Mario Hernández doesn’t like to talk about success. In fact, he shies away from it and steers the conversation to butterflies. ‘They are beautiful creatures,” he comments when asked if the prints on his leather bags are a reference to the yellow butterflies mentioned in One Hundred Years of Solitude by Nobel Laureate Gabriel García Márquez. “No,” states this entrepreneur. “I just like them.”
Mario Hernández is one the Colombia’s most recognized business leaders and the president of Marroquineria, a leather business he founded in 1978. Yet poverty and destiny make strange bedfellows. Born in the remote village of Capitanejo, in Santander department in 1941, Mario Hernández learned at an early age the importance of family and fortitude. At age ten, Mario, the eldest of three, witnessed how his father was killed during ‘La Violencia.’ The bloody rivalry between Liberals and Conservatives claimed some 200,000 lives and erupted in 1948 after the assassination of the left-wing populist Jorge Eliécer Gaitan. “We were left with nothing,” states Hernandez. “We were the displaced.”
As a teenager Mario began working as a messenger for a clothing company called Hermega in order to help his family out. He stayed at the firm for seven years learning all he could about fashion and sales. At 21, he decided to strike it out on his own and started a real estate firm called Hernandez & Majorga. But he soon found that real estate wasn’t his passion, especially when it came to repossessing homes. “I don’t like living off the hunger of others,” he says, closing a chapter in his life.
In the early 1970s leather jackets were part of a global fashion trend and Mario Hernández landed a job in the manufacturing sector thanks to a friend who owned a store in called CueroLandia. Over the following years as the Colombian leather industry grew, so did the company and Hernández became the President of the country’s governing body for the leather trade, Asocueros.
By the time the economic opening – ‘apertura economica’ – of the government of President César Gaviria (1990-1994) took hold, Colombia was exporting USD $140 million dollars worth of leather to foreign markets, but is also marked the beginning of the end for many small companies not prepared to take on globalization. Hernández seized the economic moment. “In life you have to invest,” he says. “The great pity of many Colombian companies is that they do not project themselves. One cannot fear competition,” emphasizes an entrepreneur, who has set corporate trends by example.
By 1995, Mario Hernández branded his name, forged a corporate identity and went global. With the imports of leather from Milan and creating his own designs, the Marroquineria went luxury incorporating tropical colours and patterns into sleek bags and accessories. With a high-quality product and the careful expansion of a name, Mario Hernández reached sales in the double-digits during the past four years, USD $20 million, claims an article by the Financial Times.
Well positioned in the region, Mario Hernández operates stores across Colombia, in Venezuela, Panama, Mexico and Aruba. ‘We wanted to become a Latin American brand,” he recalls. And if the devil wears Prada, then South Americans brandish Hernández. Along with a traditional line of leather bags and purses, he manufactures everything from shoes to shirts made from Peruvian cotton. His leather company now crosses continents and the business leader works closely with retail associates in Brazil, China and Italy. His products are available in 50 stores and in seven countries.
Constantly evolving as a company, Mario Hernández works closely with his children on developing products for a lifestyle of sophisticated consumers. Although he does not consider himself a designer, he believes he passes on “good taste to others.” For Mario Hernández, his success is the product of a responsibility he feels towards giving others work. “We have to think about building this country’,” he states. “It’s a great responsibility to assume, and one has to be humble.”