Bogotá — In 1995, at the age of 14, Colombian Héctor Orozco began working at the newly arrived McDonald’s fast food chain in Colombia. Today, after a long journey, he leads an operation of more than 4,000 employees, 73.5% of whom are under 24 years of age, and which is why he insists on the need to provide opportunities to young people without work experience.
Today, Arcos Dorados Colombia, led by Orozco, 41, is considered one of the 1,000 largest companies in the country with operating revenues of some $302 billion, profits of $47.39 billion, and an estimated net worth of $15 billion, according to 2020 figures from the Superintendency of Companies.
“It turns out that I like basketball, and I wanted to buy some sneakers to play, and my dad told me that he couldn’t buy the shoes I wanted, which were the Shaquille O’Neal brand, and that if I wanted them I had to work,” Orozco recalls.
And that’s how he started working as a ball boy at the Carmel Club Campestre in Bogotá. While there he learned about the arrival of the fast food chain in the country, which was recruiting employees to start its operations.
He recalls that at that time the human resources manager went to his school and several of the students also wanted to apply for the opportunity.
“Obviously I didn’t know anything about what McDonald’s was, but it seemed like an interesting opportunity, and one of the things my dad told me - he had never had the opportunity to have a formal job - was: ‘Héctor that’s a formal job, take advantage of it, go that way’”.
‘I Know How to Do What I’m Told’
Orozco says that before his first interview, and for which there were quite a few candidates, he and his father had a practice run of the possible questions he was going to face and, in the middle of that rehearsal his father asked him ‘Well, what can you do?’, and he looked at him and replied: “‘What am I going to know how to do if I am 14 years old? Nothing’”.
After that, his father recommended that for that question the best answer he could give would be to say he knew how to listen, something that in the interview, according to Orozco, appeared very funny to the woman in charge of the recruitment process, having interviewed many people and with a pile of resumes on her desk.
“I told her: ‘I know how to do what I’m told; if you tell me to sweep, I’ll sweep; if you tell me to mop, I’ll mop’, she stood up, laughed and told me: ‘You made my day’,” Orozco recalls with laughter, and says that was the only contract he has read in its entirety in his life.
“I read it and said, ‘Look, it says here that I’m 16 years old and that’s not my age. They had already given me the uniform. Then they tell me, ‘No, but at 14 years old we can’t hire you, I’m sorry.’ And I started to cry, I was very excited about it,” he said.
But he says that he was also hired thanks to one of the people in charge of recruitment, Bernardo Álvarez - with whom he still maintains a friendly relationship - and who interceded on his behalf and managed all the legal matters to formalize his hiring.
They went to the Center for Minor Workers (Casa del Menor Trabajador), where both his family and he explained why he was going to work, as well as the company’s reasons for hiring him despite all the restrictions in place at the time. But in the end, they gave him a work permit, and he began his job as a member of the McDonald’s crew.
Before becoming general manager of the largest McDonald’s franchise in four countries, Orozco worked in customer service, cleaning tables, but mainly at AutoMac.
At the age of 17, he was told that, in order to be promoted to the position of trainer, the next role on the ladder, he had to be 18, because he would have to be able to close the branch at night.
In the midst of this, there was a competition to pick the best performer in the company at a national level, and for which several people had applied, and Orozco proposed to his boss that he could be promoted if he won that contest, and his boss agreed.
Orozco won the competition, together with a colleague, and they were both promoted to the position of trainer, a position he considers the most difficult he has had to perform in all the 17 years with the company because it was the one with the most competition.
I’m kind of hyperactive, so I was always running to deliver the orders and I liked that, I ran from one place to the other handing over orders, and that was the place (AutoMac) where I had the most fun.
17 Positions Before Becoming Director General
As he worked, Orozco also studied at school, and after finishing at the age of 16 he began a course in systems engineering at Colombia’s National University. “I didn’t have the means to pay for another (university) course, and if I didn’t pass it I had to keep applying until I did,” he says, and he finished his degree while still working at the company.
Before reaching his current position, Orozco held 17 different positions, ranging from crew member to trainer, area and shift manager, second assistant, assistant manager, restaurant manager, training coordinator and then operations manager, among others.
He worked in Venezuela and returned to Colombia as operations manager, and then made the leap to Brazil as dean of McDonald’s University for a year. He then returned as regional operations director, and later ascended to his current position as general manager in four countries.
“I was doing my degree in college and I was pursuing a career at McDonald’s, and I realized that there were a lot of things related,” he says.
He says he “loves to give that first opportunity” to young people, just as the person who interceded for him at the time did, something that years later he acknowledges changed his life.
“That changed my life, I don’t know what I would be doing today, having had a first formal opportunity as a young man, where I had the opportunity to study at the university and work - if you don’t know, the schedules are terrible - really helped me. A job where they didn’t ask me for experience, that’s something that seems absurd, but the reality is that the biggest reason why young people don’t get jobs is because they are required to have experience,” he says.