Photo: Mark WempleJuan-Carlos Libreros quit his corporate job in 2013 to start PezCo. He turned to Prospera, a Florida non-profit for Hispanic entrepreneurs, and ProColombia for funding and support to get the business started.
An entrepreneurial surge in Florida
Florida's growing Hispanic population has joined the entrepreneurial ranks in force.
OVER THE PAST four decades, Florida’s Hispanic population has increased eight-fold, to more than 4. 3 million people. With that increase has come a surge in business ownership: Between 2007 and 2012, the number of Hispanicowned businesses in Florida rose 34% to more than 600,000 — compared to an overall growth rate of 4. 5% for all businesses.
Today, Hispanic-owned businesses comprise nearly 30% of businesses statewide.
Like all entrepreneurs, Hispanics see business ownership as a way to get ahead and leave a legacy for their children, says Augusto Sanabria, CEO of Prospera (formerly Hispanic Business Initiative Fund), a Florida non-profit that counsels Hispanic business owners.
“They want to make sure their kids and families are well cared for,” he says. “The probability that they’ll earn over $150,000 a year goes way up if they’re business owners.”
Like small businesses in general, Hispanic-owned firms fail at high rates and must face the challenge of finding capital.
That challenge is magnified for many Hispanic business owners, Sanabria says, because they have slightly lower credit scores on average than non-Hispanics, which can make it harder to secure funding. In addition, some families are reluctant to accept outside financing and give up full control, he adds.
Cultural and language barriers also can pose challenges, especially when it comes to recently arrived immigrants. “We help them learn about regulations, the tax system, labor laws — and even something as simple as the need to worry about their credit score,” Sanabria says.
Number of Hispanic-Owned Businesses
44,599: Miami / Fort Lauderdale / West Palm Beach
4,608: Orlando / Kissimmee / Sanford
4,403: Tampa / St. Petersburg / Clearwater
Note: Businesses with paid employees only Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2014 annual survey of entrepreneurs
Off the Corporate Track
JUAN-CARLOS LIBREROS grew up on a ranch in Colombia’s Valle del Cauca region and first came to the U.S. when he was 14, attending school and learning English.
Eventually, Libreros finished his high school and undergraduate education in Colombia, and then returned to the U.S. to get a master’s degree in biomedical engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y.
“My idea was to go back to Colombia and start my own company making orthopedic implants,” he says. “But I got a call from a company here in the U.S.”
Medical device maker Becton Dickinson wanted him to join its management-training program. Over the next 15 years, Libreros worked his way up the ranks, first at Becton Dickinson and then at Pfizer. During an eight-year tenure at Pfizer, he held various roles, most recently as an area business manager based in Tampa Bay.
In 2013, Libreros got a call from his middle brother, Luis, who was then working for the family business in Colombia. A decade earlier, their father had gotten into fish farming and had since become a significant player in Colombia’s aquaculture industry. A new free trade agreement between Colombia and the U.S. had just delivered a boost to the industry, with duty exemptions for Colombian farmed fish imported to the U.S.
Luis had a proposition for his older brother: “I have spoken with the largest tilapia farms in Colombia, and they’re interested in selling their fish in the U.S.,” he said. “Why don’t we start an import business?”
Libreros had enough savings to live off for a while. And in late 2013, he quit his job to pursue the startup full time. “Here was a chance to start something on my own,” he says.
He and Luis paired up with Colombia’s largest tilapia farmer, Piscicola Botera, and now import about 50,000 pounds of fresh fish each week into the U.S.
Their company, PezCo Aqua-farming, is based in St. Petersburg and has production facilities in the Colombian regions of Antioquia, Atlantico, Huila and Valle del Cacau.
Initially, Libreros faced a steep learning curve. “I had all the training you would want in marketing, sales, production and corporate handling,” he says. “But I knew nobody in the seafood industry.”
For help, he turned to Prospera, which contributed $3,000 toward a business plan, website and corporate logo.
Libreros also sought help from the Colombian trade bureau, Pro- Colombia, which called prospective customers on his behalf. He landed his first supply contract in 2014, ending the year with $800,000 in sales. “Sometimes, it’s not what you know, but who you know,” he says.
Colombia ranks among the top 10 countries in the world for freshwater resources, making it an ideal place to grow fish, Libreros says. (PezCo’s partner production facilities operate in lakes and reservoirs.)
Orders come in a week ahead of time so that PezCo can plan out the harvest. Fish is then processed and flown to Miami within 24 hours and delivered to restaurants, supermarkets, and wholesale distributors within 32 hours.
PezCo already sells to one of the largest seafood restaurant chains and a major retailer in the U. S. and expects to ink a deal soon to supply fish to a big-name grocer. Last year, PezCo generated nearly $10 million in sales, up 29% from 2015.
These days, the company is working to double its production capacity and is talking with potential customers overseas to start exporting to Europe and Mexico.
