News Column

The "IT" Factor

November 2006, HISPANIC BUSINESS Magazine

Keith Rosenblum

Abba's CEO Andrew Baca
Abba's CEO Andrew Baca

People in Belen, N.M., population 6,000, routinely asked Leroy and Sylvia Baca how their two children were doing, a polite and legitimate inquiry for small-town America discourse. What made the question odd, however, was that the Bacas had three children.

"They'd ask my parents about my younger brother, Paul, and my older sister, Rhona," Andrew Baca recalls, "and that was all. They didn't notice me – or, I suspect, know if I existed."

Mr. Baca, 44, was not flamboyant as a youth and maintains that non-presence today, he insists. But some three decades after his inconspicuous childhood, Mr. Baca and his company, Abba Technologies Inc., are a powerful and anything-but-invisible symbol of New Mexico's home-grown information technology industry.

Abba, based in Albuquerque with offices throughout the intermountain West, now employs more than 50 and bills just under $50 million a year. The company was just named the 2006 National Minority Supplier/Distributor Firm of the Year by the U.S. Department of Commerce. At the same time, Mr. Baca received the 2006 Male Minority Entrepreneur of the Year award. The awards recognize personal and professional initiative, innovation, enterprise, and creation of wealth.

The company (www.abbatech.com) does business with the gamut of the New Mexico economy, from start-ups in need of modest data back-up systems to a the super-computing needs of Los Alamos National Laboratories. In consecutive sentences, Mr. Baca will preach how Abba audited phone-use patterns to save a small firm money on its phone lines and how "interconnectivity" technology enabled Abba to win a prestigious federal contract.

It is precisely that versatility that has propelled Abba to the front ranks. "If I go to IBM, or Dell, and say I have $50,000 for a parallel computer that fits into my department, they can't or won't be able to pay attention," says Steven Castillo, dean of engineering at New Mexico State University, Las Cruces. "Abba seems to be able to put together lots of pieces and parts to meet every budget. They are a boutique service – yet they find a way to deal with clients' cost models."

As companies grow, they invariably lose nimbleness, Mr. Castillo says. But Abba, even as it hires, "seems to retain most of it."

John Fitter, deputy chief information officer for New Mexico's General Services Department, says Abba fills a crucial role in the public and private sectors.

"Buying a complex machine is one thing and having the resources available to install the machine, configure it, and make it run within your company environment is quite another," he says. "These guys know how to do things right today – and over the long term."

Adds Mr. Fitter: "When you are on the hook to make sure that payroll for 20,000 (employees) gets out on time, you have no idea of the potential grief. These guys are 'integrators.' They take new equipment, place it in different company environments, and make everything work."

It is crucial to the General Services Department that its IT support be available around the clock and – if necessary – on-site visits be performed within hours. "What is great about Abba," says Mr. Fitter, sounding almost like a stalker, "is they're local. They're right here. We know their numbers. In fact, we know where they live."

Abba's history predates Mr. Baca. Former employees of Digital and IBM established the company in 1993. Its president, Ching-Ching Ganley, had a staff of seven and, by 1999, had reached a point where, Mr. Baca recalled, she "did not want to grow the company" and was looking to retire outside of New Mexico.

Mr. Baca, who had spent 12 years with IBM in San Jose and Denver, decided in 1997 that it was time to return to New Mexico, where he and his wife, Celina, wanted to start a family. He started work with Abba and helped expand the company's technology and services. In 2001, he led a buyout in which 17 of the 20 employees pooled their money, along with an SBA guaranteed bank loan and a note back to the founder.

In late 2005, Mr. Baca, who owns the majority of the stock, implemented a 10-year stock option plan and in 2006 gave options to all workers who had joined the company since 2001. Employees must sign a purchase agreement and pay for the stock. Some options may be exercised immediately. Since the stock appreciated rapidly after 2001, Mr. Baca split it in order to make it more accessible to employees.

"As new employees join," he says, "I provide them with options to allow them to participate in ownership after a year of employment. My belief is that everyone should feel that he or she is an owner of the company."

Abba, which has doubled its staff since the buyout, now has offices in Los Alamos, N.M., Colorado Springs, Colo., Denver, and Phoenix. Shareholders – current and former employees, that is – have outgrown Abba's Albuquerque offices and, when they hold their annual meeting next month, will have to gather off-site for the first time.
Abba's success as a minority-owned company has spawned its culture of corporate beneficence.

