Both brothers spent three years learning to run Santa Teresa by working in every aspect of the business from the bottom up. "When I first met Henrique, when I was just starting as a chef in Caracas, he was delivering the rum, completely the last person on the link of the company," laughs Leal. "I didn't even find out he was the owner till his third delivery. He drove this old Volkswagen because his father said, 'That's what you could afford on this salary.' [The brothers] really liked getting to know the people, and still do. When we've done fancy wine dinners together, we would sneak out from the estates and go to underground places, and they could always get people to talk to them freely because they're not cocky. They could be mistaken for anybody by their simplicity."
The brothers' common touch was an important factor in pulling Santa Teresa back together, Leal feels. "If you go to the hacienda, you can see how loyal their workers are," he says. But to aid in the complex machinations required to restructure the company, Alberto also took a postgraduate course in crisis negotiation at Harvard. It soon came in handy in ways he'd never imagined.
"Actually, I never wanted to be in business at all," Alberto confesses cheerfully. "I was always sort of the black sheep of the family." While Henrique never considered any career path but the family company (save for a short flirtation with the idea of becoming a pro rugby player), his older brother, who'd spent some of his early years at Valley Forge Military Academy and College - an attempt to instill discipline in the independent-minded young troublemaker - worked from age 18 to 28 as a photojournalist.
He also lived for a time in a squatters' shack, working on a project in Carapita, a Caracas barrio. "When I was studying civil engineering in college, I met these people who constructed alternative housing in very poor areas - beautiful houses, but using cheap, readily available local materials. So I thought, I'm going to move to a slum, teach construction, and see how far I can go."
At the time, the answer was not very. "The project had low impact,"admits Alberto. "I didn't have the clout, so I wasn't able to attract attention and influence people. But the way I look at it, that learning in the slum was preparation for now."
One night in February 2000, over 400 families seized a large tract of the Vollmers' land, across from Hacienda Santa Teresa. Instead of calling the police to oust the squatters or allowing them to stay (establishing both a dangerous slum and a dangerous precedent for future takeovers), Alberto offered to donate 60 acres and architectural plans to build a 100-home model community, if the squatters provided the labor to build their own houses. Alberto is godfather to the grandson of the squatters' Chavista leader.