Sun, Jul 21, 2002 - Page 11 News List

Mexican tycoon excels in man's world

SHAKERS AND MOVERS Maria Asuncion Aramburuzabala may have been born with a silver spoon in her mouth, but she is deceptively astute at business management


Maria Asuncion Aramburuzabala is on ``Forbes'' magazine's list of the wealthiest people in the world.


The newest member of this country's old-boy billionaires' club displays a penchant for frosted lipsticks and high heels.

Don't be fooled by the facade. Maria Asuncion Aramburuzabala fought a staunchly macho Mexican society in transforming herself from poor little rich girl to tycoon. Once unemployed, she now manages a billion-dollar family fortune built on beer money, having stunned the impenetrable corporate clique two years ago when she acquired a 20 percent stake in Mexico's media giant, Televisa.

Since then, Aramburuzabala, whose face glows with meticulous strokes of makeup, has been named to Forbes magazine's list of the wealthiest people in the world. To hear her talk about demolishing barriers that have kept Mexican women from the top of the corporate ladder, she is as confident in boardroom battles as in a cotton-candy-colored miniskirt.

"In the mentality of corporate Mexico, women are considered synonymous with brainless," said Aramburuzabala, in an interview from her 25th-floor office overlooking the mansions and shopping malls on the northwest edge of the capital.

"I had three things going against me when I started out. I am a woman; I was young with no experience; and I was Daddy's girl."

Aramburuzabala, 39, a divorced mother of two, is an heiress to Grupo Modelo, one of Mexico's largest publicly traded companies, and now one of its most powerful directors. The brewer of Corona beer, Grupo Modelo was co-founded by her grandfather, a penniless Basque immigrant, in the wake of the Mexican Revolution. Her father, Pablo, helped make Corona the best-selling imported beer in the US, and the fifth-most-popular in the world.

While Daddy worked, his daughter enjoyed the privileges of wealth. At 19, she married a successful business executive who was eight years older. She finished an accounting degree at the elite Technological Institute of Mexico. After she graduated, she began having children.

"Basically our lives were focused on family, not on work outside our homes," said Patricia Flores, who has been one of Aramburuzabala's best friends since college.

Flores, the daughter of a former general director of Quaker Oats in Mexico, had also married at a young age and had the first of her four children before she turned 20. The women were drawn to each other by their similar situations. There remains something similar about their vivacious and unabashedly feminine ways.

Flores said she and Aramburuzabala even dressed their children alike. She recalled trips downtown to see Santa at Christmas and vacations at Disney World. Sometimes the women would sneak away from their families for massages at a day spa or scandalous shopping sprees.

"If you would have asked me 10 years ago whether Mariasu would be doing what she is doing now," Flores said of her friend, "I would say no way."

Defining moment

Aramburuzabala's father died of cancer at 63 and everything changed. He left no male heirs, only a wife and two daughters. None of them had read a spreadsheet, much less annual reports.

Still grieving, the women took stock of all that had been left them, and struggled to figure out how to save it.

Aramburuzabala recalled their situation in a speech last March at Harvard Business School. "It seemed we were a big pie to eat," she said with a wry grin, "and everybody wanted to eat it, by the way."

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