When Gilbert Vasquez launched his certified public accounting firm 40 years ago at age 30, it was a bold move.
Back then, large accounting firms wouldn't hire people with ethnic surnames, he said. Not even the highest-performing student in Vasquez's graduating class -- a Japanese man -- could get hired by a large firm after college.
"If you were Latino, Asian, African American, the answer was 'no,'" Vasquez told HispanicBusiness.com.
So what made him think a young Hispanic man from Los Angeles could start his own firm?
"I had the ability to talk to people," he said.
And talk to people he did. Vasquez began by asking a friend -- his life insurance broker -- for a $2,500 loan. With that, he rented a tiny office in East Los Angeles, where he toiled away by himself for 80 hours a week.
Fast forward to today. Vasquez & Company -- which provides audits, tax preparations, litigation support and other accounting services for organizations such as non-profits, municipalities and school districts -- employs 50 people. It is the oldest and largest Hispanic-owned accounting firm in California.
Tonight, the company is celebrating both its 40th anniversary and Vasquez's 70th birthday with a private reception at the City Club in Los Angeles.
Through the decades, Vasquez & Co. has employed about 1,000 people, and landed major clients such as the county of Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Unified School District, the city of Norwalk, Calif., and AltaMed Health Services.
Having the audacity to start his own firm hasn't been Vasquez's only bold move. Over the course of his career, he has proven unafraid to advocate for minority accountants -- even when doing so meant being branded a "renegade" or "radical" by powerful peers.
Speaking by phone on Monday, Vasquez attributed much of his success to good old-fashioned hard work.
"I mean, I was working 80 hours a week," he said of his early days. "It took that kind of effort to get things off the ground. If you want to win, you have to get up early."
In Vasquez's view, the prejudices of the large accounting firms began to thaw somewhere around 1965 -- after the Watts Riots in Los Angeles, in which 34 people died in a series of riots fueled by racial tension between whites and blacks.
But even then, he said, the change amounted to a slow "trickle."
The 1970s witnessed its own brand of discrimination. By that time, Vasquez was established, and made a point to speak up for minority accountants.
In the late 1970s, for instance, when Vasquez was president of the California Board of Accountancy, a group of certified accountants from the Philippines sued the state board for denying them waivers to practice in the state. The state board routinely granted such waivers to accountants from the British Commonwealth, who were white, despite how their standards for licensure were lower than those for accountants in the Philippines.
Before the case went to trial, Vasquez voted to grant them waivers. His move drew rebukes from his fellow members of the state board -- all of them white. The California Society of Certified Public Accountants labeled him a radical. In time, though, Vasquez was vindicated: The accountants from the Philippines won the case.
And then there was the organization he founded -- the Association of Latino Professionals in Finance and Accounting, which became a national organization in 1972. The move so annoyed the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants that it publicly referred to the new organization as a "renegade" and an "outlaw."
But in 1973, after many rejections, Vasquez met face-to-face with the president of AICPA, Wally Olson. Once again, Vasquez put his social skills to use: the next year, Olson was a keynote speaker at the new organization's annual convention.
Today, he said, the industry is much more diverse, but there is still a ways to go.
"When you look at the upper-level positions, there are improvements," he said, "but still very, very small. The opportunity is not that great."
Vasquez himself experienced the sting of discrimination, but he never let that get in the way of success.
One such incident occurred while he was attending Roosevelt High School in the Los Angeles Unified School District -- which would later become a client of his.
Vasquez, an 11th grader, was sitting in a class that was about to take a major aptitude test. He normally sat right behind the best student in the class, but on this day some students sitting near him were goofing off, so the teacher asked Vasquez to take a seat at the front of the room. Vasquez complied.
Vasquez says he was never a good student, but only because he was more enamored with sports and girls than homework. Secretly, he enjoyed school -- especially math.
So when the aptitude test landed on his desk, he found himself thoroughly engaged. The results came as a shock to his teacher: the top two grades in the class went to the best student in the class, and, less predictably, Vasquez.
"I was accused of cheating," he said. "They were going to kick me out of school."
Convinced that Vasquez must have copied the exam of the stellar student he sat near, the teacher took Vasquez to the vice-principal's office. But when Vasquez reminded her that he'd been moved to the front of the room, she backed down.
"She never said anything to me -- never apologized," he said. "But after that, I could see she was looking at me differently."
The classroom experience gave Vasquez the confidence to apply for college. He enrolled at California State University, Los Angeles, where he earned his Bachelor's of Science in business administration.
"In one semester I was getting A's," he said. "I took accounting and I liked it. So I immediately knew I wanted to be an accountant."
Early in his career, Vasquez was introduced to the non-profit sector in the strangest of ways.
One day, while he was working away in his little office, the door flung open, revealing a man the size of an NFL linebacker wearing a leather coat and hair down to his shoulders.
"I've been looking for you," he intoned.
Vasquez was startled, but he played it cool.
"Fortunately," Vasquez remembers, "I was able to think quickly on my feet. I said, 'Congratulations. Here I am.'"
It turned out the brute was an attorney, as well as the treasurer of a non-profit organization called the East Los Angeles Health Taskforce. He'd been looking everywhere for a Hispanic CPA for the organization, and finally found one in Vasquez.
It was the start of a 25-year relationship with the Taskforce, and opened the door for Vasquez to work with other non-profit organizations.
Today, his non-profit clients include AltaMed Health Services and the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, both of which bring in some $150 million in annual revenues. He also conducts annual audits for more than 75 non-profit organizations.
Vasquez's deep exposure to the non-profit world has enabled him to serve it in other ways.
Through the years, Vasquez has sat on the board of 22 non-profit organizations, not to mention nine private corporations such as his own. They include the National Association of Latino Elected & Appointed Officials (NALEO), National Council of La Raza, Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the 1984 Olympic Organizing Committee.
Like countless businesses across the country, Vasquez & Company has been hit by the economy.
"1991 was kind of bad, but this is by far the worst," he said. "I think it's because so many people had so much debt. ... It's been a tough year. We'll be lucky to break even."
Still, the company has yet to lay off or furlough any employees.
To this day, Vasquez says he owes much of his success to his parents. His father worked as an upholsterer for 31 years for Kroehler Manufacturing.
"He was never absent -- and was only late one time."
His mother was a stay-at-home mom who always kept the house in tip-top shape.
At her eulogy, he referred to her as "the best mother in the world."
At his father's eulogy, he referred to him as "the best father in the world."
"They lived in a home, debt-free -- no debt on the family car, no credit cards," he remembers. "They were two wonderful people who set a good example."
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