There’s not much Antonio (Tony) Castañon remembers about fleeing Cuba. He was just five years old, after all. It was sudden. His family took nothing with them. They joined other relatives in Spain before living in Costa Rica for a year.
At age ten, Castañon and his younger brother boarded a plane alone headed for Miami to live with a distant relative after obtaining student visas to study in the US. He didn’t speak English. His parents came eighteen months later. The family moved to Las Vegas, and although his parents found work, there were days they went without food so their children could eat.
The young Castañon became the family’s translator and negotiated everything from lease terms to the purchase of a family car. Castañon had to grow up fast. Or, as he likes to say, he “walked in big shoes even as a little kid.”
These formative experiences impacted nearly everything about Castañon and continue to influence the way he leads at Citi, where he’s emerged as an expert, respected mentor, and sought-after community leader. “My story defined how I think about the world around me, but it also shapes how I think about business and why I value helping others overcome their struggles,” he says. “Not everything you embark on will be a success, but difficulties and mistakes help us learn and grow.”
Castañon grew up at Citi: with the exception of a six-year hiatus he took to grow his skills in other industries, he’s been with the investment bank and financial services corporation for thirty-three years. It all started back in 1981 after Castañon’s high school graduation. He wanted to go to college, but couldn’t afford tuition. When he heard Citi had a tuition reimbursement program, he applied and was hired as a part-time customer service agent in the organization’s new Las Vegas operations center.
At first, Castañon assumed he would stay with Citi for a semester, or maybe for a year until he moved on to something else. That changed when leaders noticed his talent. First, a manager asked Castañon to take on a special project. Then others funneled bigger jobs his way. Soon, Castañon had developed a reputation as a trusted employee, capable problem-solver, and rising star.
Promotions came rather quickly, which in some ways surprised Castañon. From his perspective, he was simply doing his job. But he had good training, great leaders, and intangible soft skills like charisma. “Overcoming trauma produces strength and resilience,” he reflects. “I knew how to connect one-on-one with people because I had been relied on to smooth things over and interpret in my own house.” He was able to solve complex problems with multiple stakeholders, step into leadership roles, and bring solutions forward.
As Castañon rose through the ranks, he led several memorable projects and initiatives. In the mid-1990s, his team helped bring photos and signatures to the front of credit cards for the first time. After helping to develop the technology to enable this innovative security feature, Castañon saw it exported it across the globe and used to issue photo cards in many places, including Mexico.
That led to Castañon’s first major leadership role. He spent five years running operations for Citi’s Mexico business unit—which, at the time, was relatively small, with six branches and four hundred thousand customers—before leaving Citi to broaden his skills by working in two other fast-paced industries—telecommunications and healthcare.
Six years later, Castañon had logged some important wins and developed some key leadership skills. He was ready to run a business. Returning to Citi would give him the opportunity to manage the Sears credit card portfolio and later fill a similar role for a specialty partners portfolio of twenty-four large brands.
Today, as a managing director and head of collections for Citi’s Consumer Bank Operations in North America, he is based at Citi’s Kansas City site, where he leads a team of six thousand employees who are responsible for collection and asset recovery across the continent.
As he’s done at every stop in his journey, Castañon has brought his own experiences to the role. “I tell my team that this is a people business and relationships matter. You have to listen to people and engage them to solve problems, whether you’re working with a colleague or a customer,” he says.
Castañon is living proof that leading a large collections operation can be an empathetic endeavor. Making sure Citi cares for customers when they enter the collections journey is his top priority. While he wants to keep people out of the collections, his job involves recovering assets that total $140 billion in outstanding loans. A best-in-class program filled with the right technology, tools, people, and strategies can accomplish the task without sacrificing integrity or compassion.
A racial gap in financial literacy and other factors makes these issues especially relevant in the Latino community. Castañon’s team offers bilingual services, and collectors are trained to connect customers with resources that can help them get their financial lives back on track. “Citi invests in the communities where we do business,” he says, “and huge part of that is focusing on financial literacy in the areas we serve, including more diverse communities.”
Within the organization, Castañon serves as a formal and informal mentor and also sits on a Hispanic/Latino Leadership Network and Affinity steering committee designed to promote and develop minority talent. Additionally, he serves on Citi’s Global Diversity and Inclusion council, in which role he is focused on attracting and onboarding diverse talent to Citi. Castañon’s passion for serving others has also motivated him to find community organizations to support. He is a former board chairman of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Kansas City and now helps fundraise for the iconic organization’s scholarship program.
Despite all he’s accomplished, Castañon says he still wants to do more. When he retires from Citi, the kid from Cuba will certainly leave behind big shoes to fill.