Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Roberto Peckham

Until recently, twenty-nine-year-old U.S. expat Steve Marcinuk – who has worked in 30 countries and scores of cities – could be tagged as a “digital nomad” who’s only temporarily in Medellin.

But that’s changing as Marcinuk – having just completed his first full year in Medellin -- instead is putting down roots, making plans and becoming proficient in Spanish.

It’s a story that’s starting to repeat among a growing cadre of Medellin “former digital nomads,” thanks to greater experience, maturity, business growth, deepening social friendships, bilingual skill development and a romantic attraction that makes people fall in love with Medellin generally and (in certain cases) with a special person particularly.


Two of Antioquia's leading producers of Hass avocados on August 15 hailed a new decision by the U.S. government to allow imports of Colombian avocados into the U.S. market starting September 15.

“Unlike Peru and Chile, Colombia enjoys permanent production of Hass avocados during 12 months of the year,” said Ricardo Uribe Lalinde, general manager of Medellin-based Cartama, a group of leading Colombian companies producing avocados and cut flowers for major export markets.

“At a time when the North American market demand for Hass avocados remains unsatisfied, here in our country we can supply it,” he added.

Having first launched Hass avocado production in Amaga, Antioquia in 2007, Cartama later expanded production into Caldas and Risaralda, and then opened a packing and shipping plant in Pereira for the export market in 2016.

Also during 2016, British supermarket chain Marks and Spencer awarded Cartama with its “Growers Best Quality” certification for Colombian Hass avocados.

The new U.S. approval would at least double Colombian exports of Hass avocados, which already topped US$25 million through the first half of 2017, according to Colombia’s Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Tourism.

Meanwhile, Pedro Aguilar, president of Westsole Fruit Colombia -- which has major warehouse, packing and shipping facilities on the Medellin-Bogota highway in Antioquia -- added that Colombian avocado producer insistence upon meeting strict sanitary standards has been crucial to winning more export markets.

Of the US$35 million in avocado exports from Colombia in 2016,  52.7% of the total came from Antioquia; 22.7% from Risaralda; 7.4% from Bogotá;  5.8% from Caldas; 4.6% from Quindío; 4.5% from Cundinamarca and the remaining 1.8% from Valle del Cauca, according to the Ministry of Commerce.

Meanwhile, according to an August 15 press release from Expo Agrofuturo – which is hosting its ninth annual trade show at Medellin’s Plaza Mayor convention center September 13-15 – Colombia is already the third-largest global avocado producer, and the new U.S. market opening is expected to prompt "rapid growth over the medium term."

Avocado production and export will be among the featured topics at Expo Agrofuturo 2017. The trade show will include 420 national and international exhibitors, some 20,000 registered attendees and an expectation of business deals topping US$300 million, according to Expo Agrofuturo.

Agricultural experts from Spain, Germany, Holland and Colombia will be among the featured speakers at Expo Agrofuturo 2017, including Nicolas Cock, co-founder and president of Medellin-based Ecoflora Agro.


Medellin-based construction giant Construcciones El Condor announced August 11 that its second-quarter (2Q) 2017 net income rose nine-fold year-on-year, to COP$159 billion (US$53.6 million), while revenues jumped 55%, to COP$455 billion (US$153 million).

Earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA) rose five-fold, to COP$226 billion (US$76 million), according to the company, which focuses mainly upon highway construction.

Operating revenues for first-half 2017 were COP$275 billion (US$92.7 million), up 62% over the same period last year “mainly due to considerable construction revenues in [Colombian highway] projects which are in the construction stage as is the case with Pacifico 2, Pacifico 3, Transversal de las Americas and Ruta al Mar among others,” according to the company.

“The company expects to continue achieving its revenue budgets, which could generate an additional increase for the second semester of 2017,” the company added.

The big jump in net income “is explained principally by the income from sale of investments (non-recurring event) and the increase in profit from construction services provided, which the company expects to maintain during the second semester. Net margin was 57.6%,” according to the company.