A few months ago, Libreros secured a small-business loan to fund PezCo’s expansion into new product lines — the company specializes in tilapia, but also has begun selling trout and shrimp.
Meanwhile, Libreros has brought on two employees locally to help manage financial and administrative tasks.
Libreros’ father, now retired, still raises cattle on the family ranch in Colombia. His youngest brother, Andres, who recently worked as a film producer in New York, plans to join PezCo.
Libreros hopes his own sons, ages 11 and 8, will eventually want to be involved in the business.
The goal, he says, is to build a family legacy. “We believe this will feed more generations to come,” he says.
» By 2012, there were more than 600,000 Hispanic-owned businesses statewide, up 34% from 2007.
» The combined annual revenue of Hispanic-owned businesses in Florida was nearly $90 billion in 2012, a 23% increase from 2007.
» Hispanic-owned businesses have increased employment at a rate of 12%, while employment at non-Hispanic businesses has declined 7%, according to the Census Bureau’s 2012 Survey of Business Owners. In 2012, Hispanic-owned businesses in Florida employed more than 337,260 people, up from about 302,340 in 2007.
» In 2012, Florida led all states in the number of businesses owned by people of Cuban background (224,878) and Puerto Rican background (71,291).
» As Florida’s Hispanic population has grown, so too has Hispanic buying power. Florida Hispanics had nearly $213 billion in buying power in 2012, up 350% since 2000, according to the Selig Center for Economic Growth at the University of Georgia.
» Hispanic women are more likely to start busineses than non-Hispanic women. Women own about 43% of all Hispanic businesses in Florida.
Source: Bureau of Economics and Business Research
Zaza New Cuban Diner
ORLANDO RESTAURATEUR Ruben Perez remembers when Cuban food was still a novelty there.
“I opened my first restaurant in 1990. A lot of people didn’t even know what plantains or yuca were,” he says. “I had to do a lot of educating back then.”
Perez, born in New York and raised in Orlando, came from a family of restaurateurs. His grandfather owned a cafe in Puerto Padre, Cuba. His dad and uncle moved to New York City in the early 1950s to work as chefs and ultimately owned their own restaurants in central Florida.
In 1990, Perez was still in his early 20s when he and his brother took over a coffee shop diner in Altamonte Springs. They renamed it Don Pepe’s Cuban Cafe, in honor of their grandfather, and served Cuban sandwiches alongside traditional diner fare such as steak and eggs.
In 1996, Perez won a contract to sell gourmet coffee at Orlando International Airport. Over the next decade, he and his wife, Laura, also became principals in a coffee roasting plant in Longwood and acquired a Cuban-style bakery called Yaya’s.
Four years ago, Perez launched his latest venture, Zaza New Cuban Diner, a casual dining chain. He now has three locations and several more in the works. Perez describes it as a Cuban version of Chipotle.
“With every Cuban restaurant you walk into, the first thing you see is a Cuban flag and palm tree,” he says. Not at Zaza. “We’re very slick, with white subway tiles and wood. But we still have the Cuban food, and the music is very traditional.”
These days, Perez says, he benefits from the large numbers of Hispanics who live in central Florida. “The biggest question I might get is, ‘What’s the difference between tostones and maduros?’ ”
TV Head Co.
Making Clip-Ons Hip
AS FRATERNITY members at Florida International University, Alex Lopez and his brother, Fredy, used to have to wear bowties to social functions.
The brothers, originally from Guatemala City, Guatemala, had never learned to tie a bow tie. So they tried wearing pre-tied clipons, which didn’t go over very well. “Basically, we were told no man should wear a clip-on,” Alex says.
He and Fredy — entrepreneurial types who already had a side gig selling custom T-shirts — came up with an alternative of sorts: Clip-on bow ties that they made themselves out of thin planks of wood.
The bow ties proved a hit with classmates (who liked them enough to overlook the fact they were still clip-ons), and the brothers launched their own fashion accessories brand called TV Head Co.
Today, their line of wooden accessories — produced at a small warehouse in Hialeah using computer-controlled cutting machines — also includes recycled Kosso wood wallets for $25 and bamboo sunglasses for $75. Their goods are available at small boutiques across Florida and marketed online via social media. Alex describes the company’s core customers as young professional men with an affinity for craft beer.
Three years ago, Alex quit his job as the finance director for a local door manufacturer to focus full time on the business. Last year, the company generated $220,000 in sales, more than twice as much as in 2015, he says.
Recently, the brothers have begun experimenting with other materials, including cork and vinyl. They also secured small-business lines of credit with Kabbage, PayPal and Square Capital to expand the business.
“We’re hoping to open a retail store in a high-traffic area soon,” Alex says.
Guatemala-born brothers Fredy (left) and Alex Lopez initially marketed their line of wooden fashion accessories to college students but then tweaked their strategy after getting help from Prospera. Alex Lopez describes the brand’s core customers as hipster professionals in their mid-20s to early-40s.
