FROM EACH ACCORDING TO THEIR ABILITY

Costa Rica 2018 | CONSTRUCTION & REAL ESTATE | INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Manuel Zúñiga Sibaja, Executive President of Cuestamoras, on removing physical barriers in social spaces and building stronger communities.

Manuel Zúñiga Sibaja,
BIOGRAPHY
Manuel Zúñiga Sibaja is the Executive President of Cuestamoras, a multinational with business interests in health, urbanism, energy, and forests. With more than 15 years at the firm, he is the first president from outside of the family. Prior to joining Cuestamoras, he held executive leadership positions in Grupo Más x Menos, CARHCO N.V., and Walmart Central America, where he was responsible for company operations and four commercial formats, 500 stores in Central America, and more than 28,000 employees. He is Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Association of Entrepreneurs for Development (AED), a non-profit business association for sustainable development.

How has Cuestamoras transformed itself in over a century of existence?

Cuestamoras has a colorful history; we were one of the first general stores in Costa Rica. We innovate in order to create opportunities for everybody, and these innovations have taken us into several different businesses. In 2012, we decided to develop a multi-business company that would develop strategies in different sectors to enable us to fulfill our innovation purpose. Therefore, we started looking around and thinking about areas of the economy where we could make a difference. We were looking for fairly mature industries with a need for innovation, so we started with real estate. Rather than just being a developer, we wanted to be a builder of communities and provide a better life for inhabitants; therefore, we developed a strategy to create organic, vibrant, and sustainable communities in Costa Rica and other countries where we operate. Our second business was energy, which we wanted to start from scratch. We saw an opportunity to start expanding internationally, so we started an energy trading company in Guatemala that now has operations in El Salvador and will soon be in Panama as well. Recently, we have acquired a couple of companies in the health sector because we thought this was fairly mature, but not dynamic enough. Therefore, we acquired Cefa, the leading medicine distributor in the country, and Fischel, the main pharmacy chain in Costa Rica. Several months ago, we completed the acquisition of La Bomba, the leading low-cost pharmacy chain, with the intention of growing the business.

Regarding real estate, what are some of your most iconic developments?

We are currently developing Oxígeno, a large mixed-use development in Heredia. This is what we call “a Human Playground," a concept of our own making in which you can shop, be entertained, eat, exercise, or just hang out with your friends in a much more integral way than your typical commercial development. This is a unique concept not found anywhere else in the world. The architecture of this development is organic and flexible and based not so much on the hard elements of design, but the soft elements that can be customized to different scenarios and situations. There are extensive green areas since the landscape is extremely important for us, and we are integrating it with the community. Of course, it includes sustainability. Santa Verde is another mixed-use project in Heredia with 1,200 units. Here again we are trying to create a neighborhood rather than a development and integrate green spaces and landscapes with other structures. We also believe that security is not a matter of barriers; rather, what really prevents crime is human activity. We want the development to be open for the public through technology and without physical barriers. These two developments will be ready by 2018.

Why are you acquiring companies in the health sector?

We need to create opportunities for everybody. If we are in the health business, we can help as many people as possible. Often medication is expensive; therefore, we are trying to understand how we can get more first-class medicines to more people in need. We have La Bomba in every province in Costa Rica, which represents tremendous growth.

What is the strategy behind growing your energy business in Central America?

Central America has the particularity of being a small region, but one of the things the market doesn't do is to treat it as a single region. Doing business is difficult because of the different currencies, laws, and governments; for example, there are significant barriers to trade. However, the exception is the energy industry. The Mercado Eléctrico Regional (MER) is a wise initiative that was launched years ago, all that is needed is a power line and a legal framework in order to have a regional market. What we do is connect the people that generate energy with the people who need it.