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Asia Chairman, Marsh & McLennan Companies
When people fled Japan following the tsunami and nuclear disaster in March, Rafael Gil-Tienda, MBA 77, hopped a flight to Tokyo. As the head of Asian operations for insurance broker and risk management consultant Marsh & McLennan Companies (MMC), Gil-Tienda wanted to see firsthand what was happening.
"We were very worried because we had lost three colleagues in the Christchurch (New Zealand) earthquake in February," says Gil-Tienda at an outdoor cafe in Madrid, where he grew up. "Our people were working non-stop and slept at the office. Tokyo was not affected, but there were concerns of radiation coming down so we needed to develop backup plans."
That Gil-Tienda gave up a career in banking to join a firm that assesses risk and resolves problems seems the logical step for a man who has embraced riskier career adventures over the past 30 years. He began his journey at Oxford University as an undergraduate and then entered the Berkeley MBA program in 1975.
"It was such a pivotal time in my life," Gil-Tienda says of Berkeley, where he also met his wife, Sing. "Berkeley helped me develop a deep understanding of how to efficiently allocate resources in an uncertain world. That for me is a fundamental part of business, and even today I still refer to it."
After graduating, Gil-Tienda worked for Citibank for four years in New York, London, and Brussels before embarking on a path that unexpectedly defined his career: Asia. Gil-Tienda gambled on China, a region considered a financial backwater at the time, thinking that the bank would eventually redeploy him to Latin America, a seemingly more natural fit. No one thought the isolated communist country would grow into the economic powerhouse of today. But financing local projects such as power plants and seeing how infrastructure could kick-start economic growth and improve lives was an eye-opening beginning to Gil-Tienda's work in emerging markets.
Throughout the 1980s Gil-Tienda was the corporate officer in China and Malaysia, before returning to his homeland to become head of Citibank España in 1992. (Gil-Tienda was born in Valencia, Spain.) In 1998, Gil-Tienda took another risk and joined several colleagues trying to revive the failing British bank Standard Chartered.
"Now that was a great adventure," laughs Gil-Tienda. "Standard Chartered had a great history in Asia, going back to the mid-19th century, but it had remained a 'colonial bank' and suffered a checkered performance in the 1980s and early '90s. The challenge for us was to retain those elements that worked, namely courage and internationalism, while developing the discipline to have good products and good risk, client, and technology management. Now it's a very solid bank."
Gil-Tienda became the Asia chairman of Marsh & McLennan Companies in 2003. He is also chairman of the Spanish and European Chambers of Commerce in Hong Kong and teaches at China Europe International Business School in Shanghai, sharing his knowledge and experience with others as a bridge between East and West.—Mike Elkin