The Moodie Davitt Report brings you the latest instalment in our popular series Ten Easy Pieces*, in which we get up close and personal with leading travel retail personalities via ten snapshot questions.
Meet Patricia Bona, the unstoppable Essence Corp Vice President, who has blazed an indelible trail in the Americas travel retail.
1. Where were you born and raised?
I was born in Montreal, Canada where my father was a UN Swiss diplomat. At five years old, we moved briefly to my family’s hometown of Lugano, in the Italian-speaking area of Switzerland. My brother Filippo was born there. Then we moved to Paris where I was enrolled in my third kindergarten, in French of course. I had already been to two kindergartens; one English-speaking and the other was Italian.
My family constantly switched languages, but with established rules. We spoke French in France and switched to Italian as soon as we crossed the border into Switzerland. English and Spanish were also in the mix with our cousins.
Of my childhood in Canada I remember the voyages we took on the transatlantic ships sailing back to Europe. And, as a young girl in Paris, I remember being proud of my ‘American way of life’: riding in our 1955 baby blue Buick, which my father had brought back, eating Corn Flakes purchased at the Diplomatic store, and watching American movies with no subtitles.
2. As a teenager you realised you had a talent, a calling. How did that influence your life?
As a teenager I knew I wanted to teach. It is a calling I have pursued my entire life. In fact teaching has been my parallel career, and always gave me great joy.
I have taught languages to professionals, reading and speaking skills to city employees (from office clerks to waste collectors) as part of their continuous education, French Literature to university students, and French language to children in afterschool programmes.
I am also very proud of being a founding member of the International School of Panama. The school opened as an Elementary in 1982 with just 35 students. Today it has more than 1,200 students from over 50 countries.
In our line of business, I have used my teaching skills for Training and Communication. And, in that area, I have moved on to university work, giving lectures or mentoring young women as part of several Women in Business chapters. On a recurring one-on-one basis, or in one small group meeting, we provide an opportunity for students and young professionals to meet with female professionals and learn from their career experiences. I believe that there are no glass ceilings to be broken, no gender gap to be filled, if we teach young girls that there are no barriers to their advancement other than their lack of confidence and fear to succeed.
3. Were you still studying when you met your husband and soul mate Jean-Jacques?
Jean-Jacques and I met through my friend and future sister-in-law who was then engaged to his brother, Philippe Bona. We beat them to the finish line and married two years later aged 22.
We were college sweethearts, both in our second year at university. It was love at first sight and the more we got to know each other, the more we found similarities. We both came from a multicultural family and both spoke three languages at home. Both our fathers had served as diplomats in the USA and in Canada, where we were born. But, most importantly, we both yearned to expand our personal and professional horizons, travel the world, be entrepreneurs and raise multicultural children.
4. What prompted your move to Panama and how did you feel about that rather drastic change in your life?
We moved twice to Panama.
In 1973, to complete his mandatory military duty, Jean-Jacques had the choice of civil service. He was waiting to be assigned within the next 12 months to a post in a foreign country when he was offered a new opening in Panama, to be filled immediately. He was the perfect candidate: he spoke Spanish fluently, was business oriented (then the assistant to the commercial attaché) and already knew the region, having already completed an internship in Panama.
Within just three months, we wrapped up our Master degrees, got married and left. I claim that I am the only girl who was married in Paris, and honeymooned in Colon in the Republic of Panama!
I have only fond memories of my move from Paris to Colon. We were together, we had achieved our dream to see the world and travel far, and we both loved our first jobs. We actually wanted to stay after the one-year service. But Jean-Jacques was called back to France to join, along with his brother Philippe, the family firm of Guillo & Bona, an established agent of luxury brands in the Caribbean.
He quickly recognised the need to establish an office antenna in the heart of the area so in 1982 we moved back to Panama. By that time, we had two children, Antoine and Laetitia, and I had joined the company.
In Panama, we developed the business, educated our children in three languages, found time for our hobbies and passions, and made friends for life. Every year when we go back, we feel right at home.
5. Let’s look at Essence Corp’s development and the brands it deals with. What are the main pillars of its success?
We have grown our business one step at a time. In 1988 we founded Essence Corp in Miami with four employees. From agents, we became distributors, starting with just one brand: GianFranco Ferré. We expanded our territories to the travel retail markets of the Americas and Latin America domestic markets and, through a sister company, started warehousing our products.
We are a family company. Jean-Jacques and I have been working together for more than 35 years, and the third generation, our children and nephews, have now joined us. Our 70 employees of today know that we apply the same family core values at home and in the office. We have a profound love, understanding and respect for our brands. And we have a long-term relationship with the companies we represent. In fact Interparfums and Euroitalia are also family-owned.