The company's 8(a) status ended last year but it now informally helps out many minority-owned companies and maintains a formal mentor/protιgι program with Digital Migration LLC, a seven-year-old company. Digital Migration was founded by Richard Luarkie, a member of the Laguna Pueblo Nation who grew up on the reservation some 45 minutes from Albuquerque.

Mr. Luarkie, whose company is just down the block from Abba, says Mr. Baca "is a humble, giving man who is anxious to see others succeed the way he has." A visitor to Abba "wouldn't have the slightest idea that the guy running around the office doing chores is the CEO. He doesn't know how to be detached or above anyone else."

Anna Muller, whose Neda Business Consultants Inc. has helped hundreds of minority firms learn how to navigate government procurement practices since 1970, echoed that perception. "Andrew does what he tells a customer that he's going to do," she says. "It's so simple and yet so profound. He gives back to the community and never engages in any kind of exultation."

In addition to pro bono technical and administrative assistance, Abba also funds scholarships at New Mexico State University and Los Alamos National Laboratory Foundation.

Abba's steady growth comes from "word of mouth" more than any strategy. "We are just learning about how to market ourselves now," Mr. Baca says.

Abba's customers generally have infrastructure and IT departments already in place. "They have established staffs, but they're generally overworked and are in need of specific help on a project-by-project basis," Mr. Baca says. "They have a whole bunch of info and data they need backed up every night and to know it's secure. That's where we come in."

In the view of Louise Gomez, an account representative and one of the 17 employees involved in the 2001 buyout, the company does well because it doesn't look carefully at the competition.

"Andrew doesn't think about what we can do better than the competition; he thinks about what we should do right in the first place," says Gomez, also a New Mexico native. "We've all learned that customers will keep coming back even if our price is higher."

Not thinking about the competition may have been the key to what, so far, has been its procurement trophy – a $7 million Department of Energy contract with Los Alamos to build a system for simulating nuclear tests. Once functional, the super computer, known as an Infini band visualization cluster, allows scientists to "view" nuclear tests in a theater or "visualization cave" setting.

Abba, ignoring advice that it was better situated to be a project subcontractor, went head-to-head against multinational firms (including Dell and IBM) and won the job.

"We were organized and had already built 'baby relationships' with Los Alamos, including selling them a prototype," Mr. Baca recalls. "So when the bigger project came along – and they said it might be too big for us – we didn't get discouraged. We knew about a brand new 'interconnectivity' (computer linkage) that no one else did." Los Alamos told bidders that it did not merely want the software and hardware, but it wanted assurances of minimum performance levels. They grilled Abba at what Mr. Baca described as "oral boards."

"We thought Dell would win since they usually have lower costs, but they didn't have the local expertise," Mr. Baca says. "The key was our familiarity with the technology."

Mr. Baca sees selling IT services to a New Mexico chili company or a prestigious Department of Energy facility as the continuity of a family tradition – enterprise.

That tradition began in the late 1600s when his family came from Cabeza de Vaca, Spain, and received a land grant from the Spanish crown.

The Baca tradition continues today, both inside and outside of Belen. Family is still involved in commerce in Belen, but they have also moved into areas familiar to Andrew. Two first-cousins, Bobby and Danny Sachs, head Team Specialty Products Inc., an IT provider that has won numerous awards and joins Abba on the Flying 40, a list of the top-movers in Albuquerque business.

Mr. Baca attributes his success at Abba to treating employees and customers as his grandfather and father did with a service station and then an auto dealership. "My grandfather said, 'Take care of your employees and your customers, and they will take care of you.' He was right," Mr. Baca says. "My father taught me, through example, to just do the right thing at all times and, in the end, you will succeed."

For all the positive role models in his life, Mr. Baca also attributes part of his achievement to one key naysayer – a Belen high school counselor who told him that he didn't have a future beyond helping his parents.

"I'm stubborn and this gets me in trouble a lot in life," Mr. Baca says, "but in this case, it was different. He was the trigger, or tipping point, and he made me realize that it is up to me to make a go of things. I'm my only obstacle. I don't think that was his intention, but I'm grateful to him anyway."



Source: HISPANIC BUSINESS Magazine and Hispanicbusiness.com, Copyright (c) 2006 All Rights Reserved.


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