News Column

A Knack for Entrepreneurship

January/February 2008, HISPANIC BUSINESS Magazine

Hildy Medina

This year's EOY Award winner Carlos Garcia (left) and 2006 EOY Award winner Enrique Tessada.
This year's EOY Award winner Carlos Garcia (left) and 2006 EOY Award winner Enrique Tessada.

Arlos Antonio Garcia, CEO of KIRA and winner of the 2007 EOY award, has built a thriving and successful company around what he calls an "unglamorous" business.

It's a humble description for a multimillion dollar company that has shown fantastic growth in the last decade and earned numerous accolades, including Hispanic Business magazine's 2007 Heavy Industry award. Headquartered in Miami, Florida, KIRA is a military-facility construction and maintenance firm whose services range from electrical services to landscaping.

Mr. Garcia founded KIRA in 1987 with $2,000. To save on rent, he moved in with his sister, who lived 40 miles from his Miami office. Still in need of capital, he turned to banks but was turned down by 23 financial institutions.

"Lack of capital was a huge problem," Mr. Garcia recalls. "I had clients in the first month. The hardest part was when you got bigger and had to meet a payroll of a hundred people."

Mr. Garcia borrowed when he could and funneled the profits back into the company.

"I think I moved nine times in 10 years," he says. "I kept moving into ugly houses and then flipping them. I'd plow all the money back into the business."

His tenacity paid off. Twenty years later, KIRA has grown into a multimillion dollar company with nearly 1,000 employees and work projects that include U.S. Navy, Air Force, and Army bases around the world. KIRA recently ranked 104th on the Hispanic Business 500, with revenues of $60 million in 2006.

Mr. Garcia's experience in navigating complex government procurements has given KIRA a unique competitive advantage. Although KIRA could expand into other markets, Mr. Garcia chose to specialize in facility maintenance and support services. By focusing on one industry, KIRA is able to match its extensive experience with any unforeseen challenges.

One of those challenges is the current war in Iraq. The skyrocketing cost of the war has required the military to direct funds away from maintenance projects and put them into frontline operations. In 2006, a number of KIRA's military clients asked the company to look at delivering services at reduced prices. By using an internal cost accounting system coupled with an operational process management system, KIRA was able to achieve savings ranging from 10 to 27 percent. The enterprise has since patented these innovations and has employed them throughout the company.

As a result, KIRA increased the number of military locations it serves. In July, the U.S. Air Force awarded KIRA and its joint venture partner, CH2M Hill, a $170 million contract to maintain the U.S. Air Force Academy for seven years.

While the maintenance industry is low-tech, Mr. Garcia goes the extra mile to ensure quality and efficiency for his customers. KIRA's field employees are all given PDAs to scan bar codes at facility sites to better track maintenance projects. The extra attention to detail hasn't gone unnoticed. KIRA continues to win over 90 percent of the jobs they bid.

Asked how he, a Columbia University MBA, found himself heading a military-facilities maintenance company, Mr. Garcia said even as a child he had a love of construction. "In my personal life I've done many house restorations" says Mr. Garcia.

Fluent in three languages and an avid runner, Mr. Garcia calls Boulder, Colorado home and commutes to Miami several times a month.

Born in Havana, Cuba in 1959, his family emigrated to the United States a year later. Mr. Garcia's great-great-great grandfather's face appears on the Cuban $100 bill. The youngest of three children, Mr. Garcia grew up in Miami.

Mr. Garcia's entrepreneurial ambitions began early. After graduating from Columbia at the age of 23, he went to work for a Japanese trading company and then quit after one year.

He opened a small but lucrative consulting business that helped U.S. businesses set up shop in Central America.

It was 1985, a time of tremendous civil unrest in countries like El Salvador and Guatemala. Mr. Garcia would often hire a security detail to drive visitors through dangerous neighborhoods in search of potential factory locations. His hotel rooms, Mr. Garcia says, were often pocked with bullet holes.

"It was interesting," he recalls. "I thought it was way better than sitting behind a desk."

It was also during this time that Mr. Garcia began doing government contract work for the United States. Unlike his private clients, who would not allow Mr. Garcia to hire outside consultants to do the work he was too busy to do, the government didn't have those types of restrictions.

"It was the kind of client you can build a company around," Mr. Garcia says.

Despite his success, Mr. Garcia is not one to rest on his laurels. He remembers how tough it was to get capital. He decided to do something about it. In 2006, Mr. Garcia started funding subcontractors, all owned by disabled veterans or economically disadvantaged individuals, that provide services in KIRA's industries.

To date, he has funded 11 Department of Defense contractors and has plans to form a venture capital unit later this year. In addition to financial backing, Mr. Garcia also provides job leads and advises the companies on GSA policies and procedures, safety plans, and human resource policies.

"The philosophy of the venture capital support is that the owners should be out marketing their business and focused on growing their business," says Constance O'Brien, senior vice-president at KIRA. "[They] shouldn't be overwhelmed by the day-to-day operations involved in maintaining the administrative operations."

So why is Mr. Garcia so passionate about entrepreneurship 20 years later?

"It's in my DNA," he says. "I'm always amazed at how many different ways there are to make money. I think it's the best entrepreneurial environment we've ever had in this country. Every morning when I get up, if I have two cents to rub together, I wonder if I have enough to start another company because I love it."

Source: HISPANIC BUSINESS Magazine and, Copyright (c) 2007 All Rights Reserved.

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