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The Baltimore Sun

Hispanic Businessman Jose Ortiz: Helping Others To Boost Political & Economic Influence

Hispanic Businessmen Unite; Network: They Are Banding Together In Maryland To Help Others Of Their Background And Boost Political And Economic Influence

Andrea K. Walker; SUN STAFF

December 3, 2002
Copyright © 2002 The Baltimore Sun. All rights reserved. 

Dressed in jeans and a T-shirt crumpled from a day's work, Jose Ortiz pulled up to a meeting of Hispanic business owners nine years ago in a white van covered in graffiti.

He was attending a seminar on doing business with Amtrak and hoped to pick up some work for his struggling year-old carpet business.

Ortiz panicked. The other men and women were in business suits. He stood almost frozen until a few people began pulling him aside and making conversation.

"I got paralyzed," he said. "I was petrified and couldn't move."

That day he met several people who over the next several years would serve as mentors and confidantes as Ortiz expanded Allstate Carpet Inc. from a small company with a few clients to a multimillion-dollar business with contracts across the state.

Now Ortiz wants to return the favor and lend other Hispanic businesses the same kind of hand.

"They need that for confidence. They need that for support," Ortiz said. "They need to see there's someone they can turn to for help."

He and Hispanic businesses across the state are banding together to bolster Hispanic causes.

By unifying, they hope not only to improve the networking and mentoring opportunities for Hispanic businesses, but also to increase their political and economic influence.

"We want to be able to be one voice and be a strong community, so we're able to have some say," Ortiz said.

Hispanic business owners are forming chambers of commerce across the state and lobbying General Assembly members.

Last spring, Hispanic business owners threw their first legislative reception as a way to reach lawmakers. In October, a group of Hispanic entrepreneurs organized the first statewide Hispanic business conference, a three-day event that attracted 300 people.

"We'd like to get together to look at strategies to get greater visibility, improve our image and influence the direction of economics and policy in the state of Maryland," said Carmen Ortiz Larsen, who helped organize the business conference and owns an information technology company.

Larsen and others said the Hispanic population is growing rapidly enough to make people take notice.

Hispanics increase 82%

Hispanic residents increased 82 percent in the 1990s and now represent 4 percent of Maryland's population, according to the 2002 Census.

As the population grows and Hispanics establish roots, many expect the number of Hispanic businesses to swell as well.

Most Hispanic businesses in the state are small start-ups, but there are also a growing number of more established firms, such as Allstate Carpet. Their owners hope to pass along what many of them had to learn through trial and error.

"I believe that, like what eventually happens in every other immigrant community, we're moving into that second and third generation that are more knowledgeable about business and can help those that came after us," said William Villanueva, who has owned M&W Medical Equipment Inc. of Baltimore since 1991.

Hispanic business owners face many of the same issues of any small business, such as access to financing, finding reliable employees and understanding the rules and regulations in starting a company.

Recent Hispanic immigrants may also contend with language barriers and have a hard time adapting to American culture.

"You come into a new land that's foreign to you, the language is foreign to you and the first thing you want to do is try and survive," said Villanueva.

Ortiz said many Hispanic businesses started under circumstances similar to his.

Stranger to business

He knew nothing about business when he bought the graffiti-ridden van and began subcontracting with his former employer, Dupont Interfinish Flooring.

Ortiz and his mother moved to Waterford, Conn., from a small village in Puerto Rico in 1980. Five years later, Ortiz dropped out of high school and was introduced to the carpet industry when he took a job as a laborer with a local company. Looking for a change, he moved to Baltimore a few years later and continued his trade.

Like many immigrants, he dreamed of becoming his own boss and in 1992 branched out on his own. But Ortiz admits now that although he could install a carpet, he was no businessman.

He spoke with a street slang and knew little about networking. He knew no other Hispanic businessmen to whom he could turn for advice.

Then he attended the seminar sponsored by Amtrak, where other Hispanic business owners befriended him. At least one talked the same slang as Ortiz, as a way to reach him.

"He brought it down to my level," he said.

Ortiz would eventually trade in his beat-up van and rent a small office in a strip mall. Today, he owns his old building on Bond Street in Baltimore. At the urging of his mentors, he got a college degree and took motivational courses.

They also taught him that the government sets aside contracts for Hispanics and other minorities. In 1999, he signed a five-year, $2.5 million contract with the Social Security Administration.

Unifying aims

By unifying, Hispanic leaders hope to help others of their background to move from mom-and-pop businesses to larger companies, and increase the capacity of Hispanic businesses in the state.

They plan to do this with the help of legislative changes as well as by acting as hosts for training sessions and networking events. They hope that the election of two new Hispanic members of the General Assembly this year -Ana Sol Gutierrez and Victor Ramirez - will help them on the political front.

The statewide business conference in October was the first effort to help educate Hispanic businesses on a large scale.

At the conference, Hispanic business owners sat through seminars on how to get financing and on how to effectively market a business.

Hispanic leaders said previous attempts to organize often fell apart because of internal bickering. In Baltimore, there were once five organizations to represent 75 Hispanic businesses, said Jose Ruiz, the city's liaison to the Hispanic community. They were often divided along class lines or countries of origin.

"The guy who owned the construction company did not agree with the guy who owned the mom-and-pop restaurant," Ruiz said. "Getting them to the table was very crucial."

`We're grown up'

As Hispanic business leaders organize across the state, Ruiz has created a roundtable of Baltimore Hispanic leaders that meets every quarter.

"We're grown up now," he said. "We're in large numbers. Everywhere we look we are major contributors to the local economy, so we either get it together or lose out."

Business officials who work with Hispanic businesses say they can see the difference.

"I think they're putting past differences aside for the betterment of the community and showing a united front," said Oliver J. Phillips, director of business development for the Baltimore district office of the Small Business Administration.

Hispanic leaders said they know that organizing will be difficult for a few years. Differences don't evaporate overnight, but it's a start, they said.

At the closing luncheon of the business conference, Ortiz smiled at the crowd of about 200 eating chicken and vegetables.

"This is a huge victory for us," he told the crowd. "In the past people could not get together, we are proving that we can."

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