Pereira: The Business Climate

Observations on commerce and lifestyle by the architect who designed WTC Pereira

Observations on commerce and lifestyle by the architect who designed WTC Pereira

He helped design the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, among other iconic structures around the world during four decades at global architecture firm SOM, living mainly in Chicago.

Now, architect Jaime Velez is back in his Colombian hometown and collaborating on the city’s most sophisticated tower, the World Trade Center-Pereira. Here’s our chat with Velez, 64, on how business and lifestyle differ in Pereira from big cities in the U.S. and beyond.

Tell us about your career before your return to Pereira.

I received my master’s in architecture from the University of Wisconsin and worked 32 years with SOM, mostly from Chicago. It was extremely demanding, although the global aspects were quite interesting. I worked on the Burj Khalifa in Dubai and the World Trade Center-Beijing, focusing on interiors… and my last project was a renovation of the UN headquarters in Geneva.

The lifestyle took a toll on me. With United Airlines, I have 2.5 million miles flown, which is insane. So, at 58, it was time to come home.

How is doing business here different than in the U.S.?

First, the American style of business is much more direct and efficient. Here in Colombia, there’s a lot of emphasis on the personal side of things, on the social aspects of work. People like to do business with people they like. It’s really important to become someone’s friend.

Second, you need to be fairly flexible, because the schedules which drive a lot of the success of American business are more lax here. When we’d start a project in the U.S., there’d be a timetable, and it would be followed in a very strict fashion. Here, the schedule is more malleable. The projects are not quite as well-defined from the get-go.

But in the end, there’s a lot of room to bring new ideas to bear. People here are willing to listen, while in the States, to a degree – and I don’t mean to be negative – there are formulas that are followed. Here, there’s still an opportunity to explore and more willingness to take a chance.

It’s been difficult coming home, because I had to un-train myself. But my partner Oscar Valencia has helped me find a middle ground and say, “Don’t get so frustrated. This is what happens here.”

Would you advise others coming from overseas to get a local partner?

Not just in Colombia, but everywhere. With SOM, we always, always had a local partner. It’s suicidal not to, because the local partner helps you navigate logistics.

How is it living here, compared to Chicago?

At 58, I was looking for a lifestyle that was quieter, more focused on nature… Now, I live in the countryside. I enjoy having a garden to go to, as opposed to living in a small apartment in a high-rise. And the weather is so comfortable. Chicago winters are not for the faint of heart.

What do you miss in the U.S.?

I have an American friend who says, “I can live anywhere, as long as it has an airport,” and he’s right. I go to the states often.

I miss that life in the U.S. is more orderly – you know what to expect. You plan, and it happens. Here, the lifestyle and the way the world moves is a little more spur-of-the-moment – which is nice, once you get used to it and un-program yourself.

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