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vida! by Karilon L. Rogers

As a longtime executive of the Citibank international financial conglomerate, Contreras found himself No. 4 on a dreaded 1995 kidnapping list in Colombia – and lived to tell the tale. He took over Southeast Asia Pacific operations just months before the vast tumult of the Asian financial crisis ensued in 1997. He oversaw the evacuation of bank employees during 1998 riots in Indonesia in which upwards of 5,000 people were massacred. And he managed the reopening of Citibank banks in Hanoi and the former Saigon, now known as Ho Chi Minh City, enabling the same employee who turned off the lights when that city fell in 1975 to turn them back on 23 years later. If that isn’t the stuff good movies are made of, what is? AN ESCALATING CAREER

Contreras always wanted to be a banker but actually knew very little about what business banking entailed – to say nothing about banking during political upheavals, civil wars, financial crises, drug wars and sundry other difficulties. His career started calmly. Born in New York and raised in Puerto Rico, Contreras came to Berry sight-unseen on a baseball scholarship, eventually earning All-American honors as a pitcher while enjoying what he describes as “a great four-year experience.” After graduating with a degree in business, he joined Citibank’s Puerto Rico operations as a management trainee and was one of the first four Puerto Ricans accepted into a highly competitive training program in New York City. It was game-on for Contreras from the start. “It was very motivating that we were the first from Puerto Rico to be sent for the program,” Contreras said. “I am a very competitive person, but when my boss reminded us that we were the first from Puerto Rico so we had to do better than everyone else, he made it even more challenging and competitive for me. It was grueling and tough and interesting.” Contreras spent six years in Puerto Rico in a variety of positions with Citibank, during

which time he also earned an MBA from Inter-American University and, most importantly, met and married wife Milagros in what was hailed as Puerto Rico’s “wedding of the year” by the local newspaper. He got his first big break in international banking in 1984 when he was selected to manage the largest corporate Citibank branch in Venezuela, a post that set up a long career in a longer list of nations. In 1985, at age 31, Contreras was named general manager for Citibank in the Dominican Republic. It was a time of deep trouble for the agricultural nation that provided fertile ground for Contreras’ growing crisis-management skills. Falling sugar prices, surging gas prices and the Latin American debt crisis had hit the Dominican Republic hard, making it one of the poorest countries in the Americas. Despite the difficult fiscal environment, Contreras managed the operation into one of Citibank’s most profitable in the Caribbean while his family grew to include three sons. He was asked to serve as president of the island nation’s bank association because of the solidity of his operation and his impeccable reputation. In return for his distinguished service, Joaquin Balaguer, then president of the Dominican Republic, decorated Contreras with the national Order of Christopher Columbus. WORKING IN A (CIVIL) WAR ZONE

Success in the Dominican Republic netted Contreras a hardship posting in Bogotá, Colombia, as president of Citibank operations in both Colombia and Ecuador. There was a reason why he earned combat pay for the assignment. Chaos reigned in Colombia due to bloody fighting between revolutionary forces and the Colombian government, as well as a campaign of terror and murder being waged by powerful drug lords. “Before I went to Colombia, I thought CNN coverage exaggerated what was going on,” Contreras said ruefully. “But I learned it did not. You had to be careful. It was interesting and a big opportunity at a

relatively young age, but my kids had to go to school with armed guards and we drove in armored cars. My wife was very close to a lethal bombing attempt.” It wasn’t until his family had already left the country that Contreras fully understood the danger. His security chief informed him that a computer message decoded by the government revealed Contreras’ position as No. 4 on a prioritized kidnapping list. “That made me move a little faster,” he chuckled about his physical move back to Venezuela, where he would continue to lead operations in Colombia and Ecuador while adding Venezuela to his list of responsibil­ ities. “He told me the bad news, and I said, ‘Oh boy, that’s not good!’ For my family, I kind of downplayed it. And I never let it be in the front of my mind, but it was always in the back of my mind. I did tell my successor, however, that he would not automatically take my place as No. 4 on the list. He had to earn it.” ON TO ASIA

In 1996, Contreras was tapped again for crisis leadership – this time far outside of Latin American culture – when he was promoted to head the Southeast Asia Pacific division headquartered in Singapore with responsibility for corporate banking business in Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Brunei and Vietnam. Contreras was sent to Asia because Citibank recognized many of the same warning signs that had doomed Latin America to economic crisis a decade earlier. The corporation needed leaders who knew how to plan for and manage worst-case scenarios. When Contreras took over Southeast Asia Pacific operations, another veteran of Latin American operations was assigned to North Asia. Only a few months after Contreras’ arrival, the predicted financial crisis began with the collapse of Thailand’s currency and quickly spread throughout Southeast Asia and Japan. Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and Vietnam – all within Contreras’ scope of



Profile for Berry College

Berry Magazine - Winter 2011-12  

Berry Magazine - Winter 2011-12

Berry Magazine - Winter 2011-12  

Berry Magazine - Winter 2011-12