Cuban roots and expertise in international finance made Alberto A. Perez a natural for his post at Johnson & Johnson as Group Controller, Consumer Products — Latin America.

Three items in the office of Alberto A. Perez help to define the urbane group controller of Johnson & Johnson International in New Brunswick, N.J.

The first is a framed set of Latin American currencies. From a Cuban peso to the old Brazilian cruzeiro, it represents 30 years of travel in Latin America, as well as Perez's responsibility to track exchange rates and the movement of money from country to country.

The second item is a woven wall rug that depicts two fighting cocks. A gift from Mexican friends, it reflects his Latin heritage and the extensive friendships he has cultivated.

The third item is a photograph of a dozen colleagues. On six of the faces is written “retired,” “reengineered,” etc., suggesting an identification with people and a puckish, tongue-in-cheek response to corporate destinies today.

Perez's full title is Group Controller, Consumer Products — Latin America. He is one of a half dozen controllers who oversee geographic regions in Johnson & Johnson's pharmaceutical, hospital/diagnostic and consumer lines of business. His area accounts for more than $600 million in sales and 4,500 employees.

The People Behind the Numbers

For 25 years, Perez has built his Johnson & Johnson career around one criterion: “You must understand people as much as accounting and finance. Failure comes when you don't communicate.”

While Perez talks, he relates to the photographer who is snapping away. (“How many pictures are you taking? I charge, you know.”)

Perez relates in this way to people in 14 countries. “You don't learn about your region by reading The Wall Street Journal. You learn by talking to accounting people, tax people, systems people and your line managers.” This has brought his severest challenge, travel — taking up to 60 percent of his time in the past.

He travels to review country forecasts with the local managing directors, study the financial justification for new equipment and the means of payment, discuss borrowing needs to meet working capital requirements, and maintain contact with local Coopers & Lybrand auditors, etc. (“I've been around so long,” he says, “many look upon me as a father figure.”) Perez reports in these matters to the vice president of international finance.

Perez's own father, a banker, urged him to develop an international career, and sent him from Cuba to military school in the United States. After receiving a bachelor's degree from Villanova University in Cuba, he earned associate degrees in computers at the University of Miami and in business administration at the University of Michigan. Perez then joined the mining company of Phelps Dodge in New York and learned “the tedious job of cost accounting.”

He brings out his passport. Each of the pages opens in an accordion fold, filled with visas and entry stamps.

He then moved to Chase Manhattan Bank, where he picked up taxes, balance sheet reporting and international borrowing and lending. After four years at Chase, Perez wanted to live in suburbia to raise his family, and learned through his boss of a Johnson & Johnson opening for a manager in international finance.

Perez has never regretted the move. “In banking, you evaluate a balance sheet and country risk,” he says, “but the corporate side is more complex. I would never have learned about manufacturing, marketing, the competition, tax issues and so on. The opportunity here is much greater.”

On the Move

Perez slowly expanded his role at Johnson & Johnson. At first, he collected accounting data from different countries, with occasional trips abroad. Then he was given financial responsibility in Mexico, the Caribbean and Central America, and later Brazil, Argentina and other countries. He brings out his passport. Each of the pages opens in an accordion fold, filled with visas and entry stamps. “This has been my life,” he says. “Some say it's masochism.”

Facing the Unknown

But he likes the challenge. “I never know when I drive to the office what I'm going to find,” he says. It may be a devaluation, new tax regulations, or the opening up of markets to foreign investment. The last is sending him off to Venezuela next.

Perez's major regret is in his private life. “When you travel 60 percent of the time,” he says, “it's difficult to keep a family together. I'm not alone in failing to do so, but my marriage was a casualty of so much travel. At 59, I can afford to say this now.”

He is more reticent about his Cuban background. He became a U.S. citizen at a time when many of his peers were engaged in anti-Castro activities. He regrets that a political point of view in one's past may affect doing business today. “I am proud to be Cuban,” he says, “but the less I talk about politics the better.”

When Alberto Perez got out of school, he was like most young men. “I wanted to be a CEO,” he says. After committing himself to finance, his goal changed to CFO. But he has since turned down Johnson & Johnson offers to become a national director abroad or the CFO in Brazil.

“I like being a group controller,” he says. “My life changes 10 times a day. I like my 14 companies. You never know what's going to happen. I think I'd be bored by anything else.”