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The people who make a difference in the Canary Islands
   The people who make a difference in the Canary Islands

The pied piper of La Palma
A twinkly eyed, Santa Claus look-alike greeted us on our recent visit to the holy of holies in the Santa de la Cruz business world, the Chamber of Commerce.

The most important investment in business is human
The most important investment in business is human

15.03.2004 -

President, Ignacio Gonzlez Martn, was not at all what I had expected, he brimmed with good cheer.  It is hard to believe that this unbelievably amiable and approachable man is the hard headed chief of an enormous business empire, as well as heading up the provincial Chamber of Commerce.

He was born on the 19th of January 1935.  I came from a very humble background.  I was born in Santa Cruz de La Palma and my father died aged 39, leaving six children, some of the youngest never really even knew him.  At nine years old I had to leave home for economic reasons.  I was the second eldest, but I was more or less the one who acted as the father figure.  By the time I was 17 I was working in a bank and I decided I wanted to emigrate to Venezuela.  Of course I was underage and it took me many months to convince my mother to allow me to go.  The trip, on an Italian boat, took five days and Ignacio celebrated his 18th birthday newly arrived in his adopted country.

He slowly built up a life over there.  At one time or another he had a bar-restaurant, a hotel, a real estate and auditing office and he worked for Shell.  I studied economics and auditing and worked, prepared myself and worked some more.  He also married his Canarian girlfriend over there and his first child was Venezuelan born.  I sent my wife back when she was pregnant with our second child.  I knew that if we kept on having children over there, wed never come back and my father in law, understandably, wanted his children and grandchildren around him.  Then I thought What am I doing here when my wife and kids are over there? - So I sold up and came back.

On my return I took charge of one of my wifes familys businesses and I stayed until it was on its feet, modernised and organised, then I came over to Tenerife and started in the remoulded tyres and construction businesses.  Once here, we started increasing the family but I worked, started businesses, and dedicated myself to my wife and five children and my brothers and mother who still needed me.  Even today I rise at six oclock and dont go to bed until one or two in the morning.

Apart from the remoulded tyres, he started out representing Firestone. I started with this one new product and today, we represent many international names like Michelin and Dayton.  Weve got well over 50 percent of all the tyre business in the Canaries.

Always on the look out to modernise the service he offers to his clients, his latest offer is to inflate the tyres with Nitrogen.  Unless you have a puncture, youll never have to top up the tyre pressure again, the vehicle is safer and more comfortable and you save in the long run on petrol, tyres and garage bills.

He is reputed to have a prodigious memory for names and faces and he keeps a close personal eye on all his businesses, especially client attention.  If I see someone doing something I dont like, theyre warned.  If they do it again theyre out.  I am able to run so many successful businesses because I appoint excellent staff, the most important investment in business is human.  It is no surprise that his workers follow and adore him, some claim they would even vote as he directed if he asked them to.  He doesnt only pay them well, he knows each of them by name, their histories and their families, their victories and their problems.

He dabbled in politics for a while, but his wife didnt like it and asked him every day when he was getting out, so in the end he did.  He joined the Popular Alliance party which became the Partido Popular (PP) and left, having been yet again elected as president.  I was the longest lasting president ever in the PP, right up to the present day and I helped to convert it into a party capable of governing should the people elect them.  His time-out from public commitment lasted just two years.

In 1998 he was elected president of the Chamber of Commerce.  Im the 13th president and the only one alive, so Im not at all superstitious, he joked.

The Chamber has three basic pillars, information, advice and training.  Its a public business organisation and the money to fund it comes from a special tax, the camarales tax on all businesses small or large.  The Chambers are responsible to the Ministry of Economy and Taxation and governed via the autonomous regions.  By law, two thirds of all cash received has to go to external commerce, the growth and promotion of, in this case Canarian companies, outside our territory.  The other third goes on training and maintenance of the Chambers structure, the building, equipment and staff.

One of the greatest successes of Tenerifes Chamber of Commerce has been the Ventanilla Unica.  With pride, and a great deal of old world courtesy, the president showed us around.  The idea is to avoid the bureaucracy and all that paperwork that puts people off opening or expanding their businesses.  It used to cost a fortune going to all these different offices and a great loss of time.  It could take anything up to a year to sort out.  These days it can de done here in less than a month.  Its a government idea, started in 1999 and run through the Chambers to help plough through the paperwork.  In a one-stop shop, they have brought together under one roof representatives of the government, the Chamber, the island council, the city councils, the tax office, the social security etc.

The service is free for anybody wanting to start a new business or expand.  First, they carry out an economical and geographical feasibility study.  We know how many people and how many businesses there are and of what type in each area, so we can guide them as to the best place to set up.  From here they go next door and go from table to table filling in all the necessary papers.  After returning with any necessary documents, within 20 days to a month theyll be able to leave here with all the paperwork completed.  Would-be business men and women dont even need to take along a translator, major languages are catered for on the spot and others can be supplied on request all free!  They also have a free employment exchange (well worth registering for work or searching for staff) and an arbitration court to solve problems with, and between companies, apart from an enormous training programme the largest business training organisation outside the University.

This is one of the best Chambers of Commerce in Spain - its a reference point for the Chamber of Commerce general council, we open the most businesses in all of Spain.  Before for every 100 businesses that opened 75 closed, but we started an assessment and follow up process to see why businesses failed or succeeded and to advise new businesses accordingly.  Now with the feasibility studies, only eight to ten fail and normally its for lack of ability or drive.  The Chambers there free and for everybody.

The young child who had to leave home at such a tender age for financial reasons, is now president of IGAN investments, directing such well known companies as Vultesa, Canesa, Mesa y Honorio, Propalma, Promotora Toscal, Tinerjoya, Clinica Santa Catalina and many others, as well as involvement in business groups like Sofitesa (society for the development of Tenerife investment).  Ive also got 50 per cent of Las Terresitas.  We sold the front bit to the local council, but the valley etc. is ours and were going to start building soon.  Were going to turn it into a town, but quality, not a shanty town.

By the time this paper is on the newsstands, the Chamber of Commerce will have moved back into its renovated headquarters on the Calle Castillo and the current offices in the Olympo building, will be in the process of being turned into a business school.  For anybody thinking of launching a new business, they couldnt do better than visit the Chamber and Ignacio Gonzlez Martn or one of his team.  Hes an incredible inspiration to anyone who is thinking of opening a new venture, to people of all ages and in all fields.

Towards the close of our interview, Ignacio said Anyone would think that Id never talked before.  Ive done nothing more in my life that prepare myself and work.   - An excellent example to follow, and a recipe for success, from one of the most successful of Canarian businessmen.


By Sheila Collis

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The most important investment in business is human 
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