After graduating from St. John’s in 1984, Mr. Fernandez worked for Mr. Kemp part-time while attending the University of Maryland. College buddy Josh Young recalls that he stuck out from other students because he was the only one who wore jackets and ties to class (so he could report to Capitol Hill immediately after school). “He was different from other kids,” says Mr. Young, now a writer for George magazine. “He was very focused. He had a time for everything – a time for work, a time for class, a time for going out, and a time for family.”
On Capitol Hill, Mr. Fernandez worked on tax legislation and issues involving Central America. He programmed spreadsheets and ran programs to simulate the impact of various tax plans on different income groups. Eventually, he helped write speeches for Mr. Kemp.
In 1988, Mr. Kemp left the House of Representatives, and so did Mr. Fernandez. With an economics degree from the University of Maryland, he landed a job as a marketing manager for a systems integration firm in Bethesda, Maryland, that handled government contracts. But he yearned to run his own business.
At about that time, Mr. Fernandez learned that a childhood friend had a rapidly spreading cancer. He spent days at his buddy’s bedside before he died in 1989. “That hit Raul hard,” says long-time friend Steve Vermillion, chief of staff for Florida Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart. “Raul saw it as an example of how life can be snatched away, and if you have a dream you should go for it.”
So he did just that. In 1991, Mr. Fernandez launched his own systems integration company with $40,000 in savings and two employees. He named the startup Proxima, for the Spanish translation of Next Inc., a firm run at the time by Apple founder Steve Jobs. In 1992, Mr. Fernandez changed his company’s name to Proxicom and shifted its focus to Internet consulting, specifically the design and implementation of Web sites. Business exploded. By 1994, Proxicom landed its first big clients, AOL and MCI, and was on its way.
The company hit trouble early, owing to splits within the management ranks. “It became clear that we had some people who no longer shared my vision,” admits Mr. Fernandez. “I eventually let them go, but I let other people down by letting the situation linger.” He vows never to make the same mistake again. He offers the following advice to young entrepreneurs: Hire people who are committed to your values.
Mr. Fernandez’s friends say riches and publicity haven’t swelled his head a bit. They describe him as the same affable and generous person as always. He has donated $1 million to St. John’s for a new technology building. And although he jets around the world and puts in workaholic’s hours, friends say he still finds time for them. “He showed up at my kid’s birthday party recently and surprised me with a guayabera shirt after I admired one that he was wearing a few weeks earlier,” says Mr. Young. For his bachelor party, Mr. Fernandez loaded Mr. Young, Mr. Vermillion, and six other buddies into a jet and whisked them off to Cancun for a few days of fun.
Loyalty ranks as one of Mr. Fernandez’s strongest traits, friends say. He often cites Mr. Kemp, who now sits on Proxicom’s board, as his role model. The entrepreneur was basically apolitical before working for the congressman, he says. “He was a guy who judged you by the quality of your ideas and thoughts, no matter your background or age. That was very empowering. That’s why I became a Jack Kemp Republican,” says Mr. Fernandez.
“I’ve sometimes stepped back and wondered if this is my party anymore, because of the rhetoric coming from some House leaders. I’ve never voted for a Democrat, although I have financially supported some. But I wouldn’t rule out voting for a Democrat, because I focus on individuals and issues.”
As for Proxicom, his five-year plan envisions a billion-dollar revenue producer with worldwide operations that is a leader in the wireless Web revolution now underway. Proxicom also is on the lookout for possible acquisitions, he acknowledges.
Unlike many Internet millionaires, Mr. Fernandez intends to stick with his startup-turned-giant over the long haul. “One of the things wrong with our industry is that we have a whole bunch of people who build [companies], flip them [to new managers], and leave. That’s not me. I’m going to be here a long time,” he says.
1999 revenues: $82.7 million
1999 profits: $4 million
Stock symbol: PXCM (Nasdaq)
Stock price: $22 (at press time)
52-week high: $67.50
52-week low: $18.58
Market capitalization: $1.2 billion
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