William Soza was born in 1936 in a small border town on the Rio Grande in Texas where his Mexican American family had lived since the late 1700s. "There were 10 in my [high school] graduating class. Five of them were my cousins," he said.
Soza used an accounting degree, a knack for networking and a federal program that sets aside contracts for minority-owned companies to build Soza & Co. into a $137 million information technology consultancy based in Fairfax County. Soza sold the company last year to Perot Systems Corp. for $107 million in cash and stock.
"I had mixed feelings about selling," Soza said. "It was really the culmination of a career . . . that has been satisfying, that has taken a lot of effort and devotion and cultivation to produce."
Soza, 68, speaks slowly, with a quiet enthusiasm about his business and the Hispanic business community.
After graduating from the University of Texas in 1960 with an accounting degree, Soza was drafted and stationed at Fort McNair in Southwest Washington. When he got out in 1962, he settled in the Washington area, which he said he preferred to his hometown of Presidio, with its population of 1,500.
Soza worked for a few small accounting firms and as an auditor at an engineering firm. In 1969 he started his own accounting firm. "We gave ourselves two years to make it," Soza said of the commitment that he and his wife of nearly 40 years, Susan, made to go it alone.
It was a struggle. For years, Soza barely had enough work to keep him busy 40 hours a week. Then, in 1973, he merged with another accounting practice, and his clientele and revenue began to grow.
During that period, there were only a few hundred Hispanic-owned businesses in the Washington area. The biggest barrier to growth was lack of capital. So Soza and a dozen other Hispanic businessmen chipped in several thousand each to start a small bank in the District called Hemisphere National Bank, which targeted lending to Hispanic businesses.
"The whole [Hispanic] community started to do business with the bank," Soza said. After four years, he and his partners sold the bank to Capital Bank in Florida, which later sold it to BB&T Corp.
Unlike many small businessmen who think they do not have time for civic and business associations, Soza got involved in the Salvation Army and the Rotary Club, and later became active in a number of other civic groups.
"It gave me more visibility in the community and to some minor extent [helped] business development," Soza said. "If people know you around the community," they may be more familiar with your reputation and willing to do business with you.
Soza said he also thought it was important for Latino businessmen to be involved in community groups. "In many organizations, I may be the only Hispanic on the board or on the committee, so I think I provide that kind of a perspective on certain issues. I think it's necessary not only for our community in the metro area but the population as a whole."
In 1988, Soza got his company into the federal government's 8(a) program, which sets aside contracts for minority businesses. His company won auditing contracts with the State Department's trade development office and the Department of Housing and Urban Development to revise certain regulations. Later, his company assisted with the declassification of documents for the Department of the Interior and the Department of Defense.
The company expanded beyond its accounting operations , and when it graduated from the federal minority program after nine years, it had 380 employees and about $48 million in revenue. Soza then acquired several small management and information technology companies and an oceanography company.
By the end of 2002, Soza's company had 900 employees and annual revenue of $137 million, and he decided to sell. After talking to several interested buyers, he closed a deal with Perot Systems. He said he chose Perot, in part, because the company agreed to keep Soza & Co.'s support staff.
Now Soza is retired, spending much of his time on his philanthropic activities. One recent week he conducted a meeting of the Catholic Diocese of Arlington's audit committee, of which he is chairman; met with George Mason University's Minority Advisory Board -- he has been a member since 1996; and stopped by the weekly Tyson's Corner Rotary Club meeting before heading to a meeting of the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority.
These civic activities "continue to be very fulfilling for me, very self-satisfying," Soza said. "I've got something going almost every day. I have different levels of responsibility. In a way, I'm still performing in many of the same ways I did as CEO."