FIDI Focus interview: Conflict and compromise

New FIDI Board member Sebastian Laporta tells the story of the decisions, difficulties and disputes that have helped shape his career – and the career of his father, Jorge. Dominic Weaver reports

For Sebastian Laporta, dispute, negotiation, and resolution are a necessary part of most successful progress. The incoming FIDI Board member says that the succession period to CEO of the family’s Chile-based business Ward Van Lines wasn’t easy – he resigned from the company, and his father fired him ‘several times’. While these incidents were of course difficult, they only served to strengthen the bond between them – and were an integral part of the two solving problems and developing the company together.

Sebastian’s father, Jorge, is a ‘self-made man’, a native Argentinean who moved with his parents to Uruguay when he was three, developing his entrepreneurial mindset from an early age. After his first ‘moving’ job – as a luggage porter in a hotel at the age of 14 – he took up a position in a travel agency and, when the owner of the agency set up in moving, Jorge became a salesman, bringing skills (including the fluent English his Irish grandmother taught him) to this new branch of the business. After completing a year’s mandatory military service in Argentina – an experience Sebastian says showed his father ‘how to be tough’ and disciplined – he returned to head up the owner’s next venture, the launch of International Express (IESA) in Buenos Aires.

After a move just a few months later to Sao Paulo and then Rio, to manage expanding US firm Global International’s Brazilian business, Jorge was then invited to become commercial manager of FIDI- affiliated company Sandoval (now SIM) in Peru.

He left to set up his own business, World Shipping & Storage, in Lima, in 1975. His previous employer sat on the LACMA board, which, thanks to the more restrictive politics of the time, meant he was initially prevented from joining Latin America’s main association.

‘My father had to develop his own network, travelling for most of the year, all over the world. And he created this amazing network of friends and partners to make the company one of the most important in Peru.’

New beginnings

But the rise of the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) terrorist group brought darker times and made the country ‘a tough place to live’. Following their divorce six years earlier, in 1986 Laporta’s parents decided that Jorge would stay in the country to run the business, while Sebastian, his sister and mother, Raquel, would move to the comparative peace of Uruguay.

Eventually, Jorge sold his company, having carefully researched new business openings around Latin America. He purchased Ward Van Lines (WVL)

in Santiago, Chile, in 1989, at the end of General Pinochet’s regime and the start of a new period of accelerated growth for the country, and set about developing and expanding its business.

As one of Chile’s main movers, WVL was already a member of the industry main associations – including LACMA and FIDI. It wasn’t long before Jorge began serving the industry in leadership roles, starting with the OMNI board.

Together with his own contacts, he also created Latin American Relocation Management (LARM), the region’s first relocation network, opening an office in Miami and giving US companies a single access point to services in the majority of countries in Central and South America, and the Caribbean. ‘They did this at the right time,’ says Sebastian. ‘When they opened, the relocation industry was a baby. It was just starting in the US and Europe; it was not developed yet. And today, we are the leaders in the region.’

Jorge Laporta started on the FIDI Board in the mid- 1990s, a time of necessary change in the organisation, which included the launch of the FAIM requirement to membership. This was a complex, challenging period, during which the organisation faced backlash from existing members who were unable to keep pace.

‘I remember him telling me how hard this time was,’ says Sebastian. ‘FAIM brought professionalism and minimum standards, but, because of the price, a lot of smaller companies couldn’t manage and so were out of FIDI. Because my dad was on the Board at this time, he had to cope with a lot of opposition.’

However, despite the challenges, Sebastian says his father was a natural, and during these ‘busiest years of his life’ thrived while serving the industry in this way. ‘He’s a very social guy,’ he says. ‘I learned from him and the way he moves in a convention. He has always respected everyone – from the smaller companies to the big guys – always treated them as equals.’

Sebastian says his father also taught him the vital secret of balancing family life and the demands of the business: good time management and employing good people who are willing to take on responsibility. However, when Sebastian joined the family company in 2003, he began to develop these lessons in his own style.

A change of direction

Ever since his move back to Montevideo in Uruguay, aged nine, Sebastian dreamt of working alongside his dad. He spent teenage summers visiting, earning money at WVL facilities, carrying boxes, cleaning the warehouse, and handling company post. ‘I always liked coming into the office and feeling that I was part of the family company,’ he says.

