Leonie Roca: “I have never been afraid of being jobless”


By Antonio Orjeda/El Comercio
Adapted by Jorge Riveros Cayo

Leonie Roca:
A feisty and charismatic manager, Leonie Roca, 44, has spearheaded a succesful business operation at Aeropuertos del Perú (AdP), that manages 12 airports in Peru.  (Photo: Poder360.com)

Leonie Roca, 44, says she will quit smoking in January. In the meantime, she smokes between ten and twenty cigarettes a day. She was trained from an early age in the arts of problem solving. And she likes that. That is why Leonie laughs when asked in what condition she received the dozen "prehistoric" airports she had to upgrade and modernize.
It has taken Leonie four years to double the passenger flow in the airports of Tumbes, Talara, Piura, Chiclayo, Trujillo, Anta (Huaraz), Pisco, Chachapoyas, Cajamarca, Tarapoto, Pucallpa, and Iquitos.

“The country cannot grow without an adequate infrastructure,” says this lawyer specialized in public works that, since 2006, is the general manager of one of the most successful business operations of these last years: Aeropuertos del Perú.

What was your reaction when you learned that from the twelve airports received in concession, many of them had blueprints with serious mistakes on them…

(She laughs)…

…that one of the airports –in Iquitos– could not operate sometimes because there were vultures in the runway?

It was terrifying. The first year was full of unexpected surprises. We had a new unforeseen problem every single day! I mean, we were prepared to take on a concession and face a series of challenges, but we faced more of what we expected! And managing 12 airports at a distance is not easy. We were dealing with 12 different regional cultures, 12 different ways of doing things… and a way to start introducing so simple things. One day I sent an e-mail saying: “It is totally prohibited to use scotch tape!”


Because I was fed up about going to the airports and finding the exchange rate (of the US dollar) written in a piece of paper and taped to the glass wall! I mean, it was a provincial airport, but for a matter of image and self-esteem, this could not continue! Such small things reflected carelessness, a tendency to do everything informally…

In the 90s you leaded the first team of state reform. You were used to dealing with monsters.

(She laughs)… I had a boss that said I was a “problem solver.” I think that has to do with the fact that I am the oldest daughter from divorced parents, with four younger siblings and a working mother. It was not a tragedy but I always had to resolve situations: my mother was one of the two U.S. Embassy translators and she worked all day. So somebody had to be in charge at home! And that was me. It never bugged me, and I think it has to do with my personality: in high school I was always a class officer.

Now you have four kids…

Indeed. I also have dogs, horses… I like organizing things!

You are married to Pedro Salinas, a scathing columnist, who is currently sued. What amount of adrenaline is added by this fact to your life?

With Pedro I have a relationship difficult to explain, because we do have absolute coincidence in what is important for both of us, what values we want to teach our kids, or mutual respect for our own space. In everything else, we disagree. We cannot shower together, for example, because I do so with extremely hot water and he does not. It is curious because we share a culture of tolerance despite Pedro seems so intolerable in his articles. He is intolerable with corruption, for example, but ideologically open minded.

If he cannot bear with corruption and you worked for the Fujimori regime during the nineties, you guys most probably had big fights…

My work had nothing to do with the horrible aspect of Fujimori’s government. I prepared laws and tried to keep the economic program working and preserved…

But you participated during the time we all knew the government was corrupt.

I worked for some ministers until 1995. From 1996 I worked in the state reform program, a project that had nothing to do with the day-to-day decisions of the government.

In the photo with Carlos Hurtado Miller, Fujimori’s mayoral candidate for Lima. Roca was his deputy mayor candidate and government plan orchestrator. He lost but she became an alder-woman in Lima’s Municipal government. (Photo: Caretas)

In 1998 you were part of the government plan team of Vamos Vecino, the party that Fujimori followers created to launch Juan Carlos Hurtado Miller’s candidacy for Lima’s mayoral elections.

