Latin CEO / August 2001
By Larry Luxner
Like a lot of promising projects in Panama, the World Trade Center might have become reality much sooner had it not been for Manuel Noriega and his cronies.
"I came to Panama with the license in my hand on June 16, 1987," recalls WTC's Colombian-born president, Guillermo A. Ronderos. "Unfortunately, the very same day, the second-in-command of the Panamanian Armed Forces, Col. Díaz Herrera, revolted against Noriega and confessed all the government's sins on TV, including how they made money selling phony visas to Cubans and Chinese immigrants."
Ultimately, Noriega was overthrown by U.S. forces and the following year, 1990, Ronderos opened a small office on Calle 50 in Panama City's upscale Bella Vista neighborhood. But WTC Panama had many more hurdles ahead of it.
"We lost all of 1991 and 1992 because the Endara government had promised us land in the reverted areas," he said, "but after two years of us spending money, they decided not to do it. So it wasn't until 1993 that we decided to buy the land where we are now."
The World Trade Center was finally opened in August 1997. The three-building complex -- a 20-story office tower, an eight-story Radisson hotel and a three-story shopping mall -- is located on Calle 53 Este, and represents a total investment of $48 million. The project is 50% owned by Colombia's Royal Hotels Group and 50% by a consortium of 60 to 70 private investors.
"The WTC has never been formally inaugurated," says Ronderos. "I wanted the president of Panama, the president of the World Trade Center Association and the president of Radisson, but I could never get all three monkeys in the same basket."
Nevertheless, business seems to be booming here. Ronderos already has 110 tenants, including corporate giants such as Xerox, Delta Air Lines, Procter & Gamble, Isuzu and Johnson & Johnson. Grupo TACA's reservations center for all of Panama is located here. In addition, seven foreign governments rent space in the World Trade Center; Canada, Colombia, Germany and Peru all have their embassies in this building, while Austria has located its consulate in the World Trade Center, which also houses the Japanese and Korean government trade offices.
Ronderos, 54, is a civil engineer by profession. He spent many years in Miami, during which time he did office buildings and shopping centers including Blue Gables at Coral Way and 73rd Avenue. His firm also supervised a development project in downtown Wilmington, Delaware.
Standing on the roof of the building, which was designed by local architect Miguel Angel Rodríguez, one enjoys a sweeping view of Panama City -- from the residential high-rises of Paitilla to Ancon Hill overlooking the former Canal Zone.
"We have the only fully approved heliport in Panama City," says Ronderos, adding that the building is 100% occupied, and that rents go for $14-17 per square foot per year, about a third of what a similar office building on Miami's Brickell Avenue would lease for.
The entire building contains 650,000 square feet, half of which is owned by the WTC itself. It also boasts 350 underground parking services and an array of services from temporary offices (provided by Regus) to a fully staffed document center (Xerox).
"We also convinced the Post Office to open a full-service branch in the building," he says. "Our tenants are the only ones in Panama whose postal addresses, their P.O. boxes, are the same as their physical address."
The Galeria Comercial boasts a beautiful rainforest mural in the foyer painted by Guillermo's son Juan, a 29-year-old art teacher; it also contains a Tommy Hilfinger outlet that until recently was the largest of its kind in the world.
Like Royals' other Radisson/WTC complexes in Bogotá, Quito, San José and Santiago, this one is licensed by the New York-based World Trade Center Association. This means that any WTC member visiting Panama may use the facilities, and vice-versa, under a reciprocity agreement.
"There are 360 approved World Trade Centers around the world, but only 90 are really functioning," said Ronderos.
Benefits for WTC members include space on WTC Panama's virtual server (www.wtcpn.com), as well as meeting rooms furnished with audiovisual equipment; areas where companies may exhibit catalogs, products and services; trade information through publications, databases, directories and bulletins, and access to the WTC Club, where members may enjoy facilities such as a gym, sauna, tennis court and swimming pool.
Ronderos, whose brother Carlos was Colombia's minister of foreign trade under the Samper government, recently formed the Panama-Colombia Chamber of Commerce.
"We just signed a contract with the Colombian government to represent Pro-Export, since they don't have an office in Panama," he said, adding that some 200,000 Colombians live in Panama and that Colombia is one of Panama's most important trading partners.