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VENEZUELA

ALBERTO VOLLMER

EL CONSEJO, Venezuela - Alberto Vollmer is a member of what Venezuela's leftist government likes to call the "rancid oligarchy."

A strapping, fair-haired businessman of German ancestry, he lives on a hacienda, a 90-minute drive from Caracas, the capital, at the family's 200-year-old rum factory in the lush Aragua Valley.

But, for all his wealth and social pedigree, Vollmer is hardly a traditional aristocrat.
When almost 500 families invaded his estate and set up a squatter camp in February 2000, he didn't hire gunmen to kick them off. Instead, he offered them a deal: "I'll let you invade my land if you let me invade your minds."

When a local street gang began harassing company guards, he didn't have them thrown in jail. He offered them jobs.

Behind his progressive management style lies a story offering a timely model of reconciliation in a country mired in social and political conflict. More than that, Vollmer's management of the family company, Santa Teresa Rum, is nothing less than revolutionary in Latin America, where few businesses embrace corporate social responsibility.

His work has won recognition from experts in conflict resolution at Harvard University, and his methods are studied in Latin American business schools.

"Alberto is the hero right now, turning social problems into a business opportunity," said Jonathan Coles, president of the Institute of Higher Administrative Studies, the leading business school in Caracas. "He's a model that other people are following."

Vollmer,36, could hardly be cut from more conservative cloth.
His father, Alberto J. Vollmer, went to prep school with former President George Bush. His mother, Palm Beach socialite Christine de Marcellus, is an antiabortion activist in high-level Roman Catholic circles.

Something of a family outcast as a child, Vollmer attended Valley Forge Military Academy near Philadelphia for a dose of discipline.

While his sisters attended European universities, he studied civil engineering at a local college. For his thesis he worked on a low-income construction project in a poor Caracas barrio.

He joined Santa Teresa Rum in 1996. The company was facing bankruptcy when Vollmer and his younger brother, Henrique, approached their father with a proposal to take it over.

They began by slashing the company's work force, modernizing the production line and restructuring its debt. The future was just looking brighter when new problems arose. This time they were of a social kind.

All around them the country was being turned upside down by a new president, Hugo Chavez, and his talk of left-wing revolution. A former army officer, Chavez blamed the oligarchs for decades of political corruption that had squandered the country's oil wealth and driven poverty to record levels.

Rising expectations of reform inspired some to take the law into their own hands by targeting large landholdings. Among them was Jose Rodriguez, a former air force sergeant who participated in a failed 1992 military coup led by Chavez.

Led by Rodriguez, the land invasion was a shock. But Vollmer took it as a wake-up call.

"It made us realize that the strategy of the company had to include social investment," he said. "Before, like most companies, it wasn't important to us."

During his overhaul of the company, Vollmer had attended a course at the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School. Now he applied the same business lessons to this new crisis.

"We concentrated on inculcating civic spirit - basic things like talking in turn and solving problems together," Vollmer said.

He found a willing foil in Rodriguez, who understood that there had to be some give and take if the invasion was going to succeed.

"It's not Alberto's fault that he belongs to a rich family," he said, "and it's not our fault that we were stuck on a hillside with nowhere to live."

Together, they came up with a plan. Vollmer would arrange for the design of a model barrio on 60 acres of donated company land. The squatters would have a say in decisionmaking and make up the work force on the construction site. State authorities would provide the roads and install public services, including electricity and telephone lines.

Rodriguez, 36, was impressed. "In this country there aren't many people willing to extend a helping hand in the barrios," he said. "But Alberto shows concern for his fellow man, while others are playing golf and having drinks at the country club."
Four years later, 100 two-bedroom homes stand in neat rows in the newly named barrio, Camino Real.

"If one quarter of the rich people were like Alberto, this would be a different country," said Yelsi Aquino, 31, a jobless woman who recently moved into one of the new homes with her husband.

Vollmer came up with another ingenious solution when street gangs infesting the slum neighborhoods around the hacienda began creating trouble.

