Hispanic business chamber wants to help others.


April 17, 1992|By John Rivera | John Rivera,Staff Writer

Susana Ptak took a gamble 13 years ago, buying a laboratory that was on the verge of closing. She has turned it into one of the largest independent testing labs in the state.

In the communications software field, Richard J. Otero built RJO Enterprises into Maryland's largest high-tech company.

Mrs. Ptak and Mr. Otero both are Hispanic and -- along with about two dozen other successful entrepreneurs -- they have formed the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Maryland to pass on their expertise to others just starting out.

"Things were hard to do on our own and if somebody had told us a few shortcuts, it might have helped us," said Mrs. Ptak, chief executive of Gascoyne Laboratories in Dundalk, which employs 70 people and had revenues of $4.9 million last year. She serves as the chamber's vice-chairwoman.

"The fact is that we are a growing population" and "a growing and significant business base that is totally disorganized," said Mr. Otero, whose 12-year-old Lanhamcommunications and software company, which employs 600 people, recorded revenues of more than $60 million last year.

Although Maryland companies owned by Hispanics account for less than one-half of 1 percent of all businesses in the state, the community is a potent force.

Nearly 3,000 Hispanic businesses in Maryland recorded $185.3 million in revenue, according to a census report by the U.S. Department of Commerce for 1987, the most recent data available.

More than half the companies were concentrated in the service industries, which had 1,734 firms earning $58.3 million in 1987. Construction, with 419 firms earning $28.6 million in revenues, accounted for the second-largest number of companies, and retail businesses, with 258 firms earning $51.3 million, made up the remaining portion.

Hispanic businesses have had an important impact on Maryland's economy, a contribution that is largely unknown, said Mr. Otero, chairman of the new chamber. But, he added, there is a trade-off to identifying a business as Hispanic-owned, because that tag conjures up images of bodegas and Mexican restaurants.

"As soon as someone categorizes us as a Hispanic business, it's hard for them to categorize us as a high-technology business," he said.

Among the most valuable knowledge that members want to pass on to prospective entrepreneurs is how to obtain minori

ty business certification, Mr. Otero said.

Most governmental agencies at the federal, state and local levels are required by law to do a portion of their business with companies owned by women or minorities. Each agency has its own certification process requiring a myriad of forms that detail a company's ownership and financial backing and qualifications.

"I think the problem is we need to focus in on how to access these," said board member Richard Colon, president of Mace Electric Co. in Arbutus. "That kind of thing doesn't come to you. You have to go to it."

Mr. Otero said that such certification has been essential to his company's success. Hispanic businesses are not looking for advantages, but such minority contacts provide "a level playing field," he said.

"We suffer from the same sorts of problems that any small business community suffers from," including a lack of capital, and a scarcity of markets, Mr. Otero said. "The Hispanic Chamber of Commerce is not looking to provide privileges for Hispanic business, but is looking to provide access."

There have been two attempts to form a similar chamber of commerce, but both fizzled after a short time. The first group, the Maryland Association of Hispanic Businesses, was created in 1983 but failed because many of its members were too busy to attend meetings, Mrs. Ptak said.

The Maryland Hispanic Chamber of Commerce was formed in dTC February 1987 and "went fairly well, I would say, for a few years," Mrs. Ptak said. But that, too became inactive. "We hope the third time is the charm and this thing really takes off," she said. "It would be nice if we could get organized and have a voice and make our presence known."

The idea for the current chamber came after Mr. Otero approached Jose Ruiz, executive director of the Governor's Commission on Hispanic Affairs, and asked him to assemble some key players in the community. Last month, they elected officers and a board of directors.

"The mission of the organization is to provide a unified and forceful voice to advocate the economic, political and community interests of Maryland Hispanic businesses," Mr. Ruiz said.

The chamber will work with other Hispanic interest groups to develop an agenda for legislative and regulatory issues. It will also offer what Mr. Otero calls "simpatico mentoring," in which successful business owners will advise newcomers on how to organize and run a successful business.

And the chamber will also reach out to the Hispanic community.

"Not only are we here to help companies generate more business, but also to help the community," Mr. Ruiz said.

"We're going to become involved in the educational process . . . These people are going to be role models" with the message: " 'Look at me, I also started with nothing. You can make it, too,' " he said.

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