Value Added: "Building Something Pretty Spectacular"

Here's Tom Heath's latest column on Washington's successful business people:


Alba Alemán says she is "really stuck in the sandwich."

That's yuppie-speak for supporting your parents and children at the same time. The 40-year-old founder of a Chantilly computer company has the means to do it. Her company, called Citizant, is making plenty of cash on revenues of around $20 million a year.

Not bad for someone who came from Cuba as a one-year-old. Her father was a farmer who raised pigs and chickens, and who later supported Castro's 1959 revolution that toppled dictator Fulgencio Batista. But he eventually become disenchanted with Castro and the Fidelistas, and fled with his family to the United States.


"He was not very popular on the island," Alemán said. "We were in need of finding a new home."

She grew up in Miami and studied at George Washington University, where she majored in psychology and computer information. Why did she pick one of the most expensive schools in the U.S.? She got need-based scholarship money from her high school and GW that covered the cost of her freshman year.

After that, she worked a variety of jobs. Bookkeeping. Resident advisor in a campus dorm. Clerical and computer lab jobs. Whatever work she could find that would allow her to stay in school.

"Very industrial people are the Cubans," she says. "If it's about survival, we can do it."

She started fast out of college, working for Mobil Oil Corp., then based in Fairfax, in marketing and information systems. I asked her to describe the job, and after lots of terms like "point of sales transactions," it comes down to this: Everyone now takes for granted the ease with which you can slide the credit card into the gas station kiosk and start pumping. Alemán had something to do with that.

She also soaked up everything she could about computers and made lots of contacts.

"The culture at Mobil was very tight and it was one of the things I loved about it. Really great intellectual capital. They hired the best and sharpest people out of college. The company really ramped them up quickly. In a matter of three to five years, college graduates were moved into [upper management]. You were allowed to grow and blossom."

And you were allowed to root against Exxon.

"We were not big Exxon fans," Alemán said, referring to a time when gasoline was about a buck a gallon. "We took great pride in anything Exxon did wrong."

Personally, I like the oil companies as investments and own many of them, either through energy-focused mutual funds or direct stock in BP and Chevron. I could filibuster on Big Oil for hours. But I didn't with Alemán.

Anyway, Exxon and Mobil later married and the oil giant is now based in Texas. Alemán left long before the acquisition.

She worked for Texas Instruments from 1992 to 1997, and then left to join a small startup. After less than a year, she decided to venture out on her own as a consultant.

"I knew a lot of people in the computer market. I had trained hundreds of people at the IRS when I was at Texas Instruments. I swear that for two years straight, all I did was teach classes. At the end, I was a recruiter. I knew tons of people. This was in the pre-Monster.com and pre-CareerBuilder days."

She was earning $200,000 a year with a baby girl when, around 1999, she and a friend decided they had enough experience to start their own computer company.

She was 31.

Soon she was working at the U.S. Patent Office during the day as a contractor and running her own company at night. She was working 70 hours a week.

The company made money right off the bat, but Alemán didn't take a salary for 14 months. Alemán began "chewing through savings" and piled $20,000 or $30,000 on her credit card. The company was first run out of her apartment and her business partner's townhouse. They later moved it to the basement of a detached home that she rented in Centreville. She also eventually married her business partner. When she did take a salary, it was $40,000 a year.

Alemán was driving a Mazda at the time.

What exactly does Citizant do? Let's suffice it to say Citizant creates computer systems that manage different sorts of tasks, such as helping the Navy ship goods and the Department of Housing and Urban Development find homes for Katrina refugees or those Californians who have been burned out of their homes. The Navy is the biggest customer and the U.S. Department of Transportation is second.

The company has been profitable for 32 straight quarters, which only an owner would have at the tip of her tongue. Citizant has 130 employees.

So what is the key to the company's success? There are lots of very talented computer types who are good at what they do. "The thing I have learned that has been most important and useful is organizational psychology. How to set up organizations. I hire people that fit into our culture."

Who fits?

Chocolate lovers. And free spirits.

At 8:41 every morning music begins playing through the company's loudspeakers. The song is often by some guy named Rob Thomas, whom I have never heard of. Guess I am betraying my age. Why can't it be Frank Sinatra or Miles Davis?

"Come on over and join us," says a voice over the music.

At 8:43, "the daily huddle" begins and everyone around the room takes turns announcing the priorities they have that day and the roadblocks in front of them. The session takes about six minutes.

"It's a quick way to bring everybody together and on the same page for the day," she said.

So her company's a success, how does she manage her personal finances?

"I just say to someone from Merrill Lynch ..... 'Invest it wisely.' I don't get involved in the details. I tell him to keep it diversified and they make recommendations. I do check my statements every month to see if I am up or down. It's a long-term horizon. I am in mutual growth funds. I had a lot of TI stock that I got and Merrill Lynch sold it and put it into mutual funds in a rollover IRA. I don't have single stocks."

