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Finding Diplomatic Resolutions [U.S.-Latin Trade magazine]

by Hope Katz Gibbs
Washington Correspondent
U.S.-Latin Trade magazine
October 1993

STRATEGICALLY PLACED JUST BLOCKS FROM the White House and most of the embassies in Washington, D.C., is Diplomatic Resolutions, a company that specializes in helping U.S. and Latin American businesses work together.

“‘The company is like a little embassy,” says Lucy Merrill Duncan, 38, head of the young firm established just last year. “We are global players. Global thinkers. We look for the very best we can find here in the U.S. to promote overseas, and look for the very best overseas to promote here in the U.S.”

Seated behind her large mahogany desk, consultant Duncan takes calls from some of D.C.‘s power brokers, people like Dr. Moises Naim, past director for Latin America at the World Bank.

“She is at ease in both Washington and Latin America,” says Naim, a former Minister of Industry in Venezuela and now a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment. “Lucy helps build bridges between the two because she knows how to operate in both worlds.”

FROM HOTELS TO COMPUTERS

The ability to straddle that line is exactly the goal of Duncan’s company. In March, for example, she helped unite U.S. businessmen with a delegation of Argentine tourism officials when they arrived at Miami’s Omni International Hotel for a weeklong tour of U.S. hotels.

“It’s a matter of understanding both cultures,” says Gary R. McKeighen, general manager of the Miami Omni. “She helps Latin Americans understand how the industry works in this country and then arranges it so they can apply those lessons to their hotels.”

Another project Duncan is currently working on involves a $52.7 million fiber-optic cable that will link the telephone systems in Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, and eventually Chile. The project has drawn a consortium of 25 different telecommunications countries in the U.S. and Latin America.

“We are representing a U.S. client so I can’t go too deep into details, but I can tell you that by being in the middle of it all we can see where the project is moving,” she says. “This vantage point enables us to assist our client in winning a larger portion of the contract from European or Asian competitors. The job that I’m doing is basically to find out what the competition is up to and how the U.S. company can be more successful than their competition.”

Also typical of business at Diplomatic Resolutions is work Duncan is doing for Tandem Computers, based in northern California. Tandem’s marketing manager for Latin America, Bonsal Glascock, asked Duncan to help ferret out projects funded by monetary agencies such as the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank.

Within weeks, she gave Glascock the target he needed: A Venezuelan hospital was receiving a large sum of money for capital improvements. Tandem landed the contract for the hospital’s computer equipment.

EXPANSION PLANS

To handle the growing workload, this year Duncan is increasing her staff from 12 to 40, some of who will work from a new office scheduled to open this year in Santiago, Chile. The company logo—five gold stars—indicates her intentions for further expansion.

“I want to be represented equally on all five continents,” Duncan says. “Of course, our focus is Latin America. I speak Spanish and am close to many people there. But what I have realized is that trade doesn’t know boundaries.”

Duncan bills her clients on an hourly rate ($250 per hour for her time to $50 per hour for support-staff assistance). She estimates what the total bill will be before she starts a job, however.

“I’ve been on a lawyer’s clock before. When the bill comes it is such a shock that you then tend not to work with a lawyer to solve the problem, because you know it is costing you so much per hour. So you limit your exposure. I don’t like to do that. So, we tell our clients exactly what a project will cost long before we begin it.”

MIAMI TO VENEZUELA TO D.C.

Duncan started her career as a public relations specialist in Miami, coordinating events such as the Miami Grand Prix and the Miss Universe pageant. During the pageant in 1984, a wealthy health insurance entrepreneur named Rafeon Leon approached Duncan. Eventually they married, fairy-tale style.

The fairy tale began to sour in 1989 when they bought a tannery in southern Venezuela, invested $5 million, hired 80 employees and began to procure crocodile skins for export. A Venezuelan minister had other ideas. According to Duncan, some people in the government saw her tannery as a threat. In April of 1989, 40 soldiers armed with machine guns arrived at the factory one morning and shut it down.

A judge declared the minister had acted in haste and should return Duncan’s property, nothing happened. “After that, it became a shell game,” Duncan says. “The minister wasn’t going to let us re-open, no matter what the judge had said.”
For most of the next two years, the tannery remained closed. Duncan and Leon spent their time in and out of court. In January of 1991, Duncan flew to Washington, set up an office in a hotel room at the Watergate Hotel. She was taking matters into her own hands.

FINDING HER NICHE

Her first strategic move was to contact politicians she thought could help her. The first call went to Florida Sen. Dante Fascell, who was then the head of the U.S. Foreign Relations Committee. She also contacted State Department officials and influential members of the Commerce Department. Then, she began working with Venezuelan ministers of planning and development, and the Central Bank of Venezuela.

“I had to explain to all of them that no matter how good the intentions of the Venezuelan government or the United States government were in pushing trade to Latin America, as long as that macro economic vision wasn’t getting filtered down to the bureaucratic level where work actually happened, people like me were going to be killed,” says Duncan. “I had to make them see we were being held as economic hostages.”

Within two months her mission was accomplished. She had garnered support from both governments, and successfully freed her tannery from the political stranglehold. “That was my first diplomatic resolution,” says Duncan.

What she didn’t plan for was difficulty with her husband when she returned to Venezuela.

“He was upset that his wife was able to solve the problem when he couldn’t,” she says. Within months she decided to divorce him, and to set off for Washington, D.C.

STARTING OVER

“I guess this part I didn’t plan for too well,” she confesses. “When I arrived in D.C., it was me, a moving van and two dogs. My husband was so mad that he blocked all of our joint funds and my personal funds as well. Everything I had in Latin America and the states was completely frozen. I had to make a decision. Either I could go to some company here in D.C. to offer my services or I could start my own business. I decided I had to start my own business. I flew back to Miami, went to a local jeweler, took my great big diamond ring off my finger and kind of cried a little, and said, ‘Can you do something with this?”

The jeweler sold the diamond. Duncan used the money to start Diplomatic Resolutions. “I’m looking forward to buying a better diamond in the future,” she says.

Duncan may not have to wait too much longer. Her Daytimer is filled with trips to Paraguay, Chile, Bolivia and Venezuela. In Caracas, she is working on a deal to take the English-language Daily Journal International, distributing a six-page roundup of the past week’s news every Monday by facsimile to about 800 international subscribers.

But no matter where her business takes her, Duncan says there is one memento she will never leave home without: the skin of a crocodile from her Venezuelan tannery. It sits inside her top, left-hand desk drawer.

She pulls it out for a quick look and says, “I laugh about my crocodile because it’s still here. I look at it from time to time and think, ‘Hi guy. You and I made it together.’”

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"I get by with a little help from my friends," says Hope, who gives special thanks to:

• MICHAEL GIBBS, website illustration and design: www.michaelgibbs.com
• MAX KUKOY, website development: www.maxwebworks.com
• STEVE BARRETT, portrait of Hope on Bio page: www.stevebarrettphotography.com

Contact HOPE KATZ GIBBS by phone [703-346-6975] or email.

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