The entrepreneurial drive of Latinos in the United States has been documented in many studies. Most new businesses created by Latinos are small family-operated businesses, at least initially. In the case of those that are successful, the time may come when the founder of the business is no longer willing or able to manage day-to-day operations, or at least begins to think about that eventuality.
Often the assumption is that their one or more of their adult children will take the reins, and it often works out that way, but not always. Members of the next generation may have different interests or careers in other fields, live hundreds of miles away or have other reasons for not stepping into the shoes of a parent.
CTLatinoNews.com spoke with three Hispanic owned businesses that have successfully transitioned to a second generation of leadership. We begin our three-part series with Interpreters and Translators, Inc. (ITI), in Manchester t that started as a small home businesses.
Part I: A Carefully Planned Transition
When Elby Pagano started her business, Interpreters and Translators, Inc. (ITI), in 1986, she had no idea how successful or enduring it would be. “You just can’t predict what’s going to happen when you start a business,” she said.
Pagano, a native of Puerto Rico, was a few years away from retiring from her post as Chief Court Interpreter for the state Judicial Department. She wanted to stay in the business and believed that was an unmet need for interpreters and translators in areas beyond the judicial criminal courts, such as in the medical and business communication.
Almost 30 years later, she is the CEO of a company with nearly 20 employees and offices in Manchester and Quebradillas, P.R. Her oldest child, Francesco, who was in seventh grade when ITI was founded, is its president, and her daughter Annie, who was a preschooler, is the marketing manager.
Being new to running a business, “it was all hit-or-miss and it worked out. It was slow going,” she said. “Thank God I had a husband during this time and I had a roof over my head.
“After school, Francesco would come in and ask me, ‘what can I do?'” she recalled. “He was always a great help to me.”
Looking back, Francesco Pagano said, “I was just really intrigued with this little business that my mom was running out of the house. What really intrigued me was the diverse people (who would come by), meeting people with all these different accents and coming from all parts of the world with all these language skills. I guess I was more curious than anything.”
Francesco “was doing transcriptions when he was very young. Of course I would look at them and finalize them,” Elby Pagano said.
Francesco recalled getting tapes, for example, of an investigator doing an interview. He would transcribe the English portions and leave blanks where what was said needed to be translated from another language, and he got to be good at identifying the other languages, so he would know which interpreter should get the tapes. But then, because he was too young to have a driver’s license, he had to wait for his mother to give him a ride to the interpreter’s house.
One thing he wasn’t allowed to do was answer the phone. “I told him, ‘you can answer the phone after your voice changes.’ Imagine if people called the business and a child answered,” Elby Pagano said.
Before long, ITI had enough business that Elby had to hire a coordinator and, then, a bookkeeper. Eventually, she bought a building, on Main Street in Manchester, and right away ITI started getting more work from government agencies, she recalled.
ITI can offer translations and interpreters for more than 150 languages and they’ve outgrown the Manchester building and are now looking for something bigger.
Francesco earned a degree in computer science and information systems at Goodwin College and then went to work at Cigna, trying to learn all he could about how a big business operated. “It really, really looked like to me that there’s a whole lot of opportunity for this company (ITI) to grow,” and he wanted to find out what it would take to turn a small family-owned business into something bigger, he said.
After about a year, he left Cigna for a job in sales with Verizon Wireless, wanting to understand how sales worked, how management operated and built sales teams. He attended conferences for language companies with his mom and became he even more certain that ITI had the potential to serve many more clients.
Five or six years ago, Francesco said, “we were kind of at a point where I wanted to take the company in one direction. My mom was on-board, but we were kind of stuck — how do we do this?”
For Elby Pagano, turning the reins over to Francesco “wasn’t an easy process because he’s still in his 30s. He was in his 20s then, and I’m still his mother.”
At about the same time, Elby was starting the process of estate planning. Her lawyer recommended talking to a business coach who specialized in small and family businesses.
