San Juan, Puerto Rico, native Varlin Vissepó began his career as a commercial pilot and flight instructor, but like many young people launching careers, was driven towards a law degree, too. It took him earning one, plus five years in labor law, for his first passion to call him home. “I wanted to combine my aviation experience with the practice of law,” he says.
The means to that, it turned out, was obtaining a master’s degree in aviation law from the Institute of Air and Space Law at McGill University. One of only two such programs in the world, the institute provided broad exposure to the issues that affect attorneys working in aviation.
It also gave Vissepó a stepping stone to a job at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), where he gained experience negotiating public-sector agreements. “I went to different countries to assist them in getting their own aviation programs ready,” says Vissepó, who for three years participated in high-level meetings with foreign government officials addressing airport certification, safety, and the like.
Vissepó’s next move was to gain experience in-house in the private sector. That led him into the software division of Pitney Bowes and the Latin America division of Diebold, a multinational company that manufactures ATMs and software for the financial industry. In both positions, he negotiated licenses and service agreements, and in the latter role, created a legal department from scratch.
“I hired attorneys internationally and worked with law firms across the Americas,” Vissepó says. “It was a rewarding challenge.”
“An airport isn’t your typical international company. You don’t sell a product. It’s like a mall with airplanes.”
Ultimately, personal reasons led Vissepó on a path back to Puerto Rico, and around that time, an opportunity arose at Aerostar Airport Holdings, which operates the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport on behalf of the Puerto Rico Ports Authority. It was a big job: The airport is Puerto Rico’s main international gateway—8.6 million passengers pass through annually—and Aerostar has a forty-year lease to manage the airport, including the investment of nearly $1.4 billion in capital improvements. Vissepó, who joined as chief legal officer in 2013, was the perfect fit. “They were looking for someone with a background as an in-house attorney as well as in aviation law,” he says.
Vissepó was tasked with creating an in-house Aerostar legal team from scratch. Today, he oversees four divisions: legal, compliance, risk management (including insurance), and Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE), a federal program with which every US airport receiving federal funds must comply to ensure it is hiring minority-owned companies for concessions and construction work.
“It was important for me to get involved so I knew the business,” he says, “because an airport isn’t your typical international company. You don’t sell a product. It’s like a mall with airplanes. You have all this space to lease and agreements with support staff—from baggage handlers to stores providing merchandise and food. And we have to negotiate agreements with all those people.”
Today, under Vissepó, Aerostar’s legal department is a trusted advisor to the company’s senior management team. “The value we bring is that we know what needs to be done for this particular business,” Vissepó says. “As a result, the business comes to us, not just when they have legal issues, but also when they have business issues. And that’s how in-house attorneys should be perceived. We’re not specialists; that’s up to outside counsel. We’re generalists, and have a role in every business decision the company has to make.”
The key to Vissepó’s success, he says, is acting as a bridge to get people together. “You can’t be saying no all the time,” he says. “The goal is to increase revenue for the company, and to get there, it’s important to be open-minded.”