After leaving school and working as a courier, he started university, gaining a second-year placement as a trainee at US-firm Johnson & Johnson and managing logistics before moving on to marketing and sales for the company’s contact lens brand.

However, the 2001 ‘Corralito’ Argentinean economic crash set his career on a new path. ‘My new boss, who was reporting to Argentina, was fired, and everything stopped suddenly,’ says Sebastian. ‘My dad said “come and join me in Chile. I need your help, and you need my help”. I said “OK, give me a year to finish my degree and I’ll be there”.’

Sebastian says leaving his mother in Uruguay made for an emotional transition, but he was very happy to be joining his father, too. ‘He said: “OK, Sebastian, you will start to travel with me, and I will present you tomy friends in the industry and you will learn from the different departments of the company”.’

A twist of fate

But, he says, another twist of fate caused this plan to ‘fall down like a house of cards’ less than a year after he arrived in Chile, when his father’s second wife fell seriously ill. ‘My dad couldn’t come into the office every day,’ he says. ‘So, I was doing the payroll every month, dealing with the finance manager and so on. I was 26 years old and suddenly had all these responsibilities.’

This unexpected test was stressful, but Sebastian says it helped him understand the business, quickly. ‘I learned in this very hard way, but it helped me a lot,’ he says. ‘I had to travel alone, but received a lot of help from my dad’s friends in the industry. And because my dad wasn’t there, I had to prove myself and develop my skills alone.’

This intense experience brought with it the realisation that, despite their similarities, father and son also had differences in their approaches to business, and they enlisted the services of a consultant to help manage the succession process between 2008 and 2012.

‘Three or four years after working at the company, I was saying A, he was saying B, so we understood that we needed help from outside,’ says Sebastian. ‘At that point, I realised my way of leading was different to his and the coaching helped me develop my own skills.’

The process led to the pair agreeing to make changes, including replacing several of the company’s key managers, increasing the number of university- trained staff, and developing overall professionalism. This was difficult at times, says Sebastian, who cites his resignations and accompanying arguments the two had on the way to finding a resolution.

‘I knew I needed a team with my style and from my generation… and in the end he understood the importance of this,’ he says.

Accordingly, Sebastian says that rather than being ‘yes people’, WVL’s management team today are much more likely to challenge and express opinions, which benefits the businesses. ‘I need a team that comes to me and says “Sebastian, you should consider doing this”,’ he says. ‘To be a good leader is to be surrounded by other good leaders, too, who are sometimes better than you. This is key for the owners of companies and particularly family companies.’

The consultant also helped put a new corporate governance in place. This brought in two directors from outside the business, sitting alongside Sebastian, who became CEO, who help take strategic decisions for its four companies – WVL, LARM Chile, its furniture rental business (House 360), and property portfolio.

His father retired, but at the age of 76 remains an ‘active’ company president, bringing ideas to the table ‘that are debated with four people, not only between my dad and me – this brings extra professionalism and analysis.’ Continued growth of the WVL business, alongside the family commitments that his three children Facundo, Nicolas and Miranda (triplets, born in 2009) bring, means today Sebastian is busier than ever. However, he is also following in his father’s industry service footsteps.

In 2007, he was President of LACMANext, overseeing a board that campaigned rigorously to amplify younger voices within the wider association, a time which he says strengthened the sub-association, which was ‘close to breaking’, and ‘gave me the confidence to raise my hand at assemblies’.

He became President of LACMA in 2017 in its 50th year and has played pivotal roles in the LARM network board and the Overseas Shippers Association (OSA).

A fitter FIDI

Sebastian was the FIDI Academy’s top student at the 2007 MiM course in Switzerland and previously helped develop FIDI’s Board Nomination Committee. He has now joined the organisation’s Board, after he was formally voted in by the General Assembly in Bangkok.

In this role, he hopes to encourage developments within the organisation. These include making it more dynamic overall and speeding up the process of bringing about change, while improving communication with other associations.

This will stand FIDI in good stead, he believes, at a time when the number of organisations in the business is being questioned.

‘Without a doubt, FIDI must remain a leader, demonstrating the importance and key role it plays in all areas of our industry,’ he says. ‘I see FIDI leading the standardisation process in areas such as sustainability and digitalisation… and preparing our members for the current and future business environment through development of the Academy, FAIM and sales initiatives.’

This process, he says, will continue to build on FIDI’s strategy of opening itself up to wider membership categories. ‘I see a federation that is not much larger in terms of members, but has an even higher quality standard,’ he says.

