Alumni Following Different Beat in Panama

While many of the early WPI Panamanian alumni have taken unexpected paths, the careers of two have been particularly striking for their unconventionality: Eduardo Navarro '81 is one of Panama's most renowned artists, and Guillermo Maduro '83 is among the country's leading toy makers and distributors.

While many of the early WPI Panamanian alumni have taken unexpected paths, the careers of two have been particularly striking for their unconventionality: Eduardo Navarro '81 is one of Panama’s most renowned artists, and Guillermo Maduro '83 is among the country’s leading toy makers and distributors.

Navarro, who began drawing at the age of three, studied mechanical engineering at WPI, believing the course would provide a sensible and solid foundation for a career. He learned an appreciation for structure — whether in buildings, machines, or living creatures — that would inform his artwork. He says he also acquired a methodical approach to problem solving that he applies to any challenge.

"The ways of evaluating and prioritizing that I learned at WPI have helped me for life," said Navarro, whose meticulously kept office in Panama City's Costa del Este neighborhood, where he runs a publishing firm, perhaps attests to his methodical approach.

Navarro, whose brother, Juan Carlos, is a former mayor of Panama City, earned an MBA at Dartmouth College before returning to Panama. His varied resume includes working in his family businesses — a cooking gas supplier for ships in the Panama Canal and a dairy farm —and a stint at a brewery. His publishing outfit prints three magazines, including the in-flight magazine of Copa Airlines. 

Navarro’s artistic accomplishments include exhibitions throughout Latin America and Europe as well as in the U.S., Japan, China, and Taiwan. In 1996, he was awarded the bronze prize at the Osaka Triennale in Japan, beating out some 2,500 works. For some time, Navarro's preferred subject has been horses; he says he is drawn to their raw power and energy. Navarro himself possesses an independent, adventurous spirit; WPI physics professor Tom Keil commented that Navarro is one of relatively few people to have crossed the Darién Gap, the area of dense, undeveloped forest  and swampland that separates Panama from South America.

Maduro, two years Navarro's junior, entered the toy business four years ago after working in his family business, the popular Felix B. Maduro department store. The small, charming headquarters for his company, Maduro Marketing (sometimes playfully shortened to Mad Marketing), is brightly painted and peppered with games and toys. 

Appearances aside, heading a toy business is far from child’s play; there is a steep learning curve, not only in terms of numbers but also, at times, in terms of cultural psychology. 

"Every country’s different; even the same players in different countries are different," Maduro said. Within the relatively small region of Central America, what sells well in one country might not sell as well in the neighboring one. He tells the story of the Coaster Board, a skateboard-like toy that was popular in Panama, but did not fare as well in El Salvador. Part of the reason, Maduro realized, was that there were few parks in that country; following its long, brutal civil war, people were fearful to go outside.

Forecasting trends is a large part of Maduro's job. This year, he predicted Terminator and Transformers action figures would sell well because of the movie releases; his challenge also entails estimating how many action figures to stock. Maduro's four daughters have been helpful in predicting some fads; by observing the girls play with Bratz dolls before they were widely introduced, he knew they would become popular.

"Girls normally lose interest in Barbie dolls because once they're naked, it's hard to put clothes back on them. Bratz are easy to dress," he said. When one of the Bratz doll's heads came off after about two weeks of play, the girls "stuck a Barbie head on it to keep playing with the Bratz doll."

Maduro says one valuable takeaway from his time at WPI was a facility and comfort with technology. "When I started working with my family, I brought them into the 20th century," he said, recalling that the fax machine he set up a received "two, three faxes a day, maybe five some days."

As technology has evolved, Maduro has incorporated new advances with ease, setting up a WiFi network and the required security for his business, for instance. Yet the fundamentals of running a business remain the same.

"The selling and manufacturing process is still a process," he said. "You have to have things in order, see where the bottlenecks are, and expand your ability to get stuff in and out of stores. But technology has helped me to make things more efficient."

- Submitted by Ami Albernaz

August 30, 2010