“The infrastructure sector continues to be a key economic driver and this quarter´s figures reflect projects that are maturing and increasing their rate of execution. The projects that supported the construction revenues in the second quarter of 2017 were Transversal de las Americas, Caucheras, Pacifico 3, Pacifico 2 and Cesar Guajira,” the company added.

As of June 2017, the company administers an investment portfolio with infrastructure projects that have a book value of approximately COP$668 billion (US$225 million).

Debt ratio was 26% (calculated over total assets) and net equity as of June 31, 2017, was COP$905 billion (US$305 million), up 16.9% year-on-year.

Meanwhile, order backlog -- the balance of works hired and works to be implemented -- was COP$2.782 trillion (US$938 million), the company added.


Medellin-based multinational insurance, pensions and investment giant Grupo Sura announced August 15 that its first-half (1H) 2017 net income dipped 34.6% year-on-year mainly because of Colombian peso devaluation against the U.S. dollar.

However, revenues rose 22.4% year-on-year to COP$9.9 trillion (US$3.3 billion), while investment income jumped 61.5%, to COP$1.1 trillion (US$372 million), according to the company.

“These results reflect the dynamic operation of our affiliates Sura Asset Management – specialized in pensions, savings and investments – and Suramericana, in the sector of insurance and risk-management,” according to Sura.

Its affiliation with associates Bancolombia and pension specialist Proteccion delivered US$169 million in revenues, according to the company.

Expenses rose 29.7% year-on-year, to US$3 billion, mainly due to the acquisition of insuror RSA.

Leaving aside the impact of peso devaluation and certain non-recurring charge provisions, net income would have grown 11.4% year-on-year, according to the company.

Assets grew 4.9% year-on-year, to COP$71.2 trillion (US$23.3 billion), while shareholder equity grew 0.9% year-on-year, to US$7.5 billion, according to the company.

The Suramericana insurance subsidiary saw premium income rise 47.2%, to US$1.8 billion, sparked by the acquisition of RSA last year.

Meanwhile, the Sura Asset Management subsidiary saw its assets under management grow 14.4%, to US$126 billion.

Operating income from its pension administration group rose 11.7%, to US$383 million, with the voluntary pension segment growing 28% year-on-year, according to the company.


Medellin-based multinational supermarket giant Exito reported August 14 that its first-half (1H) 2017 net profits rebounded to COP$61.6 billion (US$20.7 million), up from a COP$47.7 billion (US$16 million) loss in 1H 2016.

Revenues also rose 12.4% year-on-year, to COP$26.8 trillion (US$9 billion), while recurring earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA) rose 40% year-on-year, to COP$1.7 trillion (US$573 million), according to the company.

While Colombia’s relatively weak economy this year pinched over-all results, a rebounding Brazilian economy boosted Exito’s corporate-wide earnings, according to the company.

In Brazil, Exito’s “Grupo Pão de Açúcar” (GPA) chain saw revenues rise 8.1% year-on-year (measured in local currency) and the “Assai” cash-and-carry supermarket chain saw a 28% jump in operational earnings.

In Uruguay, sales rose 7.4% year-on-year (measured in local currency) and EBITDA margin hit 8%, according to the company.

In Argentina, the company’s commercial real-estate business expanded to 161,000 square meters of rentable space, putting Exito in the number-one position (outside of Buenos Aires) in offering commercial gallery space.

In Colombia, Éxito’s “Surtimayorista” cash-and-carry chain continues to grow, with eight stores now open and showing promising results.

Surtimayorista is “one of the strategies of the [Éxito] group to confront the challenging macroeconomic situation” in Colombia, according to the company.

The private-label clothing business also is showing exemplary results, as 97% of all Éxito-branded clothing ítems are produced in Colombia, generating US$6 million in export income, according to the company.

Synergies between all of Éxito’s business lines in Latin America are now expected to deliver US$50 million in corporate-wide savings this year, the company added.

The company now has 1,563 retail locations, with 568 in Colombia, 884 in Brasil, 81 in Uruguay and 30 in Argentina.

“The first-half results continue to show us that our internationalization strategy is producing good results and positive diversification in income and profits for our group,” added Grupo Éxito president Carlos Mario Giraldo.


