News Column

2000 HISPANIC BUSINESS Entrepreneur of the Year

November 17, 2000

By Janet Perez, HISPANIC BUSINESS magazine

Robert Rivera
Robert Rivera

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.”

Rather than circling the wagons and trusting no one, Mr. Rivera took a step that many entrepreneurs find difficult: He began delegating, and surprisingly, he realized he had to entrust even more to his employees.

“Being able to let go means you must trust people,” he says. “I trust the people around me. A lot of them were my friends before. Two of my brothers work for me, my brother-in-law works for me, and the people who work around me are very close.”

About the time of the embezzlement incident, Spectrum Communications found a niche in the marketplace that would allow it to compete against such big-name rivals as Lucent Technologies, AT&T, Pacific Bell, and GTE. In 1996, the company was awarded the contract to integrate networking technology for the Riverlink Project, the first wide-scale deployment of communications networking technology in California’s education system. School clients this year include the Corona-Norco, Pomona, and Palm Springs unified school districts.

To ensure that Spectrum’s time continues, Mr. Rivera is moving to diversify. Two years ago, he realized that his company was connecting kids to the Internet.

“There’s a lot of material on the Internet that’s inappropriate for kids,” he says. “At that point I realized there would need to be some sort of filtration system – there would be a law to require filtering. So I came up with a company called Safe Sites, which provides sites suitable for kids.”

Now called Meshworx, the wholly owned subsidiary of Spectrum Communications promises to tap new sources of revenue in the future. For the next five years, Mr. Rivera says, he would like to see Spectrum continue on the infrastructure side and be diversified into Internet products through Meshworx. He also hopes to open two new offices, in San Diego and San Francisco or Sacramento.

“When I start thinking about all the things I’ve done, as a kid and as an adult, I see it’s kind of been in my blood to be an entrepreneur,” he says. “It wasn’t about the money to start with. I like the money, but the fun part has always been having a challenge.”

Selection of the Entrepreneur of the Year

The Entrepreneur of the Year 2000 was selected from a pool of more than 300 candidates nominated by HISPANIC BUSINESS readers and Hispanic CEOs. An analysis of financial performance for 1998 and 1999 narrowed the pool to 10 finalists. A panel of judges then reviewed the finalists’ application data and scored their responses to questions regarding business performance, management, employee training and development, and involvement in fostering entrepreneurship.

The judging process for Entrepreneur of the Year requires the nominees to submit sensitive company financial data and is therefore strictly confidential. Judges and all those concerned with selection of the Entrepreneur of the Year Award are committed to upholding and maintaining that confidentiality.

This year’s judges were Glenn Yago, director of capital studies, the Milken Institute, Santa Monica, California; Antonio Bernardo, assistant professor of finance, Anderson Graduate School of Management, UCLA; J. Mario Molina, CEO, Molina Healthcare, Long Beach, California; Rocky Delgadillo, deputy mayor, Mayor’s Office of Economic Development, Los Angeles; and Mabel Tinjaca, author of the book Visiones: Hispanic Entrepreneurs in the United States, Overland Park, Kansas.

EOY Finalists

Edward Gonzalez
G&G Advertising, Orlando, FL ● $16.8 million
A full-service advertising firm that specializes in human-resources recruitment advertising. G&G has offices in New York, Orlando, Miami, Dallas, and Los Angeles, with plans to open offices soon in Atlanta and Washington, DC. Founder and CEO Edward Gonzalez, a two-time HISPANIC BUSINESS Entrepreneur of the Year finalist, reports that revenues have grown 42 percent in the last year.

Alexandro Espinoza
California Capital Cos., Ontario, CA ● $66.5 million
California Capital Cos. is a mortgage bank that provides financing for the real estate needs of the Hispanic community. Realizing that a new approach was needed to reach that market, CEO Alexandro Espinoza and his company have developed California Capital Kiosks, full-service centers that can be placed inside any retail store.

