PAPER CHASE

Panama 2015 | TOURISM & RETAIL | INTERVIEW

TBY talks to María B. Lekas, General Manager of Ultracom, on competition within the sector, online sales, and the importance of CSR.

María B. Lekas
BIOGRAPHY
María B. Lekas completed her university education in Law at Universidad Santa Maria La Antigua, Panama, and has an MBA from Nova Southeastern University. She has worked at Ultracom for more than 20 years and is General Manager of the group.

How has your company developed since its foundation?

My father founded our company in 1974. He started selling office, home and pharmacy related products. In 1978, he started a paper converter factory that focused on paper products such as copy paper, stationary, file folders, etc. With that, our focus shifted solely to office equipment, supplies, and paper products.

Is your sector characterized by high competition?

It is a competitive market because there are many products entering from China, and with the free zone importing products margins have become tight. One of the main markets we sell to is home businesses which are in daily need of our services. We send eight or nine drivers with around 40 invoices to be delivered. Each Monday we deliver to a company in Santiago where we have a store that is a subsidiary of our company.

What competitive advantages have allowed your company to survive and succeed in this competitive environment?

Our high quality of service has really given us a competitive edge over our competition, because even if our competitors have similar products, nothing will match our quality of service. Globalization allows access to many offers, but our service speaks for itself. If a company has a deadline or needs technical support, we are there to help.

Do you anticipate online sales posing a challenge to your business?

People still like to talk to another human being when they call up a business and want to conduct a transaction, not a machine. We want to provide a more personalized experience for our customers, and the relationships we build survive the test of time. We have customers who come to us on a daily basis, and their loyalty is reassuring.

How do you establish relations with suppliers to expand your product portfolio?

We travel extensively to attend shows, exhibitions and conferences. We currently have a group going to China to attend a show. We maintain strong relationships with our suppliers. People crave relationships, and our network has proven that our business goes beyond the products and helps bring people together.

What is the importance of CSR for the company?

Our company is committed to social development. We recently supported a government project to help people in the interior of the country. Specifically, we participated in the construction of wells that work with solar energy to help people receive water for their crops and homes. These have had a huge impact on people's lives. We also have a large line in school supplies, which is an area that expanded from selling paper and printers to selling supplies designed for students and for children with special needs. There was a huge need for everything regarding education in Panama.

Which of your products are driving growth today?

The paper segment is driving growth, as most people have a computer and printer in their homes. Even though we encourage green industry, we recognize that people still need to print. Solar panels are also a growing segment, although the mentality with regard to renewable energy has been difficult to change at times. We see it as an opportunity for educating people on sustainability. The government is interested in improving the ecosystem and cleaning up industry to make it more efficient and sustainable. The stationary market is stable, and wide format printers have become popular.

What are your company's goals for the end of 2015?

We are working on major projects involving solar panels, which has become a key focus for us. In terms of technology we are working on a project to become streamlined and modernized. Another project that is close to my heart is the development of products for children with special needs. Panama is not a convenient country for people with special needs, and the mindset is not what it should be. We are trying to break certain habits that are not considerate of these children and adults. Everyone has the right to receive a better education and therefore have a better life.