Sunday, August 15, 1999

Hispanic chamber's future uncertain

President's departure creates leadership void

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Roberto Peraza, president of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
| ZOOM |
        Still reveling in its first growth spurt, the 31/2-year-old area Hispanic Chamber of Commerce now faces the threat of stunted development from losing a strong leader.

        Contrary to what board members thought, the chamber's president, Roberto Peraza, last week said he will not return for a second term after mid-October. After two presidents, the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Greater Cincinnati had finally found in Mr. Peraza a leader that implements its goals.

        Since Mr. Peraza took the voluntary position in October, membership has more than doubled to 65 members. That's a boom compared to a stagnant membership the previous year. And for the first time, there are plans for an office and a full-time executive director to run the organization on a daily basis.

        But continued progress might be at risk.

Hispanic businesses in the Tristate
        “This presidency is requiring more and more time,” said Mr. Peraza, the senior information scientist at Procter & Gamble. “It's just that I don't have the time to do the job I want to.”

        Currently, there are no potential candidates to replace Mr. Peraza.

        If the chamber is unable to fill Mr. Peraza's shoes, Hispanic businesses will be the ones to hurt. Few Hispanic-owned businesses are aware of other Hispanic merchants — at least a fifth of chamber's members are Hispanic-owned businesses. These ethnic entrepreneurs are desperate for a network such as the chamber to help their businesses flourish. Indeed, Hispanic members interviewed said membership can tremendously aid growth.

        There are much more area businesses the chamber can service. In the most recent data taken in 1992 by the U.S. Census Bureau, 443 Hispanic-owned businesses operated in Ohio with an economic impact of $236 million. The U.S. Census Bureau conducts the survey every five years and takes another three years to reveal the findings. The next study is due in 2000.

        The Hispanic population in Greater Cincinnati totaled 12,365 in 1997, up 32 percent from 1990, the U.S. Census Bureau reported. They made up .67 percent of the total population.

        James Harney, adviser and founder of the chamber, said it's too soon to surmise how Mr. Peraza's decision will affect the organization.

        “We'll have to wait and see,” he said. “We've far progressed. There are a lot of things in the works that'll need to be kept ongoing.”

Business community need
        Even in the chamber's earlier days when progress was slow, its impact was significant for several Hispanic companies.

        Jorge Ramos, owner of Cruz Painting Contractors Inc., has been a member of the chamber since its birth. The Hispanic chamber named his business for community involvement and the entrepreneurial business of 1997 locally and 1998 statewide, respectively.

        The recognition helped boost Mr. Ramos' annual revenue to $1.9 million in 1998 from $900,000 the previous year. The company is booked with contracts for the next two years.

        “That gave me a great deal of exposure,” he said. “The exposure revealed the seriousness of my company.”

        Mr. Ramos said the organization could make an even stronger impact if it were more established, providing more publicity and connections to members. That future seems more attainable with Mr. Peraza as leader and unsure without him, board members said.

        Anderson Township-based Margaritas Mexican Restaurant's membership is a result of the chamber's recent membership drive. Though the business isn't Hispanic-owned, it does attract Hispanic patrons. For that reason, owner Tony Vanjohnson found it profitable to become a member in May.

        He also wants to be part of the Hispanic business network. If a Hispanic business needs a place for a meeting, “maybe they could do it at my restaurant,” he said. That's been the case several times.

        It's this crucial network that might draw in interested Hispanic businesses such as Walnut Hills-based Landscape Architecture, owned by Vivian Llambi, and the recently opened Madeira-based Jalapeno's Restaurante owned by Martin Lucero. The restaurant is Mr. Lucero's fourth; together, they employ more than 100 people, 90 percent Hispanic.

        For Mrs. Llambi, a network among Hispanic-owned business is vital. It's easier to ask for help from people with the same ethnic background, she said.

        “There's more of an automatic kinship than you would find in someone who's originally grown up here,” she said.

        After being in business for 15 years in Greater Cincinnati, Mrs. Llambi knows not of one Hispanic business. Mr. Lucero knows of a few. Yet in 1992, there were 291 Hispanic-owned businesses in the service segment, in which restaurants are included, in Greater Cincinnati.

        They long to meet other Hispanics business people who share similar strife.

