Interview with Omar Otalora & Simon Otalora Procomon & Associates Panama
The story of Procomon & Associates started in 1981 with Omar Otalora who was a geological engineer passionate about aerial photography. What started as simply providing services in geological positioning and mapping to the oil and gas sector in Colombia, soon expanded into servicing the development of an entire industry through construction and operating the pipelines, oil field wells, and relevant infrastructure. By the late ‘80’s, Otalora diversified into general civil works and started providing services for road construction, water and other public infrastructure.
The second generation of the Otalora family, Omar and Simon, both work for their Panamanian family business Procomon & Associates which is today one of the largest engineering firms specialising in the construction of public works and private infrastructure. The company engages in projects which often bring clean water and sanitation systems to people in remote areas of Panama.
Tharawat Magazine had the opportunity to speak to the Otalora brothers to discuss their business, achieving happiness as next gen members, and the motivation that comes with purpose.
Your company has a lot of projects happening in different parts of the world. What is the scope of your activities today?
Simon: In Panama, we have now around 500 employees. This year we have a turnover of around 55 million dollars. We have focused on one specific sector, which is water and sanitation. We’ve seen a rapid and healthy growth in the last three years. Still, there is still a lot of investment needed in this sector, especially in proper water and waste treatment infrastructure.
We’re working on a large scale government project to provide clean water and proper sanitation to the country. We’re part of a social program to provide toilets to rural communities. In Panama, there are almost 2 million people that don’t have access to water or proper toilets. This leads to so-called open defecation or the use of a latrine. The government is looking to abolish all this and provide proper sanitation. So we’re the largest contractor taking this initiative.
That must make you feel so good to see the social impact of what you’re doing.
Simon: Yeah, a hundred percent. That’s one of our most meaningful projects. We don’t see the immediate impact right now but we know down the line, we are changing the lives of all of these people that will be using the toilets and getting access to clean water. More than 2 million people lack access to clean running water and proper sanitation.
Omar: I think what Simon says is very true, especially in Panama. Lots of people have been benefiting from these projects so, you will see a huge impact not far in the future. As little as perhaps two or three years. By then nearly all the designated areas will be completed. In terms of international projects, we are now trying to establish our market in Africa. So we are focusing on very undeveloped countries with great opportunities to enhance their infrastructure in sanitation and water management. We will be undertaking similar projects with sanitation and waste treatment or power generation.
You started the joint venture with the Chinese partner a few years ago? Is this connected with your plans to expand internationally?
Simon: We started working with a Chinese partner maybe seven or eight years ago. This was pioneering into new territory because, in the construction industry, the main players were Spanish or Latin American companies. We started with the Chinese almost accidentally. When we were overseeing a project development in the Middle East, a cousin happened to be in China at the time. My father got in contact with him, and before long, there were a few Chinese companies interested in what we were doing. They came to the Middle East that’s where the relationship took its first steps. But, it has taken a while to become fruitful, because only in the last months has Panama formally established diplomatic relations with China.
Omar: Basically, we’re leveraging our Chinese connections, because these companies are interested in investing in Africa. So, we are creating channels to start working and expanding our market into Africa.
Let’s talk about your personal experience in the family business. Have you found a role within the family business that makes you happy?
Simon: Before coming to the firm, I was working in Boston, and I had my own plans. I was sort of dragged into the company so, in the beginning, there were definitely some mixed feelings. I thought maybe I would go abroad again and go for a MBA degree or do something on my own. But I started learning more about what we do, how we do it and the impact we’re having on people’s lives. That was a very powerful experience for me. And one of the challenges in the very beginning was that my role wasn’t clearly defined. I was rotating in different departments, changing jobs every three months. As I got to be more familiar with the operation, I started to feel more empowered and motivated. And now, that I’m in more of an operating role, I see today the advances and how things go from nothing to actually become a project. And that’s very impressive. Now whenever I talk with my brother, it’s very gratifying to share what we’re doing especially when I see all of us working super hard.
Omar, what about you? How has the family business contributed to your happiness?
Omar: Before joining the family business, I was doing some entrepreneurial projects in Madrid. I got used to doing things on my own. When I started working for the family, I got all this infrastructure, and support behind me. So it gives you a feeling of belonging and so much energy. It was a game changer for me to get that feeling.
How important is having a joint vision of where the company is going?
Omar: Well, I think it’s essential. Because, if the vision is a common vision, it’s easier to achieve. If one person has a different view, it can stop you from moving forward. You need to be in line to accomplish anything. Everyone has to see the same picture; I think that is how you can succeed.
Simon: I agree. A joint vision is fundamental. My younger sister has been working now in the family for a year. She understands the projects that we’re working on, and how a project starts. She sees it from the planning to when we first go onto the site to the impact projects have in the community. It’s important for everyone in the company to understand that what we’re doing is not only to make the company profitable. That’s important of course, but it’s not everything.
Do you believe that your generation needs different things to be happy than your parents?
Simon: I think each generation grows up in a different environment, with different drivers. But, there is a basic sense of happiness which is the absence of any threat or anything bad. And if we can create that in our business, in the environment that we have, understanding what motivates our generation, we can all be happy. I don’t think that there is a clear difference between generations. I just think there may be different priorities.
Omar: I agree with that. For example, our father when he was starting the company, his priority was different from what it is now. Because now the company is established and we have a proper structure in place. I think each generation changes their motivation and goals as time goes by. But in the end, it is the same happiness which comes from achieving something that you imagined, and you set as a goal. The thing that changes between generations, I think is the goal.
When working with family members, what are the kind of things that you do to make sure that they feel that sense of belonging and that they are valued in their role?
Simon: It’s complicated. I think it’s imperative that everyone is fully aware of the activities that everyone in the organisation tries to undertake. Specially, family members, we struggle to create an environment where each member of the company is treated equal, everyone is part of the family. So, it doesn’t matter if you’re the cleaning lady in one of the offices or the VP of engineering. Each person has a role, and it’s a very important role in the organisation. And we like everyone to be reminded of that regularly. The organisation doesn’t work if everyone doesn’t work together. Each task, each activity contributes to an overall set of system activities that help us achieve the outcomes that we want.
Omar: I definitely agree. I think if you show the importance of each role, everyone will feel satisfied and say ‘Ok, what I’m doing here will help to achieve the project completion.’ So, I think that’s very important because in the end, people need to feel what they are doing is worth it.
Do you have any advice that you can share with other family business members on how to achieve happiness?
Omar: I think a good piece of advice could be that if you are not happy with your family business try to understand what exactly your company does. Then you can look for something new to add. I think contributing to innovation is very important because you will feel you’re doing something new and are adding value. So there is a great feeling of achievement that can come from this. Not only for yourself but the entire family business as well.