Hispanic immigrants establish entrepreneurial beachheads in US

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Sales at Kaufman and Roberts, a Miami-based appliances and electronics retailer, have risen heartily from $41 million last year to around $70 million this year.

But there is no Kaufman, and there is no Roberts.

The Cuban-American company belongs to Jose and Irela Saumat, who made the name up to give their business a mainstream American sound.

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The number of Latino businesses in the United States - chiefly in California, Texas, and Florida - is growing more than three times as fast as the expansion of the Latino population. And a growing proportion of these businesses are wading into the greater American marketplace, beyond their own ethnic enclave.

In the classic pattern of American immigrant groups, the elite among these entrepreneurs have established a Hispanic beachhead in the middle class, even as the proportion of Hispanics living below the poverty line is apparently increasing.

During the 1970s, according to census figures, the number of Hispanic businesses grew by 200 percent, while the Hispanic population in the US grew by 64 percent. The US Hispanic Chamber of Commerce estimates there were 363,000 Hispanic businesses in 1983, earning $18 billion annually. By 1987, the chamber projects, there will be 611,000 businesses, earning $35 billion.

Most of these businesses are ''mom and pop'' outfits. David Torres, an assistant professor of business at the University of Arizona in Tucson, notes that in 1977 firms with paid employees amounted to only 19 percent of the revenue earned by Latino enterprises. The vast majority of Latino businesses, then, are too small to compete in the American mainstream.

But other analysts point out that many of these businesses are worked by large families, in the Latin American tradition.

A vanguard of these companies, perhaps 5 percent, are well ahead of the others and serve markets beyond the Hispanic community, according to Richard Arellano, a consultant who directed a study of Hispanic businesses in the United States for the National Chamber Foundation, a research arm of the US Chamber of Commerce.

Behind this elite group, says Dr. Arellano, is a cadre of young Hispanics in college and corporate training programs that will create a ''mini- explosion'' of dynamic Hispanic businesses in about 10 years.

The growth of Hispanic entrepreneurship, says Mitch Maidique, ''is a very clear sign of upward mobility.'' Dr. Maidique is a professor of management and director of the Innovation Institute at the University of Miami. Success in business, he adds, usually breaks ground for an ethnic group's greater presence in the professions, where careers require expensive educations.

Hank Koehn, resident futurist at Security Pacific Corporation in Los Angeles, first noticed a budding prosperity among Mexican-Americans in the late 1970s. Box office cashiers for Zoot Suit, a hit play about Mexican-American Los Angeles in the 1940s, were making two bank runs a day with cash. Mr. Koehn found that much of the largely Latino audience was not aware it could pay with charge cards.

''They were an affluent audience; they dressed well,'' Koehn says. ''But they didn't know theater protocol.''

Since then, Koehn has seen the number of charge-card holders with Hispanic surnames increase at department stores. He also notes another sign in the rise in the number of Latinos forming single-person

households - a practice at odds with Latin tradition of staying at home until marriage, but typical of the American middle class.

Hispanic Business, a magazine published in Santa Barbara, Calif., publishes an annual list of the nation's 400 largest Latino firms. This year's list, out soon, will show a wide and growing diversity of industries, says the journal's managing editor, John Coombs.

Many Hispanic businesses are family operations, he says, in which at least one son follows the father into the company.

On the other end of the economic scale, the number of Hispanics living below the poverty level grew by 22 percent between 1980 and 1983, according to a recent study by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.

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