“I believe that there are no glass ceilings to be broken, no gender gap to be filled, if we teach young girls that there are no barriers to their advancement other than their lack of confidence and fear to succeed”
We are proud of our heritage but we look up to the future. We constantly look to evolve, improve, and innovate. The fourth generation is ten years old, watching and keeping us on our toes!
6. It’s a big year for you this year: 45 years of marriage and Essence Corp’s 30thanniversary. How do you plan to celebrate?
Of course celebrations are planned in 2018! But rather than reminisce on the ‘good old days’ we like to look forward and embark on newness. For our annual Internal Meeting, we have invited a speaker from the CLEO Institute to educate us on climate change advocacy, and we have pledged to reduce our carbon footprint in the office and in our homes.
On a personal note, we will gather four generations of our family in June for a celebration of life in Lugano, Switzerland.
In travel retail, we toasted our anniversary with our business family – our team, customers, suppliers and friends – during our cocktail at the Summit of the Americas.
Our best moments in travel retail are, without a doubt, the days brands that we had lost to globalisation came back looking for a distributor and chose us. It happened twice. When a partner comes back looking for you, there is recognition, but there is also love. Our business is also driven by love.
7. The Essence Corp Charity Run/Walk has become synonymous with the Summit of the Americas. That is, however, just a pinprick in your charity work, right?
Since my student years giving back has always been important to me. My mother was heavily involved with charity work. She was a ‘pink blouse’, providing games and entertainment to children in hospitals and my father was involved with the UN all his life.
Giving back is a family tradition. It is deeply rooted in our company philosophy as well. We chose mainly local organisations: we think that we can make a difference one donation at a time, and that it is our duty to look and give first in our own backyard.
In Miami we have been involved with the Miami Project funding research to cure paralysis. I am a Board Member of Act4me which helps children with disabilities in Dade and Broward counties access the treatment they need when insurance companies leave them behind. Part of our team regularly volunteers in the Miami Rescue Mission effort to provide to the homeless of the Downtown Miami Area with food, clothing, shelter and education. We are members of the Surfrider Foundation, and have participated in various beach cleanings in Miami Beach.
On a national level, in the office, October is our pink month benefitting the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation and its research to find a cure for Breast Cancer. November is No-Shave November to raise awareness on men’s health issues.
In the region, we have supported, and continue to support, the efforts of the travel retail industry with Hand-in-Hand for Haiti building the Lycée Jean Baptiste Pointe du Sable. We initiated the Charity Run/Walk in Orlando to benefit that cause, and in the spirit of giving back to our region.
We cannot work every day in a luxury industry and not look at what is happening behind the scenes.
8. Can you describe yourself in ten words?
I lead every day of my life being a wife, a (grand)mother and an educator. I am a sower; I am patient and wait for the seeds to bloom and surprise me.
I am a volunteer, a team player, and a goal keeper. France has awarded me the distinction of ‘Chevalier dans l’Ordre National du Merite’ which means I have been ‘knighted’ in the National Order of Merit, to officially recognise my work in public service.
I have set up a Women in Business initiative within two French organisations I work with: French Trade Advisors (CCE), and French American Chamber of Commerce (FACC Florida) to work specifically with local universities. I wrote that our mission is to be ‘sherpas’, empowering young women to get to the top of the mountain.
So here are my ten words: Wife, Mother, Educator, Sower, Volunteer, Team Player, Goal Keeper, Knight, Public Servant and Sherpa.
9. Are you a writer or a reader, or both?
I am an avid reader, on paper, tablet and I recently started listening to audiobooks. I had forgotten how soothing it is to have a book read to you.
“I wrote that our mission is to be ‘sherpas’, empowering young women to get to the top of the mountain”
At the moment I am writing, in a private diary, the story of our family. It is based on my childhood memories and on the answers to questions I ask. I highly recommend this exercise. It makes great conversations with our ageing parents; it is a constant discovery of amazing facts, and eventually the next generation could enjoy reading it.
But the writer in our family is my sister-in-law Dominique Bona. She has been awarded multiple book prizes and is the eighth woman elected to the French Academy of Letters (Academie Francaise). I recommend reading any of her published biographies. Romain Gary is my favourite. He was a French diplomat, novelist, film director, World War II aviator, and married Jean Seberg among other remarkable facts.
10. Does Patricia Bona ever switch off?
Yes of course, you have to switch off and I make time to do just that! I practice yoga. I tease my memory by learning Sanskrit chants. I play double-bogey golf and can still run a half marathon.
There is always music playing in our house. I am an old Beatles and Bob Dylan fan, I know the repertoire of classic French singers but I like to discover new artists. I particularly like the works of Grand Corps Malade: I could listen to that absolutely beautiful poetry and use of music and language forever.
And I enjoy cooking for two – if my husband and a bottle of wine are involved!
*PREVIOUSLY FEATURED TEN EASY PIECES PERSONALITIES INCLUDE: