working together through the guidance and support of our father.
How many members of your family are working in the business?
We are a big family but currently, only five of the second generation are working at the companies and form part of the business structure. This is because the is an important difference in ages of over 20 years between the oldest and the youngest siblings. And then there is my cousin who is like a brother to us. My uncle died when my cousin was young, and my father took him in as his child. Today, he is the manager and shareholder of our health services company Macrotech. We all work in different companies within the group.
Tell us about your role in the family business. Have you always been in the same role since you joined or did it change a few times?
Without question, it has changed a lot. When I started, I was focussed on the construction side only, learning some very basic stuff. In time, I got to be the manager of the construction company. But now my role is very different. Because I am the oldest son, I feel that I have the responsibility to ensure the smooth transition from what my father has created to the next generation with an adequate structure and corporate governance, which we are building in collaborations with my father and my siblings.
My responsibility is to make sure that our group is stable, to protect the heritage and be open and take advantage of the opportunities to come and help to grow and provide for our future family generations. My goal is to make our family business group a space for growth, prosperity and stability not just for my whole family but for our collaborators and employees as well.
What are some of the key factors that can ensure a smooth transition as you envision it?
First of all, communication. It is vital that we as family and business are in constant reflection and communication, so everyone involved in the process is heard and knows what is the reality at the time and the vision that is pursued. We have been working for almost two years now to bring in outside talent to help with all this new organisation. There’s also been much work on corporate governance for the family, which resulted in the creation of our family council, family protocol, and family assembly.
The family council is comprised of the oldest children with, of course, my father as the council’s head. Here, we have regular meetings to talk about the current day-to-day operations as well as the future of the group. The family assembly, on the other hand, is comprised of all the children, even the ones who are not yet working in any aspect of the businesses. Even though they may be young, we feel it is important for them to get to know what we are planning, what our vision is, and, which are the values of the family.
What has been the impact of the fact that you are based in the Dominican Republic, and what are the unique growth opportunities that it presents?
We have always worked here in the Dominican Republic. And the advantage of being here is that for the past 14 years or so, we’ve had a growing economy (an average of 5% per year approximately). Overall, we are fortunate to be in a country that is emerging and developing, and it has been a big advantage for us. But now that we are looking to the future, we have to diversify beyond what our operations look like today.
We are a diversified group, but this applies only to the Dominican Republic. As such, we are currently undertaking the first steps to go international. To that end, we have formed strategic alliances with other international companies. For example, in the healthcare field, we have an alliance with Baxter International, which has helped us develop a lot of new technology. Through this partnership, the services that we are now offering here are very innovative. There is no one else doing that in this region with the quality and technology that we are providing, so we believe that we have a great opportunity to expand throughout Latin America, where we hope to replicate the success that we have achieved here in the Dominican Republic.
How are you ensuring, as a family, that you maintain a spirit of innovation across all of your group’s diversified sectors?
I feel quite strongly that creativity is in our DNA, which is something our father brought to the family business. We are always talking about new ideas and how we can introduce new things to our customers and processes. Our family and collaborators travel constantly, and during our travels, we make sure to attend a variety of conferences and trade shows, as well as visits to companies in different countries and industries. This is because we are on the lookout for what is new and ground-breaking within different industries.
We travel to Europe, Asia, and the United States to get a sense of the things that are up-and-coming. We have visited many cities like Silicon Valley (EEUU), Rotterdam (Netherlands) and others where innovation is a strong part of the culture. The bottom line is we are always looking for new opportunities to invest or to capture knowledge.
How do you make sure, that your family members and your employees develop the skills that allow them to stay on the cutting edge of change?
We believe in constant education for our family members and our collaborators as a key element to develop skills and be prepared for the challenges of changing technologies and business models. In any organisation, there are different personalities, and we have the advantage of having equilibrium between the personalities. For example, my father loves to talk about new ideas all the time. I like to talk about new ideas as well, but I try to be more structured about.
My father on the other hand, doesn’t think much in structural terms but he is always thinking of ways to be more creative. We now know that we need both the structure that I bring as well as his creativity and the mixture of the others siblings’ personalities and points of view help us get a more balanced result in the decisions that we take; it’s a critical element in being able to function successfully. And I think this balance of viewpoints has been key in allowing us to develop some really interesting initiatives over the past ten years or so. Given that we come from a small country like the Dominican Republic, I think we have developed a very formidable group.
Tell us more about the ecosystem of family businesses in the Dominican Republic. What do you see around you?
In the Dominican Republic, we have many natural entrepreneurs. I feel the Dominican people are very creative. Everywhere I look, I see people who want to create something new. And you can feel it when you’re here. The problem is, so few have the structure I talked about earlier. As a result, what’s often happened is that many families became very successful, but only a few them created the corporate governance that is required to handle the succession process.
But I think that this is now beginning to change. Even as recently as ten years ago, very few people wanted to talk about the issues surrounding succession. But then we started seeing unfortunate cases where the family patriarch passed away, and there were huge conflicts amongst the surviving family members. Everyone hired lawyers and they ended up destroying the company and the family heritage. So having seen all that, there are now more people building the family business infrastructure that enables them to preserve their legacy.
You mentioned before that you have younger siblings who have yet come into the business. If you compare to how it was for you when you joined the business, what do you hope their experience will be like?
I think they will reap a lot of benefits because when I started, there was no plan and there was no structure. Because of that, the risks were a lot higher, and maybe the resulting mistakes were bigger as well. But now we have some structure in place that allows people to explore various opportunities with less risk. That’s what I see as the biggest advantage for all the brothers that are in the company.
Of course, there are always risks because starting work in a family business is a major process and it takes time. And really, anything can happen, but the good news in our case is that we are open to working out the problems that arise. I think that is the biggest difference.
At the beginning when I was new to the business, my father was not open at all, and he didn’t really want to talk about anything. He used to say, “Why do we have to talk about it? Why do you care so much about this?” But I’ve learned that if you don’t talk about problems or matters involving others openly, you will run into a lot of issues.
What would your advice be to other family members who find themselves in your situation of being the person who advocates for structure? What would you tell them to do to be successful?
Well as I see it, the most important thing between family members is love. But there is also another reality – the individual interest, expectations and needs of each person. Everyone has their own ego. So if you want to keep the love in the family, you should have an open conversation about organising your company that allows everyone to share their thoughts, in one word: Communication. It’s important to make sure that all the members understand where they are all headed, both as family and as a business because if this is not worked out, you will inevitably run into problems.
I have come to see that most people want harmony, love, and of course, opportunities. So I would advise others to take a chance on all the opportunities that are available and work hard to develop something better. If you put in the work, you will find success. If you don’t, it is very likely that you will regret it and face difficult situations for lack of planning what you want as a family and a business.