Andres Ruzo was born in Lima, Peru, where his mother was a bit of a celebrity. "She's like the Julia Child of my country," he says. In 1980, Ruzo came to the U.S. to study engineering at Texas A&M. Determined to stay in the U.S.--Peru was rife with terrorism at the time, and Ruzo says there were no growth prospects--Ruzo worked at everything from digging sewer pipes to selling real estate to working in oil exploration. In 1994, he founded LinkAmerica to provide sophisticated switching equipment to telecom companies. After changes in the industry wiped out that business--and nearly did the same to his company--Ruzo began selling IT services instead. LinkAmerica brought in $214 million in 2011, and landed at No. 223 on this year's Inc. 500.
I'm a serial entrepreneur, which was a necessity. No one wanted to hire me. I'm Peruvian by birth and Texan by choice. When I graduated from Texas A&M, I didn't have papers to stay. No one wanted to train me for six months. I had to invest $2,000 and get paid $50 a week by the company that got me an H1 visa. The company went belly up. But I was able to stay.
I had so many different start-ups, just because I was trying to make ends meet. I was selling perishables--importing and exporting fruits and vegetables--in the winter and selling real estate in the summer. It was crazy. I look back and say, oh, my God, what have I done. I don't recommend it. It's been a learning process.
When I first went into business, I had to figure out how to make myself known. I joined the chamber of commerce. I sat on local, regional, and national boards and commissions. Often I was representing my community, but that's how I made myself known. I met the head of AT&T and Verizon and did deals with them. They see me working for my community, and they learn I'm a good business guy. That's kind of my path. I'm not saying that's for everyone.
We've been in business since 1994. We have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly.
In 1994, we started LinkAmerica from my son's bedroom. It was easy to make money. When I stumbled into telecom, I saw that I could effectively compete with the large manufacturers. They were very expensive, and their job was to put a lot of money into engineering and design. We had limited competition, we were selling large-ticket items, and our clients bought from us repeatedly. For seven years, I had what I called fat cows.
In 2001, my whole business went out the window. My clients used to buy equipment from me to do long-distance calling and switching. Their customers were paying 14 cents a minute to call Mexico. With the Internet, that was gone. My customers were bankrupt, they went out of business, or were acquired.
It was painful. I reinvented myself four times. I did construction. I started doing fiber to the residence for Verizon. I tried everything. My company went from 100 people to five.
At that point, I was ready to bankrupt my company. But I realized information technology was the future, and I started focusing on IT services. I found an investor, a company I had worked with before, that got me $1 million and a line of credit. They understood my business model, and they gave me the capacity, financially, to build my team.
Now, I want my company to be very slim. I don't want to do it all on my own. I love working with partners. Why? Remember how the Japanese were vertically integrated all the time? They owned manufacturing, design, assembly, trucking, the retail stores--everything--and it was a disaster. The only way you can be successful is if you're really good at something. Then you team up with four guys that do very well at four different things.
I came here with two bags and a dream. I never expected that I was going to go from $2 million to $250 million. Thanks to God, we've been very successful.