News Column

Land of Hard Knocks

July/August 2003, HISPANIC BUSINESS Magazine

Doreen Hemlock

"I understand lawsuits are very common, so I’m doing everything to avoid them," says Alan Leiser.
"I understand lawsuits are very common, so I’m doing everything to avoid them," says Alan Leiser.

Dario Bortnik learned the hard way not to do business in the United States the way he did in his homeland. Back in Argentina, the head office of his water-filter company was staffed with 24 employees. But in Florida, Mr. Bortnik found labor costs so much higher that he turned to automation and works with only four employees.

In Buenos Aires, Mr. Bortnik liked paying for big purchases with cash or with checks, sometimes post-dating them. After all, it made little sense to borrow in a nation with a history of sky-high inflation and where interest rates could top 30 percent.

But in Miami, he's learned not to tie up his capital, especially when interest rates are bargain-rate and good credit history is key to growing in the bigger U.S. market.

"You hear all about the United States being the land of opportunity," says Mr. Bortnik, vice-president of Miami-based Watermain USA. "But you find out quickly it's a different country, with different rules."

It's a common refrain among immigrant entrepreneurs, who often make predictable mistakes trying to do business the way they did back home.

For South Americans, long accustomed to high interest rates, mastering credit is a common headache. Many also stumble over licenses, used as they are to less stringent rules and enforcement. And some act with little market research, having come from nations where business information is harder to get or more costly than it is in the United States.

"There's a joke going around: How do you go back to Latin America with a million dollars? Come up with two million and lose the first," says accountant Maria Antonieta Diaz of GBS Group of Weston. "I keep telling people, 'This is a new beginning,'" she says. "It takes time and money to adapt."

With violence in Colombia, political upheaval in Venezuela, and a financial meltdown in Argentina, among other woes, tens of thousands of South Americans have headed to the United States over the past decade. Many are setting up companies in South Florida, considered the U.S. gateway for business with South America.

For many newcomers, one initial hurdle is legal paperwork. Furniture retailer Alan Leiser says it took him longer to open a store in Miami than it did in Buenos Aires, because he needed more government approvals and more detailed contracts. "I understand lawsuits are very common, so I'm doing everything to avoid them," says Mr. Leiser.

So many immigrant entrepreneurs have stumbled that a host of chambers of commerce and nonprofit groups have sprouted to help newcomers adapt. The nonprofit Americas Community Center in Miami and nearby Weston, for example, holds weekly breakfasts where immigrants share their business experiences – both good and bad.

Venezuelan banker Alberto Sanchez-Bernard could have used such help before launching Fort Lauderdale–based Amazing Tours International in 1996. He figured it would be easy to attract U.S. visitors to his family's hotel and other sites in Venezuela, where tourism has been little developed.

But Mr. Sanchez found U.S. customers insisted on quick refunds if a taxi didn't show up or other plans went awry. And recouping cash from Venezuelan service providers turned out to be a colossal frustration – with customer protections far weaker than they are in the States.

"You think it's all the American dream," says Mr. Sanchez. But for those who can't adapt to new U.S. ways, "it can be the American nightmare."


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