When two were arrested for stealing a gun from company guards, Vollmer came up with a deal: The company wouldn't press charges if the gang members put in three months' labor on the estate, receiving weekly rations of food as payment.

"At first we thought it was a trick," said Derguis Rebolledo, 19, also known as "Cara de Leon" (Lion Face). "No one ever did anything for us before. Everyone detested us."

Instead they were accustomed to fighting - and killing - for survival. Most lived on the streets selling drugs and working as hit men for drug dealers.

The young men jumped at the chance, quickly spreading the word to their pals.
Dubbed the Alcatraz Project, it has continued to grow. More than 75 youths from three rival gangs have since joined. After serving three months' probation in the fields, the youths receive schooling and psychological counseling. Vollmer then helps them find jobs with local businesses.

At first, the rival gang members had to be kept apart. One was expelled after he shot a rival gang member in the head, leaving him a paraplegic. But only a handful have dropped out.

Vollmer regularly stops to chat with the project's recruits outside his office, where the sweet smell of molasses hangs in the air from the nearby distillery. They made an odd sight one day in August as they stood in the elegant hacienda driveway lined by tall royal palms.

Wearing a smart business suit and silk tie, Vollmer exchanged street-cool handshakes with the scruffy ex-gang members, their bodies scarred by bullet wounds from old battles.

One of the young men, Darwin "Patapiche" (Smelly Feet) Ospino, 19, tells Vollmer that three ex-students are in jail. Another struggles with a drug habit. "Try to help him," Vollmer urges the group. "Keep him away from the drugs."

The men speak with pride of being part of Alcatraz. They composed a rap song in honor of the project - and Vollmer.

"We were enemies of the people who are now our friends," Rebolledo said. "Now people congratulate us for changing our lives."

In the town, local residents still aren't sure what to make of the Vollmers. Some have misgivings, although everyone is grateful for a 40 percent drop in crime.

"Alberto's got a big challenge," said local salesman Jose Perez, 28, as he shopped for groceries on the main street. "Some of these kids are too far gone on drugs."

He points to four Alcatraz members loitering at a street corner: "Those ones you might as well throw in the sea - if the sharks don't vomit them back up."

Then there's Chavez. After dividing the country over his reforms, he survived a hotly contested recall referendum on his rule in August. Since then he has called on his critics in the business sector to help transform the country from savage, "neoliberal" capitalism to a "humanist" economy.

"The revolution has just begun," he said in a recent speech.
In fact, the president has taken to citing Santa Teresa Rum's social projects in his speeches and has expressed interest in visiting the company.

Still, Vollmer, who voted against Chavez in the referendum, has no shortage of detractors. He drew criticism in August when he embraced Chavez at a televised government forum.

He was deluged with angry calls and e-mails accusing him of selling out to a left-wing dictatorship.

"He's scarred for the rest of his life," said family friend Eduardo Rivero, a distinguished Caracas doctor. "I'm never buying another bottle of Santa Teresa again."

Meanwhile, as buzz over the program's success has grown, so has the demand for Vollmer as a speaker at international forums, where he wows audiences with his charm and hands-on strategy.

Even the Colombian government has sought his advice on dealing with the hemisphere's longest-running civil conflict.

Wherever he goes, Vollmer is a passionate advocate of his projects. But he is skeptical of most corporate efforts at "responsible social management," which are "too passive" for his taste.

"I want something more aggressive," he said. "Something that really makes a difference in people's lives."

Often he shares the podium with his new partners. When he returned to Harvard last year, he was accompanied by the land invader, Rodriguez. The two are now good friends.

Rodriguez still backs Chavez's oligarchy-bashing politics. When his son was born, he named him Hugo. But he asked Vollmer to be the godfather.

In August, Vollmer traveled to Sarajevo to address a World Bank youth conference and then went on to London for sightseeing. He took one of the boys, Ospino - Smelly Feet - with him. They flew together in business class.

References:
Rum maker concocts mix for social reform, St. Petersburg Times Online. David Adams. Retrieved from http://www.sptimes.com/2004/10/10/Worldandnation/Rum_maker_concocts_mi.shtml

dadams@sptimes.com

 

 
 


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