Ricardo Martinelli: How a Supermarket Magnate Came to Lead the Nation

PANAMA CITY, Panama — Position Wanted: Successful supermarket chain owner with MBA seeks challenging position as president of Panama. Candidate is self-motivated, willing to work long hours and eager to assist the country.

Panamanian entrepreneur Ricardo Martinelli enjoyed the wealth and acclaim accorded to a captain of retail and industry. He owned the Super 99 chain of supermarkets and a string of other industries, and had created the Ricardo Martinelli Foundation. In the public sector, he had served as a highly credible Minister for Canal Affairs and survived two stressful years as the director of the Social Security Administration.

But his experience in government sparked a determination to make a difference in the lives of Panamanians. “I wanted to solve problems,” Martinelli told Latin Trade, adding that after holding two government posts; he realized change had to come from the top. “From that moment, I decided to try to be president to change Panama, always putting the interests of the people first.”

Martinelli laid the groundwork for political change in 1998, when he founded the aptly named party, Democratic Change. Five years later, he launched his presidential campaign under the slogan, “Walking in the Shoes of the People.” He would spend a day doing the jobs of ordinary working people in Panama, laboring as a taxi driver, garbage man, waiter, fisherman and car mechanic. At first, people made fun of the supermarket executive, campaign aides recalled; nonetheless, it was not long before they began to take him seriously.

It was an uphill battle for Martinelli, who holds an undergraduate degree in business administration from the University of Arkansas and an MBA from the INCAE Business School, and was better known in business circles than the political sphere. In his early career, Martinelli worked for Citibank and then as an executive trying to turn around the money-losing hardware store, Almacén 99. Once the operations were again profitable, he bought the company from its owners and introduced the modern supermarket chain to Panama. It was the first of his many successful businesses.

When Panamanians finally went to the polls on May 2, 2004, they elected Martín Torrijos, who won with 47 percent of the vote. Martinelli came in fourth in the contest, with just over five percent of votes cast.

Down but not out, Martinelli rebounded for the next bout.

“This is not about magic,” Martinelli said. “The first time, people did not know us well; we started the campaign late. But we learned, as the second election proved.”
Under the umbrella of the Alliance for Change — which included his own party, the Panameñista Party, the Nationalist Republican Liberal Movement and the Patriotic Union Party ­— he took to the campaign stump and learned to revel in the debate, even in the banter over his weight. He enlisted as his campaign manager Jimmy Papadimitriu, a U.S.-educated Panamanian who has helped in U.S. election races and worked with former Argentine presidential contender Roberto Lavagna. Papadimitriu, whose parents were of Greek origin, is now Martinelli’s chief of staff and a leading advisor. Also part of his team as creative director Salomón Shamah, now the tourism administrator. With the theme of “Something New Happening in Panama,” he offered himself up as the real thing, a self-made man who was friendly to the little guy, aides say. He pledged to fight government corruption and crime. His credentials as a non-politician helped him stand out as an agent of change compared to former Housing Minister Balbina Herrera, heir apparent to Torrijos, who waged a take-no-prisoners campaign against Martinelli.

The second-time around, Martinelli’s campaign for the little guy resonated with the electorate. He won the May 3, 2009, election by a significant margin, with 60 percent of the vote, compared to 37 percent for Herrera. He celebrated just for one day before plunging into his new job, he said, walking in the shoes of the leader.
“I am the same today as I was yesterday,” Martinelli said. “I am working in my office to solve the problems of the people.”

Ricardo Martinelli

» Born Panama City, Panama,
March 11, 1952
» Graduated from the University of Arkansas and received an MBA from INCAE Business School in Costa Rica
» Founded Super 99 chain after acquiring Almacén 99. His group also owns Importadora Ricamar, Gold Mills de Panama, among others.
» Served as director of the Social Security Administration, 1994-1996, and 1999-2003 served as Minister of Canal Affairs and chairman of the Panama Canal Board of Directors
» Married to Marta Lunares and has three children.
» Little-known detail: He completed secondary school at Staunton Military Academy in Staunton, Va.

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