The (Global) Journey is the Reward
Robert Reton (MBA ’89) currently resides in Tampa, Florida, where he works as the manager of business development in Latin America for Nortek Security & Control, but he has lived in various countries throughout Latin America. A steady parade of moves from childhood through his professional career set him on a global journey through much of Central and South America, not to mention Tokyo and New York City. Before coming to Nortek, Robert worked at Diebold, a banking and financial self-service company, where he served various roles that placed him in Mexico, Argentina and Chile. Through it all, he’s developed insights and advice about living and working internationally and a mantra that “the journey is the reward.”
What were your early years like?
My early years were somewhat different to most. I was born in New York City to an American father and Cuban mother. Due to my father’s work with Ford Motor Co., we were an expatriate family. I have, on average, moved every three to four years of my entire life. From New York at 2 years of age, we moved to Bogota, Colombia, for four years. From there, it went as follows: Detroit area of Michigan, one year; Tokyo, two years; Panama City, Panama, four years; New York City, two years; Caracas, Venezuela, three years; and then to undergrad studies at the University of Virginia (where I felt a bit of a foreigner at first). Obviously, I grew up bilingual in English and Spanish, and over the years of my education have studied French, Italian and Japanese.
Later as an adult, besides moving within the United States, I also lived in the Dominican Republic when I managed a cigar operation, plus postings with Diebold in Mexico, Argentina and Chile. Travel for both business and personal reasons have always been an important factor in my life, and I enjoy tremendously exploring the world with its peoples, cultures, foods, history, traditions, etc.
What were some early leadership lessons you learned?
People are more alike than different, so it isn’t really that hard to surpass social differences (barriers) and connect with them. All persons want to be respected, so always show respect. Most people want to do the right thing and do their work well. When they don’t, there are real reasons why not, and I would probably do the same thing under the same circumstances, so see about how to change the circumstances.
How would you define leadership style?
Ideally, I like to think of myself as a coach: teamwork, but someone has to guide and lead (and take the hits for the team if things don’t turn out as planned). I emphasize that people learn to manage their areas and responsibilities with confidence and even some risk-taking. Don’t kick everything up to the top to be absolved of responsibility. If something turns out wrong, learn from it; no heads will roll.
How do you measure success?
I like to play, and I like to win. Metrics can vary, some are financial, but the principal measures are the feeling that something was accomplished and whether I would enjoy reliving the experience again. The journey is the reward. There are moments in my life that I don’t recall fondly, and when I analyze them critically, it was actually me who failed.
What kind of impact would you like to make through your work?
The first and most important impact is that the operation performs well in order that the associates and their families have some form of economic security and prosperity. Secondly, I enjoy seeing people learn, grow and develop their careers. More than once, someone has caught up with me at a later time and expressed how the time that we worked together was important to where there are today. Thirdly, no enterprise stands alone, so ones work will impact other connected parties, be it customers, suppliers, partners, communities, etc. Good work should have good impacts.
Please describe the current industry that you are in and how you see it evolving in the future.
Sadly, security is a global growth industry, for one reason or another, generally not for positive reasons. Like so many other solutions and products in the world today, communications technology and apps are driving the industry’s development and the offering to companies and consumers. It has already evolved to the point where you can be off in some distant corner of the world, and as long as you have access to the Internet, you can see and monitor your security systems in real time on your mobile device and control them remotely. That’s actually pretty cool stuff!
In what ways are you looking to further develop Nortek's international business in Latin America? What have been some challenges and successes?
The strongest challenge in the security business for international development is the wide variety of standards and regulations from one country to another. This results in having to engineer multiple products to cover the international regions. Naturally, resources are always limited, so one must prioritize and focus on the areas of greatest opportunity. Latin America generates some additional challenges in the form of economic cycles and related currency fluctuations, which can totally derail a product development and launch plan. Long-term horizons, catching the next economic wave, are key to working in Latin America. However, shareholders and management generally seek short-term objectives and results. A bit of a balancing act.
How did working and living in Latin America for many years impact your worldview?
A lot of my world view was formed during my younger years living overseas. One has to be flexible and adapt. Not everything can be like in the United States, Western Europe, Japan, etc. Things can be, and generally are, different. Embrace the differences. Don’t complain. Don’t question why things are different or try to impose standards from outside. Ten years ago, many people in Latin America had not used a computer at work and even more did not have one growing up, yet companies expected employees to have computer skills. I recall in Mexico getting a corporate HR survey requesting the number and percentage of minority (e.g., Hispanic) associates in the organization. Really?
I always enjoyed hearing business contacts in Latin America comment to me that “doing business in [a particular Latin American country] is different from other Latin American countries.” They think that somehow they’re different, but, at the end of the day, they are very much alike. I admire the resourcefulness of people in Latin America and the Caribbean, where resources (money, spare parts, specialized labor, technology, etc.) are always in short supply. People have very open minds toward figuring out some sort of a solution to a problem, as long as they have an interest in doing so, of course.
Often I tell people, “In the USA, if the power goes out, everyone goes home because they can’t work. In Latin America, when the power goes out, people light candles and keep working.”
What, in your opinion, makes someone a global leader?
I believe that attitude is more important than experience, knowledge or languages (although those things can be very helpful). You will never truly fit in and be one of the locals, so don’t try to be what you are not. Be open minded, flexible, adaptive, sensitive and respectful. Have the ability to realize that sometimes “the way we do it back home” may actually be the best way to do it locally, but work on how to persuade others that it is.
Generally, I see the greatest error of companies when sending someone overseas is that they send someone who excels in their function in their home country, without considering how they will interact with people in another country.
What's next for you?
Good question, for which I have never had a real answer. I have always been open to new opportunities, changes, adventures and what have you, without necessarily evaluating them in the sense of overall career goals, so who really knows. The journey is the reward.