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Dreaming big for Latino firms

Special to The Times

Ask for his business card and you’re likely to get a handful from Ruben Guerra, chairman of the Latin Business Assn. in Los Angeles.

The affable Los Angeles native carries one for his 1,200-member organization, one for his construction company, a freshly printed one for his new liquid coating business and, until recently, a fourth for the packaging wholesale business he started when he was 23.

He sold a majority interest in the City of Commerce-based business to free up time for his other pursuits, which include co-chairing the California Latino Water Coalition, a group working to bolster the state’s water supply.

It’s the LBA that has his heart, he said.

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“Being part of the LBA has been kind of an eye-opener for me,” said Guerra, who will turn 40 in May. “Right now it’s a time of my life where I want to give back somehow, to help somehow.”

Guerra was elected to a two-year term in October after filling in the prior eight months for the former chairman, Rick Sarmiento, who left to serve as appointments secretary for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Another former chairman, Hector V. Barreto, was tapped to run the Small Business Administration in 2001, a job he held for five years.

Guerra says he has no desire to follow in their footsteps in the near future. He has been approached many times for possible political posts, he said, but hopes to be reelected for another two-year stint as head of the LBA so he can get to his entire to-do list.

At a board retreat last month, he got approval to move forward on several new programs, including a partnership with several longtime local Latino realty companies that are members of the LBA to give free counseling to homeowners struggling in the sub-prime mortgage meltdown.

He also is expanding the group’s scholarship program to include the Boyle Heights Technology Youth Center, an alternative high school that opened in 2006.

Guerra also wants the LBA to get more involved with members to promote their businesses, including tapping local political leaders to attend grand openings. And he’s looking to boost the number of corporate sponsors that work with the group, which hasn’t operated in the black for several years, he said.

Guerra spoke recently about his agenda for the national business group, as well as the challenges he sees ahead.

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Is there still a need for a Latin business association?

There is a lot more need for one today because, as the Latino population grows, there is more of a demand for education, for scholarships, for business loans, everything. Everyone is focusing on the Latino community. Everybody wants to see how can we market to the Latino community.

But it should also be the other way around. Not only how can you sell to the Latino community, but how can you help the Latino community? And that’s a role we are going to play.

Do you have enough money to carry out your plans?

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I’m calling the next two years -- and I’ve been telling everybody -- I see the next two years as being the million-dollar years for the LBA. Some people think I’m being a little too hopeful, but you have got to dream that we can make it.

You’re launching ambitious programs at a time when less money seems to be available for nonprofits.

We will find the money somehow. We plan to be very successful over the next several years with these programs we are launching. This is something corporate America is looking for, and there is no reason they shouldn’t be providing funds for these educational programs.

Because I really believe that, as I talk to different corporations -- mainly banks and bigger corporations, you know -- they all talk about wanting to fund education programs, provide foundation money, access the community from a market perspective, help the Latino community. They all talk about the same thing, but when it comes down to it, it is not happening.

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I don’t think any of them are doing what they should be doing. And I think they have to be held accountable somehow. That’s why we are trying to create more programs so they cannot say, ‘There is nothing out there. We cannot invest in the community.’

Does your group work with the SBA to offer members loans?

SBA used to be a partner of ours a while back. We just started negotiating with them to bring them back. We’re working on a new, online access-to-capital program with several different banks. One in particular -- Bancomer -- is trying to create a program for what are the needs of our members.

What happened to the SBA program?

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In the past, they had something called access to capital. I think it was more venture capitalists. Not really ‘How can I get a loan from the bank?’ it was more like ‘How can I take over your company?’ So I don’t think it really worked. I think that’s why it kind of fell apart. So now we are strategically trying to plan correctly to be able to provide loans, bank accounts, credit cards, everything you need from a bank.

Education is a focus for your business group?

In my first speech when I took over a year ago, I said then and I’ll say now: The LBA will have a major impact on the dropout rate in the school system.

To start, we are bringing in a product tested in Nevada to help high school kids not passing the exit exam. Only 20% of Latino kids pass, which is ridiculous. So not only do we have a problem with the dropout rate, now they can’t pass the test. Why? Who’s to blame? We don’t know.

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We are going to launch a free pilot project at my alma mater, Lincoln High School, to give the online program to all the kids who fail. We’ll study the results in a few months to see how the pass rate changed.

We had five interns at the LBA who had failed the test. At the after-school program, they said, the teacher just says, ‘Study the book.’ No one is learning. This online program teaches them step-by-step, in English and Spanish. You take a practice test and parents and teachers can track your progress.

How do you juggle your roles?

Sometimes it is very hard. My day runs from 6 in the morning till about 10 in the evening. It’s kind of hard on the family: My daughter is 12 and my son is 9. I try to take them to [one of their] sport events at 6:30, then I go to an event. It’s a challenge, but it pays off personally because I feel like I’m doing something good for the community. Giving back.

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cyndia.zwahlen@latimes.com

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Latin Business Assn.

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Leadership: Ruben Guerra, chairman and CEO

Members: 1,200

Annual budget: $350,000

Dues: $250 a year

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Staff: One

History: Five USC students started the business group in 1976 as the Latin Businessmen’s Assn.

Contact: LBA office (213) 628-8510. Online www.lbausa.com


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