A new study by Colombia’s health ministry (Ministerio de Salud) found that Suramericana EPS, Sanitas EPS and Aliansalud EPS were rated the top-three health insurance network providers by patients in the “contributory” (user-pays, employer-pays) “Entidades Prestadoras de Salud” (EPS) health-coverage sector.

However, the study didn’t cover health-care consumers in the prepaid sector – an attractive insurance alternative for many wealthier expats (and richer Colombians).

Several companies including Suramericana and Coomeva offer prepaid health insurance coverage in Colombia. However, these policies are much more expensive than EPS policies -- and they’re beyond the budget of most Colombians.

In addition, only Coomeva offers prepaid health insurance to people 60 years and older, which puts most older expats (and native Colombians) either at the mercy of relatively slow EPS coverage for certain expensive and optional procedures, and for certain drugs -- or else paying cash/credit for faster, broader services and broader drug options.

Still, people in the prepaid insurance system also must buy a complimentary EPS policy -- which effectively helps subsidize the cost of coverage for millions of others stuck in EPS networks.

As for the “subsidized” EPS sector (mainly for indigents), the top three EPS networks in the Ministry study were Associação Mutual Ser Empresa ESS; Caja de Compensacion Familiar de la Guajira; and Asociacion Mutual Barrios Unidos de Quibdo, according to the ministry report .

In all, the top 13 EPS networks in the contributive sector were (in order):

1. Suramericana EPS
2. Sanitas EPS
3. Aliansalud EPS
4. Nueva EPS
5. Compensar EPS
6. Salud Total EPS
7. EPS Famisanar
8. Saludvida EPS
9. Coomeva EPS
10. Servicio Occidental de Salud EPS
11. Comfenalco Valle EPS
12. Cruz Blanca EPS
13. Cafesalud EPS

The top 10 EPS’s in the subsidized sector were:


1. Asociacion Mutual Ser
2. CCF de la Guajira
3. Ambuq ARS
4. Coosalud EPS
5. Comfacor
6. Comfaoriente
7. Comfasucre
8. CCF Cajacopi Atlantico
9. Emdisalud ESS
10. Ecoopsos ESS


For the study, health-services consumers were asked to rate companies by 51 indicators, with 24 indicators relating to the opportunity to receive certain services, 19 relating to relative satisfaction with services, and eight relating to the ease-of-access to services.

However, a relatively high ranking as indicated in the Ministry study doesn’t mean that all patients are happy with health services. On the contrary: Many of the more-complex, more-expensive health services and certain high-cost drugs aren’t readily available in EPS networks, or at least not very timely.

What’s worse, hospitals and clinics that provide such EPS services too often face enormous delays in reimbursement -- with past-due bills running into the billions of dollars (see Medellin Herald stories in the “hospitals, health and insurance” subcategory under the “Antioquia” main category).

As a result, various hospitals and clinics around Colombia have at times been forced to delay paying wages to hospital workers and vendors – in certain cases, for months at a time. Some hospitals have been shuttered permanently.

What’s more, several national EPS networks have gone bankrupt or have drastically reduced services in many areas, as income simply hasn’t been anywhere near enough to cover expenses -- or (in certain cases) mismanagement and corruption have destroyed the business.


Medellin-based multinational cement giant Cementos Argos reported August 11 that its first-half (1H) 2017 earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA) fell 26% year-on-year, to COP$641 billion (US$216 million).

Revenues dipped 4% year-on-year, to COP$4.2 trillion (US$1.4 billion), but second-quarter (2Q) net income rebounded over the first quarter, to COP$48 billion (US$16 million), indicating “better prospects in the market in Colombia . . . as well as a greater contribution to the results of the business coming from the United States,” according to Cementos Argos.

Through 1H 2017, Cementos Argos saw 73% of its corporate revenues generated in U.S. dollars, the company added.

Volumes of cement delivered rose 15% year-on-year, to 8 million tons, but concrete shipments dipped 7% year-on-year, to 5.4 million cubic meters, according to the company.

