IE Focus 2012

Colombian entrepreneur Natalia Londoño is an alum of IE Business School’s Master in Sales and Marketing Management. She is about to head the opening of a new Becara Franchise in Bogota, which will be the first step in the firm’s expansion into Latin America. Becara has been operating in the field of design, production and distribution of furniture and interior design items for 44 years, and is now present in over 40 cities worldwide that include Madrid, Barcelona, Rome, Milan, Istanbul and Jeddah.

You are heading the expansion of leading interior design retailer Becara in Colombia. Becara is now present in 7 countries, and the Bogota store marks the beginning of the firm’s operations in Latin America amid economic growth in the region. What made you decide to take on this project?

One of the main considerations was the contrast of Spain’s economic situation with what was happening in Latin America, particularly Colombia, my home country. Colombia is in the throes of expansion with a sustained annual economic growth rate of 4% in recent years, coupled with a trade balance surplus.

Coming back to Becara’s expansion in Colombia, Becara is a leader in the furniture and decoration sector. I met its founder in 2011, which coincided with a decision to return with my family to live in Colombia after twelve years in Spain. I was invited to get to know more about Becara, and the moment I saw the 22,000m2 warehouse in Valdemoro I realized that this was a great company with excellent potential in a country that is growing as fast as Colombia.I went back to Colombia in the midst of a period of economic growth that is bringing opportunities for different businesses. Construction levels are increasing and Colombia still doesn’t have a store like Becara. Existing interior design stores are different in style, more modern, and I saw a clear gap in the market for Becara’s warmer, more classical style, with more character. I got together a team comprising partners from different sectors that supported the project and encouraged me to launch this new business project, which I saw as a professional challenge. I went into it with great enthusiasm and with a view to positioning Becara at the highest level, first in Colombia´s major cities, Bogota, Barranquilla, Medellin and Cali, followed by cities in the Andean region, Quito, Guayaquil y Lima, and finally the rest of Latin America.

You are taking on an entrepreneurial challenge. As an alum of IE Business School, which focuses on equipping its students with an entrepreneurial mindset, how important is an entrepreneurial education when it comes to implementing a business project, or helping to develop an established brand?

I have always had an entrepreneurial spirit because I saw it at home when I was growing up. My professional education started at CESA (Colegio de Estudios Superiores de Administración) where they inspire students with a sense of entrepreneurship, and I rounded this off with a Master in Sales and Marketing Management at IE Business School. The education I received at both places furnished me with a knowledge of the different areas involved in setting up a business.

I believe that the key to success is to surround yourself with professionals that share the same values and have the same aims for the future. One of the first things I did was to find the right partners, whose experience brought the bases needed to launch a new business and the right blend of knowledge, energy and strength to take the firm in the right direction.

What is the entrepreneurial ecosystem like in Colombia? What kind of support do institutions and business organizations offer entrepreneurs to help develop their initiatives? What role do you think entrepreneurship can play in kick-starting the economy?

Colombia has been through some very complicated times, but once security problems were dealt with, the world began to see it through different eyes. Colombia now has the highest rates of entrepreneurial activity in Latin America. Moreover its economy is one of those least affected by the world economic crisis. The government is providing strong incentives to create employment through startups and the climate is now right for expanding businesses. Entrepreneurship will play a key role in reactivating the economy by creating employment and enabling trade among new sectors.

You have formed part of entrepreneurial projects that involved setting up a travel company in Spain and importing flowers from Colombia to Europe. What have each of these very different projects taught you? 

My career in Spain began at Multiflora, a company that produces and commercializes Colombian flowers. Its owners opened the Madrid office to strengthen the European market. It was a big challenge for me to get to know the Spanish and European markets. My work was focused mainly on developing the sales strategy for our Colombian flowers in Europe.

After 7 years at Multiflora I set up a bespoke travel agency, Latus Travel. We started out managing trips between Colombia and then little by little we consolidated a network of local operators in different world regions. The company specializes in bespoke trips and our idea has always been to go beyond the basic service and advise the client on the best way to get to know each corner of the world, by seeing it from through the eyes of a local rather than as a tourist. We provide advice on even the smallest of details, not just the right hotel but also guides who are specialized in their areas of interest, the best restaurants, bars and places to see depending on their age and preferences. Our strongest points are currently top-level incentive travel, small, exclusive groups and individual clients that travel the world in search of unique experiences. The Madrid office is still operating successfully and my medium-term objective is to open an office in Colombia to attend the top-level Colombian market from closer to home.

Right now I am immersed in this new challenge of managing Becara in Bogota with the short-term goal of opening in other cities in Colombia and Latin America. It is a new sector that I am passionate about and I feel that the type of clientele has a great deal in common with that of the travel agency given that it is a highly demanding, top-level profile, which requires very personalized service, integrated assessment, good taste and exclusivity.

What type of initiatives do you think should be promoted, what type of barriers should be eliminated, and what type of fiscal incentives should be approved in order to foster the creation of new businesses?

In Colombia there are barriers to entry for some products, and many require licenses. I believe that the government should professionalize its institutions in order to streamline bureaucracy and support entrepreneurial initiatives.

Moreover, import tariffs are still high.  The Colombian government is fully aware of the need to eliminate unnecessary red tape, and that’s why it has approved measures in recent years that have helped import businesses. We hope that over time they will get rid of these barriers and a free trade agreement can be negotiated to ease the tax burden, similar to those held with the US, South Korea, Chile and other countries, which have served to bring about a substantial increase in trade flows.