In the spirit of improving communication between Affiliates, Sebastian adds that, in the wake of the pandemic, he is also keen that FIDI does all it can to help its membership make strategic plans for adopting technology, and develop an industry-wide brainstorming initiative or LAB centre.

‘From the very beginning, my dad explained to me how important FIDI is and, for the first two years after I started at Ward Van Lines, he was on the Board, having previously served as its President,’ says Sebastian.

He adds that, because of the respect and standing his father earned within FIDI, he puts himself under personal pressure to achieve similar success in his new role; but his father’s advice will be guiding him, too.

‘My dad always told me to be myself,’ he says, ‘and to be confident that, if you go that way, you will find your place and achieve your goals.’

Passing on the knowledge

Sebastian is a strong believer in passing on his learnings and was a panellist for the ‘Succession planning for your family business’ seminar at FIDI’s 2018 San Diego Conference. He was also recently recruited as a mentor for the FIDI 39 Club’s new skills transfer initiative, which he says is as beneficial to him as to the mentee.

‘I am mentoring someone from a family company,’ he says, ‘and talking about my experience, and the challenges involved, is a good way of looking back and seeing that, while it might have been tough, we have succeeded in the end – as a company and as a family.’

And will his children be part of his own succession plan? This, he says, will have to be their own dream, rather than his. ‘I don’t want to put any pressure on them,’ he says. ‘This is a really stressful industry… and Latin America is a complicated continent, too, so there is a lot of uncertainty.’

Nevertheless, if it happens, he will embrace it. ‘One of my kids said they would like to keep the legacy of me and their grandpa going,’ he says. ‘I would love to have one of my kids follow in my footsteps. It’s a family company and I would love to keep it that way, while growing and developing.’

He adds that in any family company’s lifespan the third generation is usually the most difficult to make a success of. However, as Laporta’s experience shows, he is more than ready for the challenges this might present.

Sebastian Laporta on the people who have guided him during his moving journey:

  • My dad, of course.’
  • Eduardo Perez Otero (of IESA Argentina Metropolitan Brazil and Trafimar Mexico): ‘He was always showing me ways to deal with partners, giving me recommendations. He was an example to follow.’
  • Daniel Laporta (my uncle and owner of Class Moving, Peru): ‘Like a big brother. He taught me the importance of treating everyone equally.’
  • Facundo Urtubey (Liftvan, Argentina): ‘Taught me the importance of having a strategic vision for a business and looking at “the big picture”. A strategist and great politician.’
  • Laura Ganon (Fink Mobility, Brazil]: ‘I learned from Laura not to feel less than anyone, to assert my voice. She is a woman of great character, who is always very respectful, but communicates and defends her ideals.’
  • Walter Laffitte (Canal Movers, Panama): ‘I was on the LACMANext and LACMA boards with him, and he taught me to be patient and to listen before speaking.’
  • Steve Crooks (OMNI President, Suddath, Arpin): ‘A great mentor, always listening and giving good advice. He is a great example of a professional in our industry – and is a good friend.’
  • Wladimir de Mello (Metropolitan Brazil]: ‘President of LARM in my first years in the industry. A wise, visionary man who saw beyond barriers, always defending family businesses, the entrepreneurs. He was always describing his life experiences, so we could learn from them.’
  • Felice Snider: ‘CEO of Aviomar, who gave me a lot of advice on how to manage succession in our company; how to deal with the family side. A great friend.’

Sebastian Laporta’s milestones

  • 2000 – begins work at JNJ in the logistics then marketing departments
  • 2003 – moves to Chile to work at Ward Van Lines
  • 2006 – marries Tiziana Mazzucchelli
  • 2006 – joins board of OSA (Overseas Shippers Association)
  • 2007 – becomes LACMANext President
  • 2007 – top student at FIDI Academy’s MiM course
  • 2008 – begins succession plan at WVL
  • 2009 – triplets Facundo, Nicolas and Miranda are born
  • 2012 – becomes board member of LACMA
  • 2013 – finishes succession plan and becomes Managing Director of WVL Group of Companies (Ward Van Lines, Larm Chile and House 360)
  • 2017 – becomes LACMA President
  • 2019 – is past president of LACMA
  • 2020 – becomes board member of LARM Group
  • 2022 – is Vice President of LARM Group
  • 2023 – joins FIDI Board
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