LinkAmerica: The 18th time was the charm

April 10, 2014, 3:01 PM UTC
LinkAmerica founder Andrés Ruzo
Photo: Nancy Newberry

Andrés Ruzo isn’t your average immigrant entrepreneur. The son of a culinary TV personage in Peru, he came to the U.S. as a college student in 1980 and says he attempted 17 startups before creating his big success: LinkAmerica, which provides logistical and service support to tech and telecom companies. LinkAmerica is actually in its second incarnation; the first, which sold refurbished telecom equipment, nearly went under after the dotcom bust and 9/11. Last year the company generated $180 million in revenues, and Ruzo, 53, has become a classic example of entrepreneurial invention and reinvention … and reinvention. He says he still views himself as an immigrant — always hungry and never taking anything for granted. His story:

I grew up in Lima, Peru, and come from a well-known family. My mother [Teresa Ocampo] had a cooking show on TV. She was the Julia Child of Peru. When I was 7, a military coup caused great instability in the country. So when it was time for college, in 1980, I came to the U.S. to study industrial engineering at Texas A&M University. I came with two bags and a dream — to have a future with stability, security, and success in America.

I had $10,000, enough for the first year’s tuition, and received scholarships. I became a carpenter, building houses, and did odd jobs to support myself. If you scratch and keep working, you can make it happen. At A&M, I learned how to understand processes, innovation, and the need to do things faster, cheaper, better. It gave me the tools to be a successful entrepreneur.

I graduated with a BS in industrial engineering in 1983 and got a practical-training visa for six months. The short-term visa meant I couldn’t get a job, so I sold my car and bought a partnership in a startup called Sabwor International, which did oil exploration in Honduras. I am bilingual, so I helped in negotiations with the Honduras government. I was paid $50 a week, and I was able to get an H-1B visa, which gave me a path to work legally in the U.S.

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In 1985 I married my wife, Ana Callejas, who had come from Nicaragua, fleeing the Sandinista revolution. When Sabwor failed, I became a partner in a new venture called Southern Brokers International, which imported food from Central and South America, then went on my own and started Sinpar Trading. But I needed additional income, so I became a licensed real estate agent.

The real estate business was good in summer and fall months, but not in the winter and spring, which were the perfect seasons to export perishable food from the Southern Hemisphere to the north. So I leased a little office with two phone lines from my broker in Houston. One line was ERA Tu Casa, and the other was Sinpar Trading. When I wasn’t selling real estate, I sold asparagus and fruit from Peru, Argentina, and Chile. I was making about $300,000 a year then, killing two birds with one stone to maximize revenue.

About the same time, I started a nonprofit called Help Ayacucho 1985 Foundation, and ran it for five years, along with my companies, because terrorism was rampant in the Andean region of Ayacucho, Peru. We helped the children whose parents were killed by Shining Path terrorists. I try to follow the Catholic social teachings and am driven to help others.

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In 1992 we moved to Dallas, and I started to look at the telecommunications industry. When I went to school, no one had cellphones. But telecommunications was constantly changing, and it clicked for me. I saw no competition for refurbished products, so in 1994, I started LinkAmerica. I funded it with $5,000 and a credit card.

Basically, we refurbished products and upgraded large switching systems for small, independent phone companies in rural areas. We’d take used equipment, test it to make sure it worked, and sell it at 60% of the price of new equipment. The business went from zero to $12 million in seven years. I call that my seven years of fat cows. It was simple to make money. The technology was opening up, and the margins were huge.

In January 2001, I bought the Siemens (SI) transmission product line and started doing manufacturing work. But then we had the dotcom bust and 9/11. A lot of my customers who sold long-distance merged, went bankrupt, or disappeared. I changed my business model several times, trying to diversify the business and customer base.

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We went from a company of 100 employees to five. In 2007, I went without pay for six months so that I could pay the others and keep the lights on. I used a little credit and sold properties I’d purchased with money I’d made in the fat-cow years to live. Manufacturing was going to China, Korea, and Taiwan, so I sold all the Siemens assets to CTDI [a telecom engineering and logistics company] at a loss. From 2001 to 2008, I had seven years of skinny cows.

But I’m resilient and tenacious. I prayed for guidance, and received that I had to give up my company as it was and move on. Products in today’s technology will last nine months, then become obsolete. But you need people to manage products and systems. So I decided to change the business model again and move from product sales to being a service company.

In 2008, I dreamed about contacting a guy who worked for a wireless distribution firm that I shall not name. So I followed that dream and told the guy about my idea to become a full-service company for the telecom industry. His company gave me a letter of intent to buy and fund my business plan. Due to this letter, I then went back to CTDI to pay off money I owed from the closing of the asset sale in 2007. When they asked why I was paying them off early, I told them about my business plan and the letter of intent. CTDI immediately wanted to invest as well.

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The guy at the wireless distribution company just disappeared, and the letter of intent never turned into a firm offer. Thirty days later CTDI became my business partner in LinkAmerica. In July 2008 it gave me $1 million cash and a $15 million letter of credit, which I used to turn LinkAmerica into what it is today.

I thought, “For the next seven years I want to be a lean bull,” but we grew so fast that two years later I went to holy cows. The market was there. Today we provide warehouse-management solutions, help first responders like the police, fire, and EMS build their private radio networks, and provide service support for large clients. For example, we do engineering work in Latin American countries like Mexico, Costa Rica, and Colombia for U.S. telecom and tech companies like Verizon (VZ) and AT&T (T). Last year we made $180 million.

It took me 18 startups to get where I am today. I’m a serial entrepreneur. When I came here, I didn’t know how anything worked in America. When you come to the States, you become a Social Security number and lose your sense of identity. It was slippery, dark, and scary at times. But it’s been a journey of faith. My faith is my shield and my sword.

I’ve kept my immigrant hat. I’m always hungry and never take things for granted. I think all entrepreneurs are similar in many ways, but we start from different points. Latinos are more family-oriented, and as entrepreneurs, we are often underestimated. I ask people to judge me by my actions, not my accent.

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Since I didn’t have contacts, I got involved in the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, to meet people and prove my leadership skills. I went from the local organization to state to national, and now I’m in the global arena with the World Economic Forum. You have to be invited to join the forum and must have a minimum of $100 million in sales for three years to be considered a global growth company.

What drives me is the creation of value, bringing growth to everyone we touch, not just our stakeholders. That’s what it means to be an agent of change in the world. My proudest achievement is my family. My kids give me faith in the future and power in the present.

I came here with nothing. But this is a nation where immigrants — in one generation — can have the same opportunity anyone else has. It takes time. But I went from bad to not so bad to good to better to great. I feel truly blessed.

My advice

Get involved in your community. Serve on boards and commissions. You must strive for continuous improvement. Learn to become the best person you can be and to make your company the best it can be.

Give your employees incentives to make the company profitable. At LinkAmerica everybody receives a bonus each quarter the company reaches profit goals. If the company wins, every employee wins.

Hire people who live and breathe your vision. I believe that the more you give, the more the universe gives back to you. If you keep your antenna on, you’ll attract people who want to be on the same channel as you.

This story is from the April 28, 2014 issue of Fortune.