Bermúdez, Carmen: 1943—
Carmen Bermúdez: 1943—: Financial services executive
Carmen Bermúdez is one of the highest-ranking Latina executives in the American financial-services industry. As founder and chief executive officer of Mission Management & Trust Co. in Tucson, Arizona, Bermúdez is considered a pioneer in the asset management sector, for hers was the first such company in the country to be owned by a minority woman. What makes Bermúdez's success all the more impressive is her origins as a teen immigrant to the United States who had never even heard English spoken. What should have been her college years were spent working as a secretary. "One of the things that I want to be is an example to all of the minority people, men and women, so they don't let the fact that they're poor or have a lack of education mean that they can't do anything," she told Tucson Citizen writer Zack Thomas.
Bermúdez was born in 1943, in San Jose, Costa Rica. She was one of two brothers and a sister in a family abandoned by their father. Her mother did not have a high school education, and, to support her four children, sought work in rural areas. Bermúdez's early years were marked by poverty and hunger, and she and her siblings often fought each other for what little food was in their house in Guapiles, which had neither electricity nor indoor plumbing. Bermúdez later reflected in an article for the EntreWorld website that "the hunger and hardships of my youth were a blessing," She continued, "I was happy and didn't know we were poor because our life was no different from that of families around us." Bermúdez later spent four years as a bullfighter in Costa Rica and Mexico.
An admitted tomboy who disliked the way the women in her community were treated by husbands and brothers, Bermúdez liked to battle the other local boys in a contest they called "Tarzan." It involved diving from a rock into a shallow river, as well as climbing one tree and jumping into another tree without climbing back down. The contest even included riding calves at night, and Bermúdez held the "Tarzan" title for two years running. She also fearlessly teased the bulls that are traditionally kept on Costa Rican farms to guard livestock from mountain lions. This proved her mettle to both others and herself. As she told Palm Beach Post writer Amy Martinez. "The bull doesn't know if you're a man or a woman, and that's how it should be in corporate America."
At a Glance . . .
Career: Picked coffee beans in Costa Rica as a teen; cleaned houses in Los Angeles area; became secretary; worked for Trans World Airlines for 18 years as flight attendant, purser, and in-flight service manager; Marathon Asset Management, treasurer, then chairman, early 1990s; Mission Management & Trust Co., chairman and CEO, 1994–.
Awards: Athena Award, Arizona Chamber of Commerce, 1995; Women on the Move Corporate Award, Tucson YWCA, 1996; Supplier of the Year, Southwest region, National Minority Supplier Development Council, 1998; Avon Women of Enterprise Award, 2000; Leading Women Entrepreneurs of the World award, the STAR Group, 2000; appointed honorary Consul of Costa Rica to the United States by the president of Costa Rica.
Address: Office— Mission Management & Trust Co., 3567 E. Sunrise Drive, Suite 235, Tucson, AZ 85718.
Worked to Improve Herself
The school she attended was poor, but that did not deter Bermúdez. She told Contemporary Hispanic Biography that getting an education is the most important thing, and that "it doesn't matter what school you go to." For those who do not have an education, Bermúdez told CHB, that "doesn't mean that you should give up." Never one to give up herself, Bermúdez told CHB that "It was my hunger to learn, my eagerness to improve myself, that made me do better in school."
Before following an aunt to California, Bermúdez picked coffee beans in Costa Rica for $2 a week as a teen. She arrived in Los Angeles with her mother at the age of 15; her brothers and sister were left with family in Costa Rica. She had never before seen a telephone, television, or even a large street filled with cars, and spoke no English. Her lack of language skills forced her into menial jobs on an assembly line and as a house-cleaner. She and her mother did this for two years in order to save the money to bring the rest of the family from Costa Rica. Then Bermúdez was finally able to save enough for a $54 typewriter. She taught herself to type, vowing, as she told Martinez, "I don't ever want to work [at labor jobs] again."
Bermúdez indeed found work as a secretary, and was eventually hired by Trans World Airlines as a flight attendant. She was promoted to purser, then in-flight service manager, and spent 18 years in the business. She married Tom Feeney, who had worked in the investment management business for many years, and went to work for his La Jolla, California firm, Marathon Asset Management. She served as treasurer, ultimately becoming chairman. She came to realize that the industry was lacking a crucial component. "Interfacing with many of our clients' custodial banks, I was appalled by the quality of service offered, and I thought: 'I can do this better than they can,'" Bermúdez wrote in EntreWorld. She came to realize that most large banks were not interested in managing assets of small accounts.
