It’s doubtful that when Eduardo León Jimenes began his cigar factory in the Dominican Republic back in 1903 he had any inkling that the family business, La Aurora, would be around to celebrate its 100th birthday. It’s even less likely that he knew the cigar company he created would spend its centennial transitioning into the financial industry. However, after a century of creative enterprise – including transforming into a cigarette company, dismantling a brewery in Alaska, moving it after purchase to the Dominican Republic and acquiring Cerveceria Nacional Dominicana, the largest brewery in the country – the company, by then known as E. Leon Jimenes , was well poised to enter the banking business.
Following the country’s massive financial crisis in 2003, the Leon Jimenes family bought one of the largest failed banks and created Banco León. Eduardo León Jimenes’ grandson, Carlos Guillermo Leόn ’94, along with a team of brave professionals volunteered to lead this new initiative.
“The way I put it is, we were able to bring a bank back from the dead, but that’s easier said than done,” recalls León, adding with a laugh, “That’s when I say I lost most of my hair.”
After a revival that added to steady economic recovery, Banco León merged with Banco BHD in 2014, thus creating Centro Financiero BHD Leόn, the second largest financial group in the country. Its flagship organization, Banco BHD León, occupied the third largest and most profitable position in the country. Today, Carlos leads the capital markets division.
Unsurprisingly, the company’s rapid and unexpected evolutions didn’t end with the 2014 merger.
“We’re changing the entire nature of the business,” says Leόn, explaining that, along with government and corporate bonds, Centro Financiero BHD Leόn is able to offer a new alternative in the form of mutual funds. “For a market like the Dominican that is new and where there are no real equity transactions, this is exciting. We are the leader by far, with more than 25 percent market share in this business.”
While riding the tumultuous waves of the Dominican Republic’s financial crisis wasn’t easy, Leόn says that his time at Kellogg offered useful guidance.
“When going through a crisis of that dimension it’s tempting to just give up,” he says. “But all the emphasis at Kellogg on teamwork and on persevering really helped me get through the more difficult times."
Because of his effort to see the crisis through to the end, Leόn no longer has to pretend to be optimistic.
“The Dominican economy has been growing at a very nice, consistent pace, but we know that’s not going to last forever,” he says, citing the tourism industry as a current source of positive revenue. “There’s a huge opportunity in our capital markets in terms of corporate and commercial loans and we’re seeing more participation in consumer lending. Our strategy is starting with very simple products so the public can understand what’s behind these mutual funds, and then we slowly take them through the journey by offering more and more sophisticated products in line with clients’ risk appetite.”
Leόn emphasizes that simplicity and transparency are crucial, especially when introducing financial markets to the developing world.
“I think the KISS rule, meaning ‘keep it simple, ******,’ is a global rule,” he says. “You don’t want to break a leg on the first day, but rather slowly work your way up. And by offering things that are easier to understand, we’ve been more accepted by the public.”