For Cuban-born entrepreneur Armando Chapelli, it all began in the back seat of a friend's Ford Mustang.

In 1979, after four frustrating years as "low man on the totem pole" at local consulting firms, Chapelli resolved to make it on his own. With no capital, few contacts but plenty of ambition, he founded The Washington Consulting Group. He couldn't afford to rent an office, so his headquarters was the Mustang -- with the back seat holding all his important business papers.

For eight months, Chapelli tried to win management consulting contracts from federal agencies. He borrowed all the money in his mother's savings account and used up "the last penny" of his last unemployment compensation check.

Just as it seemed that he had reached the end of his rope, Chapelli landed a small contract to prepare an instructional pamphlet for the Transportation Department, and negotiated a loan for $10,000. With the $2,000 he netted from the project, Chapelli rented a one-room office in downtown Washington, installed a phone, and got to work.

His fledgling enterprise doubled or nearly doubled its revenues in each of the next six years. In 1986, WCG employed 110 people and took in more than $8.5 million in total billing; it has hired an additional 70 employes and signed more than $16.5 million in contracts for this year, and Chapelli estimates that it will make a profit of at least 20 percent this year.

That growth qualifies Chapelli's firm, which offers management consulting services to public and private sector clients, as one of the most successful minority-owned enterprises in the nation. Hispanic Business Magazine lists WCG, of which Chapelli owns 62 percent, as the 245th-largest Hispanic-owned business.

Chapelli's firm is as remarkable for the technical sophistication of the projects it undertakes as for its growth. It specializes in statistical analysis and computer systems management and in training air traffic controllers and military engineers. In recent years WCG has helped the Agriculture Department keep the books for its sprawling food stamp program, designed advanced computer graphics programs for the Environmental Protection Agency, and trained controllers for the Federal Aviation Administration.

Chapelli, who has two degrees in international relations but no formal technical or financial training, acknowledges that he hasn't "the foggiest notion" of the finer points of many of these projects.

"My skill is identifying quality people," he said. "I have learned that you can do that without knowing the subtleties of mathematics. I look for people that I can trust when my back is turned."

Chapelli credited the Small Business Association's 8A program, which sets aside government contracts for minority-owned businesses, as having an important part in his success. Without the program's help, he said, it might have taken him 15 to 20 years to get where he is today.

At the same time, however, he stressed that he is a self-made man. "If I lost my company tomorrow, I'd be out on the street selling apples, and within a year I'd be running a chain of apple stores."

Chapelli dismisses the notion that opportunities are limited for Hispanic entrepreneurs. "I don't believe this business about discrimination against Hispanics," he says. "When you land here -- and I don't care where you're from -- your opportunities are two thousand times greater than they were before."

Chapelli came to the United States in 1960 at the age of 14, fleeing the Cuban revolution with his parents. His mother, a pediatrician, worked as a physician in a Cuban refugee camp in Miami. His father, who had directed an orphanage, did day labor at local farms and factories. "We were broke," Chapelli says. "Financially speaking, we were below the floorboards."

Chapelli left a PhD. program at Georgetown University in 1975 to take his first business job, a research assistantship at a local consulting firm. Soon after taking his second job with another company, the man who had hired him was fired, and Chapelli's appointment was rescinded. Chapelli formed a partnership with the ousted manager.

Over the next 18 months, he brought in more than $1.5 million in contracts for the new company, but was irritated by his partner's management style and unsatisfied with his share of the profits. In June 1979 Chapelli quit and founded his own firm.

Chapelli said the most important lesson he learned from his first two employers is that "the guy who owns the company makes all the money."

Chapelli was appointed to the Washington Minority Business Opportunity Commission in 1984, but resigned before his two-year term was completed. He said he left the commission to devote more time to WCG and because he was "uncomfortable with the commission's modus operandi."