Passion & Progress Define Catalina Restrepo’s Tenure At The Helm Of Investment Promotion Agency ACI Medellín
Catalina Restrepo has spent just a year and a half at the helm of ACI Medellín, the city’s investment promotion agency. Still, in that time she has been able to leaver her mark and create a legacy. As the current mayoral administration comes to the close of its four year term, Finance Colombia’s publisher Loren Moss wanted to discuss Restrepo’s tenure at ACI (Agencia de Cooperación e Inversión) Medellín. The agency has been extremely productive over the years in attracting business, foreign investment, and events to Medellín. Still, according to Restrepo there is more to be done.
Finance Colombia: So we are here with Catalina Restrepo. What is your title formally?
Catalina Restrepo: Yes, the Executive Director of the Agency for International Cooperation and Investment for Medellín and the Metropolitan Area, but “ACI Medellín” is nicer (smiles).
Finance Colombia: Right, and how much time do you have in this role?
Catalina Restrepo: It’s been one year and six months.
Finance Colombia: And what did you do before? Tell me a bit about your story. Are you a local or from another part of Colombia?
Catalina Restrepo: I was born and raised in Medellín. I studied high school here in the city of Medellín, and then when I graduated I went to the United States. I went to Minnesota, first to learn English, although I was already in a bilingual school, and then I decided to stay to do my professional studies there in Minnesota. I did my Bachelors in Business Management, and I did a minor in French.
Finance Colombia: University of Minnesota?
Catalina Restrepo: University of Saint Thomas. Then I had the opportunity to enjoy the Minnesota cold.
We can’t fall into the trap that “yes, Medellín is the best” no. Medellín is the best for us who love it very much, but we all have challenges, we all have to learn, so let’s say that it’s still surprising, that when they come here they come as with “could it be? Is it not?” And when they get to know us they say “oh well, yes!”
Finance Colombia: Yes, it’s like the coldest state except Alaska.
Catalina Restrepo: Of the United States. The nine months of winter, and the three of summer, but I have eternal gratitude to the Twin Cities (Minneapolis, St. Paul) because I was really happy while I was there, then I had the opportunity to work in finance in the United States, then I returned to Colombia, and returned to Medellín. I worked at the Museum of Antioquia as Director of Events, then I went to Bogotá, worked in the Presidency of the Republic for four years, after that I worked for the Governor of Antioquia, then to the Ministry of Commerce. I worked in the World Bank in Bolivia on all issues of competitiveness indicators, and finally I worked in SENA, and then I arrived at the Mayor’s Office.
Finance Colombia: Wow, fascinating.
Catalina Restrepo: So during all that time gaining work experience, I continued my studies; I studied a specialization in Communications and Corporate Social Responsibility. I also did another specialization in Public Government at the J.F.K. School of Government at Harvard University, and finally I did a Master’s Degree in Public Relations and Communications.
Finance Colombia: Excellent, then you have a good balance between finance and the technical, also for human relations and public relations.
Catalina Restrepo: When I worked at the Presidency of the Republic, I worked on issues of international cooperation. In the Ministry of Commerce I had the opportunity to work with multilateral organizations, then in all my work experience, I’ve always had my counterparts, and here in the ACI I had all these counterparts in the same job, so that’s what I do. Make this work fascinating, make sure this work is enriching, that it contributes a lot to myself as a person and as a professional, and it’s a job… I say that I have the most beautiful job of all, because here in ACI we work to create good news every day.
If there is a public entity that can offer good news, it’s ACI: Who would complain about the fact that we generate employment? Who can complain about the fact that we improve the capabilities of the citizens’ territory through cooperation? Companies arrive here and demand to make us their base city, to have better human talent, to have more competitiveness, but also these citizens have formal job opportunities, so we show them every day how Medellín has transformed through all those delegations that come from all over the world, to see what happened in Medellín? In the nineties it was a city that nobody wanted to see, the most violent city in the world, to now be today the Medellín of the Fourth Industrial Revolution; that recently the World Economic Forum decided that Medellín is that “focus” for Latin America, it’s the fifth city in the world that has a center of that type, so they ask me what do Tokyo, Mumbai, Beijing, San Francisco and Medellín have in common? I tell them that we are the cities for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
Finance Colombia: It’s fascinating how Medellín has changed. I remember my first time in Colombia, in 2004, and looking at what Colombia is like now, and specifically Medellín, how the reputation has changed and how Medellin is like the Silicon Valley of South America. There are companies that are migrating from Uruguay, the United States, Europe, and not because it is cheaper—although it is cheaper—but because of the quality of life, because of its human resources, there is human talent, the connectivity that it has. Tell me then: When you arrived at ACI Medellín, the agency was already established, it already has a good reputation because of professionals like Juan Carlos Valencia and his colleagues but sometimes I think it is less of a challenge to change or to fix something that is broken, than taking something that is working and take it to the next level, as you see when you arrived. What are you proud of what you have achieved? You don’t have much time since starting, but what I’ve seen as a journalist, looking at what’s happening here, the arrival of more businesses, as there are always announcements of a company that is coming to Medellín, which chose Medellín to grow, then what do you see as your main achievements that you have made as in the last months?
Catalina Restrepo: Look, Loren, I think that the achievements are immense, and the agency has been founded for seventeen years now. It’s an agency that has been transforming and adjusting to the needs of the city, and has been an agency that has been able to adapt to its changes.
So, one, the agency’s human team is invaluable, and that’s the first thing. Two, the great achievements? That last year we worked very hard and we achieved almost all the goals of the development plan, from “Medellín Cuenta con vos 2016-2019.” So, to achieve that in such a short time it’s not just my issue, it’s a matter of team commitment and working with the team and for the team, because what is the point for me to do certain things if I don’t know how to give that communication to the team so the results of the agency is everyone’s? We are a team, we have a great leader who is our mayor, and the mayor is convinced that this is a very important opportunity, and when I say this, this is the daily work of the agency.
