Profile of a chief executive:
Juan Carlos Lucio Godoy (Río Uruguay Seguros)
This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published by ICMIF (International Cooperative & Mutual Insurance Federation) in Voice magazine, 2009
The river Uruguay sees plenty of life on its way to the ocean. It rises in the high lands of southern Brazil before turning to flow south, marking the boundary for hundreds of kilometres between Argentina and Brazil and then, later, that between Argentina on its western bank and the country which bears its name, Uruguay, to the east. By the time the river reaches the Argentinean town of Concepción del Uruguay it has become a major aquatic highway. Concepción's local economy is closely tied to its port, which although more than 200 kilometres from the sea has something of a maritime feel.
It was to the river that the founders of one of Argentina 's insurance companies looked fifty years ago when they were searching for a name for their fledgling business. Since the firm was being formed in Concepción del Uruguay, what better, they decided, than to name it after the river: Río Uruguay Seguros, (River Uruguay Insurance) it duly became.
Concepción del Uruguay remains Río Uruguay Seguros's home base today. The town itself dates from the late eighteenth century and played its part in the early days of Argentina 's history but, despite its historical monuments, it's fair to say that it's well away from the usual tourist itineraries. Indeed with only about 80,000 people living in the city, it's a far cry from the packed cities along Argentina 's industrial belt between La Plata and Rosario , focused on the capital Buenos Aires itself.
But that, as Río Uruguay 's president Juan Carlos Lucio Godoy explains, was part of the whole reason why the insurer was created. The citizens of Concepción del Uruguay who set it up wanted a business which would be locally run and which would keep the wealth generated in their own area. Traditionally, the vast inland areas of Argentina have been economically weak, with both money and labour drawn away to the industrial belt. Río Uruguay would aim to be different: it would service the economically underdeveloped areas of the country, and help to create jobs in areas where employment was hard to find.
It was this philosophy which helped to ensure that Río Uruguay Seguros was established as a cooperative, rather than as a conventional shareholder-owned business. “The founders between them had sufficient wealth and the personal skills to set up a company for their own benefit. Nevertheless they chose to forego personal self-aggrandisement to create a business based on solidarity and trust,” Juan Carlos Lucio Godoy says.
This emphasis on the social as well as economic objectives of the business remains central to the insurer today, and it's clearly something that is close to Juan Carlos Lucio Godoy's own heart. He himself comes from Concepión del Uruguay, and although his university studies took him down to the coast (he studied economic science at the National University in the city of La Plata and later at the National University of the Coast) he was able shortly after finishing his studies to return home, to take up a management position at Río Uruguay. He has dedicated his professional life to the insurer, becoming President of the company in 1991.
It's a job he relishes. “I feel I have had the good fortune which only a few people enjoy, to work doing something I want to do and to live in a place where I want to live,” he says. “It's a gift from God!”
The cooperative nature of Río Uruguay is absolutely crucial, too. “I come from a family which was involved in the cooperative movement, and I don't know of an international movement which is so passionately committed to its values and principles as ours,” he says, adding that its role as an alternative to global capitalism is becoming more and more relevant. Juan Carlos Lucio Godoy's influence extends well beyond Río Uruguay itself, in that he has taken a key role in the Argentina association of cooperative and mutual insurers AACMS, in ICMIF's American regional organisation AAC/MIS (where he has been Chair) and in ICMIF itself, where he is ex officio a Board member. “You ask me how important for me is my role in the cooperative movement? I can tell you that it's the most important of my life,” he says.
Shepherding Río Uruguay forward during his time in charge has not been an easy task. In recent decades, Argentina has lived through a period of intense social and economic dislocation. It endured the long years of military dictatorship only for its re-emergence as a democratic country after 1983 to be sorely tested by a series of economic catastrophes which began in the 1990s and included the meltdown of the currency in late 2001 when the country got through three presidents in a matter of weeks. “We have survived the worst of crises,” Juan Carlos Lucio Godoy says. “Between 1990 and 2001, 150 out of 235 insurance companies failed in Argentina . Río Uruguay successfully survived this period, despite the economic battering, centralisation and the anticooperative feeling of the time.”
One of the secrets, he says, was to maintain an attitude of rigorous scientific analysis, and not to let subjective factors influence management decisions. Sometimes the decisions taken were difficult ones: at the height of the economic crisis, for example, it was agreed to reduce wage benefits. But he also stresses the importance of adopting a cooperative and partnership approach, both within his own business and externally with other Argentinean cooperative and mutual insurers.
Río Uruguay 's most important product line is motor insurance, a dominant feature of the whole insurance market in Argentina (as in other Latin American countries). The company also offers , among other things, insurance for workplace risks and for agriculture, protecting farmers against hazards such as drought or hail. “We're also proud that we've been one of the pioneers and innovators in the area of health insurance,” Juan Carlos Lucio Godoy says, although national factors in relation to health provision limit the scope of this market.
Río Uruguay distributes its products primarily through a network of about 700 brokers, most of whom are directly tied to Río Uruguay . “It is through our insurance consultants that we can reach a wide range of places, and better still can get out to the smallest centres of population,” Juan Carlos explains. For this remains, fifty years on, one of Río Uruguay 's key priorities. Over the years, the business has expanded beyond Concepción del Uruguay, firstly to its home province of Entre Ríos and now to many other parts of the country. But unlike so many Argentinean companies whose focus is exclusively on the major centres of population, Río Uruguay looks for growth in the vast underdeveloped interior of the country. There is a pay-off here: Juan Carlos Lucio Godoy admits that there is a sacrifice in terms of income, but says that the company gains in terms of business security and sustainability.
