John Puente had seen his future, and it wasn't in Tootsie Rolls.

Stuffing bite-size chocolates into boxes was just the latest in a lengthy series of odd jobs Puente held during high school. In an idle moment on the assembly line during the summer of 1948, the recent graduate casually asked a co-worker how long he'd been at the Hoboken, N.J., candy factory.

"When he said six years, it suddenly hit me that that's what I'd be doing if I stayed there," said Puente, now the chairman and chief executive of Rockville-based Orion Network Systems Inc., a communications company specializing in international and domestic private satellite systems. "I told myself there was no way I was doing that."

He certainly has kept his promise. The 60-year-old son of a Spanish Harlem couple, who divorced when he was 8, has three cars, a house in Potomac, a condo in Bethany Beach, Del., and more millions than he cares to reveal.

Orion is Puente's fourth start-up company. His three previous efforts -- Digital Communications Corp., Microtel Inc. and SouthernNet Inc. -- all eventually exceeded $350 million in revenue, making him a major player in the telecommunications industry. Puente has helped countless other entrepreneurs by lending them money, offering them emotional and spiritual sustenance and support, and sharing freely the extensive knowledge he has accumulated during his 35 years in the business.

And recently, Puente received the Montgomery County High Technology Council's first award for entrepreneur of the year.

"We base the award on such criteria as the person's track record in his particular industry, evidence of success in start-up ventures, leadership qualities and the innovative nature of the undertakings," said Walt Plosila, executive director of the council. "He's the guru all the people go to before they start a firm. The county wants more entrepreneurs. We need to establish more spinoff and start-up companies. If anybody has done that, John has."

Such recognition by one's peers, often the most important accolade in any industry, shows just how far Puente has come since the Tootsie Roll revelation. But those achievements have neither satisfied his ambition nor diminished his desire. In his view, there is still more to accomplish.

"Every entrepreneur runs scared," Puente said. "You don't want to lose. You're constantly thinking of things that could go wrong. And if you don't think about them, they will go wrong.

"You've also got to have a strong work ethic and be personally driven to success," he said. "The job has to become all-absorbing or you won't make it. It's the drive to win that keeps me going. But sometimes you don't even see it. You don't even know it's happening."

And when you do, the price you pay may be steeper than you ever imagined. By the time Puente realized that his work was everything, his 25-year marriage was foundering. It eventually dissolved in 1985. Puente attributes part of the breakup to his all-consuming passion to be the best entrepreneur he could possibly be.

Even the end of his marriage didn't slow his inner drive, which he says comes from being a street kid in New York "where you had to be strong to survive." Now remarried, he still puts in 60-hour weeks. But he slowly has learned to enjoy life outside the office.

"Work was my life to a large extent for a long time," Puente said. "But I couldn't have achieved what I have without that time and effort. It's not necessary that your family {life} go to hell, though."

Puente is all too familiar with that existence. The daily grind of the New York streets left little time for thinking much farther ahead than the next day. Puente's family wasn't leading a hand-to-mouth existence, but it wasn't wealthy. When he was 8, his mother left his father and took Puente with her to Philadelphia. They stayed there for nine months before returning to New York. But as often happens to New Yorkers, the city eventually got the best of them. After the 12-year-old Puente was held up in the hallway of his apartment, he and his mother moved to Union City, N.J.

In high school his athletic talent dwarfed his academic ability. As good as he was, a career in athletics was not in his future. And getting into college seemed impossible. "I thought about college," Puente said, "but it always seemed out of my reach. I didn't even know how to get there, so I didn't really consider it."

But that was before the Tootsie Roll experience. Determined after that to make something of himself, he analyzed his options and decided that he could tolerate a tour of military service for the chance to go to college. So he joined the Air Force.

He became an expert radar repairman, developing both the engineering techniques and communications knowledge that would serve him so well over the next quarter-century. After his Air Force service, he received both a bachelors degree from Polytechnic Institute of New York and a masters in science degree from Stevens Institute of Technology.

The spark that ignited his nascent entrepreneurial spirit came alive in 1971, when he and his employer, Comsat Laboratories, did not agree on the worthiness of his next project. Instead of getting mad, Puente got even. He and seven colleagues each put down $5,000 and started Digital Communications Co., based on Puente's conviction that digital transmission -- putting information into numerical form that computers can manipulate -- would soon become the communications wave of the future.

Although both satellite communications and digital transmission were new, unproven technologies, Puente was willing to risk his money and his time because his industry knowledge and market analysis had convinced him that the technologies would take off.