Family is a key consideration for most Hispanic business owners. Nationwide, 92% of Hispanic-owned businesses are family operations vs. 85% of non-Hispanic businesses.
In some cases, a founder may involve children in the family business to help overcome cultural or generational differences, says Augusto Sanabria, CEO of Prospero, a Florida non-profit that provides bilingual assistance to Hispanic-owned businesses.
“The children of immigrant parents who grew up and went to school in the U.S. may have a better grasp of the local culture, marketplace, language and technology skills required, as well as more contacts for networking and sales,” Sanabria says.
“In other cases, parents may want to leave a legacy for their children, so they involve them sooner rather than later in running the operation.”
Baking Up Success
COLOMBIA-BORN sisters Helga and Pilar Langthon had long dreamed of opening a business together. Helga is a seasoned entrepreneur who launched her own export company; Pilar is a nutritionist who sold cakes out of her house for six years.
In 2015, they conceived of a baking business specializing in custom-decorated brownies.
“There are a lot of places that sell cupcakes and cookies, but not brownies,” Helga says.
The sisters, who now call Jacksonville home, identified a site for a downtown store and opened for business a year ago after a six-month build-out. They named the brownie shop Mocha Misk’i to honor their native Colombia – “mocha” means “coffee” and “misk’i” means “sweet.”
The shop offers logo and personalized brownies for consumer and corporate gifts. The brownies come in a variety of flavors, including peanut butter swirl and sea salt caramel, and there are vegan and gluten-free options.
“We want people to know we’re Colombian,” Helga says. “But at the same time, we don’t want only Latin people to come in.”
Ice Pop Imports
A few years ago, Mexican ice pops called paletas started to pop up all over Brazil. Michele Garcia, then working as an international buyer for a large hospital network in Porto Alegre, Brazil, took note of the trend.
“In Brazil, paletas are a huge success,” she says. “You can find them on every corner.”
Garcia says she initially considered buying into a local paletas franchise, but the market seemed saturated. During a trip to Miami, another thought occurred to her: Why not open a paletas company in the U.S.? People were becoming more health conscious, and paletas offer a “natural alternative” to processed sweets.
Paletas are traditionally made with fresh fruit and no preservatives or artificial flavors. Brazilians added their own twist and filled them with different liquids, including condensed milk and dulce de leche.
In 2015, Garcia left her job and moved to Miami to launch Master Paletas with her husband, Francisco, who also owns an import company specializing in construction equipment.
Over the course of eight months, they set up a small warehouse for making paletas and secured various licenses and permits. Along the way, the Florida Small Business Development Center at FIU helped them navigate the startup process.
A year after opening, Master Paletas now has company-owned stores and kiosks at malls in central and south Florida and distributes to about 200 places, including Disney World hotels. The ice pops cost between $2.50 and $5 each and come in flavors ranging from green tea to mango.
Garcia says the company generated $400,000 in its first year of sales and is poised for growth. “Right now, we’re selling in Florida and the Bahamas, but we’re looking to expand throughout the U.S.,” she says.
Michele Garcia quit her job in Brazil two years ago to start Master Paletas in Miami with her husband, Francisco.
Orlando Montessori Bilingual Academy
LUCELIS TORRES wanted to work from home so she could spend more time with her two young daughters. In 1996, she set up an in-home daycare.
But Torres, originally from Puerto Rico, decided she didn’t want “to just babysit,” and she became certified as a Montessori teacher. A year later, she opened her own Montessori pre-school in a small commercial rental property and soon reached full capacity.
“At first, I took children up to 4 years old. Then, parents asked me, ‘can you offer kindergarten? Can you offer first grade? How about second grade? Third grade?’ ” she says. “I kept saying ‘yes, yes, yes,’ and finally we needed more space.”
Torres sought a bank loan to expand but was turned down repeatedly because of a lack of collateral, she says. In 2006, she obtained a loan guaranteed by the Small Business Administration and was able to buy property on two acres in east Orlando for about $800,000.
The school now occupies 5,000 square feet and has a wait list for admission. “We’ve stopped at third grade because we don’t have any more space,” she says.
Her daughters were just 9 and 10 when she started the business 21 years ago. Today, they’re 30 and 31 and fully involved in the business.
“My plan was not to be where I am today. My plan was only to be at home with my daughters,” she says. “But one door opened to the next. And now we’re looking at a second location in Lake Nona.”
The expansion depends, of course, on whether she can get financing.
Lucelis Torres runs Orlando Montessori Bilingual Academy with her two daughters, Shirah Ortiz and Sharon Maldonado. The private school takes children 2 to 9 years old and offers programs in both English and Spanish. Hispanic families — many of them second-and third-generation immigrants who want their children to learn Spanish — account for about half of the school’s enrollment, Torres says.