ACI Medellín has been promoting cooperation and investment in Colombia’s second city for nearly 15 years. Much has changed in Medellín since the agency first started its mission, with the area transforming from one of the world’s most dangerous into a place budding with innovation and tourism.
Photo: Loren Moss of Finance Colombia (L) interviews Dr. Sergio Escobar (R), executive director of ACI Medellín. (Credit: Finance Colombia)
To learn more about the organization and the current evolution of Medellín, Finance Colombia recently sat down with Dr. Sergio Escobar, who took over as executive director of ACI Medellín early this year. From his office in Medellín, he discussed his international experience, ACI’s plans for the next four years, and how innovation is helping the city become more focused on services and the knowledge economy.
Finance Colombia: Tell me about the history of ACI Medellín. When was it established? And what is its mission here in Medellín?
Sergio Escobar: ACI Medellín was created 15 years ago by the Medellín Council through an agreement, and it was in fact headed by then-Mayor Luis Pérez Gutiérrez, who today is the governor of Antioquia. So next year we’re going to be celebrating 15 years working, in the full sense, in this entity.
At first it was an entity linked to attracting international cooperation, and as such it was seeking precisely the decentralization of many of the international corporations that were located in Bogotá, or were distributed according to the national interests of Bogotá. So the International Cooperation Agency of Medellín sought to have a direct interchange with foreign governments and international organizations, both public and private, to have direct contact with us.
ACI continued evolving over the next few years and also went on to handle a new axis of business — attracting international investment. And nowadays it is the door and window of the external relations that Medellín has with the international community. So cooperation and investment continue to be its two pillars.
Finance Colombia: Interesting. And now you are the new director. What’s your history, and what did you do before taking up this position?
Sergio Escobar: My diplomatic career has been linked to international affairs in economics, in finance, in trade, and something similar in the private sector. After I finished high school here in Medellín, I went to university in Bogotá, and later on I began my career in diplomacy in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
There I carried out several functions and responsibilities both internally and abroad. I was a member of several international delegations. I was at some of Colombia’s embassies overseas, including the United Nations in New York. I was in Italy, I was in Brazil, in Costa Rica, in Mexico.
But I also had two stages in my life in which I became involved with the private sector, one in Bogotá and the other in Mexico and the United States, always keeping in touch with international business.
Finance Colombia: When Mayor Federico Gutiérrez called on you to take up this position, what did you tell him about your vision? How did ACI fit in with your vision for the Medellín of the next four years?
Sergio Escobar: More than being a position, it’s a great responsibility. And its an interesting and complex challenge for the city and also for the entity, because we came in with a very important dynamic in the present administration headed by Dr. Federico Gutiérrez. We have to go on being leaders but at the same time be innovators within the area of attracting international cooperation and international investment.
He knows my academic and professional background, and he believed that I could bring in an added value, not only to this entity but also to the whole government project that he has designed for this city in the next four years.
Finance Colombia: What changes should we expect in ACI under your leadership? Obviously ACI has been successful up to now, but how do you propose to revitalize the agency, and in what ways will ACI be different four years into the future as compared to today?
Sergio Escobar: Well, I really wouldn’t use the word “changes.” I would use the word “evolution.” Mayor Federico Gutiérrez uses a very interesting phrase: “We can’t die in the dreams and the successes that we’ve had up to now.” It’s just the opposite, we have to not only know how to strengthen them, but also find novelties that allow us to bring benefits to our city.
Therefore, we’re going to evolve with ACI and its whole team to discover new international destinations where we can attract cooperation, where we can attract investment. We’re going to bring ourselves up-to-date from the logistical point of view in several aspects that are necessary for us to keep pace with international evolution. We’re going to team up with other state entities that help Medellín become more international, including, for example, the headquarters of the tourism secretariat and Plaza Mayor, one of the most important groups ACI is working with nowadays.
It’s true that ACI Medellín has shown quite good results in the last few years, and we’re going to keep up those results in spite of the difficulties that the international economic and political community is going through. This is the big challenge, but we’re also going to bring in novelties that directly benefit this community for which we are responsible.
Finance Colombia: That touches on my next question, which is that we’re in a time of many changes and diversification. The economy here in Colombia has the challenge of diversifying out of petroleum. Then there are free-trade agreements, like the ones Colombia has with the United States, with South Korea, and one in process with Costa Rica. What are the opportunities all those changes present to ACI? And also what are the challenges that ACI has to face to fulfill its mission of attracting investment and economic activity from abroad?
Sergio Escobar: Well, that’s the challenge facing ACI in Medellín: to be creative. We have to be resourceful. That is also something in the DNA of the people of this land. In effect, we’re going to face those challenges over which we have no control, but we also have to learn to sail in those kinds of seas.
Our free-trade treaties bring benefits but also bring many hardships. Although it is true that ACI Medellín is not responsible for trade, it is also true that free-trade treaties bring us some very interesting dividends and generate an attractive platform for future investments. That’s where we plan to be creative and in some way original.
I’m not the only one who’s bringing investment into our land, into Colombia. I have nine other cities playing the same role, and each one offers advantages that probably don’t exist here, and I’m offering advantages that probably don’t exist there. The best thing is that we offer transparency, solid institutions, and a first-rate business climate. The main multinationals that go out from Colombia to the world, 60% of them go out from this city and from this region. Therefore, we really are, in effect, a destination for international business.
We have to be resourceful. Of course we will be, and that’s what we’re getting ready for. We’re even getting ready by training. Training to learn from other cultures, best practices, and “tropicalizing” them for our own benefit. We’re being very much guided by bilingualism. Bilingualism doesn’t mean, as many people readily believe, learning to speak Spanish and English. It’s speaking other languages apart from English: Chinese, Italian, German, Korean, Japanese, any other ones that let us communicate with other cultures and do business with those other cultures.
Medellín is facing many challenges. This is a city that practically, from the living-space point of view, is already 100% taken up. Nothing else fits in here. Therefore, we have to see in what way we’re going to subsist professionally and industrially in the next few years. That’s why Medellín society took a decision. We’re orienting our traditionally manufacturing industry towards service-oriented industry. That’s why you see some clusters oriented towards subjects linked to information and communications technologies (ICT), energy, and health.
As far a manufacturing goes, construction, textile and clothing, metal mechanics, and plastics have been very strong. But now we’re also going to invest in the hospitality cluster. By that I mean the hotel industry, the restaurant industry, and related services. We’re going to turn this city into an attractive city for pleasure tourism, and also for business tourism. And we’re going to make the famous New Technological District very strong, so that this service business is going to be the new starting point that will make Medellín a more modern, more digital, less polluted city — and most of all one that goes hand-in-hand with the evolution in worldwide trade.
We’re following in the steps of two cities that have become great in the world. The first is Manchester City in England. In the 1940s and ‘50s it was very much a manufacturing city, but then it sent all its manufacturing to other international destinations and dedicated itself to being a city of services. Nowadays it lives off those services.
Then there is New York City. New York is an island. It sent all its factories off the island to Queens, New Jersey, Long Island, and what did it dedicate itself to? To being an island of services. The whole island is a trading post. And it’s the world’s number one financial center, and the second city in the world, after Paris, in tourism.
Therefore, we are doing the same. We’re orienting our city into a city of services — services of excellence — in every aspect that we get involved with.