Carlos Cardona and Oscar Coen
Yupi Internet, Miami Beach, FL ● $3.2 million
Mr. Cardona and Mr. Coen founded Yupi in 1997 with an eye toward bridging the digital divide by providing high-quality Spanish-language Internet solutions. Since its founding, the company has grown from a simple directory to the most trafficked Spanish-language destination on the Web. In May it launched, a B2B Web site that enables companies to conduct trade with Latin America and Spain.

Rafael Cuellar
ECO & Sons Inc., Passaic, NJ ● $13.5 million
Mr. Cuellar founded the President Supermarket in Passaic, New Jersey, in 1984 to serve the community and promote the ideals of corporate stewardship. Facing competition from two chain supermarkets and several small bodegas, the company has remodeled the store and has made a strong effort to become involved in community organizations. And the company recently launched an e-commerce site called

Victor Roman
Roman Realty, Stamford, CT ● $10.5 million
Mr. Roman describes his business mission as promoting home ownership for Hispanics. Last year, he sold $47 million worth of residential real estate in the Stamford, Connecticut, market. He has ranked as the top Century 21 agent in New England for the last two years, and he has worked with major banks to improve their minority home finance programs.

Louis Restrepo
Omicron Safety and Risk Technologies, Albuquerque, NM ● $1.4 million
Industrial and government clients turn to Omicron for evaluation and risk analysis on safety and environmental problems. Projects range from consulting assignments at nuclear reactors to writing safety handbooks for the Department of Energy. Omicron is certified under the Small Business Administration’s 8(a) program.

Ismael Chavez
Casa de Cambio and Alpha Signs, Antioch, TN ● $450,000
A sign design, manufacturing, and installation company, Casa de Cambio and Alpha Signs is turning its focus toward emerging technologies. Setting aside a significant portion of its profit for product development, the company expects to find rewarding opportunities in color digital large-format signage.

Armando Chapelli Jr.
Washington Consulting Group and El Tiempo Latino, Arlington, VA ● $1 million
Armando Chapelli is publisher of El Tiempo Latino, the leading Spanish-language weekly newspaper serving the Washington D.C. metro market. The paper’s circulation is 27,500. El Tiempo Latino is an employee-owned operation, and it donates at least 10 percent of net profits to community minority youth.

Tino Ornelas
Ornelas Enterprises, Hillsboro, OR ● $1.9 million
Ornelas Enterprises Inc., an electronics assembly and manufacturing company, is located in the “Silicon Forest” area of Oregon – a location that provides OEI with lots of business opportunities as well as about 100 direct competitors. In February of this year the company received ISO 9002 certification, and since that time sales have tripled.


As sponsor of the 2000 HISPANIC BUSINESS Magazine Entrepreneur of the Year (EOY) Award ceremony, Goldman Sachs was a key participant in honoring this year’s winner, runner-up, and finalists at the event, held November 15 at the Los Angeles Biltmore Hotel.

Goldman Sachs is a leading global investment banking and securities firm, providing a full range of investing, advisory, and financing services worldwide to a substantial and diversified client base, which includes corporations, financial institutions, governments, and high-net-worth individuals.

Founded in 1869, Goldman Sachs is one of the nation’s oldest and largest investment banking firms. After more than a century as a private partnership, it became a public company in 1999. The Goldman Sachs Group Inc. is headquartered in New York and has more than 20,000 employees throughout its 41 offices in 23 countries around the globe.

Also sponsoring this year’s EOY award ceremony were Microsoft, Ford Motor Co., Fox Sports World Español, 7-Eleven, Dewar’s, Hewlett Packard, and Health Net. Ford’s Minority Supplier/Minority Dealer division addressed the issue of “Empowerment Through Entrepreneurship”; Fox Sports World Español recognized Hispanic entrepreneurial achievements; and Microsoft presented All three were Platinum Sponsors.

Health Net announced a new cross-border health plan, Salud con Health Net, that will enable Hispanics to obtain healthcare services in the United States and Mexico; 7-Eleven discussed franchising opportunities; and Dewar’s presented its new 12-year-old scotch. All were Event Sponsors. Hewlett Packard showcased its latest digital photography technology.

Source: HISPANIC BUSINESS magazine

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