“It only took three sessions – what he said was you need to hire a chief operating officer to teach your son to run the business, and it can’t be you,” she recalled.
After interviewing a number of candidates, “we finally settled on this one gentleman,” C. James Love, an experienced business manager, who was hired for three years, she said. “I was lucky; he stayed for five,” becoming ITI’s first retiree last May, though he still sits on ITI’s advisory board.
Francesco credits Love with building up the company financially and instilling in him “the business-minded thought process,” and an understanding of how to scale-up the company, plan and project income. “Planning is great, but the key is execution, managing and having the right people,” he said.
“The last four or five months he was here, my mission was to assemble my team,” a middle-management staff that would free him from being so involved in every aspect of the business, Francesco said.
He and his mom have different perspectives. “I’m not a linguist. I come more from a sales background. That’s where we had a disconnect,” he said. Making it work “took bringing in somebody from the outside.”
About six years ago ITI opened a branch office in Puerto Rico, where Elby Pagano has a home. She’s generally there from January through the end of March.
But she’s still active in the business. Recently, she conducted a five-week course in Connecticut on medical interpreting. “There’s a lack of training as far as our field is concerned,” especially with regard to medical issues, she said. “The interpreters need to know how to deal with the ethics, all the procedures to follow,” and the course helps them prepare to seek certification.
The firm has since hired someone to teach the courses, so she’ll be able to focus more on strategic planning and corporate development. She expects she’ll still be coaching interpreters and advising the firm’s quality department.
“Because she was an interpreter herself, she has a tremendous amount of knowledge and know-how,” Francesco said.
Do Elby and Francesco, have differences of opinion? “All the time. There’s age, there’s gender, and my son, he’s a visionary,” she said. “He keeps telling me, ‘let me do it my way,’ and sometimes I do and sometimes I cannot.”
Francesco said, “Sometimes it’s hard to separate family from business when you go into the office and see your mom. I guess we both had enough insight to say we had to separate those roles. At this point we’ve definitely hashed it all out and we’re very clear about what our roles are.
“I love what I’m doing and I think everything is really falling into place because we put so much effort into doing things right. Not to say there weren’t bumps in the road along the way,” he said. “I think we’ll see the results in the next five years.”
Annie Pagano came to work for ITI full-time in 2012. Like the younger of Elby’s two sons, the middle child, who is now a funeral director in New Jersey, Annie wasn’t exposed to the business when she was growing up and never showed any interest in it.
Elby didn’t expect that her daughter Annie, who studied international marketing and business at the University of Denver and loved Colorado, would ever come back to Connecticut after graduating, let alone come to work for ITI, but she’s glad she did.
“I’m grateful she did because she’s my marketing manager right now and she’s doing a great job,” Elby Pagano said.
Annie said, “I realized that even though ITI was in Connecticut, it was still working with a lot of international companies and helping businesses doing business internationally,” so it would be an opportunity to do work related to her interests and education. She’s also found that “being in a smaller family business has given me a lot of opportunities that kids fresh out of college don’t get. I could make a very big impact with the company.”
She’s done a little bit of everything at ITI, from working with interpreters and in accounts to traveling to educational conferences. In marketing, she has the opportunity to work on business strategies with Francesco.
Annie said that she and her brother work well together. “We were always close growing up as kids.” Because Francesco is 10 years older than her, he was always more of a mentor and friend, and there wasn’t the kind of rivalry that can develop when siblings are close to one another in age.
Francesco said Annie’s efforts in marketing are positioning ITI to reach out to its target markets in the government, legal, healthcare and marketing/communications fields. A big part of that is leading the effort to develop the company’s new website, expected to debut in March, which will be a big advance over the current site.
With the company growing, everyone at ITI has the opportunity to step up. “The whole team is like family here,” she said.
Part II in the series: WCUM Radio (“La Cumbre”) in Bridgeport
Part III: Tribuna, a trilingual (English-Portuguese-Spanish) biweekly newspaper based in Danbury