Alberto Aleman Zubieta is an engineer, a very feisty one. And very political too, despite his claims to the contrary. Aleman twice headed the Panama Canal Authority; his two terms lasted for a total of 17 years, and in both of them he confronted major challenges.
The US withdrawn in 1999 from the administration of the Canal meant that Panama recovered its sovereignty of the waterway. But the country needed the Panama Canal Authority to generate earnings too. Its non-profit stares had to be dead and buried.
The first task was to transform the Authority's management from a statist mentality to one of a company without fear of competition. The next was to solve the problem that two studies of the time had posed: by 2012, the Canal was going to reach full capacity.
"They handed me over a company that had a death sentence hanging over it," Aleman told Latin Trade shortly before retiring as Administrator of the Panama Canal.
"How was it going to compete? The world wasn't prepared to wait for me." The post-Panamax ships were about to be built. Something had to be done. That "something" was going to be costly and it had to be big, but first the Authority's finances had to be put in order.
During the 85 years in which it administered the canal, the United States never aimed to earn profits. Instead the objective was strategic control of the waterway. Washington had no interest in making money; all that was required was self-sufficiency. "It was a break-even operation," said Aleman. Now it had to be transformed into "a company with profits --which amounts to a 180-degree turn."
This meant transformation of the management objectives. "The new mandate for the canal was to be efficient. We had to bring about a cultural change in the authority, both from within and outside the organization."
The reorganization began with the management structure the Americans had used. It provided "a very sound foundation in legal and structural terms, as well as procedures and regulations".
As the first step in the change, the Authority had to learn how to manage its resources. It was accustomed to "redundancy--have two, three or four, just in case someone or something was needed." That could no longer go on.
At the same time, Aleman was well aware that one of the battles he faced was his staff's fear of change. The overwhelming mentality was that "if things are doing fine, why change? Don't rock the boat! What I said was 'The opposite is true. We really need...