Max Viana is the Business Development Manager for Trading and Supply at Shell. Max grew up in Honduras in a family that prioritized school heavily. His focus on school and drive for success eventually opened up an opportunity for him to come to the U.S. to pursue his undergraduate degree.
After graduating and returning to Honduras to work for Shell, Max was able to get an MBA from the Sam M. Walton College of Business. This opened up new opportunities at Shell and allowed him to continue developing his international business skills through traveling to many different countries and doing business with a variety of cultures.
00:07 Matt Waller: Hi, I'm Matt Waller, Dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business. Welcome to Be EPIC, the podcast where we explore excellence, professionalism, innovation and collegiality, and what those values mean in business education and in your life today.
00:28 Matt Waller: I have with me today, Max Viana, and he is an alumnus of the Walton College. He got his master's degree in business from the University of Arkansas, in the Walton College back in the year 2000. Max has an undergraduate degree from the University of the Ozarks in marketing, computer science and management. He has many years of experience with Shell, over 20 years, and your current title is?
01:00 Max Viana: I'm a business development manager for our trading company, Shell trading.
01:05 Matt Waller: Well, thank you so much for joining us. You have a long history of the Shell.
01:11 Max Viana: Yes.
01:11 Matt Waller: So you know the energy business really well in many different areas, and but you were born originally in Honduras.
01:22 Max Viana: That's right.
01:23 Matt Waller: You came to the United States for schooling, and then took a job with Shell and have been there ever since.
01:32 Max Viana: That's right.
01:33 Matt Waller: And I know you travel over the world. You've been... Or you've worked all over the world. You travel over the world frequently, and you're still involved with the Walton College, which we are grateful for. You know Max, the Walton College has four values that we emphasize: Excellence, professionalism, innovation and collegiality. And we try to pick people to interview that have exemplified those, and I know in our previous talks, I was sitting there, thinking about various times in our discussion where you were exemplifying that based on your history. And our tagline is Be EPIC, because our vision is... Part of our vision is serving as catalyst for transforming lives and that is helping people to become EPIC.
02:24 Matt Waller: And I think, I don't know what role we played in your life in that way. We've not really talked about that explicitly, but when you look at where you came from and where you are today, it's remarkable. Would you mind just giving us a little bit of that background and talk to me about that?
02:47 Max Viana: Well, I guess I will say, the University of Arkansas actually had a big impact in my life. So looking back, yes, I come from a very poor country, Honduras, middle of Central America, probably one of the poorest countries in the world. I was lucky though that my parents always focused on education. And so, we always had this history from my grandfather and my father. My father was a lawyer. My mother was a teacher. And they will always kind of making sure that I study, that I get good grades, and they supported me on everything, but always study and get good grades.
03:27 Max Viana: And that opened up the opportunity, right when I finished high school, to actually apply for a scholarship that was for my undergrad with the University of the Ozarks in Arkansas. And so, I was very blessed to actually get a scholarship, got my undergrad, and then, right after my graduation, I came back to Honduras and that's when I started working for Shell. You know things... You never know where life's gonna take you when you're a student. I think we talked about this before. All you know, is that it's important that you get an education, but you don't know exactly how that education is gonna help you in the future. I think for me, having studied in the US, opened up a lot of doors in Honduras and that's how I started working for Shell in Honduras at the time.
04:22 Max Viana: Eventually, I wanted to get a master's. And a good friend of mine actually who had been a... He's an alumni as well, from University of Arkansas. He told me, "Hey, maybe it's a good time you consider applying for the master's now". And I wasn't really ready to apply, but one thing at that time that he mentioned is, "Hey, you know recently, I think at that point in time, the Walton family had donated significant amount of funds to the school of business".
05:00 Matt Waller: Yeah, right before you started in our... The year before you started in our MBA program, they had just given the largest gift ever given to a public business school at the time.
