April 10, 2011

The Bottom Line: Answering the call
to serve the Hispanic population

Portland is the headquarters for a Spanish-language call center that is one of the nation's fastest-growing private companies.

By J. Hemmerdinger jhemmerdinger@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND - For two Portland entrepreneurs, the word "awesome" has special meaning.

click image to enlarge

CEO Craig Handley, left, and President Tony Ricciardi of Listen Up Español work from an office in Portland.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

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LISTEN UP ESPANOL

HEADQUARTERS: Portland

HISTORY: Partners Tony Ricciardi and Craig Handley founded Listen Up Espanol in Portland in 2006. That same year, they opened a call center in Hermosillo, Mexico, where Listen Up Espa?s Spanish-speaking telephone agents take orders for products advertised on television infomercials.

NUMBER OF EMPLOYEES: Roughly 770, including 750 in Mexico and 20 in Portland.

EXECUTIVES: CEO Craig Handley, 40, and President Tony Ricciardi, 44.

WORTH NOTING: Neither Ricciardi nor Handley speaks fluent Spanish.

FINANCIALS: Listen Up Espanol grew 6,914 percent between 2006 and 2009 -- from annual revenues of $212,115 to $14.9 million. Revenues dipped to $10 million in 2010, but are forecast to climb to $17 million this year.

Neither Handley or Ricciardi speaks Spanish, but both have sales and marketing experience and had consulted to the call-center industry.

It's a core value of their company, Listen Up Espanol and anchors their mission statement, a 10-page document titled the "Code of Awesomeness."

Perhaps they're on to something.

Portland-based Listen Up Espanol, which runs a Spanish-speaking call center in Mexico, is one of the nation's fastest-growing private companies, with three-year revenue growth that approached 7,000 percent in 2009.

And despite setbacks in 2010, the firm's leaders say they are back on track, thanks to a powerful company culture and booming demand for Spanish-speaking telephone agents.

"Be true to yourself, and live life like an extreme sport," said Listen Up Espanol CEO Craig Handley, 40, last week, explaining his philosophy of life and business.

"The only thing that makes us succeed is our people. (They are) the DNA," added President Tony Ricciardi, who is 44.

In 2006, Ricciardi and Handley launched Listen Up Espanol, a company that fields customer service calls from Hispanic U.S. residents and takes sales orders for a variety of "As Seen on TV" products, such as Jack LaLanne's Power Juicer, the InStyler hair iron, the Magic Bullet blender and the Ab Rocket.

The partners said they started Listen Up Espanol because very few companies specialized in taking calls from Spanish-speaking U.S. consumers.

But the market is huge, Ricciardi and Handley said, noting that there are some 50 million Hispanics in this country, and millions of undocumented Spanish-speaking residents -- more people than the populations of Canada or Australia.

"It's not a population people should be ignoring," he said.

The partners called their company Listen Up Espanol -- a name they took from Listen Up, a Westbrook-based call center that they partly owned.

Because they live in Maine, they based the company in Portland, but chose to locate their call center in Hermosillo, Mexico, an industrial city in the northwest part of the country.

Today, Listen Up Espanol has some 750 telephone agents in Mexico and 20 staff in Portland who manage sales, finance and strategy.

The company fielded 1.8 million phone calls in 2010.

Neither Handley or Ricciardi speaks Spanish, but both have sales and marketing experience and had consulted to the call-center industry.

They financed Listen Up Espanol with roughly $850,000 from Revenue Enhancement Consultants, a call-center advisory business founded by Handley in 1996.

Spinglass Management Group, a Portland-based business consultancy and merger and acquisition firm, invested $250,000.

The partners said the early days were difficult.

Money was tight, and the company hadn't perfected sales techniques, data-tracking systems or call-center technology. And their phone carrier was dropping a high percentage of calls -- forcing Listen Up Espanol to credit clients for lost business.

