Beatriz Leon, Founder and Managing Partner of La Cima International, has over 20 years of international credit experience. Her experience includes working at an international debt recovery company, GRC, where she began as an Asset Recovery Manager and rose through the ranks to become director of the Latin American Portfolio. She directed her six-person division in the workout, litigation, and bankruptcy of approximately $800 million of commercial claims. Beatriz also served as a Policy Manager for the Legal Department of Teleglobe Communications Corporation. Before relocating to the United States, Beatriz was elected Mayor of Usaquén, a municipality within the city of Bogota containing a population of roughly half a million people. She has also worked for the Colombian Controller’s Office and the Attorney General’s Office.
We recently spoke with Beatriz about her experience as a leader in the credit field.
A.A.: What is your educational background?
B.L.: I grew up in Colombia and became a lawyer, receiving the equivalent of a Juris Doctor or “JD” degree from the University of Autonoma in Bucaramanga, my hometown, and a master’s of law, LLM, from the Universidad Javeriana in Bogota. After practicing law in Colombia for several years and serving as Mayor of Usaquén, Bogota, a municipality within Bogota, I relocated to the United States. I then obtained a second LLM in international business law from the Washington College of Law at American University in the U.S. I am a member of the bar associations in Colombia, New York, and Washington, DC.
A.A.: How did you end up working in the credit and collections industry?
B.L.: Before coming to the U.S., my area of professional practice was contracts, administrative law, and compliance. I advised public and private clients in procurement law, commercial contracts, regulatory compliance issues, and on both preventing and investigating financial corruption.
The 90s brought the liberalization of the economies in Latin America, which opened the doors for international commerce. This presented new business opportunities for foreign businesses and financial institutions interested in entering into emerging markets, but with the rise in importance of international credit came the problem of cross-border payment defaults.
So, I became interested in the practice of international law, specifically in the enforcement of rights in foreign jurisdictions, either through the court system or amicably.
I relocated to the U.S. and, after completing an LLM at American University and passing the New York bar exam, I had the good fortune to be hired as a recovery manager for an international debt recovery firm in 2006. It was the exclusive debt recovery firm for the Export-Import Bank of the U.S. (EXIM) and what was then the Overseas Private Investment Corp (OPIC – now it is the Development Finance Corp or DFC). Over 60% of the claims handled by my company involved debtors in Latin America.
I was the first Latin American lawyer to be hired, which allowed me to practice my legal skills and enrich my legal experience in the region. In addition, I advised on the hiring of other Latin American attorneys for in-house positions at the company. I was the head of a six-person division and helped develop a network of local counsel.
A.A.: What would you say has been your greatest accomplishment in this industry?
B.L.: My greatest accomplishment is establishing a reliable and effective network of collection lawyers, investigators, and other professionals throughout Latin America. It is a delight to work every day with intellectually curious people who are such great professionals in the commercial field in Latin America.
One significant accomplishment was the collection of a $15M, 10-year-old debt in Ecuador involving an Ecuadorean financial institution that had become insolvent and placed into receivership shortly after our client, FMO (the Dutch development bank), had funded a facility. Through many twists and turns of negotiation, the resolution was for FMO to acquire a 300-employee food processing company, Confoco, in a remote area of Ecuador. In addition to serving as one of three directors on Confoco’s board, I also assembled a team of local attorneys to clear title issues. Confoco, which had been on the verge of insolvency, was turned around and ultimately sold to an international food products company for an 80% recovery.
A.A.: What are the biggest challenges you face as a credit professional in your industry?
B.L.: The biggest challenges I face as a credit professional are:
1 – belated assignment of claims after things have deteriorated, assets have dissipated and operations have become impaired, and
2 – inadequate documentation of the creditor’s rights – perhaps because the documents are generic and fail to reflect the law and practice of the particular jurisdiction where the debtor business is located.
A.A.: In what ways do you feel the industry could or should improve?
B.L.: The creation of an international credit bureau would be necessary in two respects: It would serve as an early warning system for providers of international credit, and it would be a way to discipline the market of debtors who might otherwise be inclined to prioritize the payment of foreign credit providers.
A.A.: What advice would you give to someone thinking about getting into this industry, or currently working in the industry and looking to grow as a leader?
B.L.: This is an area of practice where well-rounded lawyers are essential. Having a substantive knowledge of the applicable laws and practice is fundamental. Still, it is also crucial to have good emotional intelligence and be creative concerning potential solutions (like facilitating a business turnaround to get repaid). It’s a great area if you enjoy the excitement of facing new business and legal challenges – there is never a dull moment.
About La Cima International:
The founding members are Beatriz Leon, Roel Messie, and Donald (“Skip”) Bean, Jr. Beatriz and Skip are lawyers with bar memberships in Colombia and U.S. jurisdictions who have divided their careers between law and business. They were CEO and COO respectively of an international workout firm representing international financial institutions in the U.S., Europe, and Asia. Skip remains a partner in the Washington, D.C. law firm of Fensterheim & Bean – La Cima’s affiliated law firm, which he co-founded in 1994. Roel has spent his career in the financial services sector, including establishing and serving as CEO of a €100M agricultural fund for emerging markets. The La Cima team is multinational and multilingual. In addition to English, they work in Spanish, Portuguese, French, German, Dutch, and Arabic.
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