Latin Business Assn. Sets Ambitious Goals

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Eastside offices of the Latin Business Assn. are comfortable, not fancy, and functional, not flashy--sort of like the organization itself.

But something may be changing.

That small office suite is filled with three--soon to be four--staff members and a new executive director. There is talk of new computers and new activities. And the recently elected president and board have set ambitious goals for the LBA with an eye toward making the trade organization more visible, more vocal and one of the premier Latino organizations in the state.

Those are high hopes for the 14-year-old group, which for nearly a third of its life was known as the Latin Business men's Assn. and at times has struggled for an identity beyond some of its more obvious social events.

But the stakes are high for the fast-growing Latino business community, said LBA President Harold H. Martinez. Southern California is home to more than 70,000 Latino-owned businesses, the highest concentration in the nation, according to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

"For too long we, the Latino, have been used and abused by corporate America and, in particular, by our own government, local, state and federal," said Martinez, president of Able Industrial Products, a small South El Monte company that manufactures plastic and rubber products.

"I wouldn't mind being used if they would give us opportunities," he said. "I mind it when they don't give us any business."

At the LBA, "We have a motto: We mean business," Martinez said.

The group was founded in 1976 by a few local businessmen and grew slowly at first.

Finances were so tight in the early years that, in 1980, a ballot to determine if the Latin Businessmen's Assn. should change its name and admit women was never mailed because none of the members could afford to foot the bill, Martinez recalled.

A telephone poll found that most members had no opinion; of the remainder, there were three "yes" votes for every "no way," and the name was changed, he said.

It wasn't until the mid-1980s that the LBA began to move. The all-volunteer group attracted some corporate sponsorship to its activities. Then in 1985, the LBA, with the help of Rep. Esteban E. Torres (D-La Puente), persuaded Crocker Bank to lend the organization one of its vice presidents. Under Crocker's executive loan program, Estela Romero became the LBA's first executive director late that year, and many credit her with helping whip the nonprofit group into shape.

The LBA has come a long way, with a larger staff, more members, more activities and greater influence. The former business men's group got its first woman president in 1989, Lillian Aguilar, owner of Wonder World Preschool in Rosemead. Two women currently serve on the LBA's 11-member board of directors and five women sit on the 17-member board of trustees, an advisory group representing major corporations and government.

But if there is any persistent criticism of the LBA, it is that the group, as one East Los Angeles businessman put it, is "not truly integrated sexually."

LBA member Oralia Michel, who owns a public relations business, said she complained at a recent committee meeting for the golf fund-raiser that last year's masters of ceremonies, both men, used too much sexist humor. This year, the committee is considering a woman as an MC, she said.

"Some men are supportive," said Michel, who joined the LBA last year. As for the rest, she said, "their minds will open up eventually."

The LBA's 1990 budget is about $400,000 and the group operates in the black, said Executive Director Frank Medina, who joined the organization in January. "Our CPA board members watch it like a hawk," said Medina, who previously was a district manager of the American Red Cross.

The LBA is well-known in the community for three annual fund-raising events: its awards banquet, golf and tennis tournament, and a Christmas dinner (the proceeds of the last event are donated to various nonprofit groups). The organization's activities also include quarterly business luncheons and various networking events for members.

In addition, the LBA sponsors seminars on a variety of subjects to help members run their businesses and has hosted trade missions to foreign countries. i

The LBA office serves as an information clearinghouse as well as a referral service for contracts with corporations and the government.

The organization plans to buy a new computer system that members can tap into with their personal computers for information on contracts and LBA activities, Medina said. Aggressive marketing last year pushed membership to nearly 700.

The LBA has received awards and its influence has grown as the group has taken more activist stands on issues affecting small business and minorities.

Politicians and corporate leaders show up at LBA events and have sent endorsements that the group uses in its promotional literature--including a supportive quote from former President Ronald Reagan.

Kathleen Calderon, assistant secretary of the state Business, Transportation and Housing Agency called the LBA "one of the most influential business associations in the state."

"They certainly have done their homework in terms of networking with the corporate sector, which is really significant for their members, and not just for their members but for the entire Latino business community in the state," Calderon said, adding that the group was one of the organizations that negotiated a minority purchasing agreement with Pacific Bell in 1987.

"I think it's very influential because of the members and makeup of the association," said Joe Sanchez Jr., owner of Civic Center Sales wholesale grocery business and a well-known Latino businessman who helped found the Mexican American Grocers Assn. "I think the corporations are listening to them very carefully," said Sanchez, who is not an LBA member.

LBA members say there is much more to be done.

The board of directors at a March weekend retreat set some ambitious goals. Among them:

* Develop a political action plan and form a political action committee in 1990.

* Establish a more sophisticated information clearinghouse on government and corporate contracts.

* Increase membership to 5,000 and acquire an LBA building by 1995.

* Establish an "incubator program" for small companies.

"The level of sophistication continues to increase as the organization matures," said Romero, who now operates a marketing consultant business bearing her name in the City of Industry. "We still have a lot to do and everybody will admit to that."

But it is crucial work for the Latino community, she said.

"I'm convinced that the road to opportunity for Latinos is through economic development," Romero said. "Those that have the gold, make the rules."

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