MARKETPLACE: LinkAmerica CEO Andrés Ruzo Doesn't Know How To Quit
Marketplace is a new Latin Post feature profile series about Latino entrepreneurs who have successfully turned their ideas into thriving enterprises. From unsung startups to prominent businesses, we spotlight the dynamic men and women who founded them.
They say part of success is just showing up, but aspiring entrepreneurs could learn a different lesson from the example of CEO of LinkAmerica, and self-described "serial entrepreneur," Andrés Ruzo.
The lesson? The biggest part of success is not giving up.
Ruzo is the founder and CEO of LinkAmerica, an international, warehouse logistics, IT services and solutions company based in Texas with revenues projected to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars -- and the distinction of being one of the fastest-growing private companies in the U.S.
In 2012, HispanicBusiness awarded it the No. 1 spot on its Fastest-Growing 100 list. But for Ruzo, a Latino immigrant and self-made entrepreneur, business hasn't always been booming.
In fact, the road to success for him was long and full of unexpected ups and downs, booms and busts, new starts, disappointments, reinventions and a lot of hard work.
Jack-of-All-Trades and "Serial Entrepreneur"
Born in Lima, Peru in the early 1960's and growing up during a tumultuous period political and economic uncertainty, Ruzo came to the U.S. in 1980 to study engineering at Texas A&M. He was intent on staying in the U.S. and making it after graduation.
He quickly found that staying in the country after college would require an openness to stretching himself beyond his chosen field of study.
"I'm an industrial engineer by trade. ... But I have done everything," Ruzo told Latin Post in conversation. "You name it -- from being a secretary to shipping to sales to being a trader to marketing."
That's not to say his degree wasn't useful. Ruzo said skills from his engineering background were applicable in many situations, from critical thinking to figuring out systems and how to improve them, to basic problem solving.
"Part of being an industrial engineer is that you're a jack of all trades."
But for Ruzo as a young entrepreneur with few resources, self-reliance was also key.
"When you have no people, that's what you need to do," said Ruzo, who, by Fortune Magazine's count, attempted a total of 17 start-ups before finding success in the 1990s with his ultimate venture, LinkAmerica.
Ruzo seemingly did do everything. After college, he got a short-term visa for practical training, which precluded him from working at conventional jobs. So, he sold his car and bought a partnership in Sabwor International, an oil exploration startup.
A $50 per week paycheck meant being awarded an H-1B visa and thus a pathway to stay in the U.S. for work. But Sabwor failed after a couple of years, so Ruzo became a partner in a Latin American food import startup and later began his own trading startup. Meanwhile, Ruzo got a certification and worked as a real estate agent for a stint, among other jobs, many of which he created for himself.
"I'm a serial entrepreneur by nature," Ruzo said. "I'm not going to work for somebody" -- which sums up his professional creed since the beginning of his entrepreneurial journey.
LinkAmerica: From Boom to (Almost) Bust
In 1994, Ruzo founded LinkAmerica, which would become his life's work.
LinkAmerica began as basically a telecommunications technology resale company, specializing in refurbishing network hardware purchased from large telecommunications firms and reselling it to small phone companies.
With the fast pace of technological change in the 90s and large profit margins, business was good.
"I characterize the first seven years of business from 1994 to 2001 was my 'fat cows,'" Ruzo said, referencing the biblical proverb. Within a few short years of its founding, LinkAmerica was making millions.
But things were about to change drastically after one of his biggest investments happened to coincide with a monumental downshift in the economy. In other words, the lean years were on the way.
"In 2001, I bought a company from Siemens," Ruzo said, "which had [telecommunications] switches and channel banks and cabinets," emphasizing the size of the investment. "So I buy all the intellectual property and all the manufacturing rights with all the inventory.
"Then the market takes a dive."
That dive was the dot-com bust, and with 9/11 and the shaky economics of the early 2000s following shortly behind, Ruzo's investment and a shrinking market began dragging the company down.
During the following years, LinkAmerica eventually went from having 100 people on the payroll to five. By 2007, finances were stretched so thin Ruzo took a six-month pay break to keep his struggling company running and out of bankruptcy.
Reinventing LinkAmerica for the 21st Century
Bad luck and an economic downturn may have put LinkAmerica in trouble, but paying attention to where technology was going at the time helped Ruzo find a way to reinvent and save his company.
"Things start to change, and it was really complicated, that change." Most of his clients were going bankrupt or being acquired, as the burgeoning Internet began to make more and more 1990s-era physical telecommunications systems obsolete.
And with manufacturing moving overseas to China and other countries, Ruzo sold the entire lot of his Siemens purchase to a telecom engineering company called CDTI. Meanwhile (around the time the "Web 2.0" was emerging) Ruzo saw growing potential in the nonphysical side of technology -- product management, services and support.
So Ruzo decided to rebuild LinkAmerica into a full-service company for the telecommunications industry, and when he showed CTDI his new business plan, the company invested $1 million in cash plus more in credit in LinkAmerica in 2008.
"I went from manufacturing and a lot of physical stuff to services. Now we're a 100 percent service company. We manufacture nothing," Ruzo said.
The rebirth worked. Within two years, LinkAmerica was back, building a new client base around services, and ready for expansion into the 21st century software, services and support market.
The New Mantra: Connecting and Serving
LinkAmerica now works in several non-hardware IT domains, including providing support for first responder radio networks, warehouse management solutions and network engineering, and managing service and software solutions for big telecoms.