"We were doing a lot of calls, but the (sales) opportunity was falling apart at the call center," said Handley.

Payment problems also hampered the young company.

Handley said the industry assumed Hispanic consumers preferred to pay by c.o.d. -- the "collect on delivery" method -- rather than by credit card.

But buyers frequently weren't home to meet the postal carrier. Sales went unclosed.

Using techniques they learned as consultants, Handley and Ricciardi started making improvements.

Simple changes paid huge dividends, such as requiring telephone agents to complete a purchase before "upselling" -- an industry term for encouraging consumers to buy additional products.

Handley and Ricciardi also instituted a compensation program they say encourages friendly competition among agents to close sales.

Listen Up Espanol also stopped accepting c.o.d. payments and upgraded its reporting.

Ricciardi now measures the business against a range of factors, including revenue per call, cost per call, and overhead expenses.

The data, he said, let him monitor and manage the business from Portland, 2,400 miles from Hermosillo.

Demand for Listen up Espanol's services skyrocketed during the first few years.

The company moved into a larger call center in Hermosillo, and hired an additional 500 agents in one month in 2009.

That same year, Ricciardi and Handley purchased majority ownership of Listen Up, the Westbrook call center, which had 80 employees. Listen Up primarily fielded calls from radio ads.

Between 2006 and 2009, revenue jumped 6,914 percent, from $212,115 to $14.9 million, earning the company the No. 27 spot on Inc. magazine's list of America's fastest-growing private companies.

Ricciardi and Handley own 95 percent of the company.

Listen Up Espanol's growth caught the attention in 2010 of then-Gov. John Baldacci, who honored the company and other fast-growing Maine firms at an event in December.

In an email to The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, Gov. Paul LePage called Listen Up Espanol's growth a "great example of how technology can create an opportunity for a small, Maine-based company to fill a national market niche."

Listen Up Espanol operates in the $350 billion direct-response marketing industry. Direct-response marketers use ads to encourage consumers to call them directly to place orders.

Vi Paynich, content manager at the industry trade group Electronic Retailing Association, said the direct-response industry, as a whole, remained strong during the recession. She said the inexpensive prices of the industry's TV products appealed to consumers.

"Because the price points are (reasonably) low, we are still finding an audience and consumers that want to buy these items," she said.

But the recession didn't leave Listen Up Espanol unscathed.

In 2010, after three years of growth, the firm's revenue plunged roughly 30 percent to $10 million.

Handley said many of his clients cut television advertising that year because of economic pressures.

Also, he said, the World Cup soccer tournament forced TV ad rates to rise.

In 2010, the company shuttered Listen Up in Westbrook and laid off staff. The partners said they had grown too fast and drifted outside their TV infomercial niche.

Challenges aside, Handley and Ricciardi predict 2011 revenue will jump to $17 million, and they expect to hire hundreds of new telephone agents in Hermosillo by the end of the year.

Growth plans call for landing new types of clients, such as nonprofit groups. And the partners think they can help the federal government field calls from Hispanic citizens.

But Handley said the company's future lies largely online. He sees opportunity in advertisements on social media websites, which he said empower consumers by allowing them to rate and review products and services.

But both agree that they need happy employees to grow, which is one reason they wrote the company's "Code of Awesomeness" mission statement.

"Something is 'awesome' when expectations are exceeded, making one ENTHUSIASTICALLY exclaim, 'Wow, that was AWESOME!' " says the document.

The mission statement also defines the company's vision, which is to "build an organization that inspires happiness through profitability, giving back and living our core values." "People work for happiness," said Handley. "They want to enjoy what they do."

To bring more happiness to their agents, Handley and Ricciardi are launching a new compensation program: Starting next month, Listen Up Espanol will give away an $11,000 car every two months to one of the company's top sales agents.

Jonathan Hemmerdinger can be reached at 791-6316 or:

jhemmerdinger@mainetoday.com

 

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