“The things you learn are often by accident. It depends on what is hot in the economy at the time.”

Ignacio Alvarez moved to Puerto Rico for love and stayed for opportunity. Born in Cuba in 1958, he moved to Florida at the age of three. While attending Georgetown University he met his wife, who was of Puerto Rican decent. After relocating to Puerto Rico, he found himself one of six founding members of the law firm Pietrantoni Mendez & Alvarez LLP. In 2010, Alvarez’s wife, general counsel for Popular, Inc. and Banco Popular, passed away from cancer. A few months later, Popular, Inc.’s CEO approached Alvarez to join the company as its general counsel, charged with helping the largest Hispanic-run financial organization in the United States enter new markets and introduce novel products.

 

"We are a very unique institution. Popular, Inc. is the largest Hispanic-run financial organization in the United States. Our challenge is to maintain our roots, but open ourselves up to other communities."—Ignacio Alvarez, General Counsel
“We are a very unique institution. Popular, Inc. is the largest Hispanic-run financial organization in the United States. Our challenge is to maintain our roots, but open ourselves up to other communities.”—Ignacio Alvarez, General Counsel

I come from a long family of lawyers. My grandfather was a lawyer, my father was a lawyer, and my mother studied law in Cuba in the 1940s. I studied liberal arts at Georgetown University, and like many liberal arts majors, when I graduated it was either the real world or law school. I went on to Harvard Law School, and worked for a Miami law firm before moving to Puerto Rico in 1985. I spent seven years at McConnell Valdes, the largest firm on the island, gaining valuable experience with corporate securities work.

I was lucky to have a fairly unique exposure to diverse corporate practices. By luck or chance, when in Miami I’d been involved in a lot of corporate securities work. When I came to Puerto Rico, there was an increased demand for that type of work, I was a natural fit and [I] got a lot of exposure. There was also a need for bank regulatory work, so I stepped up.

I tell a lot of young lawyers the things you learn are often by accident. It depends on what is hot in the economy at the time. When I came to Puerto Rico, 936 funds were very active and a lot of money was flowing around. As a young lawyer with specialized skills that weren’t prevalent in Puerto Rico, I gained valuable experience. It’s all about being at the right place at the right time.

In 1992, I founded a law firm with six other attorneys. We specialized in corporate and commercial law matters. When I left there, we had over 60 attorneys. It was very hard to leave; we were like a band of brothers because of all we went through, particularly the growing pains of building a business together. I believe I would have only have left the law firm for a few things—Popular was still recovering from the financial crisis and I felt it would be a challenge to form part of the team to help guide it through the storm to a safe harbor, and take it to the next level. One of the benefits of working for the bank is that I have more control over my time. In the firm, I was always dealing with a crisis. Clients dictated my schedule. At Popular, Inc., I have more flexibility as well as the opportunity to be involved in the strategic decisions of the organization.

As the general counsel, I handle the legal and corporate matters at Popular, Inc. I’m responsible for the two legal divisions, [United States] and Puerto Rico. I also oversee strategic planning for the corporation and loss share office that administrates assets purchased in FDIC [Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation] assisted transactions, and our internal audit divisions. As general counsel, a large part of my job is supporting the CEO. A lot of my day depends on what he needs me to do.

We are a very unique institution. Popular, Inc. is the largest Hispanic-run financial organization in the United States. Our challenge is to maintain our roots, but open ourselves up to other communities.

In the next three-to-five years, I’d like to see the organization grow and enter other markets and create new products. We are already a relatively large institution. With $35 billion in assets, we are the 36th largest bank in the [United States]. We have a huge presence in Puerto Rico, so we have to be creative to identify new products and services and explore growth possibilities in other areas. As general counsel and head of strategic planning, I deal with the regulatory implications of going into different markets, coordinate market and efficiency studies regarding the operations, and as part of the senior management team, I try help develop our strategic plan and position.

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