If a good entrepreneur can turn a tough break into a big break, Robert Rivera must be one of the best.
Mr. Rivera – the founder and CEO of Spectrum Communications in Pomona, California, and the HISPANIC BUSINESS Entrepreneur of the Year 2000 – turned a moped accident into starting capital and a thieving secretary into an opportunity for corporate restructuring.
“I didn’t start off on the normal business track, but then my whole life hasn’t been on a normal track,” he says. “When I was a kid I used to take apart the toaster and TV and that sort of thing. I was interested in electronics and how things worked. When I was 16, I built my first computer. I realized at that time that I didn’t just want to know how electronics worked, I also wanted to know how to program computers.”
The son of a Puerto Rican father and Jewish mother, Mr. Rivera began working when he was 17 as an entry-level computer programmer at the Naval Weapons Station in Corona. When government cutbacks eliminated his job, he took a job with Group W Time Warner designing cable systems for cable TV. “I stayed there for a year or so and realized I had cable and programming experience, and I put the two together,” he says.
Mr. Rivera started Spectrum Communications, a company that provides voice and data systems design, integration, and cabling and network services, in 1984 when he was about 20. All he had was $1,500 and a good idea.
“[My wife] and I, before we got married, were driving a moped, and this guy made a left turn in front of us and hit us,” Mr. Rivera says. “His insurance company settled with me for $2,500, so I took $1,500 of that and bought some business cards and stationery and a phone. Many people told me at the time, ‘Hey, you need to construct a business plan.’ I would tell them, ‘I have a business plan.’ When they asked about it I’d say, ‘I plan to do business.’ The plan was in my head.
“Technology moves so fast that by the time I write something down, it’s changed,” he comments. “For example, I wanted to install hubs in classrooms. By the time I figured that out, switches were available. The technology kept shifting.”
At its start, Spectrum provided data cabling and computer-telephone wiring. As time went on, the focus shifted to phone wiring and designing phone and computer systems. The company also sells network equipment from Cisco, 3Com, and Nortel. Setting up computer systems in school districts throughout California accounts for about 80 percent of the company’s business. Spectrum also provides services to hospitals as well as companies such as Denny’s, Red Robin, Carl’s Jr., Nordstrom’s, and Cole Bankers. All that’s not bad for a guy who doesn’t even have a college degree and whose formal business education consists of a few courses.
The company, which has 120 employees, reported sales of $14.3 million in 1999, and Mr. Rivera expects sales to reach about $30 million this year and $50 million next year. For the past four years HISPANIC BUSINESS has named Spectrum Communications to its list of the nation’s fastest-growing Hispanic companies.
Mr. Rivera and Spectrum Communications may seem charmed, but about six years ago, an event took place that would have leveled the confidence of many a business owner.
“A secretary who had worked for me for five years embezzled $80,000 to $100,000 out of my business and left the country,” Mr. Rivera recalls. “She deleted the hard drive on my file server. She destroyed records. There was a period of time for two weeks when we didn’t know who owed us and who we owed.”
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