He won't rest his case

Innovator: About the only thing Richard J. Otero Sr. has been unable to do, despite all his wealth, is retire. He's too busy launching ventures.

September 26, 2000|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

By all accounts, Richard J. Otero Sr. is entitled to some rest.

Over the past several decades, he has built two companies from scratch and sold them for several million dollars apiece. He's fought in a war, founded several minority business organizations, dined with three U.S. presidents and is on a first-name basis with Vice President Al Gore.

He lives in a pristine gated community overlooking the South River's banks in Edgewater, drives a Cadillac and doesn't want a larger house or a nicer car - though by his own calculations he can afford to buy a top-of-the-line Mercedes every day for the rest of his life.

But instead of retiring and idling away hours on the golf course, Otero spends long days hunched over a desk, wolfing down a pizza lunch on the fly and taking in meetings in his khakis. He has started a third business, EZCertify.com, which makes software to help small businesses write business plans and earn certifications to become government contractors.

Otero, 61, tried to retire in 1998 after selling his second company, RJO Enterprises Inc. EZCertify.com was conceived as a chapter in a book he was writing about Small Business Administration programs. The chapter sought to explain the arcane application process for the SBA's 8(a) Business Development Program certification, which gives minority-owned businesses incentives to compete for government contracts they might otherwise lose out on.

But the book's editors thought the chapter was too detailed, and suggested that he package it as a CD-ROM.

Though RJO owed much of its growth to the 8(a) program, Otero was inclined to scrap the project because he didn't think there was much of a market for it. But in the summer of 1998, the SBA broadened the eligibility requirements to include white women and people with disabilities. Otero estimated that the changes would allow more than 1.5 million new businesses to qualify.

Otero feared the 4-inch-thick application, which could involve months of back-and-forth mailings to government bureaucrats, would turn off many of them. So he converted his CD-ROM plan into a software program that takes four hours to complete. He will introduce it at the Minority Enterprise Development Conference in Washington today.

"Some of us suffered through it the hard way," Otero said of the certification process. "The way I learned was by doing it wrong half a dozen times."

Though he may have stumbled through his application, Otero's resume suggests few missteps.

"I'm not sure he's done a lot wrong," said Al Coke, a longtime friend who met Otero when he became a consultant for RJO. Coke, an independent management consultant whose client roster now includes Nike Canada and the Royal Bank of Trinidad, calls Otero "one of the most detailed guys I know."

The son of Puerto Rican immigrants, Otero spent his childhood outside Newark, N.J. His father was trained as an accountant, but became a machinist during World War II.

Otero graduated from the New Jersey Institute of Technology with a degree in electrical engineering in 1961. After a stint with Bell Labs, he was called into the Air Force as a captain. He shipped out to South Vietnam on Aug. 11, 1963, where he flew over the ravaged countryside installing communications and radar systems.

He returned in 1965 and landed a job at the Illinois Institute of Technology's research institute, which had a three-employee outpost in Annapolis specializing in electromagnetic compatibility. Two years later, when the Annapolis office grew to 1,000 people, Otero and two IIT partners struck out on their own, founding National Scientific Laboratories as a communications and engineering company.

With little in start-up capital - Otero didn't even have a credit card - they grew NSL into an $81 million company. In 1971, Atlantic Research Corp. bought them for $81 million, which the partners split three ways.

At age 31, eight years after his first flyover in the South Vietnam jungles, Otero was a multimillionaire. By then, he'd earned his master's degree in electrical engineering from George Washington University.

Otero then spent nine years as a vice president with Aeronautical Radio Inc. in Annapolis, during which time he also earned a master's degree in business administration from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But the entrepreneur in him was restless. So in 1979, he started RJO Enterprises Inc.

In Otero's basement, a mix of seasoned NSL managers and young graduates built RJO into a global software and engineering company.

The staff remained close even as RJO grew out of the basement, moved to a Crofton office park and finally settled in Lanham. But the bond became a mixed blessing for Otero when he had to fire some of his closest friends, a move he calls the most difficult in his career.

Coke remembers his friend's quandary. "Some people weren't pulling their weight," he said.

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