BUSINESSWEEK ONLINE : JULY 10, 2000 ISSUE
INTERNATIONAL BUSINESS

Cracks in Mexico's Glass Ceiling
A finance whiz is paving the way for other women to rise

María Asunción Aramburuzabala, a vice-president of brewer Grupo Modelo, does her homework. When a chance to buy into Mexican media giant Grupo Televisa presented itself in April, she arrived at the company's offices armed with reams of numbers. For three hours, Aramburuzabala combed through the financials of each division with Televisa CFO Alfonso de Angoitia. ''I was very surprised,'' he says. ''She had already done a very detailed study.'' Nine weeks after that first meeting, Aramburuzabala got what she wanted: a 20.62% stake in Televisa holding company Grupo Televicentro along with three seats on its board.

With that deal, Aramburuzabala became a full member of the all-male club that is Mexican big business. Her family is one of the four that control Modelo, one of Mexico's largest publicly traded companies. Yet among the family-run giants that still dominate large swaths of Mexican industry, custom dictates that the corporate mantle pass from father to son. In cases where there are no male heirs, a son-in-law is next in line for the throne. When Aramburuzabala, 37, took over managing her family's interests, ''people thought I was a little rich girl wanting to play at business and that I would soon get tired and stop,'' she recalls. But her purchase of the Televisa stake proves otherwise.

INTERNET PUSH. It has been a long time coming, but the feminist revolution is reaching the boardrooms of Mexico's family-run companies. Aramburuzabala is helping speed things along. She has no intention of being a passive investor in Televisa. Although she is pleased with the way CEO Emilio Azcarraga Jean has restructured the once bloated company, Aramburuzabala expects to add her input to strategic decisions. She won't tell what she paid for the 20.62% stake, which is split among several members of her family, but analysts estimate it's worth about $536 million.

What attracted her to Televisa was its combination of old and new media. The company already dominates in television, radio, and publishing and is now making a big push into the Internet. It launched a Spanish-language portal, esmas.com, on June 1 and plans to take stakes in other Internet companies, as well as setting up its own Net incubator. J.P. Morgan & Co. analyst Jose Linares estimates the value of Televisa's various Internet ventures at $2.2 billion.

Aramburuzabala doesn't need Televisa to keep busy, though. She manages a family fortune that Forbes estimates at $1 billion. The money comes from her family's share in Modelo, maker of Corona beer. In the 1990s, Modelo sold a combined noncontrolling 50.2% stake to Anheuser-Busch Cos. in three separate transactions totaling $1.64 billion, and the Aramburuzabala clan suddenly had money to invest. So for the past three years, Aramburuzabala has been running a sort of private equity fund, investing mainly in real estate.

BAD TIDINGS. Still, it wasn't until six years ago, when her father was dying of cancer, that she immersed herself in the family business. In 1996, she persuaded her family's partners to let her take over two bankrupt yeast companies. Within a year, she had put them back in the black by merging divisions and launching products. When the layoffs began, Aramburuzabala would show up at the plant at 3 a.m. to talk to workers on the night shift. ''It was tough,'' she recalls. At Modelo, she earned the respect of her colleagues as part of the small team that handled the fraught negotiations with Anheuser-Busch.

As Aramburuzabala breaks new ground for businesswomen in Mexico, there are other signs of change. Women are starting their own companies in record numbers while multinationals have promoted some of their female executives to top positions. For instance, Compaq Computer Corp.'s Mexican subsidiary has long had a woman chief executive, Barbara Mair. Since taking over in 1993, the 38-year-old Mair has pumped up sales from $65 million to $500 million last year. Despite her own success, Mair believes that Mexican women continue to limit themselves in their career choices. ''They don't feel it's possible,'' she says.

Expect to hear more about Aramburuzabala. She is already scouting around for new investments. ''I love business,'' she says. ''It's a passion.'' That enthusiasm will surely open doors for other women.

By Elisabeth Malkin in Mexico City

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Cracks in Mexico's Glass Ceiling

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