Marco Sánchez turns a thesis project into a thriving business.
By Sigrid Tornquist
“Of course starting the business was a risk,” says Marco Sánchez, general manager of ML Ingeniería and Azoteas Verdes in Mexico City. “It was very complicated at first and we were very close to broke, but by the end of the first year we were in the black.” Sánchez and two partners founded ML Ingeniería in 2003, establishing the company as a purveyor of knowledge and technology in geosynthetics applications—along with geosynthetics products. The company provides soil reinforcement solutions for retaining walls and other subsoil stabilization needs. His decision to start his own company was his response to two things—consumer demand for broader applications for geosynthetics products, and the process of finishing his masters degree. “My MBA thesis had to do with expanding applications and increasing sales for the geosynthetics company I was working for as a civil engineer,” he says. “The company didn’t want to implement the project, so I decided to start my own company.”
To create the partnership, Sánchez contacted two colleagues who, like him, were civil engineers. The difference was in each partner’s area of expertise: One brought sales expertise; one was especially skilled at technical design; and Sánchez’s focus was in administration and marketing. “The fact that the three of us had such different skill sets was a key success factor for the company,” he says.
The company’s internal collaborative structure set the tone for working with multiple external entities to arrive at solutions to clients’ dilemmas. And although the company’s bread and butter continues to be providing soil stabilization for retaining walls, in accordance with Sánchez’s vision to offer broader applications, it took on a coastal dune restoration project in 2005. “It was an amazing project because it was our first using geotextile tubes,” he says. “We have a distribution agreement with a manufacturer in Taiwan, so we supplied the material, and worked with a designer who specializes in coastal protection to factor in wave and tide considerations.” The client, a salt evaporation plant, is located in a hurricane zone—hurricanes break down the natural dunes, which in turn interrupt the salt evaporation process. Sánchez’s company and the collaborative team worked to create a permanent dune. “The project was a huge success—and one interesting side effect was that the beach area increased, providing a nesting habitat for endangered sea turtles,” he says.
Collaboration can be easy when all players share a common goal and mutual respect for each other’s abilities, as was the case for the coastal restoration project. The challenge can be when those commonalities do not exist. “Working on that project was not difficult because we were dealing with serious business people,” Sánchez says. “The problem, sometimes, is finding that kind of person to do business with.” Sánchez cites a recent bridge construction project his company worked on with a local contractor. “We finished the project in December 2009 and we still haven’t closed the books on it because we’re still reviewing the numbers with the contractor,” he says. “We’re still trying to figure out how best to approach the problem, because at the end of the day you have to deal with people like that if you want to participate in the market.”
Seeds of change
This approach has worked despite the challenges, so much so that he and his partners opened a second company in 2008—Azoteas Verdes, which translates to “Green Roofs,” also constructed using geosynthetic products. The idea for the company was seeded in his mind when he began looking to purchase his own home. “I found a house with a usable [flat] roof space but it was totally uncomfortable,” he says. “So I decided to install a green roof, which ultimately became a testing laboratory for the new company.” Sánchez and his team attended some green roof conferences in Europe and Canada.
He and his partners also established a relationship with the Mexican National Autonomous University to develop the technology based on the endemic vegetation and soil type for the climate. The partnership with the university has resulted in an ongoing relationship based on shared expertise and information. “We develop the technology and share that information with them,” Sánchez says. “They do research about temperature and humidity conditions and share that information with us.” Sánchez acts as a guest lecturer at the university, speaking to landscaping classes on green roofs.
“We started developing the technology in 2006,” he says. “And after establishing two green roofs and testing them to be sure they were performing well, we decided to launch the company.” Sánchez’s decision to establish a separate company rather than launch the product offerings under the umbrella of ML Ingeniería was purely a financial decision. “In order to be eligible for the tax breaks offered by the Mexican government, we had to establish the company as a ‘green’ initiative,” he says. “It’s a trade-off because managing two separate companies comes with challenges.” Currently Sánchez is taking the lead on the green roof company, and his partners are more in charge of the geosynthetics company, though they all maintain some involvement in both.
Perhaps the most surprising element that came with the new company was the amount of work generated by clients needing someone to fix a botched attempt at installing a green roof. The two most common mistakes that happen with green roofs, Sánchez says, are improper installation and improper use of materials—and his company is often called to clean up the mess. “These are not necessarily the calls that we want, because the solution is never easy and it’s not cheap,” he says. “It’s a complex and technical process, and usually you have to take the whole roof apart to fix it.”