This interview was originally published on Biz Latin Hub.
Toby Feldman and Alexander Mahoney, Country Manager, Mexico met with Louise Batchelder. Louise, the current CEO of SYNELOG Mexico, shared her insight into the astonishing development of the health and education sectors in Mexico, detailing the shift of approach from social to commercial.
Biz Latin Hub (BLH): Louise, you have a long and detailed career spanning numerous fields and industries, most notably in health, education, and trade. Could you please briefly share your career path so far?
Louise Batchelder: My first contact with diplomacy/living abroad was when I applied to the FCO and at the interview was asked to work at the British Embassy in Peking: that is Peking, not Beijing, this gives you an idea of how long ago this was. It was a great opportunity, but I did not pass the interview. As an alternative, I was offered a job in the Immigration Service, but that did not seem as exciting as China. Eventually, my career path started in London, where I worked in the Home Office for 6 years as a criminologist – nothing to do with the languages I had studied but fascinating all the same.
Nonetheless, since a child, I had read about numerous ancient civilizations, for some reason Mexico attracted me so at 25 I took a one-way ticket to Mexico and I have not looked back since. I began work in Mexico as a translator and an English teacher, as one does when one lands in a new country. My first proper job was as an accountant in the Australian Embassy. I then worked as an economist in a British-Mexican advisory operation before joining the British Embassy as a Commercial Assistant and given the sector of tourism investment. This brought me into contact with the development of new resorts, at that time Baja and Huatulco. My hard work paid off as I got promoted to Senior Commercial Officer. I spent the next 18 years working in virtually every sector. Most notably, I spent 10 years in the Consumer Goods sector, bringing Body Shop and Crabtree & Evelyn to Mexico and a British event in one of the leading department stores, introducing over 90 new British supplies, such as Burberry. Of course, my proudest achievement was to bring Twining’s Tea to the Mexican market!
This brings us to 1998. In 1998 I was asked to participate in the negotiations for Mexico’s FTA with Europe. That FTA was, at the time, the fastest Free Trade Agreement that Europe had ever negotiated due to the exceptional goodwill on both sides. Nobody was fussed by the insignificant minutiae.
In 2000, I played a very important role in getting the British Embassy certified in Investors in People; we were the first Embassy worldwide to achieve this. I was also given the responsibility of managing the Health and Education sectors from a commercial viewpoint. Traditionally, these sectors are limited to being viewed as political or social issues.
BLH: At which point did it change from being a political issue to a commercial one?
Louise Batchelder: It began 3 years earlier, in 1997, I think. The sectors were moved from the Political and Economic Department to the Commercial one, in recognition of the UK offer in terms of pharmaceuticals, medical equipment, and supplies, in addition to the substantial opportunity to sell consultancy services and other invisible.
BLH: That is interesting. Nowadays, I know there are many Mexican companies founded by British people involved in education here in Mexico, and they are seeking funding from organizations such as The Prosperity Fund or US Aid. To me it felt like something quite recent, I wasn’t aware that it goes back to the late 90s.
Louise Batchelder: US Aid has been around since the time I was in the Embassy, The Prosperity Fund is a much more recent development. I was one of the first to ask the question to DIT (Department of International Trade). Why do we not perceive the contribution of Healthcare and Education to the balance of trade?
BLH: Is that because people didn’t see it as a commercially lucrative business? Because now, they most certainly are.
Louise Batchelder: Business people have always been aware of the commercial potential. It is just that in the past, Embassies were mainly dealing with ODA (Overseas Development Administration) support to governments in underdeveloped countries which included Mexico a long time ago. Now, as a member of OECD, Mexico is in a different category altogether, not a net receiver of aid, but as an almost fully-fledged developed country. In addition to inward trade and investment in health and education, Mexico is now a sophisticated producer of its own medicines, medical equipment, etc., which is also being exported.
BLH: What is the current view on these projects? Are they still seen as wholly altruistic projects or did people take to this new opinion that they can be commercially viable ventures?
Louise Batchelder: It is true for the social sectors that you may take longer to penetrate the Mexican market in health and education. It may be necessary to have indicators available on how you will ‘improve’ social development rather than simply ‘a commercial contract’. In particular, in health, the Mexican regulatory agencies require evidence of health outcomes and pharmacoeconomic studies proving that the use of an innovative therapy will also save money in costly emergency treatments in the long run. The UK has a similar system. Mexico is huge, the size of Western Europe, with a north/south developmental divide. In the north, the disease and education challenges are those of the developed world, while in the south they can be similar to underdeveloped regions around the world.
BLH: Let’s take this opportunity to move the conversation on to your latest venture, your company SYNELOG. Can you tell us what you do and what your missions are?
Louise Batchelder: I left the British Embassy in 2004 after 20 years of service has helped many UK businesses to establish themselves in Mexico. The change was quite dramatic, from the job and income security of working for the government to the roller-coaster of being a private businesswoman. At first, I worked as an independent with clients like the Global Health Forum, which was held in Mexico then.