It’s very important for the economic development of the city, so what have we done? we have focused a little more, we have not tried to do a little bit of everything. What is the focus of 2018? What is the focus of 2019? We’re doing very well, but let’s demand more from ourselves because I know we can do better.
So if you see the achievements we have so far, that is, in direct foreign investment, Medellin has today $1.01 billion US dollars as of May 31, and we hope to end December 31, 2019 with almost 1.2 billion dollars. If we compare ourselves with other cities, for example with Barranquilla, Bogotá, with Cali, Medellín is second, it’s supremely well ranked, not in vain last week FTI Intelligence from Financial Times recognized us as the fourth city globally in strategy.
So the challenges have always been there and it is to demand more because I know we can do more, capitalize on that human talent, focus much more that human talent and work hand in hand with the administration, because although we are a decentralized entity, we are the Mayor of Medellín, we are the Municipality of Medellín, we are the metropolitan area as our name says, so we work very actively with these actors, with these allies, with the chambers of commerce, with private companies, with universities, which is what has characterized Medellín’s transformation and keeps transforming and there is a continuity in processes, which is that work between university, company, state. So, if we continue to work together, the results are seen, and this is proof that the results are visible and the impact is much greater.
Finance Colombia: If you look for example at the next five years, what do you see? There are some things that are within the control, of ACI, as an agency, but there are also external factors, nobody knows what will happen to the economy, the price of oil, but for what can ACI do? Specifically talking to the world, talking to investors and businesses, what is your vision of the potential that ACI has?
Catalina Restrepo: I would love it if the ACI had, I don’t know if a department, a space or some professionals, dedicated solely and exclusively to offer cooperation. The ACI and Medellin is now ready. We in our time need the world to transform us, I believe that today, and given the flow of delegations that we receive weekly to learn from Medellin, my dream is that Medellin can begin to deliver that knowledge and those good practices, because what happens? It is not that they are going to be copied verbatim, no, because Medellín has a reality, San José de Costa Rica has another reality.
But if there is something here that has already worked, and can be adapted to San José de Costa Rica, how not to share it with that city? So that this city also grows. So that would seem incredible to me, we have made progress, but it takes a lot of time and it requires people dedicated exclusively to that, then that would be one of my dreams, I would love it if that could be achieved. In other terms also specialize a little more in investment, Medellin has great potential.
If we could have more, if the human team was bigger for the investment issue, which I think is key, because if we compare ourselves today with the different investment promotion agencies in the country, our team is small for the results we have achieved. So I know that with a little more human talent, we can achieve many more things, and I’m sure the agency will continue to grow, it will continue to transform and will continue to achieve great things for Medellín, and that is all that one wants, starting because we are locals, and we want Medellín to do well, because if Medellín is doing well, we are doing well.
Finance Colombia: Yes.
Catalina Restrepo: As a citizen.
Finance Colombia: Talking to investors and business people everywhere, it’s like Medellín has achieved a lot in the last decades. Medellin largely has already overcome its historical reputation of Medellin 1993 for example, as we talk about figures, crime, welfare or those things, also Medellin has a recent reputation for its talent, for technology. With many software companies and industrial investment companies that have industrial production centers, when you talk to these executives, who may already understand that, they already know “ah yes, there is technology in Medellin,” Medellin is safe and certainly I won’t be hijacked at the airport or all those risks, but the reality still surprises businesspeople when they come or when you talk to them and you’re talking about the value of Medellin or offering of Medellin or what is in Medellin, what still surprises those who have not visited? That there are people—there is technical talent, I know it’s already safe, I know I can fly there to three hours from the United States, what is the thing that still surprises you, what is it that you still don’t understand about Medellín, what frustrates you in this process of orientation to the city?
Catalina Restrepo: More than frustrating me, I am also surprised, because every time we are in the streets or every time a delegation arrives here, and right now for example I am quite surprised with the World Mayors Summit, which we had from July 10 to July 12, where had mayors from the other side of the world, I’m talking about Asia, Indonesia, China, which are very far from Medellín, we don’t speak the same language, and they know us know very well, so it’s something that is very surprising, because I say, what is it? What did we do well? That they know us, but what are we not doing so well for everyone to recognize the capabilities, because, many times when they arrive here, some make the first contact, they still have that doubt, about Medellín being the right decision: “is it?” “Could it be that they are just talking a lot of chatter?” It’s like that disbelief because it’s very difficult to go from being the ugly girlfriend to being the girlfriend that everyone wants to have, that’s what happens with Medellin, and I tell you Loren, we’ve come a long way, but we lack immensely.
Finance Colombia: Yes.
Catalina Restrepo: We lack immensely, we can’t fall into the trap that “yes, Medellín is the best” no. Medellín is the best for us who love it very much, but we all have challenges, we all have to learn, so let’s say that it’s still surprising, that when they come here they come as with “could it be? Is it not?” And when they get to know they say “oh well, yes!” already convinced, yes it’s true and when you walk in the streets, when you talk to people, because, talking is our job.
It’s our job, but to hear people say how it has been transformed, how they have seen the positive impact of investment, cooperation, work, administration, it’s another story, because people are honest and the people I could say something “that doesn’t work”, “I love that” and understand that process, how it benefits our work to each citizen on foot, that is what still surprises me, and I hope it doesn’t stop surprising me, because the day I stop being surprised, then the work has lost its meaning.
Finance Colombia: Yes, yes. Thank you very much for your time.
Catalina Restrepo: No Loren, to you, thanks to you.