By Maria Perez
Naples Daily News, Fla.
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) The trend of Hispanic business growth continues to move upward in Southwest Florida. Businesses owned by minorities, particularly Hispanics, grew at a much higher pace than the rest and made for most of the increase in the number of businesses in Collier and Lee counties between 2007 and 2012. This article includes WOMEN IN BUSINESS, which we here at WWR always love to see!
In the past decade, Luis and Claudia Velez have opened or bought five Little Caesar’s Pizza restaurants in Southwest Florida, started a business center in Golden Gate City, and partnered with a Miami company to provide impact glass windows, doors and walls in Collier County.
Luis Velez and his wife, both from Colombia, say they started the first Little Caesar’s restaurant because they thought it was a good opportunity. After the first restaurant proved profitable, the others soon followed.
Although their companies require a lot of work and responsibility, they say it’s worth it.
“We are very happy to work for our own business,” said Claudia Velez.
Luis and Claudia Velez, ages 48 and 43, are among those driving the growth in the number of Southwest Florida businesses — Hispanic and other minority entrepreneurs. Businesses owned by minorities, particularly Hispanics, grew at a much higher pace than the rest and made for most of the increase in the number of businesses in Collier and Lee counties between 2007 and 2012, according to the latest data from the Survey of Business Owners released by the U.S. Census Bureau.
Hispanic-owned firms increased by 44 percent — 2,590 more companies — in Collier between 2007 and 2012. The number of all businesses that can be classified by the demographics of their owners in Collier grew by 3,314, or 9 percent, during that time.
Hispanics owned 8,522 companies in 2012 in Collier County, while non-Hispanic-owned 30,912 businesses.
The growth in businesses comes as Hispanics grow in population, but at a slower rate, according to the census data. The Hispanic population grew by 8 percent in Collier, and increased as a percentage of total population from 25.5 percent to 26.2 percent from 2007 to 2012.
In Lee County, Hispanic-owned businesses increased by 39 percent reaching 12,262, while non-Hispanic owned companies decreased by 3 percent, down to 51,277.
When Nancy Landi moved from Buenos Aires to Florida in 2007, she brought her business with her. In Argentina, she worked with foreigners who invested in real estate, usually buying properties and renting them out.
After a couple of years in Orlando, she moved to Naples and continued her real estate business. She says she counsels investors from Latin America and Europe, or even Qatar about what properties are a good investment to buy as a rental. The clients, she says, visit the place very rarely. She gets them in touch with local certified public accountants so they follow the regulations, she offers interior design services and she often stays as the property manager.
Land says entrepreneurship is in her family history.
“I belong to a generation of entrepreneurs,” Landi, 55, said. “I have worked in my father’s and my family’s companies.”
Starting in the U.S. was difficult though. She knew how to do business in Argentina, but in Florida, she had to start from scratch. She said she surrounded herself with professionals to learn.
And now her clients are spreading the word about her.
Her sales pitch: Naples real estate is cheaper than Miami or New York, the traditional places that come to mind for foreign investors. Naples investors can buy less pricey residences, and they can buy more.
“The good investor buys different properties,” Landi said.
Augusto Sanabria is CEO of the Hispanic Business Initiative Fund, a Florida nonprofit that counsels Hispanic business owners.
He said Hispanic business ownership typically outpaces non-Hispanic ownership 3-to-1. Hispanics, he said, want to control their financial welfare and leave a legacy for their children.
“That is the culture that we had from our parents and grandparents,” he said. “Most likely, in your family you had someone who was a business owner.”
He said the trend of Hispanic business growth has continued since 2012 in Southwest Florida.
“The Hispanic community is contributing a lot to this economy,” he said.
Veronica Culbertson, CEO of the Southwest Florida Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said cultural and language barriers for Hispanics and lack of professional experience in the U.S. may make it easier for them to open their own businesses than find a job in an American company.
“As we are hard workers, we want also to have control on our lives and be able to make progress,” Culbertson said.
Luis Bernal, executive director of the Naples-based Council of Hispanic Business Professionals, said many Hispanics are emigrating from Florida’s East coast to Collier looking for another life style.
“People think this area has potential,” he said.
Ciro Gomez opened his seafood store in Golden Gate City in 2009 with no experience in the business. One day he was working painting apartments, he went out to buy fresh seafood and didn’t find any.
“That same day, I went to the county to apply for the permits,” he said.
Establishing his business was harder.
Gomez, 47, had one “paladar” or small private restaurant, and a pizzeria when he lived in Cuba. But a seafood store was different.
“The first year and a half, my wife cleaned houses and I stayed at the seafood store to pay the bills,” he said. “The following year and a half, both she and I worked at the shop seven days a week, without taking a single day off.”
Bills kept coming. At one point, he said, they couldn’t keep up with the car payments, so he returned it. His credit score went south.
The owners of Miami seafood supplier Casablanca helped him, he said. They lent him money and gave him credit to buy supplies. The owner of the building where his market is didn’t charge him rent for a year and a month, he said.
Now, he said, he has paid almost all of his debts and his credit score has recovered. The store owner has offered to sell him the property after he saw Gomez invested over $15,000 in equipment for the store.
“Little by little, and with a lot of work, you can achieve things,” he said.
Hispanic-owned businesses increased in most sectors in Collier and Lee counties, according to the census data. Hispanics create cleaning, agriculture and landscaping businesses, but they also open private medical, accounting, legal and real estate practices.
Sanabria, with the nonprofit HBIF, said as the population grows in Southwest Florida, there will be more job opportunities in sectors other than construction and the hotel industry.
“That attracts a more educated Hispanic population that is going to open businesses in sectors like real estate or finance,” he said.
But the survey numbers also show Hispanic business in Collier and Lee tend to have less volume of sales and fewer employees than the average business, with more of them having no employees.
Sanabria says many Hispanics are reluctant to bring outside investors to grow their business because they want to keep them as a family legacy to pass to their children and very few are approved for a bank loan. Cultural and language barriers and a short credit history may play against them.
Bernal, with the Hispanic business council, said there is not much support in Collier for small businesses, those that Hispanics tend to open. The bureaucracy to get permits, he said, can be a heavy burden.
“The business environment has to keep improving,” he said. “Especially for small businesses.”