“The good results obtained in the U.S. and in the Caribbean and Central America far outweigh the challenges we are facing in the Colombian market,” said Cementos Argos president Juan Esteban Calle.

“As of June 30, 73% of revenues and 77% of EBITDA were generated abroad, in dollars or in highly dollar-denominated currencies. Additionally, we expect a better second half in the local [Colombian] market as a result of growth in shipments to 4G [fourth-generation highway construction] projects and the recovery in consumption that should be presented as a result of the reduction in interest rates,” he added.

As of June 30, Argos USA generated US$759 million in revenue and US$99 million in EBITDA, “in line with expectations announced by the company in early 2017,” according to the company.

“Argos supplies cement and concrete to important works such as Procter & Gamble in West Virginia, Liberty Mutual in Texas and State Farm in Atlanta, and is a key supplier in the construction of the Atlanta Falcons stadium, where ‘Super Bowl 53’ will be played in February 2019," the company added.

In Colombia, Argos is already involved in 39 of the 56 awarded “4G” highway construction projects and is bidding on another 46 projects currently under negotiation, according to the company.

At mid-year 2017, Colombian highway and infrastructure projects represented 28% of company revenue and 23% of EBITDA, according to Argos.

In its Caribbean and Central America markets, Argos recorded cement and concrete supply growth of 7.6% and 7.5%, respectively, compared to the first half of 2016.

“Honduras and Panama continue to be the main drivers of this region,” according to Argos. “The company’s participation in key projects for the development of the region include the European space station in French Guiana, the third bridge over the Panama Canal, the wastewater treatment plant in the Dominican Republic, the Civic Government Center in Honduras, the Royalton Hotel in St. Lucia and the Nobo Hospital in Curacao, among many others.

“Cementos Argos reached additional milestones during the semester, such as the opening of a new mill in San Lorenzo, Honduras, the purchase of an integrated cement plant in Puerto Rico, the launch of new products such as advanced concrete and cement and integration of the new plant in West Virginia, among others,” the company added.

Grupo Argos Sells Port Stake to Goldman Sachs

Meanwhile, parent company Grupo Argos announced August 11 that it has sold its 50% stake in the “Compas” ocean port facilities to an affiliate of U.S.-based investment banker Goldman Sachs.

The deal nets Argos US$137 million, a 2.5-fold return on investment since 2012, when it acquired the stake from affiliate Cementos Argos. In addition, the transaction is equivalent to 25 times EBITDA generated by Compas in 2016, according to Argos.

“Grupo Argos, through its investment in Compas, managed to transform a group of terminals --mainly bulk carriers dedicated mostly to the import and export of cement and coal -- into integrated logistics and multipurpose [terminals] with top national and international allies such as APM Terminals (Maersk group) and the Singapore Port Authority,” according to the company.

“This transaction consolidates Grupo Argos as a matrix of investments in infrastructure focused on the cement, energy and highway concessions and airports businesses, maintaining financial flexibility that allows it to efficiently manage its capital,” added Jorge Mario Velásquez, president of Grupo Argos.


Medellin’s downtown Olaya Herrera airport will eliminate all flights from September 4 through September 10 to accommodate enormous crowds expected for Mass ceremonies for Pope Francisco’s visit.

According to the official press statement from Olaya Herrera airport management, all flights that normally would arrive and depart from the downtown airport instead will be transferred to Medellin’s José María Córdova (JMC) international airport at Rionegro.

The Medellin Archdiocese estimates that some 800,000 people are expected to attend Mass ceremonies with the Pope – and such enormous crowds would best be accommodated by taking-over the vast area within the Olaya Herrera airfield, according to the airport agency.

Because of the shift in flight operations, JMC will have to accommodate an extra 144 daily flights serving about 2,800 daily passengers, according to the managing directors of both airports. Extra airport workers and special facilities will be assigned to JMC to handle the surge of baggage and passengers during that week.

A special bus service will operate to and from Olaya Herrera to handle the extra volume of passengers arriving and departing from JMC, according to the airport agencies.


Medellin-based banking giant Bancolombia announced August 9 that its second-quarter (2Q) 2017 profits rose 7% over first-quarter 2017, to COP$654 billion (US$223 million).

