Rodolfo Viegener

  • Interviewed 23 May 2008 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, by Andrea Lluch, Research Fellow, HBS
  • Clip Duration – 5:27

While Mr. Viegener recalls FV’s early years and its business history, he highlights the company’s development, with a focus on the internationalization process initiated in the 1970s and its acquisition of Ferrum. As he describes the company’s organizational changes, he addresses the diversification and financial policies of FV and Ferrum. He identifies key challenges faced by businesses in unstable, inflationary macroeconomic settings and explores the relationship between companies and governments, labor policies, and his own management style.

Interview Excerpt

P: ¿Si Ud. tuviera que resumir los momentos de mayor crisis a nivel de la empresa y vinculados con una crisis general del país, cuáles recuerda?

R: Yo no pasé la crisis del 1930 porqué nací varios años más tarde, pero me imagino que ésa debe de haber sido la más grave. De las que yo viví, hay dos aspectos diferentes. Crisis personal, cuando vivimos una secuela de secuestros en 1973/74, de un hermano, de un amigo, tuve que participar de las negociaciones. Cuando estuve en OPM mostraron un caso de secuestro y negociación de secuestro, con lo que me sentí como un pez en el agua. Se daba exactamente lo que había pasado en estos casos en Argentina. Eso nos dolió mucho. Estar fugado de casa por medio año, con la familia viviendo 15 días en un lugar, eso fue duro. La crisis de las ideologías en la década del 1970 fue fea; el país lo sufrió feo.

Desde el punto de vista económico, la peor crisis fue la del 2001/02. Pero ahí aprendí otra cosa importante, sobre cómo las instituciones deberían actuar frente a esos casos. En esas crisis, el problema más crítico es la caja; lo que determina la supervivencia es si con la caja llegás a fin de mes. Tenés que dejar todo lo demás de lado. Lo único importante es cómo está la caja, y no tomar decisiones para que después no te dejen desnudo de caja dentro de un año.

Entonces surge un problema. Aquí hay trabajando ahora 1.700 personas, ahora debe haber 1.200. Y en las crisis siempre ocurre que previamente vos cortás el ingreso de gente, más el egreso por jubilación, o porque algunos empleados se van o cambian de trabajo, y esa rotación hace que disminuya tu personal. Después no permitís las horas extras. Son todas medidas que tienen un alcance limitado. Llega el momento donde todo eso no te alcanza y para la empresa tener una persona trabajando no sólo son las cargas sociales y gastos de salario sino también todo lo que consume.

Yo siempre pensé que había que evitar la suspensión. Pero, dado el extremo de la crisis 2001/2002, lo importante era el manejo y la explicación de los manejos. Nosotros estábamos en una situación en donde la actividad se redujo a 1/3 durante mucho tiempo, habíamos dejado que la dotación baje, sacado las horas extras. Habíamos ofrecido retiros voluntarios, prejubilaciones, gente que tenía 63/64 años que ya no le importaba si se iba porque le faltaba poco. Entonces, llega un momento en donde te sobra personal igual, y había que parar la mitad del mes. Lo importante en ese momento para una persona, lo mismo que para la empresa, es la caja.

Q: If you were to pinpoint the greatest crisis for both the company and the country at large, what would it be?

A: I was not around for the 1930 crisis, because I was born several years later, but I imagine it must have been the most severe one of all. Among the ones I have experienced, there were two types of crises. On a personal level, the most difficult time was marked by the 1973-74 kidnappings. A brother and a friend were kidnapped, and I had to participate in the negotiations. When I was at OPM, they showed a kidnapping case and negotiation, and I felt right at home. It was exactly what we had gone through in Argentina. It was very painful. Running away from home for half of the year, moving the family every two weeks…that was tough. The ideological crisis in the 1970s was awful –very hurtful for our country.

Economically speaking, the worst crisis was in 2001/02. But I learned something important at that time; I learned how institutions should behave in those cases. In critical times, the key problem is cash flow –survival hinges on whether your cash flow will get you through the month. You need to drop everything else, focusing on your cash flow and making decisions that will not leave you cash dry in a year.

Then, there is another problem. We have 1,200-1,700 people working here now. During crises, you previously cut recruiting down and, added to retirements and people who leave the company or change jobs, your headcount drops. Then, you cut down on overtime as well. These are steps with a limited scope. A time comes when all that is not enough, and, for a company, employee expenses do not only imply social security and wages, but also everything an employee uses for the job.

I always thought it was crucial to avoid suspensions, but the 2001-02 crisis was so extreme… Management and management explanations became crucial. Our industry shrank to one third of its previous activity, and we had let headcount drop, reducing overtime as well. We had offered voluntary and advance retirement plans for people who were 63 or 64 years old and didn’t mind leaving early. However, we still had too many employees anyway, and we had to stop work in the middle of the month. At a time like that, cash is the only thing that matters to both companies and people alike.

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