Leonardo Suarez (Executive MBA 2009) is the co-founder of a freight railway operating company, Holdtrade Atlantico, that will provide freight transportation services in Colombia over a distance of 460 miles. Leonardo has recently launched a campaign to raise $5 million using a crowdfunding investment platform run by a fellow MBA graduate who he met at an Imperial alumni event for entrepreneurs. We caught up with Leonardo to find out how his time at Imperial prepared him to lead such a challenging project.

Can you tell us about your studies at Imperial?

I decided to complement my engineering background with a life-changing experience at Imperial College Business School. I focused on my weakness at the time, the financial aspects of business. I found my cohort to be a good balance of likeminded business owners, experienced managers and successful executives in the corporate world. I was running my own business at the time, which is basically all I had done in the 10 years prior to doing the MBA. Imperial gave me an insight into the other side of the coin and allowed me the opportunity to learn about processes and systems from my peers who were working for big organisations of a completely different nature to what I was doing. One can look at it as free business processes consultancy! The project incubator at Imperial at the time opened a door to cutting edge research where we were able to bring our business minds to figure out their commercial viability. There is nothing more useful than to learn with tangible and real stuff!

What is your fondest memory of your time here? 

Working closely with our syndicate members allowed me to appreciate cultural, personal and business approach differences that, when applied to the same problem, give different and interesting results.

Tell us a bit about the work you’re doing now.

I’m the co-founder of a freight railway operating company, Holdtrade Atlantico, that will provide freight transportation services in Colombia over a distance of 460 miles. We started the company in 2013 and it has taken us a lot of hard work to get where we are.

The refurbishment of the railway track by the Colombian government has been extremely slow to say the least. We thought it would be a maximum of two years, but it is going to be six in the end. After expending several millions of pounds over five years we can say that we finally have all our ducks in a row and we are ready to allow the start of operations in the second half of 2019. We have already run a trial train (watch a video here).

Getting here involved negotiating agreements and partnerships with key stakeholders, some of whom are now our shareholders. We were also involved in extensive negotiations with the Colombian government’s agencies that will manage the railway as well as with the concessionaire and administrator of the railway infrastructure over which we will run our trains. As you can imagine with a railway line that was abandoned for more than 25 years, this involves a lot of red tape and clever planning and manoeuvres. We have been very blessed to have the unconditional support of the British Government in Colombia, who have assisted us enormously in overcoming those obstacles. Members of the Colombian Ministry of Transport and the National Infrastructure Agency have met and spoken with their counterparts in the UK to learn good practices, and UK experts have travelled to Colombia. 

When we started this company, we never thought it was going to take us this long to get where we are today. It was painful to keep injecting cash in the business at some points where we could see our start day slipping away by several months at the time. It has required a lot of persistence and confidence to keep going through the darkest moments in the tunnel until we finally got to see the light at the other end.

How has what you learnt at Imperial helped you in your career so far?

Creating the financial models for a $150 million project involved a lot of corporate finance knowledge in order to be able to assist the investment bankers we have hired to create the final models in a way that reflects the reality of the business. The Strategic Investment Decisions course has been instrumental in setting up our corporate goals and negotiating and aligning them with the plans of our shareholders and stakeholders. Finally, I managed to convince my team and partners in Colombia that I’m not indispensable and could work from our head office in London rather than from Bogota, so I had to make sure that the systems were in place to allow that, from paperwork to the actual physical logistics integration.

What are your plans for the future?

We are raising a bit over $5 million using a crowdfunding investment platform for our train company. Four months ago, I attended an event hosted by the Imperial’s Entrepreneurship Professional Interest Network, where I had the opportunity to meet fellow MBA graduate Oliver Woolley who is the CEO of Envestors. We were really pleased to launch our fundraising campaign through Envestors. The quality of the events organised for alumni is second to none at Imperial! If you are curious, you can find out more here: https://holdtrade.envestry.com/

What advice do you have for anyone following in your footsteps?

If you are in the corporate world and have always wondered if you could be your own boss don’t be afraid - do it now don’t waste your time. Start now and get perfect later!