Growth has been organic. Although established as a cooperative, Río Uruguay wasn't able to benefit from links with other cooperative businesses. “Our cooperative's birthplace was a modest city, and it didn't have other cooperatives or associations or business groups as its founders – just neighbours who came together to achieve their aims,” he says. This made it more difficult for Río Uruguay to build its market presence, and Juan Carlos Lucio Godoy pays tribute in particular to the commitment of the staff, who he says helped make this growth possible.
One element of Río Uruguay 's strategy is to ensure that the company invests in its human resources, both to improve staff capacity in technical issues relating to the insurance business but also to develop a deeper understanding of the cooperative business model. Recently, the company has formed a partnership with the local University of Concepción del Uruguay where it has created a chair linked to cooperative business practice. As Juan Carlos points out, the idea of this sort of synergy between universities and cooperative businesses is one which could translate well to other parts of the world.
This work is necessary partly because there was a strong current against mutualisation and cooperatives during the 1990s, when the country adopted a strongly neoliberal approach to the economy. “It's regrettable, but professionals in Argentina in general haven't studied cooperative business models, and just know of cooperatives as a name,” Juan Carlos says.
Río Uruguay has also invested in improving the quality of its management and business practices. Juan Carlos talks of the firm's commitment to ‘continuous improvement', and he points to its achievement in late 2008 in becoming the first Argentinean business to be certified under the international ISO9001 quality assurance mark. One of the firm's most important broker agencies, Agencia Córdoba, is also about to achieve ISO9001, and the plan now is to extend it to Río Uruguay 's other brokers. At the same time, Río Uruguay is about to overhaul its IT systems and has just commissioned an external consultancy exercise to ensure that IT systems are put in place adequate for at least the next five years.
Río Uruguay has also stayed true to its founders' desire to meet social as well as economic needs. It is strongly committed today to a position of corporate social responsibility, and plays an active part in the country's national association IARSE (Instituto Argentina de Responsibilidad Social). Río Uruguay was also an early signatory of the UN Global Compact and has just received the accolade of joining big players such as Manpower, VW Argentina and Unilever as one of the eleven business member of the country's Global Compact management board. Developing an effective CSR programme is about creating the right culture within the company, Juan Carlos Lucio Godoy maintains, so that all understand the value of meeting social as well as economic objectives. Recent initiatives by Río Uruguay include work with young people in Concepción del Uruguay, including helping disabled young people enjoy sport, supporting a local hip hop music group and encouraging disadvantaged adolescents to continue their training and education. Much of Río Uruguay 's work in its home city is focused on the Social Forum which it was instrumental in establishing, and which brings together local not-for-profit organisations committed to social justice. It's a way of helping to address inequalities in society which the Argentinean state doesn't appear able to tackle, Juan Carlos Lucio Godoy says.
Juan Carlos's strong commitment to his home town, and to the wider province of Entre Ríos , has over the years taken him into the political arena. In 1983, in the heady period immediately after the fall of the military dictatorship and whilst he was still in his thirties, he took on the high profile task of establishing democratic structures in his town when he was appointed as Mayor. It was, he says looking back, a challenging task, not helped by the fact that he had to work with a local council of delegates who did not share his own political affiliations. “I had the double experience, firstly of being a young Mayor, the first one in our city, and also having to deal with the unprecedented situation of leading a minority administration. It was a case of constant dialogue in order to achieve a consensus which made governing possible,” he says.
Twenty years later in 2003, at another time of major change and uncertainty in his country in the aftermath of the 2001 economic crash, his talents took him on to the national stage, when he was elected as a deputy to the country's Parliament, representing the progressive regional alliance Concertación Enterriana newly established to push for the interests of the Entre Ríos province. It was, he says, the first time that his local region had elected a delegate other than from one of the two main parties, an event which took many people by surprise (including, quite possibly, Juan Carlos himself). The four years until 2007 when he served as a parliamentarian were challenging, particularly since his party was in opposition, though he says that the experience helped him learn to harness his thinking and to rehearse arguments succinctly in a high profile arena. Although no longer a deputy, he continues to write on current affairs, and is for example very critical of the present Argentinean government's tentative handling of the global financial crisis, an approach which he has compared to giving aspirins to a patient with cancer.
Politics takes its toll, particularly on home life. “You ask me whether I enjoy public life, and I have to say to you that I don't,” he admits candidly. Life in the public eye is exhausting and wearing, especially in countries like his where there is much public dissatisfaction, he says. “For me, and particularly for my family, we lost some of the enjoyment of life, and also had to make economic sacrifices.”
He draws a sombre lesson from his political experience, too: “It reaffirmed something I had always thought, that it is impossible for countries like ours to overcome the barrier of underdevelopment, at least during my lifetime.”
By contrast, Juan Carlos is very positive about the difference which Río Uruguay can make for its customers and for the hundreds of people who, directly or indirectly, get their livelihood from it. Even at the busiest times when he was Mayor he found the space to continue to take an active part in the Argentinean cooperative insurance movement, and he remains proud of the role his firm plays in the global movement, through its involvement in AAC/MIS and ICMIF.
Because of the concentration of economic and political life in Argentina away from the provincial areas like Entre Ríos (“Everything in this country gets cooked up in Buenos Aires ,” he says), travel becomes a necessary part of life. Though it means time away from his wife and from home, there are, at least, now family reasons for visiting the capital, for this is where his two daughters and his son are currently living. Nevertheless, time travelling means less time to follow up other interests, such as his love of sport. His interests include football, tennis, canoeing, and particularly motor racing, a sport which he regularly took part in when he was younger. If these days he is more of a spectator than a participant, the passion clearly remains strongly alive.
It's a problem of modern life across the world, Juan Carlos says, that the pressures of business life encroach into home time: too much time travelling and working, too little time left to spend enjoying a meal with family and friends. A pity: as he points out, it is family life which is what ultimately sustains us in our lives.
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