Meanwhile, Bancolombia’s 2Q 2017 gross portfolio grew 8.5% year-on-year, to US$52 billion, with 27% of the total corresponding to its international businesses represented in Banistmo (Panama), Banco Agrícola (El Salvador) and BAM (Guatemala), according to the company. However, credit demand in Colombia had “moderated” in the latest quarter.

The overdue-loans portfolio (exceeding 90 days) hit 2.6%, with coverage at 171%, “a good level that shows an adequate level of reserves,” according to the company.

Primary capital stands at 10.4%, “more than twice the minimum required. The solvency ratio ended at 14.3%, which indicates that the Bancolombia Group has sufficient reserves and capital to develop its business plan,” according to the company.

“These results speak to our purpose of having profitability that generates value to shareholders, customers and different groups of relationship,” said Bancolombia president Juan Carlos Mora.

The 2Q 2017 results featured “release of products and services that have technology and data analysis as tools to generate better experiences for customers,” according to the company.

Examples include the launch of “Puntos Colombia” as well as “InvesBot,” the securities robot, according to the company.

Equity also grew 5% quarter-on-quarter, to COP$22 trillion (US$7 billion), while assets grew 4% quarter-on-quarter, to COP$203 trillion (US$67 billion), the company added.


Medellin-based textiles giant Fabricato announced August 10 that its first-half (1H) 2017 sales fell 5.6% year-on-year, to COP$90.8 billion (US$30 million), while earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA) margin fell by more than half, to 2.7%.

On the up-side, Fabricato recorded a COP$45 billion (US$15 million) gain on the transfer of its 70% fiduciary rights in the “Pantex” real estate development project to the promoter-builder. This boosted net income 17.8% year-on-year, to COP$16 billion (US$5.3 million)

“The transfer of fiduciary rights is executed with due guarantees, and said transfer does not imply or represent for Fabricato any impairment or decrease in the quality or valuation of the guarantees granted by the promoter-builder group in favor of the company,” according to the company.

‘Somewhat Better’ 2H Outlook

“The business environment of the second quarter of 2017 showed no improvement compared to the first quarter, which was admittedly one of the worst for the Colombian economy since the crisis of 2008-2009,” according to Fabricato.

“As for the textile sector, the demand rebound for finished [domestically produced clothing] products was not perceived, in spite of the constant promotions that we have seen in the points of sale during the whole semester [and also because of] increased importation of finishing clothing, the result of the change in the tariff policy produced in November 2016.

“Another relevant element was the perceived increase in technical contraband (under-invoicing) in the period. This is an unresolved issue for a long time, which is causing damage to the sector.

“Some elements allow a somewhat better scenario to be projected in the [2017] second half : (1) inflation and the interest rates to the downside; (2) the consumer confidence index maintains a recovery trend; and (3) the commitments assumed publicly by the [port] authorities to combat some practices of unfair competition.

“We understand that at Fabricato, our state-of-the-art technology and resource optimization were decisive in cushioning the negative impacts. But in any case, in a capital- and labor-intensive sector, reducing the utilization of installed capacity will always lead to a negative effect on our results.

“Fabricato reduced its [employed] installed capacity to 80% in the period, with the objective of optimizing its cash flow and consequently preserving the capacity to comply with all contracted obligations,” the company added.

On the labor front, Fabricato took a COP$13.8 billion (US$4.6 million) charge for eliminating 200 positions at the company -- although this move will cut future payroll expenses by about COP$900 million each month.


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About Medellin Herald

Medellin Herald is a locally produced, English-language news and advisory service uniquely focused upon a more-mature audience of visitors, investors, conference and trade-show attendees, property buyers, expats, retirees, volunteers and nature lovers.

U.S. native Roberto Peckham, who founded Medellin Herald in 2015, has been residing in metro Medellin since 2005 and has traveled regularly and extensively throughout Colombia since 1981.

Medellin Herald welcomes your editorial contributions, comments and story-idea suggestions. Send us a message using the "contact" section.

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