Business culture insights: How to know if somebody means yes

By bogotapost June 1, 2015

Doing business in ColombiaIn the second of our series on Colombian business culture, Olly West speaks to Santiago Osorio, co-founder of Bogota-based hedge fund Andean Capital. Osorio came back to Colombia a decade ago to find a completely changed country. He shares some of the frustrations and pleasant surprises he found on his return

Doing Business in Colombia

Santiago Osorio, co-founder of Bogota-based hedge fund Andean Capital

What’s the best response you can wish for from a meeting with a potential business client? “Yes”, of course. And the worst? No, it’s not “no”, but an insincere “yes”. For Santiago Osorio, COO of Andean Capital, there’s nothing worse than getting a “yes” from a potential client, only to find out — after weeks of chasing — that the “yes” was a “no” all along.

Osorio was born in Colombia but spent his childhood in the UK before moving to the USA where he studied at university and began his career, ending up as marketing director of Juan Valdez’s expansion into North America.

By 2006, he had his eye on opportunities in his rapidly modernising home country and returned to Bogota to found the hedge fund he still co-runs.

While the country was clearly changing rapidly, Osorio found aspects of the working culture that still seemed “folkloric”. He talked about work lunches that last all afternoon, cancellations 10 minutes before an event that has been organised for more than two weeks, and — clearly something of a bee in his bonnet — banks that take themselves very seriously but “sometimes don’t appear to have realised that they’re in the business of receiving money and could receive a lot more if they improved service”.

Familiar sentiments, no doubt, for those of us who have queued for 45 minutes to pay in a cheque only to find it was written in the wrong coloured ink.

One of Osorio’s roles at Andean is to attract investors to the fund. He explains that the hardest aspect of working here, that he still grapples with, is people’s reluctance to say no.

“There is something embedded here regarding the inability to say no — be it a business or social conversation”, he says. “When it’s a social engagement it’s not as important, although it still shows a lack of seriousness, but in business it can be critical”.

“We are a Latin American fund but have very few investors from the region. It’s not just due to people being frivolous, as there is an element of locals not being familiar with our product, but I’ve had Colombian investors look me in the eye and commit verbally to investing in our fund only to later disappear”.

Whether it’s a lack of organisation in following up or just an easy way to get rid of someone, it is an experience familiar to many foreigners in Colombia, and it contrasts painfully with the directness Osorio says many foreign investors show.

Reverse brain drain

These gripes aside, Osorio is keen not to be overly harsh on a country that has welcomed him back warmly and provided him with a great business opportunity.

Moreover, he offers tips for judging the true sentiment behind a “yes”.

“In any situation, you have to do your background research on who you’re doing deals with, ask around about them and make sure everything is clean”, he says. “Furthermore, get everything down on paper and establish a timeline in black and white.”

Indeed, Osorio himself is evidence of the fact that many things have changed and continue changing for the better for businesspeople in Colombia.

“Look, I could rant all day about certain things, but the fact is Colombia is going through amazing changes in terms of political stability and lower violence”, he says. “It is one of a few countries doing the right thing for the economy, despite the downturn we’re facing because of oil.”

Nowhere is this more evident than Bogota, where at least for those who can frequent the Zona T and Parque 93 and the like, life has changed. Osorio admits that 10 years before he returned to Colombia in 2006, he probably would not have moved back, but he “grew up in big cities and now Bogota is just as fun”.

For businesses, the change has brought more than high-end restaurants, clubs and shops. Perhaps the most significant knock-on effect of these improvements, says Osorio, is the “reverse brain-drain”.

“Fifteen years ago, if you had the means to study abroad, the ultimate goal was to get a job abroad. Now people who can afford to, go to study a post-grad in Europe or the States but then come back to Colombia.

“This means the leadership roles here are being taken by Colombians who have studied in the best universities in the world, and are coming back here out of choice — because there are opportunities again.”

So while change in certain levels of professionalism is “gradual”, it is at least happening. Osorio, who says he values few things more highly than the time of other people, is himself an example. Now he is just grateful that conversations about Colombia with international friends revolve around different subjects to those of the country’s dark history.

“People come to visit and are always positively surprised”, he says. “I got married last year and friends from the US, Europe and the Middle East all had a great time and extended their stays”.

“Colombians are amables, friendly by nature, and treat foreign visitors exceptionally well. Foreigners notice that and appreciate it.”

So while Colombia’s leisurely approach to certain aspects of life may frustrate those used to a different work culture, the country is undoubtedly leaving strong positive impressions on investors and paving the way for continued improvements.

By Olly West