Hispanic businesses rise in number and influence

February 22, 2005|By Bill Atkinson

WHEN MOST people are asleep, Roberto N. Allen is hard at work.

It is not uncommon for Allen, an attorney at Saul Ewing LLP, to crank out e-mails at 3 a.m.

"I am not a creature of routine," he said. "Sometimes it could be midnight, sometimes it could be later."

What keeps him up is the Baltimore Hispanic Chamber of Commerce's surging membership.

Allen, 39, is in his second year as president of the chamber, which was started in November 2001. When he joined it in March 2003, there were 12 members. Today, there are more than 150.

They come from Hispanic-owned companies such as Respira Medical and big employers such as McCormick & Co., the Sparks flavor and spice manufacturer. Growth is so rapid that by year's end the chamber could have 250 members, Allen said.

"They are rolling in," he said. "Every time we have a party or a function, half of the people are new. Our sphere of influence is much wider."

The chamber is growing because more Latinos are moving to Maryland and Baltimore. From 1995 to 2000, Maryland's Hispanic population increased nearly 50 percent to 234,084. Over the same period the Baltimore region's Hispanic population grew over 30 percent to more than 50,000.

"It is a very dynamic group," said Aris Melissaratos, the state's secretary of business and economic development. "I think they have great potential. Any group that is growing as fast as they are can be politically powerful."

McCormick knows the power of this growth trend nationally. Sales to Hispanic consumers represent about 15 percent of its $800 million a year domestic spice and seasoning business. It plans to advertise on a major Hispanic television network for the first time this year.

The Hispanic market is "extremely important to us," said Alan Wilson, president of U.S. consumer products at McCormick.

Mexicans, in particular, associate the company with mayonnaise. In Mexico, McCormick's mayonnaise is as popular as Hellmann's is in the United States. "We are importing McCormick mayonnaise from Mexico and selling it in markets where there is a high level of first-generation Mexican-Americans," Wilson said.

Allen, a business attorney, puts in about 20 hours a week on chamber work. He fields calls from the media, answers queries from potential members, organizes get-togethers with state legislators and bangs out e-mails when a member wins a contract.

Hispanics moving to Baltimore generally come from El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Mexico and Honduras. Allen hopes the migration could mean opportunity for local Hispanic businesses.

The chamber met with officials from those countries and the Dominican Republic last year to talk about trade. In the spring, the chamber plans to bring officials from these countries to tour the port.

The port could be ideal for trucking goods throughout the Eastern Seaboard. Also, as Baltimore's Hispanic population grows, products such as cheese, soaps, clothing and coffee from Latin America will be in demand, Allen said.

"They want the brand that they had at home," Allen said.

Allen, a native of Cuba who grew up in Miami, moved to Baltimore in 1988 and earned a master's in mathematics at the Johns Hopkins University. He graduated from the University of Maryland School of Law in 1997 and joined Saul Ewing in 1999.

He sees part of his mission as convincing people that not all Hispanics in Maryland are landscapers or kitchen and construction workers.

"We are lawyers at big firms, we are financial advisers at Morgan Stanley, we are in state and local government," Allen said. "We are a part of the fabric of society. ... We have a lot to contribute."

Ellyn L. Brown, Maryland's securities commissioner from 1987 to 1992, has been nominated to the New York Stock Exchange's board of directors.

NYSE members, embarrassed by the pay scandal involving former Chairman Richard A. Grasso, will vote on her nomination April 7 when they hold their annual meeting. In addition to Brown, 53, Alice M. Rivlin, President Bill Clinton's budget director, and Karl M. von der Heyden, a former vice chairman and chief financial officer of PepsiCo Inc., have been nominated to the board.

A new, independent board has been installed since Grasso's resignation in 2003.

Brown, who runs Brown & Associates, a corporate law and securities firm, declined to comment until the vote.

Bill Atkinson's column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. Contact him at 410-332-6961 or by e-mail at bill.atkinson@balt sun.com.

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