The future in the cloud -- beyond hardware -- is bright, according to Ruzo, whose company has grown from those lean years into making over $200 million annually.
"Look at the value of the companies that are non-atomic," Ruzo said, referring to some of the tech giants of today that deal entirely in software, services and innovation. "Look at Facebook -- humongous -- Twitter, Instagram ... companies that have really no physical assets, but are valued at billions of dollars.
"LinkAmerica had to transform. That's why I sold my assets on manufacturing and devoted 100 percent to services--because I was following the money," he continued.
That money is in services, according to Ruzo, and not so much in the physical in part because the hardware side is already so developed. The majority of the valuable work still needed to be done -- the big problems and systemic inefficiencies just waiting for an entrepreneur with an engineer's disposition to solve -- involve software, services and other less physically tangible aspects of modern technology.
"If you don't reinvent yourself to drive customer experience effectively ... you don't have a very good model," for your business in the modern software experience-driven marketplace, according to Ruzo.
"At the end of the day, it's not about the network. ... When you use an application on your phone, you don't care about the system delivering it. You just want it to work!"
Linking the Americas
As the nonphysical part of the modern technology economy continues to expand, Ruzo sees Latin America as one the next big places for innovation and development -- and LinkAmerica's expansion.
"It's not 'LinkChina' or 'LinkIndia.' ... It's LinkAmerica," he said, chuckling. "My vision is to connect the Americas from [the] North to the South. ... Innovation is happening in the U.S., and it's trickling down to Latin America ... sometimes not fast enough."
For Ruzo, the main development he hopes will accelerate in Latin America is more connectivity with the U.S., more innovation and service-driven economies and a shift away from the domination of "factor-driven" economies -- those based on agriculture, natural resources, cheap labor and other 20th century physical goods that have less sustainable growth potential in the long run.
From his own experience, Ruzo's point mirrors the difference between the short-lived "seven years of fat cows" for LinkAmerica in an economic niche based on physical products and the greater, long-term growth it has achieved based on innovation, services and other nonphysical assets.
"Part of my goal as an entrepreneur and a leader in the global economy is to raise awareness in the Latin American countries that there's more than being a factor-driven economy," Ruzo said. Latin America needs to start preparing the next generation, he said, to thrive in the networked, bilingual, technology and service-driven 21st century. He said he believes they can make that shift as soon as the next 10 years.
"How?" he said. "By providing services North/South -- instead of East/West."
For an example, it's the difference between U.S. companies sourcing software support and management through cheap, distant centers (think technical support call centers in India) and instead using cost-effective "nearshore" hubs in Latin America. For example, LinkAmerica provides device support, application monitoring and other IT services through centers in locations like Costa Rica, Mexico and Colombia.
Besides having the advantage of being in the same time zones as the U.S., it's more fiscally sustainable in the long run, according to Ruzo, who cited lower attrition rates and shorter training times among some of the practical advantages.
Plus, Latin America already shares a strong cultural, religious and historic background with the U.S., so the empowering economic relationship for Latin America works both ways and translates to more business for U.S. companies.
"South American guys love Polo shirts and Levi's jeans and Nike tennis shoes and American movies," Ruzo said. "The value proposition is to export their minds to serve the U.S. and drive success that way," creating a virtuous cycle for both sides of the marketplace.
"Technology levels the playing field. ... It transcends boarders seamlessly."
Andrés Ruzo: Linking Immigrant and Entrepreneurial Ethics
Ruzo's passion for connecting Latin America and the U.S. comes from a deep affection for both cultures and a professional and personal life that embodies linking the two.
"Even though I've been a U.S. citizen for the last 25 years, I still consider myself an immigrant in the way I think, I act and I work," Ruzo said. "Immigrants don't take anything for granted. Nothing."
Ruzo emphasized, even now after all his success, he will never lose that drive he holds in common with other first-generation Latinos: "We come here to work. ... I don't know any of the 12 million immigrants in the U.S. that are not working their a****s off every day."
After 17 start-ups, huge success followed by a devastating setback, a complete reinvention and finally a new path toward stunning growth, it's not hard to see how Ruzo's unremitting immigrant ethic and belief in the American Dream translated into his "never say die" entrepreneurial tenacity.
And for young entrepreneurs looking to blaze their own path in the complex, technologically driven, fast-changing modern marketplace, Ruzo offered some advice from his years of experience.
"The first is never, never, never give up," Ruzo said. "You stay in the game. If you give up the game? You're done. ... You'd better find a job.
"The second thing is that entrepreneurship -- emprendimiento, like they call it in Latin America -- is not for everybody."
He likened it to piloting a boat in open water: Clear skies and a party-cruise atmosphere with all of your friends aboard never guarantees the waters won't suddenly turn against you. In those turbulent times, you might lose some friends overboard. But in business, of course, you're the one that decides who goes.
"It's hard," he said. "Entrepreneurship is making the hard decisions at the right time."
Finally, for Ruzo, he connects his success and the values he holds that lead to it with a solid foundation for which he thanked his Latino background.
"It's my faith," he said. "Working hard, taking nothing for granted, turning over every stone I find, and at the same time praying for guidance -- because it comes together.
"When you put purpose with passion, you get your vocation," Ruzo added. "And my vocation is to leave this world a better world."
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