My first meeting with José López Vargas took place during Christmas in 2008; at that time, he was in charge of Nestlé's global operations and a member of the Executive Committee of the Swiss multinational. For me, it was a providential meeting, a great gift from God to San Telmo.
That summer, my mentor José Luis Lucas Tomás, had encouraged me to write cases about Nestle. San Telmo was a reference in the agri-food chain for the senior management in Iberia, and its goal was to become a global benchmark. Nestlé was the global leader in the agri-food industry, both in terms of sales and profits.José was 55 then. He was the son of immigrants from Seville, who had moved to Switzerland when he was 8. He had become an engineer, no less, and along the way, he had fought for the children of other Spanish immigrants to go to school too. In fact, he helped them with math, giving them problems to solve and correcting their work.
His career at Nestlé was impressive. He had started at the Nestlé factory in Girona, and after that, held various positions in different countries including the United States, France, Australia, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore and, again, Market Manager in Japan until 2007. That year, Peter Brabeck-Lemathe, then CEO of Nestlé, called José to put him in charge of Nestlé’s operations with over 500 factories around the world, and also of Globe, which was Nestlé's integrated information system. José recalled his time as Market head for Japan with satisfaction. He emphasized the loyalty of the people in that country, their respect and education, and their keenness on resource productivity as a moral obligation.
I invited him to have breakfast at San Telmo, and he told me that he had bought a house in the residential area of Simón Verde because he intended to live there when he retired. His wife, Francisca, and he were both from Bormujos, (Seville), and his mother and sister in law lived there with their families. He came across as a well educated, demanding, and committed person who wanted to help us. I told him that we would like to write a case on Nestlé, and he said that he would organize a meeting for us in Vevey with some members of the Global Executive Committee to explore different possibilities.
We received a call from his assistant and were invited to a luncheon at the Nestlé facility in March. It was on the sixth floor, where the General Managers' offices are and there is a magnificent view over Lake Leman. One of the managers agreed to our request, and we wrote our first two cases about Nestlé in 2009. This was José's first big gift to San Telmo. Since then, we have written more than 14 cases, some of them with him directly. José was highly respected by all members of the Global Executive Committee, whose members recognized his great professionalism. José led one of the most prominent projects of Nestlé in recent years, Nestlé Continuous Excellence, which, in its first phase alone, contributed over 1.5 billion CHF to Nestlé's results.
With the first case we wrote, we discovered the Nestlé Values and Leadership Principles. José advocated for them above all else and had many opportunities to show that he related to them personally. These values and principles included delighting consumers, manufacturing top quality products, being competitive, compliance, and respect for others. It was a treat to hear him in San Telmo’s classrooms and witness how he conveyed this with passion to all participants. He was absolutely convinced that the quality of the manufactured products had to be 100% (not 95%, nor 99%).
He was happy to comply with Nestlé's custom that its senior managers should cooperate with social institutions, selfless aiding those in need. He was always available whenever we asked him and has participated in many San Telmo Programs in Seville and Malaga, and even in Merida. I remember his memorable session at the international seminar held in Malaga with participants from the International Business Policy Advisory Council from five continents in October 2018. He also participated in seminars in Switzerland, Moscow, Milan, and Dublin. He was unable to take part in Miami as he had recently been visiting Nestlé factories in Iran, and the Trump administration refused his entry. He joined the meeting online from Vevey, and the experience was so good that we repeated another videoconference in a seminar in Bogotá with Brazilian entrepreneurs. José was an expert in the classroom and already stood out in Nestlé's programs at the training center of Rive Reine as one of the best Professors. I also recall an intervention with entrepreneur Francisco Martinez Cosentino during the ADEL Program that impacted attendees. His participation in the seminars of the Mayoral Seat of Continuous Improvement with Rafael Dominguez de Gor was also very much anticipated by all.
Thanks to his generosity and the reputation he had at Nestlé, we had the opportunity to organize two seminars in Switzerland with the participation of the best businessmen in the Iberian food industry. This has consolidated San Telmo as the business school of choice for the senior management of companies in the Agrifood Chain in Spain and Portugal.
He took early retirement and committed to San Telmo even more. He always counted on the young academic assistant Rocío Reina when he took part in the Business Policy Professors Meetings, where they presented his papers, collaborated, and taught together. He was always an active listener and respected the faculty, and his interventions were precise, concise, and authoritative.
Several years ago, we proposed to him that he became a member of the Board of Trustees of San Telmo, and he accepted with pleasure immediately. All members of the Board of trustees have passed on to me his professionalism, intelligence, closeness, and willingness to help. He never refused to visit a factory in Andalusia and Extremadura, but he spoke out and pointed out if he saw anything he did not like. He was very demanding and his aim was not to please but to help. My last professional conversation with him was to ask him to be part of an International Advisory Board to the Mayor of Seville and his answer was: "if you think I can contribute, count on me."
He was an advocate of businesses as organizations that brought progress to society but demanded that companies gave back to their communities, complied with regulations, and created shared value. Sustainability and the environment were necessary conditions for creating value. He got global NGOs to respect Nestlé for its good work in these areas by working with them with transparency, continuous improvement, and commitment. He was very concerned about the high tolerance regarding compliance in Spain, across all sectors of society.
There was only one limit to his dedication to Nestle and San Telmo: his family and, particularly, his wife, Francisca. We sometimes tried to get him to come directly from the airport to San Telmo to participate in a session, taking advantage of his holidays in Seville, and his answer was always that he had to go home with his wife first to carry her bags. His daughters and grandchildren made him change his plans and spend his last Christmas in London and Luxembourg and not come to Seville as he had first intended.
In September 2019, he was supposed to take part in a session at the closing of the INFOOD Program for young European managers. I went to Malaga to close the Program and was surprised to find that José was not there. When I asked, they told me that he had called to say that he had some medical tests scheduled and could not make it. It was the first time this happened in 10 years, so I thought that it must be vital. And it was. He was diagnosed with a brain tumor at the age of 67. I went to Switzerland in November and tried to visit him, but it was not possible. I spoke to him over the phone, and he sounded very weak. He told me he was going to fight to the end. He did, but God called him because he was ready. Now he will be with his mother. I remember one dinner of the two couples in Switzerland where he told us, with a caring glow in his eye, that he had just fed his mother who did not recognize him but smiled at him.
The two teachings he repeated most in his last sessions at San Telmo were that virtue was at the center. One had to be prudent in making the best decisions and steer away from extreme positions of recklessness and cowardice. There would be mistakes and one had to learn from them. The only grave mistake was to make the same mistake twice. He also challenged Spanish entrepreneurs and managers to trust their employees. He proposed that they switched from commanding them to execute something to asking them how they would do things. He assured them that they would be surprised.
We will miss him very much. His remains will rest in Bormujos as he wished. He will help us from heaven to develop together with many friends of San Telmo. I thought of him especially during the Blessing and Homily of Pope Francis on Friday evening, March 27th. José was already very close to God!
Antonio García de Castro. Executive Chairman of San Telmo Business School.