She maxes out her 401(k). She also has non-retirement savings in a taxable account that Merrill manages, but it's less than $100,000. She stopped adding to it a year ago when the Citizant senior management team took a pay cut to fund the company's growth.

Aleman said her spot in the "sandwich" is hampering her savings, but she doesn't mind. She helped her parents, who are in their 60s and 70s, buy a home. Checks and cash fly from Virginia to Florida pretty frequently. "It's normal for us. It's the way the Cuban culture is." And she's also saving for her daughter's education, to leave her well prepared to enter the workplace. Just like Aleman was.

"I didn't start saving for retirement until I hit my 30s. I didn't realize how important it would be. I missed the first eight to 10 years, so I am trying to make up for that."

But she has made some concessions to success: She traded the Mazda for a Lexus. Now, I think spending money on nice cars is crazy. I view autos as transportation, nothing more. We own a black, bottom line Honda Civic. My wife, Polly, told me she wanted some options in the next car. She doesn't consider a radio and air conditioning options. So maybe I will get power windows next time.

But Alemán made me feel better. At least she bought a used Lexus.

She also owns a 46-foot boat, which is docked on the Potomac near National Airport. Alemán follows the Nationals and the Redskins, but her first love is the Miami Dolphins. People never get over their home-team sports franchise.

She doesn't swim. Doesn't golf. Just concentrates on building her company, and caring for her daughter.

"We are building something pretty spectacular," Alemán said. My guess? She sells it for a few hundred million some day and buys the Dolphins.

By Dan Beyers  |  March 25, 2008; 12:03 PM ET  | Category:  Value Added
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Comments

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Great profile, Tom. You found an interesting person and wrote about her in a way that others will like her even if they haven't met her. I work for Alba's company, and yet I learned several things about her from your article. Nice reporting! I look forward to more profiles like this. Thanks.

Posted by: Bruce Milligan | March 25, 2008 6:26 PM

thanks bruce. i appreciate the feedback. i am going to keep doing more profiles of entrepeneurs in the washington region. one thing, do you attend the "daily huddle"? what is it like? and who the heck is rob thomas?

Posted by: tom heath | March 25, 2008 6:37 PM

Tom,

Once again -- nice piece. I like how you profile both "big names" like John Delaney and people "under the radar" like Alba Alemán. In all cases, you find a hook that makes it an interesting read.

Makes me look forward to reading the Post Business section on Mondays.

Posted by: Winston Lord | March 25, 2008 6:46 PM

thanks for reading, winston. probably see you at sunday's nationals opener for the new stadium. hope the weather holds.

Posted by: tom heath | March 25, 2008 6:50 PM

"Stuck in the sandwich" - that's a new one for me. Interesting profile...her initiative and focus are impressive.

Posted by: Ann | March 25, 2008 9:26 PM

I've worked for Alba at Citizant for over 6 years now, and I must say she is amazing! Her energy, passion, and drive for excellence have brought our company a lot of growth! She truly cares about helping employees be the best we can be.

Posted by: Tiffany Chapa | March 26, 2008 10:34 AM

Excellent article Tom. I have been working for Alba's company for little over a year now, and have loved every second of it. The support and satisfaction that Alba and the others provide to the customer is outstanding, and is one of the primary reasons for our growth and reputation. In a business world that is increasingly profit oriented and riddled with scandal, I believe that Citizant is a model example of what happens when you have smart and honest people all working towards a better future. I hope to call Citizant my home for many years to come.

Posted by: Adam Kinder | March 26, 2008 11:12 AM

Hi Tom. The daily huddle at Citizant is a beneficial practice -- we didn't make it up, but we do it well. Yes, I attend religiously. It contributes to an egalitarian culture by giving every employee the chance to state their objectives to all others -- including the CEO, President, CFO, etc. It also encourages accountability for achieving priorities, and lets each of us publicize our roadblocks so that someone else may be able to remove them.

Rob Thomas is the lead singer for Matchbox 20, and the song we use for our "huddle invitation" is called Streetcorner Symphony from his first solo album, "Something To Be." It's a "beach shag" song that speaks to one of our core values -- Better Future -- with lyrics like:

Come on over
Down to the corner
My sisters and my brothers of every different color
Can't you feel that sunshine telling you to hold tight
Things will be alright
Try to find a better life...

Thanks for your interest! Come on over, Down to the corner (in Chantilly) and join us for a huddle at 8:43 some day soon.

Posted by: Bruce Milligan | March 26, 2008 11:13 AM

i am coming to chantilly for the "daily huddle." does it include food? also, i am impressed with the feedback from alba aleman's staff. sounds like you folks like working for her. i feel like an idiot not know rob thomas.