Growth spurt
        For the past year Mr. Peraza has been trying to foster a more powerful network. To create that, the Hispanic group has metamorphosed into something more serious, more recognized, board members said.

        The more established the organization becomes, the better forum it can provide the Hispanic business community to share its frustrations and remedies, they said.

        “It's improved 100 percent since (Mr. Peraza) stepped aboard,” chamber secretary Margaret Dunn said. “Before, we weren't going anywhere. We were going in circles.”

        Other board members echo Ms. Dunn that Mr. Peraza is the best president the organization has had.

        There's a stronger internal infrastructure. Board meetings are monthly. There's better follow-up on projects.

        Mr. Peraza would call to check up on the progress, board member Eneida Uehlin said. That was essential for the group, she said.

        The organization has recently intensified its exposure among the community in general as well as the Hispanic community:

        • For the past six months, Mr. Peraza has attended the Tristate Chamber Collaborative — a program bringing together area chambers of commerce, including the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce. The year-old program produces better relationships.

        • In the works are possible joint programs with the student group Latino in Accion at the University of Cincinnati and Su Casa, a Catholic Ministry for Hispanics in Carthage.

        • Mr. Peraza called a visit by U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce President George Herrera in June his biggest event. Mr. Herrera's speech about the purchasing power of Hispanics attracted 70 people.

        • An eight-month membership drive started by Mr. Peraza has increased the chamber's mailing list by 50 percent to 300.

        Such things have helped double the chamber's membership to 55 individual members, including at least 13 members who are Hispanic merchants, and 10 corporate members, including one that's Hispanic-owned. But the Cincinnati group is an infant compared with the one in Cleveland, which has 300 members and was founded in 1979.

Stunted history
        The Hispanic chamber for Greater Cincinnati is an outgrowth of the Hispanic Association of Professional Entrepreneurs, which for two years convened at Xavier University. That group's goal was to unite the Hispanic business community. But due to a lack of leadership, it dissolved in the winter of 1996.

        Mr. Harney wanted to continue the idea. So in February of 1996, he founded the Hispanic chamber for Greater Cincinnati. Then, it was called the Tri-State Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

        Mr. Harney served as interim president until Leo Calderon stepped forward in October that year until September 1997. Current board member Randy Chavez was his successor.

        After the first presidential term, there were 15 individual members and one corporate member. After two years, there were 25 individual members and two corporate members.

        Progress was moving at a snail's pace, board members said. The former presidents' involvement was limited to the annual award gala, 1996 kick-off luncheon and state functions with sister chambers.

        Before, “there was a lot of apathy (in the leadership),” Ms. Uehlin said. “The idea was to let somebody else take care of it. There were goals, but they weren't followed through.”

        Mr. Chavez said it wasn't apathy. Rather, “we were trying to figure out which way to go,” he said. So things progressed at a much slower pace, he said.

        “We did as much as we could,” said Mr. Calderon, who was then the executive assistant to the president of the Northern Kentucky University.

        “If you bring in someone who can dedicate more time, you'll have more substance,” said Mr. Calderon, who .

        It's the same struggle faced by three Hispanic chambers in Columbus, Toledo and Dayton. All have neither an office or a full-time executive director. One chamber lost the struggle; the one in Lorain, Ohio fizzled after two years.

Foggy forecast
        Ultimately, the chamber would like to have 100 members — and especially more Hispanic merchants. Mainly, it needs an office where local businesses can seek help.

        Mr. Peraza thinks that the organization has taken a step toward those goals.

        “We've made a little progress, and we are on our way forward,” he said. If asked, Mr. Peraza said he will return as a board member.

        But critical future growth hangs in the balance. The chamber's expansion depends a great deal on the next president.

        The president needs to have knowledge of the chamber's history as well as a vision of its future. But most importantly, the president must devote full time to a job that's voluntary.

        The chamber recently formed a nomination committee seeking potential candidates. Leadership is hard to find; in the past, each of the two presidents were the sole nominees for their terms.

        Mr. Harney said he would like to see an existing board member take on the position. But most of the current 11 board members, many of whom are involved with other organizations, have full-time jobs. So the same problem exists among these people as it does among Mr. Peraza: lack of time.

        “We're hoping somebody will come forward,” Mr. Harney said.

Hispanic Chamber time line

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