My first-ever client with SYNELOG was the Director of Health Promotion at the Mexican Ministry of Health. It was a requirement to have a company and an office, so SYNELOG was set up to fulfil that. The request was to review and make a recommendation on the performance of Health Promotion Officers (the front line in public health recommendations) across the country. The official was at the Federal level yet was facing a lack of knowledge on what was happening on a state or municipal level, which often happens in a country as large and diverse as Mexico. We worked together to create a new model using a special 4-phase consultancy programme, leading to the implementation of a totally new national structure for this service. According to the official concerned, the system we integrated together was, directly and indirectly, responsible for changing the lives of 9 million people (around 7.3% of Mexico’s population).
Since this inaugurating project, we have worked on over 120 health initiatives and over 30 in education that have followed the same strategy I began with all those years ago.
BLH: Do you think the Mexican education sector is on the right track now?
Louise Batchelder: In the last administration, it was on the right track, in general terms. The Education Reform was very good and had all the right objectives and elements. However, I am not sure if, in practice, everything was done in the best way. The area of teacher evaluation continues to be a bone of contention. The constant blaming of teachers as if they are the only ones responsible for the poor quality of education has meant that Mexico has lost control of its trade unions. As Brits, we understand better than anyone how important it is to achieve buy-in from the teacher’s trade union – this has gone as far as some UK universities offering qualifications in Trade Union Negotiations. This knowledge and expertise are an exportable good that can be sold. Furthermore, the OFSTED model of best practice in school inspection has much to offer, including the crucial notion that a school is an integral organization. This is why OFSTED evaluate the children’s performance, the building’s suitability and the resources available, in addition to teacher evaluation.
I had the honour to lead the design, creation, and signing-off of a Memorandum of Understanding on Education Evaluation between the British Council and the Mexican Institute for Education Evaluation in 2015, which was the dual year between Mexico and the UK. With an initial three-year life, this agreement included the piloting of self-evaluation in primary schools across five states in Mexico – one of the first projects under the new Prosperity Fund in education. It remains to be seen if the new Presidential Administration in Mexico over the next six years will preserve these advances in education or not.
Biz Latin Hub (BLH): Moving onto another interesting topic… Do you envisage a Free Trade Agreement like NAFTA or EUFTA specifically between the UK and Mexico to be likely?
Louise Batchelder: From the day after the BREXIT vote, the current Minister of Economics, Idelfonso Guajardo, made it clear that BREXIT is irrelevant to the trade relations between Mexico and the UK. In the event that BREXIT actually happens, he made publicly clear at the press conference that “Mexico will be first in line for a bilateral trade agreement with the UK”. As for the UK’s vision of its post-BREXIT trade relations, there has been much analysis on the Norwegian model, the Swiss model or simply bilateral agreements instead of multilateral ones. However, from the perspective of Mexico´s exports to Europe, there are several Mexican corporations who have based their HQs in the UK for product distribution to Europe – a situation that, depending on the cross-border tariffs post-BREXIT, they may be forced to reconsider.
BLH: What does the UK need to do improve its presence in Mexico and indeed in Latin America? Boris Johnson visited the continent on an official visit in May, the first in many decades. Why do you think we have been neglecting Latin America?
Louise Batchelder: On the first question, there need to be more business delegations in both directions and more money to sponsor them, together with adequate “hand-holding” support in pre-mission research (such as roadshows in each country giving information on the other) as well as post-mission follow-up (such as monthly bulletins to keep things “top of mind”). As a backdrop to this, each country needs to fill in the lack of information abyss on the other, that means culturally, the way of living etc. On this subject, there is an increasing number of initiatives on the Mexican side covering tourist, culinary and historical/cultural information reaching out to business more than just the general public, perhaps the UK could do more. Regarding visits of high-level diplomats, these have their place in improving the framework and goodwill between nations with senior officials. But business has to take care of business, there are several strong relationships between geographical Chambers of Commerce, yet they need tending in terms of visits but more so in frequent communication and exchanges of information to keep them on the boil. I do not think that the UK has been consciously “neglecting” Latin America, in this case, Mexico. I think it is that other countries are maybe proactive in keeping themselves on the UK video screen, distracting the attention of Sales Directors towards immediate opportunistic sales, whereas it is Mexico’s business culture to develop relationships first that then lead to sales. Mexico’s approach is advantageous to fostering long-term solid relationships, but the short-term wins get in the way.
BLH: Do you feel Brexit will change this?
Louise Batchelder: The commercial relationship between Mexico and the UK is centuries long and existed successfully way before EUFTA existed. It is based on a Mexican vision that all things British are state-of-the-art, therefore desirable, yet are bound to be hugely expensive due to the pound. EUFTA made it easier for Mexico to talk to Europe as a block through Brussels, including the UK. However, it is doubtful that BREXIT will deter the relationship with the UK i.e. Mexico will not change its positive attitude to the UK. The UK must put more effort into exporting towards markets outside their comfort zone, countries like Mexico that speak Spanish and whose laws are based on a different legal system to the UK. To counteract the impression regarding the expensive pound, perhaps the UK may need to set up a soft financing facility for commercial transactions with target countries, similar to the Linea del Rey that Spain operated with Mexico over 20 years ago. Somehow it has to be cheaper to do business with the UK than with any other European country. This is what Mexicans like to call “bueno, bonito y barato” (good, pretty and cheap) – something that may not exist in reality, but at least try to attract on that basis.