J. Antonio Rico

A framed flag, folded neatly in a triangle, hangs in a conference room at ElectroSystems Engineers Inc., or ESEI. 

The flag flew a mission in Afghanistan and was given to the El Paso-based company for the IT work it did there.

But owner J. Antonio Rico, 54, says he's mostly done with federal contracting. For the past couple of years, he's been retooling his telecommunications, engineering and IT services business, bringing it back to its roots.

It's something he also wants to do at the El Paso Hispanic Chamber of Commerce as its new board chair. He was named to the position Dec. 15.

"It's no different than any small or mid-sized business. Right now, the big challenge is how do we strengthen the organization," Rico says.

Rico was born in El Paso and grew up in Juárez. In 1980, he graduated from the University of Texas at El Paso with a degree in Electrical Engineering.

He worked as a systems engineer at El Paso Electric, where he designed telecom networks, and at El Paso Natural Gas.

In 1994, he founded ESEI, which designs and builds large networks for companies that need high reliability, like oil and gas concerns, as well as electric utilities. It also provides IT services to small and mid-sized businesses in the region.

"My mother, a big influence in my life, is 80 years old and still owns a business," he says. "She sells clothes, something that she has done since I can remember. So I was very young when I decided I wanted to own my own business some day."

Rico sat down with El Paso Inc. and talked about attracting young entrepreneurs, helping businesses move from Juárez to El Paso, and working with other business groups like La Red.


Q: Your 80-year-old mother has a business in Juárez?

She recently moved to El Paso, and now she has clients here.

Q: Did your mother move to El Paso because of the violence in Juárez?

She continues to do business in Juárez. She is one that I don't dare tell what to do, but it was a necessity for all of us. My brothers and sisters are all in El Paso, and so we all felt that it would be better if she was closer to us.

Q: How is the violence in Juárez changing the business landscape here in El Paso, and what are some things the Hispanic chamber is doing to assist business people who want to move their business to El Paso?

Yes, of course, we have seen a change in the landscape. Mexican businesses that appealed to the American population had to move to El Paso to continue to cater to that population.

We had some very well known businesses move to El Paso that are now thriving here and give us another thing to be proud of. We have some really good Mexican food.

Q: What other kinds of businesses have moved to El Paso?

Businesses working in professional services - lawyers, accountants. They were already working with American companies and, basically, just changed their address.

Q: How is the Hispanic chamber helping businesses make the transition to El Paso?

Since more businesses started opening up shop in El Paso, we have counseled more than 500 Mexican-owned businesses that wanted to learn about how to open a business in El Paso - how to access capital, what kind of reporting you need to do, what does it take to rent a building, what permits do you need.

Q: How about ESEI? How is business?

Over the last couple of years we have been retooling the company in terms of the technology we use and the way we train our technicians. We did a lot of work in the federal marketplace that we no longer get.

We are back to our roots, which are industrial and commercial business - that is what I understand, and that is where my passion is.

Q: Did the federal work evaporate with federal budgets?

No, it had more to do with us. I don't think we understood the market very well - the way they speak and communicate, working for the Army especially. It was exciting, and we did a lot of good things. I have a flag that flew one of the missions in Afghanistan, and we had people there for a period of time.

It's just that, to maintain a long-term marketing strategy in the military, I would have had to bring in some new talent and possibly open another location, but the most sensible thing to us was to go back to who we are and what we have done all our lives.

I have some aggressive goals for the company in terms of sales and market outreach that are important for the survival of the company.

Q: Work in Afghanistan?

Yeah, we had a contract there for a short period of time doing IT work. The flag was given to one of our employees for a job well done.

Q: Are you worried about the economy?

You know, to be honest with you, it's there. It's a problem that may or may not go away, and I have no control over it. But I see companies selling. If the companies I know of were not selling, were not making a profit, then I would worry.

But right now we are just looking at ourselves and looking at what we can do better. At the end of the day, that is the signature of a small business - you look at the problem, you figure out what you can control, and you do what you can. Things could get better, but we have to work very hard.

Q: How many employees do you have?

We are 10.

Q: As the New Year gets under way, what is the most pressing challenge for the Hispanic chamber?

You know, it's no different than any small or mid-sized business. Right now, the big challenge is figuring out how to strengthen the organization. We really need to work very hard because the environment is more competitive.

We have to do more to gain that $1 in membership because our members are worried about their own revenue - they are worried about their own expenses. Next, we really need to engage our membership more through better, more exciting programs that address the changing landscape of the business community. There are really three things I am focusing on: strengthening the organization, engaging the membership and delivering services.

