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Climbing the ladder

David Handelsmann, managing director at Macquarie Infrastructure and Real Assets (MIRA) in Mexico talks about what it takes to succeed in an unfamiliar legal, cultural and business environment.



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An Australian lawyer by training, David Handelsmann arrived in Mexico to take up the post of Latin American GC for MIRA, a global alternative asset manager focused on infrastructure, real estate, agriculture and energy assets. Driven by a sense of adventure and a desire to roll his sleeves up and get stuck into the legal affairs of what was effectively an emerging market start-up - albeit within a large institutional platform - David had to acclimatise to a number of new environmental dynamics.

Some of the challenges he faced were those often found when doing pioneering business in an emerging market (MIRA was establishing the first peso-denominated infrastructure fund dedicated to Mexico) - that of a complex regulatory framework and a less-evolved infrastructure investment market. Of course, the latter was what had brought the company to Mexico in the first place. David also had to navigate an unfamiliar civil (rather than common law) legal system, and the challenge of hiring team members who could balance an understanding of the local market with the rigorous approach and strict investment discipline that characterise MIRA’s operating philosphy.

However, the biggest challenge David faced was traversing the language divide. The fact that he spoke no Spanish when he arrived was not so much a professional problem – he found that those operating in the investment community typically have very good English – it was more an issue when it came to tackling everyday life outside of the negotiating room. He also soon discovered the importance of contacts in Mexican culture. Says David: ‘Relationships are always very important, but particularly here. When you land on the ground and you don’t have that network just yet, you need to focus very hard on building it.’

For David, the first step towards building that crucial network was to learn Spanish. Luckily, as a bilingual child of Hungarian parents, he had a penchant for languages, and after relatively few lessons he was able to pick it up through immersion and osmosis. ‘It wasn’t immediate,’ he says, ‘but to look at documents, to read contracts - to really do that extra bit of the job, that really nuanced understanding of detailed drafting – you really have to get your language skills up.’

Today he can review Spanish-language documents happily, and most important of all, he can hold conversations and negotiations in the native tongue – which is an effective relationship-building tool. ‘People appreciate and recognise the effort that you’ve gone to when you learn their language, and I think it shows commitment to integrating into the local culture,’ says David.
David sums his experiences up thus: ‘You can’t expect to find Australia in Mexico City. If you’re constantly looking to get back to what you typically have at home, then on many, many fronts you’ll be banging your head against the wall and it’ll impact your relationships with people. You do need to be adaptive, accommodating and flexible, and focus on the stuff that really matters.’


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