05:09 Max Viana: Exactly, and that caught my attention. And he's like, "You may want to maybe consider applying, and who knows, maybe you can get help as well with an assistantship." And I was very lucky as well. I was in the middle of a lot of work. I remember I was traveling a lot with Shell like from day one, I've been traveling. At that time, I was doing a lot of work in Central America, in the Caribbean. And so, I applied, and I got accepted and I got the assistantship. And so at that point, I know it was mixed feelings, leaving my family again, mixed feelings for my family as well, I was leaving again, came back to the US, came back to the University of Arkansas and I got my MBA. And soon after I graduated from my MBA, a gentleman that I had met, working with Shell in the Caribbean, gave me the opportunity to come back. And so, I came back to Shell, but in the US.
06:09 Max Viana: At that time, honestly, I moved to Houston, I didn't know anybody. I didn't know where I was going with this, but I do know that getting that MBA completely, I would say, changed my career. Soon after, I've joined the Shell here in the US, I started doing a lot of international work, thanks to my MBA. Roles that require that type of education, that kind of background. I probably was here in Houston for about a year. And soon after that, I moved to London, I lived in England for some time. I moved to Holland, I lived in Holland as well. And then it was a period of time, I think it was like four or five years that I probably worked in over 40, 45 countries, mostly Europe, Latin America, Asia. But I will say that MBA just completely opened up a whole set of opportunities, both from a professional perspective, but also from a personal perspective, 'cause everything that I've seen, people that I met, the experiences that I built. I even met my wife during these travels. That's how I met my wife, who is from Austria, but we met in Dominican Republic, so there's always... You never know where life is gonna take you, right. So, yeah.
07:24 Matt Waller: You have had quite a global experience, but on top of that, you've also had a lot of different functional types of experience. Would you mind talking a little bit about just the variety of kinds of work you've done?
07:39 Max Viana: Yes. So I always consider myself a generalist and not a specialist, and I kind of enjoy having a broader view of things rather than a very specific type of view. So my experience has gone from working in finance, working in sales, marketing. I even, for a period of time, I did some kind of like IT kind of business consulting. I've done strategy within the group. I've done business development. All of the different functions that somehow have to do with a commercial type goal, I've been involved in that. And, of course, I've done it across multiple businesses. So Shell is a very large organization. They have what they call upstream and downstream businesses. Upstream kind of being very close to production, but then downstream is more refined products. So a lot of my career has been in the downstream space, so retail sales, which is what we call basically the gas stations, commercial fuels, more like bulk sales for business customers. Of course, most recently trading, where we're looking at refined products but as a commodity in the international market. So the last 20 years have given me a very broad view of different functions, different businesses within downstream businesses globally.
09:10 Matt Waller: Now, right now, you're responsible for managing and developing new strategic business opportunities.
09:17 Max Viana: My current role, really is, when you look at trading, there's always ideas as to, opportunities that you identify, okay, potentially selling or buying, but something that is important, especially in the energy world, because it's not just oil but, what we do is energy, is having the right infrastructure. So I'm looking for opportunities where there is a capital investment involved to say, "Okay, could we do something, can we build something here?" And what is gonna be the investment that is required to make that happen? And once we understand that, compared that to the value we think we can generate, and once you understand both the cost and the revenue that you can make, you can kind of make a decision and say, "Okay, let's go for it."
10:05 Max Viana: Usually, my projects last from one to five years, so it's not something that happens overnight, because as you can imagine, we gotta work with engineers to understand what kind of infrastructure changes are required, what kind of investment is required. We got to work with a lot of different stakeholders that understand safety or specific operations. And of course, it takes time to truly understand how much money you think you can make. Many times, it's not straightforward. But in general, I think, the way I try to say it very simply is, my role is to find ways to make money for this organization, and anything that requires a capital investment, I get involved. It's a very interesting area just because you get to see things in a napkin first that then actually become an actual building or infrastructure.
11:01 Matt Waller: So you're a little bit like an entrepreneur.
11:04 Max Viana: It is very entrepreneurial, yes.
11:05 Matt Waller: So you have to probably do a lot of boundary spanning as well, looking at what's going on on the edges.
