SANTIAGO, Chile — As chairman of Compania de Telefonos de Chile, Oscar Garreton Purcell heads one of Wall Street's most closely watched Latin American companies.
The magnate behind the partners desk at CTC's fancy headquarters is hardly your typical capitalist, however. He is a former revolutionary firebrand who engineered the telephone company's seizure under an earlier government.
What changed him? "The business world seduced me," said Garreton, now 50.
There's more to it than that, of course. Garreton's career as an assistant finance minister in President Salvador Allende's Socialist government came to an abrupt end in 1973 with the military coup in which Allende was assassinated.
Garreton found refuge for eight months in the Colombian Embassy. Later, he spent 15 years in exile in Colombia, Cuba and Argentina.
In Havana, Garreton was a Communist bureaucrat. He ran Chile's left-wing Mapu underground and traveled to secret meetings with its leaders in Madrid and Paris. (He said he remains grateful for the way Fidel Castro's government treated him, and he praised Cuba's advances in medicine, education and social programs.)
It was in Cuba that Garreton first got the itch to run a business. When the Cubans flirted with the idea of private ownership of small businesses, Garreton's wife began selling clothing and farm products. Garreton was intrigued as customers appeared in droves, eager to buy what the Castro regime could not provide.
"It was amazing," Garreton said. "You'd see things that hadn't been seen in years, but it couldn't work in that society. . . . The government wouldn't allow it."
Garreton left Cuba in 1983 for Buenos Aires, where he worked as a radio commentator and in an import-export business, shipping grain to Bolivia and farm equipment to Chile.
In 1988, he returned to Chile--and was jailed for eight months on sedition charges. He was released after he agreed to refrain from all political activity.
Two years later, democracy returned to Chile and Garreton was named to head the Santiago subway system. He began running what used to be a money-losing government agency as if it were a private corporation, cutting costs by opening bidding to small businesses.
Last year, the private investors who had bought the phone company back from the government hired Garreton to run it. He acknowledges that, in a world where the Soviet Union's collapse has made his youthful dreams seem a folly, he's a changed person.
Now he dreams of profits in a multimedia future of video conferences, movies on demand and wireless communicators. Garreton's leftist dogma has been replaced by a corporate credo of making money for stockholders--among them the foreign owners of CTC's New York-listed shares.
But shareholders have taken quite a beating in recent months. Trading at a record high of $133.75 on the New York Stock Exchange earlier this year, CTF shares plunged after Chilean regulators in effect reset the company's rates. Shares were up 12.5 cents Wednesday at $91.125.
Garreton is charismatic these days in preaching the gospel of capitalism and has earned respect as a manager. He is excited about spreading CTC's wealth among its thousands of shareholders and giving employees decision-making power.
Gazing out a window in his office, almost within sight of the Colombian Embassy that had provided him political refuge 20 years ago, Garreton took a philosophical view of the way his career has shifted.
"It was my destiny," he said.