Leadership & Management

Lorenzo Zambrano: Thoughts on Business, Leadership, and Life

The Stanford GSB alumnus turned Mexico’s Cemex into a multinational powerhouse — and transformed lives along the way.

May 19, 2014

| by Kerry A. Dolan


Lorenzo Zambrano, MBA '68

In 2010, Cemex CEO Lorenzo Zambrano, MBA ‘68, addressed Stanford GSB students in Mexico.

Lorenzo Zambrano, a native of Monterrey, Mexico, made his mark by transforming the regional Mexican cement company Cemex — started by his grandfather in 1906 — into a multinational powerhouse, with operations in 50 countries and 2013 revenues of $15.2 billion. Zambrano obtained an MBA from Stanford GSB in 1968 and then worked his way up in the company, becoming chief executive officer in 1985 and adding the chairman position in 1995. Under his watch, the company listed its shares on the Mexican stock exchange in 1975 and on the New York Stock Exchange in 1999. Zambrano died unexpectedly during a business trip to Madrid on May 12. He was 70 years old. Here are excerpts from past interviews with Zambrano on leadership, business, and life:

On the transformational power of cement:

“In Caracas, in Manila, and in the squatter cities of Peru, it means roads and hospitals, sewers, power plants, and water systems. For so many of our customers, cement is the stuff of dreams.” (Remarks after receiving the Ernest C. Arbuckle Award at Stanford GSB in March 1998)

On surpassing expectations and gaining respect as a company:

“We [at Cemex] were supposed to fail time and time again. Not only have we grown in other developing countries, but also in the industrialized world. It’s a team effort with highly qualified persons who have worked very hard to get Cemex where it is. Now we are treated just like any other company.” (Stanford Business magazine, November 2008)

On his philosophy of life:

“Good things happen to good people.” (Mexican newspaper El Norte, May 15, 2014)

On turning Cemex from a regional Mexican firm into a multinational company:

“We had to expand internationally just to survive. … We increased our presence within Mexico by buying two of our biggest competitors. Then we went to Spain in 1992. We had to go to the European markets, otherwise we wouldn’t exist as an independent company. After so many years of preparing myself to be CEO, to be taken over a few years later [wouldn’t have been] fun. So we worked very hard to be in a strategic position not to be vulnerable.” (Video interview with Boston Consulting Group, November 2012)

On managing in both slow-growing and fast-growing economies:

“In slow-growing or no-growth areas of the world, you have to be very firm. As much as they would like to keep the funds they generate, they don’t need it. They have to go to where you get a better financial return. The slow-growth markets need a lot of attention precisely because they have to do many things well to survive in a highly competitive environment. Growth, on the other hand, tends to make a lot of management sins invisible. It covers them up.” (Video interview with Boston Consulting Group, November 2012)

On the legacy of Cemex:

“We operate in 50 countries and have commercial relations with many more. We are ambassadors of Mexico to many places, and I am very proud of what we have shown to the world, our competitors, and to Mexico itself: that Mexicans can compete wherever we want. This is very important, and we are very proud of that.” (Interview with Mexican newspaper El Universal, May 8, 2014)

On finding and keeping talent:

“Everyone speaks of scarcity of talent, and you are [always] looking for it. You have to work harder to keep it, which is in a way ironic. Even in areas of the world where unemployment is high, unemployment for very talented individuals does not exist.” (Video interview with Boston Consulting Group, November 2012)

On the culture of Cemex and attracting great employees:

“We know that high standards have to be applied everywhere. At first, we thought of our reputation conceptually, as something that we needed to keep improving. Now we know it affects our ability to attract the right people. After all, businesses are networks of people working toward the same end. And everyone has to be proud of what they’re doing.” (Harvard Business Review, January 2008)

On his goals for Monterrey Tech, which he chaired:

“I am striving to build an institution that will provide all of Latin America with a new generation of professionals and business leaders. Like Stanford, we are fostering entrepreneurship among our best and brightest students.” (Remarks after receiving the Ernest C. Arbuckle Award at Stanford GSB in March 1998)

On his personal legacy:

“All people search for their happiness. I hope to die satisfied with what I did, in peace, grateful to society and for what I have received.”

On the response to violence in his hometown of Monterrey:

“He who leaves Monterrey is a coward. We have to fight for what we believe in. We have to take back our great city.” (Translation of tweet from Zambrano on Twitter, Aug. 29, 2010)

On the security situation in Mexico in 2014:

“Nuevo León [the state in which Monterrey is located] is better now. We have a new police corps called “civil force” that has been very successful. The local government and the public and private sector joined forces to recruit and train a lot of people in a short time. We had serious security problems, but that is not the case anymore. The solution that Nuevo León found for this problem could be replicated in other states, but all the society needs to participate.” (Interview with Mexican newspaper El Universal, May 8, 2014)

On his vision for Mexico:

“A Mexico where resentments are transformed into work, where a culture of ‘give to me’ is transformed into a culture of ‘what can I give?,’ a Mexico where individual endeavors are granted privilege over the efforts of interest groups. That is the country I believe is coming, and I believe it firmly.” (Mexican newspaper El Norte, May 15, 2014)

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