Value Added: "Building Something Pretty Spectacular"
Here's Tom Heath's latest column on Washington's successful business people:
Alba AlemÃ¡n 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," AlemÃ¡n 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. AlemÃ¡n 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," AlemÃ¡n 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 AlemÃ¡n.
Anyway, Exxon and Mobil later married and the oil giant is now based in Texas. AlemÃ¡n 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 AlemÃ¡n didn't take a salary for 14 months. AlemÃ¡n 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.
AlemÃ¡n 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."
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 AlemÃ¡n 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. AlemÃ¡n 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," AlemÃ¡n said. My guess? She sells it for a few hundred million some day and buys the Dolphins.
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