Julio A. Portalatin became president and CEO of Mercer, a global consulting leader in talent, health, retirement and investments, in January 2012. Before joining Mercer, he was president and CEO of Chartis Growth Economies, a division of American International Group (AIG). During his time at Chartis/AIG, he served in a number of senior positions, including president and CEO of Chartis Emerging Markets; president and CEO of Chartis Europe S.A. and Continental European Region; president of American International Underwriters’ (AIU) Worldwide Accident & Health Division; president of AIU’s Personal Lines Worldwide Division; president and general manager of AIU Seguros Interamericana in Mexico; executive vice president of AIU’s Latin America Division; and vice president–property for Lexington Insurance Company, part of the Commercial Insurance Group (now Chartis US).
In 2000 Mr. Portalatin was elected by the AIG board of directors to the position of vice president and in 2007 to senior vice president. Prior to joining AIG in 1993, Julio Portalatin spent 12 years with Allstate Insurance Company in various executive product underwriting, distribution and marketing positions.
He actively supports several nonprofit charitable organizations, including the American Cancer Society, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and Homefront of New Jersey, which seeks to end homelessness. In 2004 he traveled to Thailand after the tsunami to provide much-needed aid to orphaned children. In addition, he has participated in Covenant House’s CEO SleepOut, to help raise awareness and funds for homeless youth. He also supports African women entrepreneurs in Uganda through micro-financing.
In May 2013 Mr. Portalatin was awarded an honorary doctorate and served as guest speaker for Hofstra’s graduate commencement. A few months later, he was appointed to Hofstra University’s Board of Trustees.
You transferred to Hofstra after getting your associate degree at Suffolk County Community College. Why did you choose Hofstra?
Hofstra was one of those schools that offered an opportunity for me to be able to stay close to home and get a great education. The quality of the education was very much a motivator for me. It was also important to stay close to my family – we were going through tough times as a family. Hofstra allowed me to have the balance I needed.
I also remember my first day seeing some different lifestyles that I had never seen before. I loved the fact that I grew accustomed to being in an environment like that, which allowed me to be much more diverse in my thinking and to open up my mind about the world as being much larger than the community I grew up in or the state I grew up in.
You want college to be something you have not yet experienced. You should be thinking about it academically and socially and as kind of a cosmopolitan environment that allows you to see what you haven’t seen before. And Hofstra was that for me.
Were you involved in many campus activities or clubs?
I always had a fondness for trying to get involved with activities that did one of three things – expanded my social network, expanded my level of expertise in my interests, or expanded my ability to make a difference.
I was a member of the Society for Advancement of Management, and I was a Student Government Association senator and became treasurer. That was an incredible experience – managing a budget of well over $1 million and really being able to understand it, not just the financial aspects but the human aspects. All the clubs and groups came before us to ask for their funding, and there was a lot of passion behind those presentations. I think in many ways these types of things add a lot to your college experience, and I would venture to say that they prepare you as much for the future as the classroom environment does.
Can you think of any experience as SGA treasurer that you continue to draw on today, or that helped prepare you for your career, or that influenced your leadership style?
It was the Sunday before budget presentation on Tuesday. We all met at my house, with folding chairs and folding tables, and we had all these adding machines all over the place. We basically came together as a team and put that budget together on that day.
It was the first time that I can recall I was under such intense deadline pressures up against some very important decisions that had to be made. It’s the first time I remember having that degree of combination of forces coming together all at once, and ultimately it led to a very disciplined thinking process, and to working together with students and others to get something done.
What do you remember about your professors at Zarb?
I had professors who were incredibly by the book and theoretical, sometimes out of necessity, and there were others who were very practical and very much current. I kind of liked the balance that I got from that. Collectively, they were all pretty darn good. It was during my time at Zarb that the school was really beginning to gain momentum, and because of that, people there were willing to try new things.
I remember conversations about how we could bring a ticker-tape environment simulating the stock exchange in real-time, and of course, now we have that exact type of setting at the school (with the Martin B. Greenberg Trading Room).
What makes a good leader?
When you think about great leaders that we all can agree on – they have a couple of really important traits. One is that they realize that there’s a moment in time when something or some group or some cause has to be taken to another place. They think about things like they are today and what needs to change to bring it to another place.
It’s the capacity to evaluate a situation, to understand where it is today and to take an organization to another place, a better place. You have to operate on the premise that there’s always a better way, always a better place. Then the question is, “How do you bring everyone along a path, along a journey to be able to reach that other place?”
You have to define some sort of path to get there, a journey that people can visualize not only in a holistic sense but also where they can answer the question, “What part do I play in reaching this new destiny?” It’s very important that that connection happens; otherwise, you look behind you and no one else is there.
You have to be very transparent in the way you communicate. If people sense that there’s a hidden agenda, they tend to lose confidence in leadership and tend to become very disenchanted You as a leader can never give up on where you want to take them. They have to see that commitment in you as a leader and that passion in you. You have to be pretty insistent, clear and transparent. And you have to have some degree of passion and inspiration behind it and stay on message.
One of the greatest quotes I always try to use when I talk about leadership comes from Mark Twain. He said, “There are two important days in your life, the day you are born and the day you find out why.” A leader has to always be in search of the why.
Did you set out to become a CEO? What were your goals when you were at Hofstra?
I never decided to be a CEO. What I decided was that I wanted to make a difference, and that’s manifested in many ways, whether it’s in community service – working with homeless youth in New York City or working to promote cancer research – or in business. In business, the more success you achieve, the more difference you have the potential to make.
When I was a rising senior, I was sitting at one of the tallest points on Long Island – Bald Hill, it was called – and across from there, there’s this beautiful, big, white building in the middle of a green pasture. I turned to my friends and said, “one day I’m going to work in that building.” They all laughed, of course. I had no idea even what company it was.
I graduated in May 1981, and in June 1 applied for a job in that building. It happened to be Allstate. I was one of six people hired. I started supervising people and liked what I was doing. So my goal was to continue to ascend to positions of increasing responsibility. The goal was just to keep advancing, keep putting yourself in positions to make a broader difference in the organization.
You’ve traveled extensively for your work. Did you always have an interest in global business?
When I was going to high school and starting at community college and going to Hofstra, I was thinking in the moment. I was very focused on my world and how to position myself to make a different in the future. I was rarely thinking about the world bigger than my local place. As time went on, it was apparent that the world was becoming much larger … it was starting to dawn on me that the experiences I had before had to be expanded.
When I started out, I worked in an environment that was predominantly domestic. I found ways to get people at least interested in thinking about globalization. Anytime I touched anything global, it inspired me to do more.
Eventually the change in career was the fact that I wanted to go to an organization with an established global footprint so I could really learn what it takes to understand business success in a multicultural international environment.
So I spent 20 years at AIG, and I really got exposed to the world. I really got the opportunity to visit and do business in many, many different cultures. I’ve traveled to 70 countries and more than 100 cities.
What advice would you offer to a Zarb student today, particularly as it relates to globalization?
I truly believe that the same kind of movement I talked about in my life – from local, to a little bit more expansive, touching a little international to becoming truly global – that’s the type of transition students should really be thinking about. With all the types of instruments we have available today, I can as easily text someone in Japan as I can text you in the next office.
That opens up an entire world. I would encourage students to go see the world and get experiences that can help you build your personal character, as well as your opportunities for success.