Posted by: tom heath | March 26, 2008 12:04 PM

stuck in a sandwich makes sense. i am trying to figure out if i am stuck in anything. stuck in a rut?

Posted by: tom heath | March 26, 2008 12:07 PM

What an inspiring article on a woman who took full advantage of her talent, resources and personal drive. I don't know Alba, but I feel like I do after reading your piece and would love to know even more about her. As the proud granddaughter of immigrant grandparents, it is resfreshing to read about more people who come to this country often with nothing more than pure determination - and end up with great successes. Well done.

Posted by: Tori | March 27, 2008 10:40 AM

For the past three years, Citizant has been one of SAIC's protégés under the Defense Systems Information Agency (DISA) Mentor-Protégé Program. Alba never ceases to pleasantly surprise me. I, too, learned more about her background and 'what makes her tick' from this article. As Citizant's mentor, I've occupied an office space at their headquarters nearly every Thursday for these past 3 years, and have watched Alba and this company grow and succeed. A part of growing is stretching into bigger roles, which doesn't come without hard choices and personal sacrifice. The article captured how Alba understands that process quite well.

As a protégé, Alba has put forth 110% commitment to the objectives and intent of the Mentor-Protégé Program. She has also gone out of her way many times to help promote SAIC's success in the Program (with our internal and external customers). Alba is truly committed to the success of others.

Success is a journey, and Alba has proven she is on it!

Posted by: Collene Dugan | March 27, 2008 11:40 AM

Tom, wonderful article. It's been my pleasure to work with Alba and I'm so glad you had the chance to meet her and share her story. In addition to being an amazing business leader, she's a really cool person. I could hear Alba's true voice come through this piece, and combined with yours it all made for a delightful, inspirational conversation.

Posted by: Kristina Messner | March 27, 2008 6:36 PM

thanks for reading the piece, tori. i agree with your sentiments about determination being the key to success. persistence is everything.

Posted by: tom heath | March 27, 2008 6:57 PM

thanks for the feedback colleen. cool stuff.

Posted by: tom heath | March 27, 2008 6:59 PM

Very interesting profile of someone who clearly has applied herself and has applied her personal values to her professional life. Rare to find someone whose employees are so fond of. If she owns a Lexus (even used) and a 46 foot boat, the sandwich she is stuck in must at least be steak in a baguette. No peanut butter and jelly here.

Posted by: Cooper | March 29, 2008 6:44 AM

Hey, Cooper. Thanks for the observation. You sound like someone who LOVES cars and boats. And golf and good wine.

Posted by: tom heath | March 31, 2008 4:01 PM

alba is my cousin and ever since she was very young was always finding the opportunities "hidden" within each problem, so no wonder she will even make it bigger through her passion and high ethic values, i congratulate the author of this article (for his "human approach") and i specially congratulate those fortunate to be her working-mates !

Posted by: julio fmm | April 1, 2008 4:35 PM

As a Washington Post subscriber, I was very happy to see the article on Alba Aleman. I would love to see more inspiring articles like this one. You should be congratulated for reaching out.

I encourage you to continue writing articles on successful Hispanic Companies like Citizant.

If you want to find more successful Minority owned companies with great stories let me know.

Carlos

Senior Business Development Specialist
U.S. Dept of Commerce - Minority Business Development Agency
202-482-3064

Posted by: Carlos | April 2, 2008 11:41 AM

i saw you contact information and i will call you carlos.

Posted by: tom heath | April 2, 2008 6:10 PM

As the Director of Recruiting for Citizant, I can tell you that it's a very close team here. Everyone works well together and it's rare to have a day when folks aren't "on fire" about their jobs. Although everyone has a different job, each is made to feel that theirs is the most important. I have not seen anything quite like it in my 15 years of experience as a recruiter.

A culture of excellence, traditions and values are at the core of every action and every business decision. I get calls daily from professionals in the marketplace that want to know more about our "secret sauce" - even if I don't have a job for them at that moment. In a world of rapidly merging organizations, its nice to know that there is still a place to work where people, culture and values rule the day. If anyone reading this wants to be a part of a team of ROCK STARS, please feel free to give me a call.

Tom, thanks for an exceptional article about our exceptional leader.

Posted by: Sheila | April 3, 2008 3:51 PM

Way to go, alba! You've toiled and worked for the success of this company, and you've been given a hefty reward: being surrounded with people who you enjoy everyday, doing something you love, and having something to pour your heart into. Although I've only observed from the sidelines, I can clearly see how hard you work. I look up to you, and I hope I've been there for you.

Love,
gobita

Posted by: ada | April 5, 2008 6:10 PM

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