Treated with Suspicion
In 1994 she relocated to Tucson—believing the business climate for start-ups to be more favorable there—and founded Mission Management & Trust Co., named after the San Xavier Mission in the area. As a trust business, it manages the assets of charities, private citizens, and such major companies as Avon. She was determined that she could win clients and provide them with top-notch service. "If you don't have [client] service, nothing matters," she told Diana A. TerryAzíos in an interview for Hispanic Online. "It's like a restaurant with great food and lousy service. Who wants that?"
Bermúdez faced several obstacles as a company founder and industry pioneer. One major hindrance, she admitted in the EntreWorld article, was "a credibility hurdle." Bermúdez explained, "Who would entrust millions of dollars in assets to a fledgling company owned and operated by a minority woman? We needed a financial heavyweight to lend us stature." As fearless as she was as a child, Bermúdez approached Martha R. Seger, the first woman ever to win full-term appointment to the Federal Reserve Board, and asked her to join Mission's board. Seger agreed, and her presence helped speed up the process for the granting of a state charter, which until then had been stuck in the bureaucratic approval process for an unduly long time. Bermúdez's fledgling company faced other challenges: they were audited three times in six months by state regulators, and the bank that it used, The Bank of Arizona, closed her accounts without advance notice. Bermúdez believed they suspected her of money laundering. "The rest is history," Bermúdez told the Palm Beach Post. "We've been recognized nationally and internationally, and that bank no longer exists."
An Industry Pioneer
In less than a decade, Mission Management & Trust grew to 19 employees, who manage more than $300 million in assets. It is the only independent trust company in Tucson, and is believed to be the sole one to be run by a minority woman in the United States. A knack for making quick decisions, and for hiring the right people, has been her key to success. As Bermúdez said in the Palm Beach Post, "All of my employees know more than I do, and they teach me." She added, "My best talent is hiring. I go by my guts. There are a lot of people with great qualifications, but if there's no chemistry, it doesn't work."
Bermúdez and her husband had a commuter marriage for two years, but he eventually joined her firm as chief investment officer. Mission Management donates a percentage of its revenues to charitable projects supported by clients, directors and staff, such as the YWCA. Bermúdez has also established the Martha R. Seger Work/Study scholarship for women and minorities considering business careers. She has won several industry awards, including the Leading Women Entrepreneurs of the World award sponsored by IBM and Chase Manhattan Private Banking, and an Avon Women of Enterprise Award, co-sponsored by the U.S. Small Business Administration. But Bermúdez is sanguine about such honors. She told Hispanic Online, "I didn't do it for this or that title. What keeps me motivated is the commitment I made on Day One. Part of my mission is to leave a legacy, accomplish something, and fill a need. There is a fire underneath."
Bermúdez has one other impressive achievement to her name: she once took first place in her age group in a notoriously difficult athletic competition, the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon. To prepare for the grueling swim in the frigid San Francisco Bay waters followed by a run to the Golden Gate bridge, Bermúdez bathed in ice-cube filled water daily for four months. She finished first in the women's 40-49 group in 1993, and was the Triathlon's oldest female finisher that year. Believing that athletic pursuits boost success, she told vistamagazine.com, "Sports is the foundation people need to succeed in the business world. Both require focus, discipline, sacrifice and teamwork." An inspiration to others, Bermúdez's success can be attributed to the fact that, as she told CHB, "I always want to improve myself at all times."
Los Angeles Times Business Journal, June 26, 2000, p. 24.
Palm Beach Post, January 28, 2002, p. 1D.
Tucson Citizen, August 25, 1997; January 5, 1998.
EntreWorld, February 2001, http://www.entreworld.org (May 28, 2002)
Hispanic Online, http://www.hispaniconline.com/cc/leading.html (May 23, 2002)
Mission Management and Trust, http://www.missiontrust.com (May 28, 2002)
Vista Magazine, http://www.vistamagazine.com/augpow/htm (May 23, 2002)
Additional information for this profile was provided by Carmen Bermúdez and obtained from a personal interview with Contemporary Hispanic Biography, June 6, 2002.