Cultural Connoisseur

Pete Garcia on why a tequila shot at lunchtime isn’t always a bad idea, and how old-fashioned handshakes go a long way

CULTURAL IMMERSION Pete Garcia is a strong proponent of embracing cultural cues in business dealings, such as the common tequila shot at lunchtime in Mexico. “If you join them, you’ll have more fun,” he says.

There are two sides to Pete Garcia’s professional success. First, there’s the story of how Garcia started with Continental Airlines as a reservation agent, answering phones, and climbing the ladder all the way up to vice president of the airline’s Latin America market. Then, there’s his upbringing, how Garcia’s family moved from America to Colombia to work as missionaries, and how he taught English to locals as a teen.

Garcia’s natural work ethic and previous exposure to South American cultures contributed to his success as vice president of Latin America market, where, in the 10 years that he held the position, he helped grow sales from $250 million to $2.5 billion. He achieved this through the marketing coup that was known as the “Latinization” of Continental. “We were swimming against the current as a small company having emerged from bankruptcy,” Garcia recalls. “Houston, our hub, was not recognized as an international gateway to Latin America. Miami owned that tag for many years.”

The Latinization began at Houston, with signage introduced in Spanish as well as English. In the air, research established what Latin American customers would prefer by way of onboard meals, and that a bilingual flight attendant might be very useful for those without English. The result was that Continental became known as the Hispanic-friendly airline. “It had a lot to do with marketing, advertising, determining where our customer was coming from,” Garcia says. “What I did at Continental was introduce the differences of cultures.”

After 30 years with the airline, flying over 200,000 miles a year (and being in charge of marketing to Hispanics in the United States, a tricky proposition due to this group’s multicultural, multidemographical, and multigenerational makeup), Garcia decided to strike out on his own with Pete Garcia International. Through this company, he works as a consultant for his previous industry, and is also involved in cross-border development using his expertise to help US companies extend their business into Latin America and vice versa. “International business is no different than you would do things domestically, except there are different languages and cultures,” Garcia advises. “If you can respect other people’s way of life and way of doing business, you’ll have a lot more friends and do a lot more business.”

Take Note

Pete Garcia’s tips for succeeding in the global market

  • Do your research on the companies that you want to do business with. You need to know who you’re doing business with to avoid aligning yourself with the wrong partner.
  • Find out about the local culture, you will be far more prepared when you go there.
  • Be prepared to not close business on your first visit, and be prepared to invest in developing a relationship. It’s the best way to do business; relationships are all about making compromises.

During his tenure with Continental, Garcia was stationed in Mexico City for two years, an experience that helped him “tremendously.” “Mexico is a very diverse country, in the same way as the US, from NYC to Texas, or South Carolina,” he says. “That’s what Latinization was all about. Teaching not only the differences between Americans and Latinos, but also the differences among Latinos. How the Dominican Republic differs from Argentina. Not everybody knows how to Samba. Not everybody drinks tequila. If you sit down at 3 p.m. for lunch in Mexico City, then your guest is probably going to order a shot of tequila. They’ll sip it—it’s customary. Don’t think, ‘I’ve got a real winner here, he’s drinking at lunchtime.’ He’s only having one shot … Adapt yourself to their customs.”

Adapting can mean setting an appointment for when your customer would like to have lunch, and ensuring that if it’s a lot different from your usual lunchtime, making sure you’re not so weak that you pass out in front of your guest. Garcia adds that learning a little of their language can go a long way, both as a means of getting in your customers’ good graces, and as a way of facilitating immersion in a new culture. It’ll help open you up, making it easier to embrace their way of doing things, he says. “In Colombia, if they offer you a glass of juice, you take it … To not do so is an insult.”

Garcia also points out that while our legal system has made doing business on a handshake redundant, it’s very much the way of doing things in Latin America. “Walking into a meeting with a 127-page contract is a little too brazen. You won’t be trusted,” he says. “You’re better off walking in with a handshake—it goes a lot a further in Latin America than it does in the United States.”