The other founders may not have been equally persuaded, but they followed Puente's lead. Among them was Gene Gabbard, who had worked for Puente at Comsat but gladly traded the security of a job with an established company for the presidency of a start-up company confronting a questionable future from its garage office.

Why would Gabbard, now the president of Atlanta-based Telecom*USA, the nation's fourth-largest long-distance company, risk throwing it all away?

"Because I believe in John's leadership," Gabbard said. "When he runs into a problem, he has an incredible capability of backing up and looking for a solution around the problem. If he were facing a cannon, he'd figure out how to turn it around and face it the other way.

"He's also a great team builder. He shares among the team and encourages them to play together. He knows how to find good people and give them lots of leeway. He understands that a complex, large project needs a multi-talented team that works together. And he's excellent at setting priorities for important items and assigning away smaller issues."

By 1978, when Puente sold Digital to Microwave Associates, forming M/A-COM (Microwave Associates-Communications) Development Corp., Digital was worth $8 million and had 80 employees.

Puente said his creation was profitable from birth and never borrowed a penny. He sold it, he said, because its business was exploding and the company needed cash. The sale was the next big step for a company whose success probably far surpassed what the founders had envisioned.

"None of us knew it would work," Puente said. "I might have been the leader, but these guys all took a risk. They all had to go home and look at their kids and their mortgages and make a decision, too."

Puente rose rapidly through the M/A-COM hierarchy, eventually becoming vice chairman of the board of directors. As president and chief executive of M/A-COM, his task was to investigate potential investments.

When two of his friends approached him with an idea for establishing a private microwave system -- which would allow corporations to bypass the traditional telephone system -- Puente said he would support the effort if it was switched to an underground fiber optic cable network. Fiber optic is a communications medium that carries more information at higher speeds than traditional telephone wires do.

Puente convinced his M/A-COM bosses to spend $500,000 to support the fledgling company, named Microtel. It might have been the best half million dollars the company ever spent: Microtel is now worth $350 million.

The Microtel experience indicated Puente had accurately assessed the fiber optics market. It was being neglected by major players such as American Telephone & Telegraph and he "just knew" there was room to move. So he, Gabbard and another friend, with M/A-COM's knowledge and assent, decided to start their own company.

In the early 1980s they invested $1 million in SouthernTel, a small communications company specializing in fiber optics. A few years later, they sold SouthernTel to ICI, a company about 15 times larger. The deal was clinched with a handshake over dinner in West Point, Ala. ICI had the major stock share in the new company, called SouthernNet, but Puente, as chairman, and Gabbard, as president, had the major operating responsibility.

"We immediately had a very warm relationship," Puente said. "At the end of dinner the father shook my hand and Gene's hand and said, 'You've got a deal.' I became chairman and Gene became president. Everybody just trusted each other."

After Puente left SouthernNet, the company merged with Teleconnect to create Telecom*USA, now a $750 million company. The company recently was acquired for about $1.2 billion by Washington-based MCI Communications Corp.

While he was an investor in SouthernNet, Puente continued to direct MA-COM's acquisition and investment strategy. In 1987, disenchanted with what he perceived to be the company's lack of commitment to its communications businesses, he took on the challenge of resurrecting Orion after the other investors agreed to restructure the company. He had invested $5,000 as what he called a "flyer" in Orion in 1983.

After serving on the company's board, he made an offer to become Orion's chairman provided the company, which was $750,000 in debt, was restructured to his specifications. As part of the deal, Puente put up at least $250,000. He owns about 12 percent of the private satellite company.

"Every start-up is a new challenge, a new environment and new competition," Puente said. "I've always felt that the communications private corporations were getting were so expensive that only the biggest companies could afford it. So why not put up a system that would provide high-quality communications that both big and small companies could afford? If you believe in something and you do your own company and supply what the market needs at an economical price, that's a business."

Puente credits his athletic experience both in high school and the Air Force -- in which he spent his last year playing baseball for a team that toured other bases in Japan -- with teaching him the benefits of team play, instilling the discipline to make that teamwork succeed and showing him how to play it straight. He said he once turned down a $20 million deal because he didn't trust the potential partner's ethics.

At the same time, a competitive drive shapes Puente's approach to commerce.

"Business really has all the elements of war," Puente said. "You need material and capital. You're always out to outmaneuver and beat the competition. If you don't look at it as a strategic sort of thing and mobilize your forces to win, you're going to fail. No matter how big you are, if you're not smarter and more aggressive and more alert, you're going to lose. I've got plenty of business enemies out there who see me as a threat because I want to make Orion successful.

"I've always been scared to lose, ever since I was a kid. So you think up ways to win no matter how scared you are. And I'm going to win with Orion."