News Column

Creating a Stir In Oklahoma

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Rudy Alvarado readily admits that his involvement in the high-tech industry isn't typical of Hispanics in Oklahoma. The recently appointed chairman of the state's chamber of commerce also acknowledges that technology is not the first thing that springs to mind when someone mentions his adopted state.

Oklahoma is known more for agriculture, cattle, and oil and gas production than the high-tech industry, and the state's Hispanic community, which accounts for a mere 4 percent of Oklahoma's population, isn't typically thought of as a hotbed of high-tech entrepreneurial activity.

But Mr. Alvarado hopes to do his part to change both of those realities, first by acting as a role model to other Hispanics and secondly by supporting growth in the state's high-tech industry and letting the rest of the world know that "Oklahoma" and "high-tech" are not mutually exclusive terms.

One way to accomplish both goals is by serving as chairman of the board of directors of The State Chamber Oklahoma's Association of Business and Industry, an organization that in other states would be referred to as the state chamber of commerce.

Mr. Alvarado, who began his one-year term on January 1, is the only Hispanic state chamber chairman in the country and the second ever to lead a state chamber's business and industry efforts, according to a survey conducted by The State Chamber.

Richard "Dick" Rush, president of The State Chamber, says the group's board hoped to send two messages to the world when it selected the 72-year-old Mexican-American high-tech entrepreneur as its new leader.

"We wanted to send a signal that The State Chamber is involved in the new economy of our country and the world," says Mr. Rush, who runs The State Chamber's day-to-day affairs. "It also sends a signal of diversity and unity of cultures and the importance of mainstreaming the Hispanic community within the private sector."

Mr. Rush, who joined The State Chamber in 1986, says Mr. Alvarado's Hispanic heritage was among the many "positive qualities" that led the board to select him as its next chairman. But it was his high-tech pedigree, along with his leadership skills, that were the primary factors behind their decision, Mr. Rush says.

"[He has] a great intellect for the breakthrough technology that our world is about to experience," Mr. Rush says. "I think his vision and his passion are his two most obvious qualities of leadership. To improve and advance human progress, that's his primary motivator."

Mr. Alvarado, a 1954 graduate of Texas A&M University, began his career as an officer in the U.S. Air Force on loan to NASA to work on experimental aircraft. Having graduated with a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering and a minor in electrical engineering, Mr. Alvarado soon joined the corporate world as an engineer, a career track that lasted a mere two weeks.

"The company started sending me out with sales people to explain to people what we were doing for them," recalls Mr. Alvarado, who was born in Laredo, Texas, and grew up in its sister city, Nuevo Laredo, across the border. "I found myself closing the sales, and as a result of that, the next thing I found out was that they were making more than I was making, so I wanted to be a salesman."

Years later Mr. Alvarado moved from employee to owner when he convinced a former employer to grant him a licensing agreement to manufacture electrical distribution products in Costa Rica. He also persuaded investors to put up the money to build the plant, and three years later the company Square D bought out him and his partners.

So began a pattern that would repeat itself several times over the course of Mr. Alvarado's 40-year career. In all, Mr. Alvarado has founded and sold five high-tech firms. In 1990, he purchased Advancia Corp., an information technologies and technical services company that supports federal government clients.

Mr. Alvarado, who bought the company after a friend challenged him to grow a high-tech company in Oklahoma, says the company's success can be attributed to several factors. The first, he says, is the decision to become an 8(a) company and to increase the company's credibility in Washington, D.C., by moving from Lawton, Oklahoma, to the much larger Oklahoma City.

Converting a company into a minority-owned and -operated enterprise can be a way to help it grow quickly, says Mr. Alvarado, who had never before made use of programs designed to help minority entrepreneurs.

The company also acquired $5 million in operating capital through federal research grants, and it bid on contracts that would result in exponential rather than incremental growth. Mr. Alvarado says Advancia did this by targeting large government agencies and companies with contracts worth $5 million or more.

The company also narrowed its focus to the fastest-growing market sectors and on providing services that required intensive knowledge, great expertise, or high-technology know-how. That, he says, limited competition.

Mr. Alvarado says the company also sought to make what he terms an immediate operational impact. "I wanted the head of that agency to know that we solved a very serious problem they had, because then he would recommend us," he says.

The strategy so far has worked. When Mr. Alvarado bought the company, Advancia had one office, 17 employees, and a shrinking number of contracts. Today, the company has 13 offices nationwide, 225 employees, and a growing contract base. The State Chamber hopes to capitalize on precisely that sort of leadership and insight.

"He has what I refer to as over-the-horizon sight," says Greg Main, president of the Oklahoma Technology Commercialization Center, a private nonprofit corporation that helps researchers and entrepreneurs bring technology to the marketplace. "He can see into the future and convince other people of the appropriate direction things ought to go. He's probably one of a handful of pure technology experts that people would regard as real leaders of that sector."

Gary Nelson, president and CEO of Advanced Financial Solutions, a payment systems company, says Mr. Alvarado is one of the few people who understands what technology means to a state like Oklahoma.

"I said to Rudy the second time I met him, 'I've been looking for someone who gets it, and I'm sure glad I met you, because you get it,'" Mr. Nelson says.

Jim Mason, vice-president for technology initiatives for The State Chamber, describes Oklahoma's technology industry as fledgling but quickly growing, especially in the areas of biotechnology, software development, and nanotechnology. The industry, which by some estimates includes more than 900 companies, is concentrated in Oklahoma City and the state's major research universities Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma.

Mr. Mason points out that Mr. Alvarado started the Oklahoma Technology Council, which the chamber later brought under its supervision, and has experience working in both the private and public sectors.

"Rudy has a passion for technology and education, and I think we were looking for somebody who was at a position in his life where he could provide some input statewide as well as some leadership," Mr. Mason says.

That leadership includes serving as a mentor for the state's growing Hispanic population, says Xavier Neira, chairman of the Tulsa Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, in the state's second-largest city.

"He is one of those people who is not shy about sharing his knowledge and his experiences with young people," Mr. Neira says. "He has amassed a large amount of experience in business and community involvement, and he says he wants to share that with as many people as he can to make sure that experience and knowledge don't go to waste after his demise."

Mr. Neira, who until recently also served as acting president for the chamber, says the Hispanic population in Oklahoma is concentrated in Oklahoma City, where it accounts for approximately 10 percent of the city's population.

Although the Hispanic population's numbers are still relatively small, the Census Bureau says Hispanics are the fastest-growing segment of the state's population, growing 52 percent from 1990 to 2000.

Mr. Rush says the Hispanic community will continue to grow, spurred on, in part, by the North American Free Trade Agreement. Oklahoma City is on the major corridor for NAFTA trade Interstate 35 that extends from Mexico to Canada.

Mr. Neira says Mr. Alvarado lent his support to the state's Senate Bill 596, which enables students who complete high school in Oklahoma to attend college at a state university at in-state tuition rates regardless of their legal residency status.

"We had a lot of help from Mr. Alvarado, with his contacts at the state chamber and a lot of other organizations," Mr. Neira says.

Mr. Alvarado also supported amendments to the constitution that did away with wording that prohibited researchers, students, and faculty members at state universities from sharing in profits resulting from the transferral of technological discoveries from the laboratory to the marketplace.

He also supported the state's new right-to-work law that prohibits anyone from being forced to join a union. Mr. Alvarado says he strongly believes it promotes freedom and is not an anti-union measure.

"We wanted to send a message both internally in the state and externally that we as a society care about how we treat businesses in Oklahoma," he says.

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