Beyond Playa Hotels and Resorts’ ocean views, accommodating staff, and luxurious rooms is an executive team comprised of six people. One of them is Playa’s energetic general counsel, David Camhi.
Despite having only worked three years for Playa, Camhi has been a key player in the success and expansion of the resort chain. The born-and-raised Colombian attributes his success to a strong work ethic. “As a foreigner, I had to work especially hard to compete with everyone else.” He admits to having devoted time to work in an addictive fashion.
Finding the right outlet for that work ethic wasn’t always clear to Camhi. He never considered a career in the legal field until his father persuaded him to give law school a chance. “Growing up I thought I wanted to become an engineer,” says Camhi. “I loved creating things, and I was good with numbers.” His father had always wanted to be a lawyer but never had the opportunity to attend law school. Camhi took his advice and attended the Universidad de Los Andes in Bogotá, Colombia. At the start of his career, though, he still wasn’t convinced it was the right decision. “I started out in tax law, and I didn’t particularly care for it, but it was a blessing in disguise,” he says.
By the late ‘90s, Colombia’s political issues and economic turmoil put Camhi’s career at a crossroads. The country was going through a deep recession, and friends and family were leaving. Camhi couldn’t simply pick up and go; the problem with practicing law is that you must be licensed in a particular country. He decided the best decision was to go back to school. He had a knack for working with numbers and handling accounting issues, so in 2000, he received his master’s in finance from the Colegio de Estudios Superiores de Administración and his master’s in law from Cornell University.
He then took a job in New York with Sidley Austin, handling a bulk of the firm’s Colombian clients. What was supposed to be a year-long foreign associate engagement turned into three years with the law firm. As successful as Camhi was at Sidley Austin, he encountered for the first time what his wife calls the “three-year curse.”
“Every three years I moved to a different city or country, usually as a result of finding a new job,” Camhi says. His restless nature explains his experience with different companies in so many cities and countries (including Colombia, New York, Mexico City, and Miami) and his current position at Playa Hotels and Resorts just outside Washington, DC.
Camhi has defeated the so-called curse at Playa, a fact he attributes to the hospitality industry being so dynamic. Someone is always selling, buying, and renovating, which means there will always be new, interesting, and challenging transactions to work on. He is involved with the structural and contractual aspects of the company’s transactions involving current and future hotels and managing his direct reports and outside counsel.
Camhi works with an in-house team of 8 attorneys and 10 outside counsel. His standards for his internal and external team are high, and he has worked with several of his outside counsel in the past, trusting they can provide quality work. “A relationship with a law firm is all about trust,” he says. “You need to be familiar with their efficiency and know they will charge you fairly, and they need to trust that you will be a loyal client.”
As general counsel, Camhi divides his time between providing legal counsel to his internal clients at Playa and being a member of the executive team, which was a struggle for him at first. “When you’re an outside lawyer working with a firm, you present the options and risks to the client, and sometimes you don’t even know what the company ends up deciding on,” he says. “But when you are an in-house lawyer you need to think as a part of the company, make decisions, take risks, and live with the consequences.” Camhi teaches his team of attorneys not to think simply as legal technicians but as true businesspeople with the ability to balance risk aversion and the needs of the company.
Beyond having business agility, Camhi attributes much of his success in the United States to his background. With the increasing number of Hispanic consumers in the United States, companies are trying to cater to this emerging class. Camhi says it is something that should be taken advantage of by younger Hispanics entering the workforce.
He admits that being bilingual is a quality he plays up in the business arena. “Don’t try to hide your origin, embrace it.” Camhi advises. The job market and environment have changed in the last 15 years. There is a much more level playing field for Latin American executives. Camhi stresses, “Immigrants like me should take advantage of any experience wherever it is gained.”
Editor’s Note: At press time, David Camhi informed Hispanic Executive editors that he would be relocated to South Florida with Playa Hotels and Resorts after a little over three years in the Washington, DC metro area. In his update, Camhi joked, “the three-year curse is only partially broken. The difference this time is that the relocation is with the same company.”