A Hot Spot for Hispanic Businesses

By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 22, 2006

When it comes to the presence of big Hispanic-owned businesses, Fairfax County trumps 42 states.

That's right -- states. According to Hispanic Business magazine's 2006 rankings, Fairfax is home to 12 of the nation's 500 largest Latino-owned companies. That's more than in Maryland, the District and Nevada combined.

Sure, the Fairfax dozen represents not even 2.5 percent of the companies on the list, known as the Hispanic Business 500, but some say it is a triumph all the same, another reflection of the county's slice of the region's thriving economy.

"It's something we can definitely pride ourselves in," said Rick Gonzalez, who until recently was vice president of the Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, which advocates for Latino companies.

Last year, 11 Fairfax companies appeared on the list. New this year is Computing Technologies Inc. MVM Inc., a security services company in Vienna, was the top-grossing Hispanic-owned business in Virginia for the fourth year in a row. Twenty Virginia companies made the Hispanic Business 500, as did seven in Maryland and three in the District.

As the nation experiences a boom in Hispanic-owned businesses, the Washington region -- with its flourishing economy and surging Latino immigrant population -- has emerged as a hot spot for such firms.

According to the Census Bureau, the number of Latino-owned firms in the region grew by 67 percent from 1997 to 2002. The overall growth rate for new businesses in the region was 15 percent.

Many of the area's Hispanic-owned businesses are small cleaning and construction firms. But compared with other areas, the Washington region -- where the federal government is a major employer for professional services and contractors -- has a greater proportion of Hispanic-owned businesses in areas such as high technology, defense, engineering and accounting.

Many of them are headquartered in the county, which has aggressively recruited minority businesses. Nearly all the Fairfax companies on the Hispanic Business 500 are technology firms or government contractors.

"The bottom line is there's a lot of opportunity here," said Gerald L. Gordon, president and chief executive of the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority. "We're not only accepting of people who come in from other places, we encourage that. That's sort of our strength."

Jose "Pepe" Figueroa agrees. Figueroa was a part-time violinist in his native Puerto Rico before he started his first business, a trucking company for which he was a driver. In 1986, he branched out into medical research. Now his Franconia-based company, Priority One Services Inc., has about 500 employees, earns nearly $36 million in revenue a year and holds contracts with the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other institutions.

Though his staff is diverse, Figueroa, 56, said he had tried to make Priority One accommodating to Hispanic employees.

"We try to do as much as we can in training in both English and Spanish, and we've done quite a bit of legal work to get [employees] . . . green cards," Figueroa said. "We've probably done about 20 or 30 employees. We sponsored them so they could start their life here legally."

Priority One has appeared on the Hispanic 500 list for several years, moving up from No. 175 in 2001 to No. 148 this year. That's down five spots from last year, but Figueroa said he saw the competition for spots on the list as a heartening sign of a healthy business climate for Hispanics -- both nationally and in Fairfax. The county, he said, is "excellent" for Latino entrepreneurs.

"It's got everything you could possibly want in a county: a great, steady labor force, progressive government," he said. "It's got everything."

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