11:13 Max Viana: That's right. So a lot of these roles is really talking to a lot of people, understanding what their needs are. A lot of reading, trying to understand what's happening in the market, understanding new technologies, understanding opportunities that are being created, whether it is... Because the market conditions created that opportunity or sometimes geopolitical situations can create opportunities. There's a whole set of variables that you just pretty much kind of like reading, learning, talking with people. Sometimes you find the opportunities, sometimes the opportunities find you. But I think the one thing that is very basic is you never stop learning, because, to be honest, every project is completely new. So, and going back to the theme of this conversation, the impact that that MBA is have for me, it taught me to learn. And I think that's a one very basic skill in this job, right? So if you get used to learn all the time and you're always learning...
12:33 Matt Waller: So, Max, you've done business in many different countries, and most people listening to this, if they've done any business internationally, it's been probably in one or two countries. What are some experiences or insights could you give us from that?
12:51 Max Viana: So, that area to me is very dear, in the sense that I still remember... Well, when I first moved to the US as a Honduran kid learning the language, learning the culture, understanding the culture. But then when I started moving abroad, working in Europe or in other countries, that kind of same concept apply, understanding the culture, learning the culture, it almost became kinda like deja vu, but every time with a different angle, and then the dynamics with the people. Where you go meet with people, of course, Shell is a very international company. So for the most part, wherever you go, you're gonna speak English. But to me, working in different countries, and every country had something interesting to learn from. Living in Holland, for instance, that was the first experiences that I had in Europe. It's a different culture. Most people in Holland that I met at that time, and I'm sure it still is right now, they spoke three languages, at least. And so it was interesting to go over there, then trying to be polite and asking people, "Hey, excuse me, Do you speak English?" Right, and the usual reaction from a Dutch person will be almost like insulted. Like, "What do you mean? We're in Holland, we speak English, how can I help you?"
14:16 Max Viana: And I was trying to be polite, but actually, I was kinda offending them. It was kind of like an interesting learning. The Dutch, they'll speak multiple languages. Also the working culture. I mean, it's different. Sometimes, for them being direct it's kind of like the best way to do business. In other cultures that could be perceived as too strong or insulting, depending like if you're in Asia and other countries. So I know these are very high-level kind of like concepts, but you need to be aware of those things. And I think at the end the common denominator for me was no matter where you go try to be respectful of the local culture. Right then. And if you try to show respect and you try to learn, you can get by and do what you gotta do and move forward to the next country.
15:20 Matt Waller: So some insights for students that want to do global business or alumni, anything that you could share with them that might help them prepare to do that.
15:32 Max Viana: So, I will say definitely try to learn one more language. English definitely is the international language so most places will speak it. However, try to speak one more language. I speak Spanish, English, Portuguese, a little bit of German. And once you learn one more language I think it does a couple of things. One, I think it kind of changes the way you think. It allows you to almost put yourself in somebody else's shoes, trying to speak that other language. It forces you to try to approach the communication from the perspective of the other person, alright? Because you haven't constantly trying to think, okay, especially when you're learning the language. When you speak your language, it comes from you, it comes naturally. But when you speak another language, now you have to really think about how to make sure that what you're saying is really understood by the other person, right? And so I think it kind of forces you to think differently. So you're more careful, you're more thoughtful of the words you're trying to use to communicate. So I think that was one learning for me.
16:46 Max Viana: And then, of course, speaking that other language it also helps you whenever you're dealing with that other culture. Even if you don't speak it perfectly, but the fact that you're trying to speak the language, it kind of like breaks the ice a little bit easier. And then I will say, don't think about it too much. Sometimes it's a little bit tense to think that you're leaving everything that you know, you're getting into a whole another world that you don't know about, but I think it's almost like jumping into a pool. Just jump into it. Don't think about it too much.
17:28 Max Viana: Thanks for listening to today's episode of the Be EPIC Podcast from the Walton College. You can find us on Google, SoundCloud, iTunes, or look for us wherever you find your podcast. Be sure to subscribe and rate us. You can find current and past episodes by searching BeEPIC Podcast, one word that's B-E-E-P-I-C Podcast, and now Be EPIC.