Q: How many members does the Hispanic chamber have?

We are just over 1,000 members.

Q: How does that compare to last year?

Membership was flat last year at just over 1,000.

Q: How much would you like membership to grow this year?

We're going to be taking a hard look at that at our board retreat Jan. 28.

Q: Revenue wise, how is the chamber doing?

I will be able to tell you that after the retreat and we analyze the numbers.

Q: What's your general impression?

We're doing alright, we are doing good, and the chamber is holding its own - we just need to work harder.

Q: What has made the environment more competitive? As the economic downturn continues, are the chamber's members struggling?

The health of the small-business community here has always been strong and continues to be strong. We have to change simply because the entire world is changing.

We have a younger workforce coming and younger talent wanting to open businesses, and we really need to start paying attention to who is coming after us. Even though I own a technology business, I am not the savviest person when it comes to social media, and that is how young men and women communicate these days.

My two sons, 25 and 22 - I cannot get them to answer the phone - but if I text, they answer right away.

So it is a different way of doing business, and we need to learn it as a chamber of commerce in order to communicate. If we don't do that, then there's a big group of people that is not going to pay attention to us.

Q: You mentioned creating new programs. What programs do you have in mind specifically?

On Dec. 15 we kicked off a very exciting program we call Empire Builders or Jovenes Empresarios. That is a group of 25 young men and women averaging 29 years of age that have come together to network and train together for a year.

I had the opportunity to be there when they kicked off the program - the excitement in their faces. This is a diverse group. These are people who graduated from universities across the nation, some come from family businesses, some own their own businesses, but one thing they have in common is they want to stay in El Paso and make a difference for El Paso.

The first month, they are going to get together at a McDonalds and the owner, Richard Castro, will show them what happens in the back besides making French fries and flipping burgers. He will show them the process they follow, how a franchise works and what makes a business like Castro Enterprises work.

There is one participant whose grandfather has long owned a business in Juárez and she wants to open another location here and learn more about franchising. Why not? A woman in her mid 20s who wants to do that? All I can say is how can we help.

Q: With all the growth at Fort Bliss, is the chamber also working with the spouses of soldiers stationed here?

The Wal-Mart foundation recently granted us $50,000 to start a program called "Women on the Frontline... In the Battlefield." It's designed for military wives that come to town and want to do something here - maybe own a business, take their business to the next level, or find a job.

We are looking at how our landscape is changing and trying to do programs that address the needs of our membership.

Q: How is the landscape changing?

Technology for one. Also, I'm perfectly happy to go into a meeting at 7:30 a.m. over coffee. Younger people tend to prefer the evening meetings with maybe a reception afterwards - it's just different.

Q: How does the Hispanic chamber work with organizations like La Red, the association of Mexican businesspeople formed in El Paso in 2010, and Community en Acción, which have been gaining prominence in El Paso?

We have talked, we know who they are, but other than that, we participate as much as we can. We don't have any strong ties yet. It is nice to see other groups do good things for the betterment of El Paso. We support that, and we will help in any way we can. Right now, there is nothing specific I can tell you other than our doors our open, and we invite anyone who is interested in learning about the chamber and what we do.

Q: Are some chamber members also members of La Red?

I don't know about La Red for sure but Community en Acción, yes. There are very strong connections at the member level.

Q: What are the Hispanic chamber's policy priorities this year?

I don't think that we are going to be changing a lot there, but there are a lot of issues that we need to continue to address on behalf of our members.

Q: What might be two issues that are important right now?

Taxes are always an important issue for business people - also the cost of health care. Speaking for myself, every year since we've offered health care plans, the cost has gone up. That concerns me because it is a benefit that gets reduced every year. Either we increase the portion that the employee pays or we increase the deductible or we reduce benefits. In the end, I am giving my employees less and less, and that's a concern of mine. We have to look at that and what happens as provisions of the new health care law kick in.

Q: Immigration issues made headlines again when President Obama proposed a rule change a couple weeks ago that lets certain illegal immigrants stay in the U.S. while they apply for legal residency. Is comprehensive immigration reform a priority for the Hispanic chamber?

We did a survey of our membership and found that immigration is not at the top of our members' lists, if you put regulation and taxes in there.

Our members have other things in mind, and those are the things we are tracking.

E-mail El Paso Inc. reporter Robert Gray at rsgray@elpasoinc.com or call (915) 534-4422 ext. 105.