Fernanda Maturana, former Commercial Engineering student of USM
THE SUSTAINABLE SHOPPING BAG REVOLUTION
The Sansana commercial engineer who’s the leader in Chile’s reusable bag market.
Together with her mother, who’s a chemical engineer, she began selling perfumes they made themselves made. It was her business while she was in school. Thus began Fernanda Maturana’s history in business. She studied commercial engineering at USM, she’s the co-founder and general manager of the company that introduced the concept in Chile of Reusable Shopping Bags, or TNT. Today 80% of all reusable bags sold to retailers in Chile are supplied by her company.
She had always wanted to innovate since she was a young girl, and it was always clear to her that one day that opportunity would arrive. “I was just nine years old and was already telling my mother, ‘Mom, you can register the brand, please’. I need to do things right,” Fernanda said, referring to their perfume business. Twenty-five years later she would be recognized as one of the 100 Women Leaders of 2015 and receive the El Mercurio Award from a panel of judges, including business people, government officials, journalists, well-known cultural and society figures, to acknowledge the contributions to the nation of women in different fields of endeavor.
Years before, Fernanda had decided that among several alternatives open to her, she would apply for admission to the Technical University and enroll in the Commercial Engineering program. The other options were Drama Studies, Sociology and Psychology, but she finally decided against them. In her freshman year she realized that she was passing her subjects without effort. The subject matter wasn’t difficult and she sailed through the academic requirements. “It was obvious to me that it was what I needed to study. I was used to hearing about balances, cash flows, VAT taxes. I always felt the pull of business,” she admits. She was top of her class and also the first to graduate.
That was in 2004. She was 22 when she got her first job. It wasn’t her own business, but a position as financial director, fresh out of university, in a subsidiary of a Brazilian technological company that only had Sansano graduates working for it. She finally migrated to Entel’s commercial department. At the beginning she remarked on the difference from her prior position. “I used to have to do a little of everything myself, from answering phones to going to the bank, serving coffee, keeping the books”. However, at Entel, which was a company with a very different operating budget, she felt that she didn’t have enough to do and began to create projects and meet her own challenges.
She finally reached the end of her tether in the telecoms company, talked to her boss and told him, “Either I go back to studying or create my own company, but I’m not motivated enough to stay in this job.” Despite the company’s efforts to persuade her to stay, the writing was on the wall—it was time for Fernanda Maturana to form her own company.
MAKING A PITCH TO PAULMANN
She hadn’t yet left Entel and was still on the way to reaching a final decision when another opportunity came up. Her mother asked, “Fernanda, here’s an order for some bags but there aren’t any in Chile, they use them to line armchairs and things. Do you think we can do something with this?”
“If I can just convince myself to take it on, I promise you I’ll sell the idea to Paulmann. Just let me convince myself first,” Fernanda answered, referring to Horst Paulmann, the owner of the Chilean multinational consortium Cencosud, a supermarket chain in several countries of Latin America.
Her immediate conclusion was that they didn’t have enough money and they knew nothing about the business. To move forward they’d have to think of a model that would be sustainable over time. It would require a behavioral change in consumers, so if they wanted to sell the product successfully, first they would have to identify the retail market leaders.
It was September 2008 and Fernanda was working with her brother Pablo. They thought up the business model they would use. They knew people from “Ángeles de Chile”, a network of investors connected to the University of Chile. A member of the board of directors was Manfred Paulmann, Horst’s son. They spoke to him, told him about the project, and he answered, “I don’t think it’ll work in Chile. But if you want to pull together a tight presentation and make a pitch, I can help you schedule a meeting with Horst.” So it was agreed and a big chance opened up in front of us.
“We’re you nervous?” Not one bit. “I was never afraid. I’m the daring type. I never felt fear—if it didn’t work out in the end, too bad. So I look back and I find it really bizarre, how it all happened.” From the day they were given the chance to have the meeting until the day of the meeting itself, they had just one week to prepare.
It was a huge effort to put the presentation together. Do the research, show the figures, as well as work on the rhetoric and the attitude to impress. And it worked. “You’ve surprised us. We’ve been working with other people and the truth is, they haven’t gone as far as you have. We’re preparing a bid proposal on this, so why don’t you join us. There are European and Asian companies taking part, and now you guys as well,” was the response. Days later, the first purchase order arrived.
Fernanda told her brother and a friend, “You two go to China. I’ll stay here and work on the purchase order from Jumbo (the Cencosud supermarket chain)”. The two men left for China after charging their plane tickets to their credit cards on 48 installments, while Fernanda stayed in Chile keeping everything under control. In the midst of it all she also had to submit her resignation to Entel.
At that time Cencosud had been forced to put the construction of its mega-project, Costanera Center, on hold, because of the global economic crisis. For the same reason the business agreement they drew up with the young entrepreneurs included a clause that the plan for reusable shopping bags would only be applied in four supermarkets.
An initial purchase order came in for 20,000 bags. They just managed to fill it. Then they heard that a second order was coming, this time for 700,000 bags. It was great news and a huge problem. At first, the banks didn’t believe in the project enough to extend credit. Finally everything began to move forward again.
And so 2009 was a year marked by many awards and non-stop activity. They also received support from Endeavor, an organization that identifies and sponsors business initiatives in the belief that emerging countries can reach development through high-impact entrepreneurship. Fernanda weathered the perfect storm well. She didn’t lose her head over their sudden, huge success. “Real life is all about working 24/7. There’s really not much glamor in it.”
Later, the positive results turned constant, growth became dynamic and recognition sustained. The offices in Peru, Mexico, Colombia and Hong Kong attest to this. The workaholic and mother of two kids is riding the wave of business success, the momentum hasn’t slowed, and sales have been doubling year-on-year.
Today, after several years of leading the domestic market and positioning the company internationally, Fernanda admits that selling her product turned out to be quite a simple enterprise, and what’s complicated is getting the financing for expansion. As for the market, all the signs point at a deepening of reusable bag consumption, and in terms of public policy, new legislation has been passed to promote its use, to the detriment of single-use plastic bags.
“I have this thing about changing the world, with leaving something behind that’ll be more than just a company. I like to learn more about the organizations I work with in other countries. I want them to show me their certifications, how many workers they have on contract, and that they’re complying with certain standards”, says Fernanda.
She has succeeded in getting this awareness to permeate a company whose staff includes several graduates of Universidad Santa María, and that has sponsored Sansano internships.
“USM gives us something that’s crosscutting, and even if it sounds obvious, but it’s a tool that allows us to resolve problems,” she says, and adds, “We have the ability to visualize the problem, isolate the variables, set priorities and start resolving.” Almost as if it were a math problem. “That mindset is the Sansano seal, and it’s what sets us apart,” she concludes.