News Column

A Family Affair

June 2004, HISPANIC BUSINESS Magazine

Robert Macias

Victor Puente and his wife, Virginia, in 1948.
Victor Puente and his wife, Virginia, in 1948.

To mark the magazine's 25th year, we found three families who faced the challenges of accessing capital, buying a home, building a business, and educating their children families that form the bedrock of the Hispanic middle class. Their stories share common themes struggle, sacrifice, sheer stubbornness that may seem familiar to everyone because, after all, it is the story of America.

Buddy Puente still remembers the excitement he felt when his father showed him the 1985 edition of the Hispanic Business 500. It was the first year their company, Southwest Office Systems, made the list. "I immediately looked to see who else in Fort Worth was on the list," says Buddy, "then in Texas, and then other dealerships like ours. I was very proud."

Buddy Puente in 1989
Buddy Puente at Southwest Office Systems' headquarters in 1989.

Practically speaking, he says, the listing has helped persuade prospective clients to sign on the dotted line.

"When they saw our ranking, it gave us credibility."

And even now the magazine continues to be a source of inspiration. "I believe our business is fairly successful, but reading some of your articles makes me think we can push ourselves further," says Buddy.

Buddy's father, Victor, knows a lot about pushing he had to push and fight his way up from modest beginnings. Born in Breckenridge, Texas, in 1926, Victor was raised in a house with no electricity and no indoor toilet facilities the best he could hope for was simple survival, hourly work as a farmhand or maybe as an oilfield laborer. But no one ever told him that. His parents, immigrants from Mexico, showered him with love and attention and made him believe he could do anything.

As it turns out, they were right. Today, at 77, Victor looks back with satisfaction at a life spent building a $32 million, Fort Worth-based group of companies that continues to flourish under the leadership of his three children.

When Victor dropped out of high school after ninth grade, few would have predicted that he would one day be a multimillionaire. His former football coach and a Sunday school teacher convinced him that he needed some job skills, and encouraged him to enroll in a vocational school. "At that school, I could have taken shoemaking, watch repair, or typewriter repair," he says. He had previously taken a typing class and had developed a knack for troubleshooting other students' machines. So typewriter repair seemed a logical choice.

Eventually, Victor got a job as a typewriter repairman for Underwood. Independent to a fault, he refused to follow the coat-and-tie dress code. On most days, he says, he wore "jeans and moccasins," and often stumbled into work with at least one black eye he liked to box in his spare time. Management grew weary of his defiant ways after a while, and they fired him.

Several months later, Olivetti bought out Underwood, and Victor decided to re-apply. He got the job and, this time, he stuck around quite a while longer: 21 years. He credits the stabilizing influence of his wife, Virginia. "She's been a big part of my success," Victor says.

Over the years at Olivetti, he noticed that sales and service often worked at cross-purposes. Better coordination between the two was the basic premise of his new company, Southwest Office Systems (SOS), founded in 1964.

Before long, his service-oriented sales pitch landed him four of his former employer's largest clients. "Without an education, I never did plan. I just worked out of my hip pocket," he says. In its sixth year, SOS achieved its first milestone, annual revenue of $1 million.

By 1978, Victor was named Small Business Person of the Year by the Small Business Administration. And as Hispanic Business came on the scene in 1979, Victor was immersed in many of the issues the magazine covered. His company received an SBA loan around the same time, launching a new phase of growth. As Victor's business grew, so did his family. He was working longer hours, but he made time for his two sons, Buddy and Vince, by bringing them to work. Vince, now 50, remembers that when he was 12 he would go with his father to the shop on Saturdays. "He was giving me time," Vince says. "I was learning indirectly about the business, and yet he was still working. What we saw exhibited was number one concern for our family, but also an incredible work ethic."

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