They say successful entrepreneurs are made, not born, but Guillermo Amtmann might be the exception to the rule. The youngest of seven, he was born and raised in Mexico City. At 16, he started working at the behest of his parents, eager to teach him a lesson about hard work. “Let’s just say I wasn’t the best behaved student,” he says with a smile.
As a high school student, Guillermo spent his afternoons on the maintenance crew of a small manufacturing firm, while dedicating his spare time to his passion at the time: operating radio-controlled cars. He used his hard-earned savings to finance his hobby and buy spare car parts, which he sold to friends to earn some extra cash.
This got him thinking: why not import the U.S.-made cars? Guillermo turned this idea into his first of many ventures, becoming the brand’s exclusive distributor in Mexico at the tender age of 17. He ran the operation for a couple of years until 1980, when he headed off to college.
Early years in the U.S.
Guillermo spent his first year in New York before transferring to Houston’s University of St. Thomas to study business administration. Two years into his degree, disaster struck in the form of Mexico’s debt crisis.
For Guillermo, the 50% devaluation of the peso against the dollar and strict foreign exchange controls meant his parents could no longer fully finance his study abroad. To subsidize his degree, he quickly found work in a clothing store, building a warm rapport with the shop owner.
A year later, and still on the lookout for additional income streams, his mother came to him with an idea. She had noticed how popular hand-blown Mexican glassware was among American tourists: why not export it to the U.S.?
Building a business and detecting new opportunities
“My mom came up with a great idea, but I didn’t know where to start. I brought it to my boss, who walked me through the entire process, from hiring an import broker to setting a pricing strategy.” Guillermo also needed to secure distribution, so he signed up for a trade fair in Dallas. From his small booth, he showcased the glassware on handcrafted Mexican furniture, which he had recently purchased to store samples in his garage.
The glassware was a hit but Guillermo was in for a surprise. “The furniture sparked more interest than the water glasses, jars and vases! On the last day of the fair, another exhibitor asked to buy it. I thought, here’s an opportunity!” He approached the furniture makers in Mexico and soon thereafter, became their national distributor, while selling the glassware as an add-on.
The furniture business steadily grew, opening five national showrooms and building a distribution network to all 50 states. It also served as a key learning for the recent college graduate: “I was always looking for opportunities and ‘the next big thing.’ I imported 10 to 12 other lines from Mexico but nothing was as popular as the furniture and glassware. Also, I was excellent in sales but not in the supply chain. Eventually, we couldn’t keep up with orders and started losing clients.”
Gaining experience in Mexico
Guillermo sold the business, moved back to Mexico City and assumed a new role as chief operations officer of Y2K Solutions, assessing and managing Y2K compliance to Fortune 500 companies. This role was followed by other senior-level positions in a wide range of industries—among them, light manufacturing, IT, engineering, pharmaceutical, entertainment and media—and a 2002 move back to Houston with his wife, Alishia, and their two sons, Guillermo and Derek.
Over the last 20 years, Guillermo has founded and led Gamma Holdings and PSR Brands, a functional beverage company aimed at the U.S. Hispanic market. PSR has seven different brands, including its flagship beverage PATRIA.
“I never mapped out my career path or thought about where I wanted to be in five or 10 years. That said, I learned a lot from my father growing up. He was a successful entrepreneur and business leader, so I learned a lot just sitting around the dinner table with him,” he shares.
At the same time, Guillermo “never put down the books,” earning an MBA from IPADE, diplomas from IESE’s Senior Executive Program and Global CEO Program, and numerous exec ed certificates from Harvard, Wharton, CEIBS, Stanford and other business schools.
A lifetime of helping others
A strong desire to helping others has been another constant in his life, a value instilled in him by his parents and shared by his wife, whose social-impact work is far and wide.
In Mexico, Alisha has led educational and fundraising initiatives for the Sierra Tarahumara Social Reintegration Foundation to help alleviate the extreme poverty among the Tarahumara people. In Houston, she serves as a director at Strake Jesuit High School and volunteers her time teaching English to immigrants and leading mentorship and financial aid programs for low-income Hispanics.
The Amtmann Family Scholarship is the latest reflection of Guillermo and Alisha’s generosity. “There’s a saying from Mother Teresa that we’ve tried to model for our sons: ‘Give until it hurts,’ he says. “While they never appreciated my love for radio-controlled cars, they were really enthusiastic about the IESE scholarship fund. We hope it will open doors for people to learn, grow and give back to society: outstanding students who otherwise wouldn’t have the chance to study at a prestigious school like IESE.”
When asked what advice he would give younger generations, like his sons and the future IESE MBA students he hopes to help, Guillermo had this to say: “Surround yourself with good people, read as much as you can and never stop learning. There’s always something new to learn! And most importantly, never ever give up!”