Tuesday, October 7, 2003

CEO learned 'value of dollar' after family started over in U.S.


Leadership honoree: Cuban native runs CSA Group

By Jeff McKinney
The Cincinnati Enquirer

J.J. Suarez's favorite movie is As Good As It Gets. Considering where he came from, it's hard to imagine how things could get much better.

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J.J. Suarez, President and Chief Executive Officer of the CSA Group.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
| ZOOM |
Suarez is president and chief executive of CSA Group, a Symmes Township-based architectural, engineering and construction management firm with local and international operations. His company's annual revenues have grown from $3.5 million when he took it over in 1995 to nearly $50 million today.

But Suarez, who Thursday will receive the Hispanic Leadership Award from the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Greater Cincinnati, has not always been in such a position.

Born in Havana, Cuba, in 1949, his parents came to the United States in 1960 as refugees after Fidel Castro took power and nationalized all of that country's businesses.

That move devastated the family, since Suarez's father lost the fabric business he started in 1940. The family, which also lost its home, was left broke.

"We left Cuba with literally 25 cents in our pocket," he said. "We had no choice but to leave and start all over again."

The family lived in Miami from 1960 to 1962 and then moved to Puerto Rico. His father restarted his business, selling fabric door to door. The experience taught young Suarez about hard work, principles and to overcome adversity.

"At the age of 12, I learned what the value of a dollar was and how much work it took to earn it," he said. "My father taught me that that hard work, honesty and trustworthiness in all your relationships is what you need to move ahead."

Suarez tries to live, and run his firm, by those principles.

The engineer moved here after college to take a job at the former Structural Dynamics Research Corp. He later moved to Belcan Corp., where he helped that company acquire an engineering firm, Custodio & Associates, (later named CSA) in 1991. From 1992 through 1995, Belcan granted major financing to CSA via Suarez's participation as a partner because engineering firms in Puerto Rico are required to operate as partnerships. He then bought CSA from Belcan in 1996.

In 1995, Suarez resigned from Belcan to spend all his time at CSA and build the company. He used a combination of acquisitions - five under his leadership - and repeat business from existing clients to build the company. CSA now has offices in Atlanta, Chicago, Indianapolis, Miami, Philadelphia and San Juan, Puerto Rico.

But Suarez, who owns 80 percent of the 500-employee firm's stock, isn't done expanding. He plans to grow the company by boosting annual revenue to $100 million and employees to 1,000 in three years. Ninety of the firm's employees own 20 percent of the stock.

He is now shopping for acquisitions and is in talks with potential sellers. He hopes to close two to three deals by year's end. If successful, the deals could add about $15 million to revenues, he said.

"We'd like to keep growing regionally, including plans to go places such as Jersey City, Chicago, San Antonio, Houston and west, maybe like Los Angeles," he said.

The key: Suarez will focus on his niche. That's in communities with growing Hispanic populations that have a need for the specialized services his company can offer, often allowing it to become the winning bidder because it can offer services bilingually.

Being able to offer services bilingually helped CSA Group win a contract last year as part of a project for the Transportation Security Administration, formed after the 2001 terrorist attacks. The project was to standardize and improve airport security systems at 29 airports, including such as places as Alaska, Minnesota and Kansas City. Suarez said the contract was worth about $2 million to $3 million.

"That certainly helped us get our foot in the door," he said. "It gives us a niche because we can send people out that can relate to the Hispanic community and the general community."

As for Suarez, he said he could eventually take his company public and possibly consider a sale, but for now he is confident with its growth.

He also is happy to be recognized a top leader by the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Greater Cincinnati.

"It allows me to tell people that you can grow and that you can become as big as you want," he said. "You can do it as long as you try to overcome your fears and are willing to keep at it."

J.J. Suarez file

• Born: April 23, 1949, in Havana, Cuba.

• Residence: Pierce Township in Clermont County.

• Family: Wife, Ginger, and four children, J.J. Suarez Jr., Carlos Suarez, Joshua Lippmeier and Cristina Green.

• Education: Bachelor's degree in civil engineering, University of Puerto Rico, 1972; master's degree in civil engineering, Cornell University, 1974; doctorate in structural engineering, Cornell University, 1977.

• Career path: Worked in management, Structural Dynamics Research Group, 1976-86; president, Belcan Engineering Group Inc., 1986-1995; left Belcan that year to devote his full attention to CSA Group, a full-service project delivery group.

• Hobbies: Flying his Cessna plane and playing golf.

If you go

When: 7 p.m. Thursday.

What: Third annual Dinner Gala, Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Greater Cincinnati.

Where: Millennium Hotel, downtown Cincinnati.

Keynote speaker: Rubens Antonio Barbosa, Brazil's ambassador to United States.

Tickets: $50 a person.

Details: 579-3111, 458-6649

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E-mail jmckinney@enquirer.com




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