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Panama 2014 | ECONOMY | INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Abdul Mohamed Waked Fares, President of Grupo Wisa, on the rebranding of the company, expanding the group, and the Soho Project.

Abdul Mohamed Waked Fares
BIOGRAPHY
Abdul Mohamed Waked Fares graduated from the University of Lebanon after studying Business Administration. In 1984, he established Waked Internacional, which today is known as Grupo Wisa, in Colón Free Trade Zone. In 1992, he opened up the Duty Free Division, which currently has operations in 10 countries with 59 stores in 12 international airports in Mexico and Central and South America. In 1994, Grupo Wisa established local market subsidiaries in a number of Central and South American countries, and in 1996 the group started to open up local retail stores, which now total 66 in numerous countries.

What was the reason behind the rebranding of the company in 2005?

In 2005, we changed our name from Waked Internacional to Grupo Wisa in order to give uniformity to the business activities of the company, and to project a solid and reputable brand name. Waked is a common surname in Lebanon and there are many companies under that name; hence, people tended to think that all Waked companies had something to do with us.

What is the main activity Grupo Wisa engages in at the moment?

We have a diverse business portfolio, and our main activity is perfumes and fragrances. Newspapers are another one of our main activities; we own the newspapers El Siglo and also La Estrella, the oldest paper in the country, and among the oldest ones in Latin America. They are two of the main newspapers in Panama, and we have high expectations for the future of these titles.

What is the importance of the Soho project for Grupo Wisa?

This is a project that was started some six years ago by a Spanish entrepreneur, who subsequently faced some economic difficulties in making the project a reality. I ended up acquiring firstly 50% of the shares and later on a greater percentage of them. Today, the Soho project is the main commercial investment project in the country after the Canal. The project has been able to move forward thanks to the support of local banks, especially Bancolombia and Banistmo. We are talking about two office towers and one Ritz Carlton Hotel tower. In addition, 120 stores will be constructed featuring famous brands such as Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Dior, Prada, Valentino, Burberry, Fendi, Rolex, Mercurio, Carolina Herrera, YSL, Bvlgari, Bottega Veneta, Jimmy Choo, Ralph Lauren, and many others. We already have all these contracts signed, and I believe we will open the doors by the end of 2014. To date, we are talking about an investment of some $360 million, including constructing underground parking for over 3,000 vehicles. This project has had international expertise in its design and construction. One of the towers will be named after Banistmo bank.

How has the company expanded its international profile in the last decade?

We have operations in almost all Central American and some South American markets. Our main future focus will be on the Southern Cone. For example, we opened the first Burberry store in Chile. I also want to enter Brazil, despite the legal and tax difficulties this represents.

What role does the Colón Free Trade Zone in Panama play in the group's activities?

Initially, the zone was one of the reasons why we moved to Panama; today, it is a logistics center for us from where we bring European products and redistribute them among our subsidiaries. It is not a business center, rather it is a logistics hub. This is due to the fact that over the years we have ended up assuming the entire distribution chain for our business activities, prior to that we used to work more with intermediaries. Despite the increase in operating costs, we knew this was the way to succeed, and time has proved this right.

What is the significance of Fundacion La Riviera for Panamanian society?

The foundation is a personal project based on the idea that I have always believed as a businessperson that you have to give back as much as you can from what you achieve. I am extremely thankful for the work done by the management board of the foundation. My daughters have also been an essential part in the development of the foundation. The main goals of Fundacion La Riviera are education, healthcare, child welfare, and the alleviation of poverty. My future plan foresees the professionalization of the foundation in terms of having its own headquarters, better facilities, and more resources. For example, we want a space where we can set up a community center to provide training, food and care for low-income families.