Executives from some of Colombia's largest companies came quietly to Atlanta in August to continue a relationship with Emory University.

It was an unrivaled assemblage of Colombian business minds, but it didn’t happen in Bogota or Medellin

It was Atlanta’s Emory University that hosted more than 100 executives from the South American country, who arrived quietly in the city in August, without the fanfare given to many inbound delegations of much less economic firepower.

“Here you have half of Colombia’s economy in two rooms,” said Claudia Garcia, executive director of Unidad de Conocimiento, who herself was only half-joking. Her organization’s name translates roughly to “knowledge unity,” and it was formed by four of Colombia’s industrial giants in the 1990s to grow competitiveness by investing in the intellectual capital of their leaders.

But the two-day session on business strategy taught through the Goizueta Business School’s executive education department added a new dimension not seen before in the growing partnership between Emory and Unidad: the companies not only sent their own executives, but they brought along some of their biggest clients. 

“It’s the first time — and it almost sounds very romantic to say it — we opened our heart to our clients, because this is an internal service. It’s something that is meant to be only for our top executives. And now I’m saying to my clients, ‘You’re so special to me, you’re so important to me that I want you to be trained with my executives,’” Ms. Garcia said.  

It also shows that the four giants in food, construction materials, finance and insurance that founded the initiative — Grupo Nutresa, Grupo Argos, Grupo Bancolombia and Grupo Sura — are investing in their people and thereby investing in Colombia’s future through their influential companies, which together have 110,000 employees and represent nearly 6 percent of Colombia’s gross domestic product.

“What we are looking for, what we are convinced of, is that being better people, being better executives — whatever the responsibility we have in our companies — we are going to take back to Colombia some new and better ideas for the development of the companies and the development of society,” Gonzalo Toro, corporate vice president at Bancolombia, told Global Atlanta. “We see the bank as an instrument, as a participant in the well-being and success of the community. That’s the only way to be a successful entity and a sustainable company in the long run.”

Aside from the more altruistic benefits, the executives gleaned tangible strategic insights from the program that can help their businesses in Colombia and enhance their cross-cultural knowledge as they continue the current wave of international expansion undertaken over the past few years. 

Argos, for instance, now has a larger operation in the U.S. than in Colombia, and its corporate headquarters for this market is in Alpharetta, Ga., where it employs more than 100 people. Operations throughout the state support hundreds more jobs. 

Juan Gonzalo Uribe, who manages concrete operations in Colombia, said that the Emory program was especially valuable coming on the heels of a five-year strategic review that resulted in a new company master plan. The content of the discussion at Emory, taught by professors Steve Shepard and Rob Kazanjian, addressed how companies can take advantage of change rather than simply reacting to it. 

That resonated with Mr. Uribe, who has been seeing customer demands shift as younger, more tech-savvy buyers gain decision-making power. Argos is now investing in online tools that can take orders and track products in transit, addressing issues with logistics.

“That’s a very important change in this industry. We used to serve people by phone, and now we’re trying to do it by apps and by the Internet,” he said. 

Anyone can make concrete, he added, so it’s client relationships and efficiency that will set leading companies apart in the sector. 

“It’s not about the product, it’s about the service and the trust,” Mr. Uribe said. 

He, along with other executives in attendance, were as excited about the opportunity to build that trust with each other as they were about the content of the two-day course. 

Mauricio Toro, CEO of Proteccion, the country’s second-largest pension fund, said he couldn’t remember ever seeing so many Colombian executives in one place. 

“I can’t even realize what the impact is going to be on Colombian management practices, but I’m sure that it is going to be very positive,” he said. 

For Emory’s executive education program, the session constituted a “next step” for the already strong partnership with Unidad, which gives Goizueta an established foothold in the increasingly important South American market. 

“Every business school wants to have and works hard to cultivate more of a global presence, so this is a very important anchor for us into South America,” said J.B. Kurish, senior associate dean for executive education. “One of the things we will be doing in executive education is increasingly looking to relationships in different continents. It’s like anything else — it’s easier to develop those relationships when you’ve got a track record of something that has worked well.”

The school is in discussions on intensifying partnership with Unidad, which also has relationships with Georgia Institute of Technology, Vanderbilt University, New York University and other universities throughout the world. 

The connection with Colombia from Atlanta figures to be a little smoother soon. In December, Delta Air Lines Inc. plans to launch a nonstop flight from Atlanta to Medellin, where many of Colombia’s large companies, including those that formed Unidad, are based.

“Atlanta and Colombia are so, so close,” said Gonzalo Toro of Bancolombia, “even though we think that we are far away.” 

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...