News Column

Top Entrepreneurs Share Secrets of Success

Nov 20 2011 10:00PM

Nancy Dahlberg

Group of entrepreneurs posing

Global Entrepreneurship Week activities provided students and business people the opportunity to rub elbows with some of South Florida's entrepreneurial elite, and the panel discussion that kicked off St. Thomas University's events last week was no exception.

The standing room only crowd heard Miguel "Mike" Fernandez, chairman of MBF Healthcare Partners; Cesar Alvarez, executive chairman of Greenberg Traurig; Jorge Mas, chairman of MasTec; Kenneth Rader, co-founder of The Cereal Bowl; and Tifphanie Tucker, president of Mega Construction Team share how they got started from humble beginnings and their challenges along the way.

"Luck is overstated, way overstated," said Fernandez, who once had a near-bankruptcy but has since built and sold 11 companies. "A lot of what we credit to luck really isn't luck at all. It's seeing the opportunity, seizing that opportunity and then becoming responsible for that opportunity."

Mas, who got started in the family business digging ditches, said a key challenge is trying to maintain an entrepreneurial edge in a company of 12,500 employees. One way he did that was giving everyone company stock in the '90s, sending a message of ownership in the company's success, he said. "The day our business gets static, the day we lose our entrepreneurial edge ... The day we aren't hungry is the day we fail."

Tucker's message: Knock on a lot of doors, don't give up and build a great team around you. "I wanted to own a construction company. I wanted to be with the big boys. But I wanted to help first time homebuyers, single moms and single dads."

Alvarez's advice: "In today's world, whether you like it or not, you are going to be an entrepreneur, the question is whether you are going to be a good one or a bad one. Whether you own a company or work for someone else, the key is to never have an employee mentality, always have an ownership mentality. Invest in yourself."

Last week's dozens of free Global Entrepreneurship Week activities, held at the University of Miami, St. Thomas, Miami Dade College and Florida Atlantic University, included a fashion entrepreneurs event, an import-export panel discussion, an event focused on the film and entertainment industry, an elevator pitch contest and a celebration of a new initiative, Startup Florida, launching in the tri-county area.

At UM, Jorge Plasencia of Republica moderated a panel of Alvarez, who grew Greenberg Traurig into a worldwide firm with more than 1,800 lawyers, Frank Unanue, president of Goya Foods of Florida, and Javier Herran, marketing director of Sedano's, on building a brand in the Hispanic marketplace.

"My grandfather always believed in advertising ... and we've never stopped," said Unanue, of the 75-year-old family business. "In economies like this, a lot of companies cut down on their advertising budgets. We've actually increased it."

That also means more marketing to the second- and third-generation Hispanics. For instance, Goya decided to sponsor the the South Beach Wine & Food Festival, Plasencia said, and in the last three years, Sedano's has increased the 18-34 demographic by 37 percent without losing its base.

Sedano's, which started with one store in 1962, now has 34. For most of those years, Herran explained, Sedano's specifically targeted an older demographic.

"Our generation, the second generation, came in and said how do we market to ourselves?" Herran said. "We now have a mainstream look and feel to our store ... still with a Hispanic flair. We rebranded, restructured and restrategized everything."

Both Unanue and Herran admitted that getting their family businesses to embrace social media wasn't easy, but they have seen success already, for example with a Sedano's campaign involving a telenovela star.

For successful entrepreneurs, a growing family often provides the impetus to get a business up and running. That was one of the takeaways from back-to-back panels at UM with the leaders of nine high-growth Florida companies on the Inc. 500 list. The majority of the founders noted they'd started their businesses as they'd just had children -- or were about to do so.

About half had not graduated from college and had no formal business plans in the early stages. Most started their companies with limited capital from their savings or family; all grew their firms during the economic downturn.

Source: (c)2011 The Miami Herald

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