In 1998 I was the general manager of the Economics Peruvian Institute and Hurtado Miller, who was my father’s best friend, came to my house to plead on his knees –because that is how it happened– that I should join his mayoral campaign and work on the government plan, and additionally be his deputy mayor candidate. I told him I do not like politics because I am a savage beast and speak my mind, and do not understand about the double-talk politicians are used to, “but I can help you to do your government plan,” I said to him. At the end I was almost forced to become his deputy mayor and I accepted. Today I have a distant relationship with him, for obvious reasons (Editor’s note: Hurtado Miller, whom was Fujimori’s Finance Minister and Prime Minister, was filmed years later receiving US$ 340,000 from Vladimiro Montesinos, Fujimori’s chief of Intelligence, to finance his mayoral campaign.)

And then you ended up being elected an alder-woman

I was the first on the list! But I have never done anything against my moral principles. Never! That is why I have never had a discussion with Pedro about why I do this or why I do that… I have shared with him my frustration of being stuck in very uncomfortable situations.

Because, as a consequence, you have been tagged as a “fujimorista” (Fujimori sympathizer).

If you google my name you will read: “La fujimontesinista Leonie Roca”… And well you have to live with that.

How have your kids dealt with this situation?

I do not think they have perceived it. For them, their mom works. In my house we speak very little politics and I am less interested because I became tired and sickened after my experience in Peruvian politics. My children have always had a mom and a dad whom to speak to.

So you assumed that monster, those 12 airports that were collapsing and, in four years, you have doubled the passenger flow and in some of them were there used to be only one flight, today…

In Piura there will be eleven flights starting January 2011. It is spectacular.

How do you feel?

Very proud. When you become part of such a change of that nature, it is hard not to feel pride; and I have a marvelous working team in Lima and provinces.

What is a lawyer doing managing a company?

I do not have the slightest idea! Things happen… I always told my boss that he was so irresponsible for hiring me (she laughs)… I do not think I could take the general management of another kind of company. This company had urgencies to be taken care of and I was good for that.

Francisco Secada Vignetta Airport in Iquitos, one of the twelve managed by Aeropuertos del Perú, was certified with ISO 9001 in 2008. (Photo: AdP)

And things have been so good that you have attracted the attention of bigger companies. Aeropuertos del Perú has been bought by the Sandoval group. What is going to happen now?

General managers usually participate in the buying process. All the bidders requested me to stay in the company. I knew that the decision of staying or not was not mine. But I was never worried. I can sound extremely optimist, because I usually am, but I have never been afraid of being jobless.

That is quite unusual…

In a country like ours, yes. But that has to do with the fact that I am not apprehensive about money and I trust my capacities very much; I know there will always be something. I have never been jobless! On the contrary, there have been moments when I have said: “I do not want to work! Let me think what I want to do!”

Have your expectations changed now that the company you manage has been bought by a bigger company that has in mind international expansion?

I am not thinking about that. Last year and the year before that there were many opportunities in the region: there was a search for airport managers –a sector with very few managers– the contacted me but I told them I was not interested. I love living in Peru! And migrating is not something I have in mind. I love what I do here. I think men have more the tendency of: “my next job has to be in a bigger company, in a transnational…” No. As long as I do what I like and earn what I need, I am good.

Now your company belongs to the Sandoval group. It is becoming more and more common for Peruvian businesses to go international. 

It is great!

How do you think Peruvians are internalizing this process of change?

I have been traveling once a week to Peru’s provinces during these last years. If it is true that I do not recognize a level of well-being –we have not resolved structural themes like education and health– there is an expectation and improvement. I like to sit down and talk to people and I see how they are thinking about how to grow. That is why I am very optimistic. I think the country that our children will have is immensely better, and not because it grows or the economy is doing well, but because it is a country that is starting to pay off some social debts it has with its people.

You were tagged as a “fujimorista,” a Fujimori supporter. Will you vote for Keiko?

I do not think so.