In the 10 years since emigrating from his native Colombia, Juan Rodriguez learned to speak English, became a licensed independent insurance agent and launched three small businesses.
Along the way, Rodriguez taught himself the ins and outs of running an insurance agency, a radio station and a Mexican restaurant. He persevered after being fired from his first American job, and later rebuilt his first business after a tumultuous breakup with his partner. Most important, he says, he has always made time to help others, which goes a long way toward explaining why he’s become a respected leader in the Latino business community.
He’s just opened his fourth business - Cinco de Mayo West – a Mexican restaurant in West Des Moines.
Rodriguez, whose small A.M. radio station, La Reina 1260, broadcasts a variety of public service programs as an information resource for the Latino community, also spends a lot of his time assisting other immigrants who want to become citizens or to start their own businesses.
Helping people without expecting anything in return is a principle he learned from his mother, said the 40-year-old, who grew up poor with 13 siblings on his family’s small farm in Colombia.
“My idea is to continue to work with the community, to always try to help the community,” said Rodriguez, who became a U.S. citizen in 2008. “At the same time, I know that it’s paid off. When customers know about you and that you are doing good things for the community, they will support you.”
Rodriguez is “truly a business success story,” said Max Cardenas, a small business consultant who has known him for more than eight years. “He truly embodies someone who has pulled himself up by his bootstraps.”
Starting Over - Twice
Rodriguez first learned the insurance business by working for his sister’s agency as a Spanish-speaking customer service representative in Chicago. He began work one day after he got off the plane from Colombia.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do in the United States, but I just knew that I wanted to come,” Rodriguez said. When he was finally notified that his visa had been approved in February 2003 – 13 years after he had initially applied – he was working as a hardware/software developer for a government bank in Colombia.
His first year in the United States was going well, until his sister fired him over a family disagreement. He spent the next several months washing cars for an automobile dealer in Chicago. Then he and his girlfriend moved to Des Moines, where a year later they launched an insurance agency. Meanwhile, he started each workday at 4 a.m. as a janitor at Drake University, where he would listen to English lessons on his MP3 player while cleaning bathrooms and practice reading English from library books. He spent the afternoons helping his girlfriend fix up the insurance office and studying for his insurance license.
By early 2005, the agency was doing well and Rodriguez quit his job at Drake to work full-time at the agency. The couple had a baby, a son. They were starting to hire employees.
Then, as Rodriguez would say – “Uh-oh.” In 2007 the couple broke up, ending not just the relationship but the business partnership. She took the telephones, the computers and most of the clients with her.
Starting over, but now equipped with an agent license, Rodriguez got assistance from ISED Ventures through a matched savings program which helped him to buy new computers and re-equip the agency.
“I started motivating my employees,” he said, using financial incentives offered by one of the insurers he represented. “I told them, ‘I can do the advertisement to get people to come to the office, but you have to offer the customers really good service so they’ll stay with us.’”
At the same time he was rebuilding his insurance agency, he was working with a radio station to provide community service spots for nonprofits serving the Latino community. After having trouble securing free radio time, he began searching for a station to buy and picked up a Boone station at a bargain price.
“I didn’t know anything about radio stations, but I started buying computers and talking with my attorney in Washington, D.C.,” Rodriguez recalled. The station now employs four people and in January, Rodriguez launched a monthly magazine to complement and promote its programming
“Whenever there’s a community initiative, you definitely think about bringing it to Juan’s attention,” said Cardenas, who praised Rodriguez’s initiative in identifying a community need and filling it with the radio station. “He’s definitely one of the leading entrepreneurs in the Hispanic community, and an example for entrepreneurs from all backgrounds.”
The restaurant came about as a twist of fate. In late 2010, a friend who owned a restaurant approached Rodriguez, telling him he needed to borrow money to keep his restaurant open. Rodriguez, realizing his friend was deep in debt and a bad risk, declined to make the loan. A few weeks later the property owner contacted him to ask if he wanted to buy the restaurant.
“It was an opportunity; we didn’t look for it,” he said. “But I always say, sometimes you have to risk something if you want something better. I knew that with good advertising and good service, we could get into a good place and make the business successful. At that time, I knew how to manage employees, how to make payrolls, IRS payments.”
After borrowing $50,000 from Veridian Credit Union and another $50,000 from friends and family, he opened Cinco de Mayo at 5118 S.E. 14th Street in January 2011. “It was another opportunity for us to learn,” he said. A friend of his has since bought an ownership stake in the restaurant and now manages it.
Rodriguez also seized the opportunity to buy the East Grand Avenue building that now houses his agency and radio station, after the property’s previous owner defaulted on an SBA loan.
“I couldn’t hire a big contractor, so I fixed things here and there, and hired Latino workers to get it ready,” he said. The agency and the radio station moved from a nearby leased location to the building in mid-2011.
Though the radio station just breaks even, it provides a synergistic tool for Rodriguez to promote his own businesses while helping the Latino community. “My businesses pay the radio station (for the ads) to help it survive, because the restaurant and Diversity Insurance are doing well,” he said. He hopes to buy or lease an FM translator to broadcast a stronger signal for the station, which currently uses a tower in Boone, and plans to continue to grow the magazine.
As for the agency, Rodriguez continues to bring on more insurance companies to offer additional products to his customers, and hopes within a couple of years to form his own insurance company.
With his three companies, Rodriguez now collectively employs 23 people – seven with the agency, four at the radio station and 12 at the restaurant. He hopes to employ at least 10 people at Cinco de Mayo West, which opened Aug. 24 at 5014 E.P. True Parkway.
“It’s a good market, and that area has just two Mexican restaurants,” he said. “We can do something good with it.”