April 10, 2011

For these partners, business is one of many adventures

By J. Hemmerdinger jhemmerdinger@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND - Craig Handley and Tony Ricciardi have parachuted out of a plane from 30,000 feet -- an altitude reserved for airliners.

click image to enlarge

Listen Up Español co-founders Craig Handley, left, and Tony Ricciardi ham it up after skydiving from a plane above Memphis. They belong to a membership company that organizes thrilling networking and team-building trips.

Contributed photo

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They've also been scuba diving with great white sharks off South Africa, and have flown fighter planes in a mock dogfight over the Nevada desert.

Such thrills characterize the relationship between Handley and Ricciardi, two Maine entrepreneurs who founded one of the country's fastest-growing companies, four-year-old Listen Up Espanol.

Listen Up Espanol is based in Portland and operates a call center in Mexico, where the company takes orders for products advertised on infomercials.

In a conference room above Monument Square last week, Ricciardi, 44, leapt from his chair and swung an arm around the neck of 40-year-old Handley, wrapping his partner in an affectionate headlock.

Ricciardi burst out laughing; Handley smiled through clenched teeth.

Sitting down a moment later, they were back to business, explaining how they came together to run their Portland company.

Raised in Waterville, Handley is the son of a Maine state trooper. He always had a passion for music, and after high school was accepted into the Berklee College of Music in Boston.

But Handley needed money to pay for school, so he joined the U.S. Army Reserve and was stationed in Fort Benning, Ga.

Handley eventually decided against college and moved back to Maine, where he took a door-to-door insurance sales job with Combined Insurance, a post in which he developed a well-rehearsed sales routine: When a customer came to the door, he'd begin wiping his feet on the doormat -- a visual cue he planned to come inside. "They let (me) in every time," he said.

Handley later sold insurance with Aflac, and tried car sales -- a job he said made him feel like a crook -- before getting into the call-center business.

In 1995, he opened his own marketing consulting company, Right Hand Marketing, before becoming a partner at call-center consulting firm Revenue Enhancement Consultants.

Then, seeing an opportunity for a Spanish-language call center, he joined with Ricciardi.

A native of Madison, Conn., Ricciardi studied business and marketing at the University of Northern Colorado.

After school, he returned to Connecticut to paint houses. Ricciardi described the period as a difficult time of soul searching.

He eventually took a job selling insurance with MetLife in New Haven.

Ricciardi said he admired the "polished" sales guys at MetLife, but could never match their smooth technique.

Though he didn't stay long, the job taught him about himself; he learned to be comfortable in his own skin.

Later, he worked for a courier company and telecommunications companies, including MCI WorldCom.

In 2000, Ricciardi moved to Maine to work at Cornerstone Marketing.

He was laid off three days before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and began doing consulting work.

Then Ricciardi met Handley, who convinced Ricciardi to join a start-up company that would be called Listen Up Espanol.

It was a good decision. From 2006, when the company was founded, until 2009, Listen Up Espanol's revenue grew 6,914 percent to $14.9 million.

Along the way, Ricciardi and Handley became fast friends.

They travel together and are members of Maverick Business Adventures, a membership company that organizes thrilling networking and team-building trips.

Through the group, Ricciardi and Handley have met the Dalai Lama and attended a brainstorming retreat with Richard Branson on Necker Island, the British entrepreneur's private Caribbean key.

The partners have a soft side, and say happiness lies in the present.

"Enjoy what you have when you have it," said Handley.

"Find happiness in the moment," said Ricciardi.

Handley recently returned to music, forming a band called CRGRUVE and releasing an album called "The Naughty & The Nice" in 2009.

He has four children and lives in York.

Ricciardi is married, has two children and lives in Yarmouth.

Jonathan Hemmerdinger can be reached at 791-6316 or:

jhemmerdinger@mainetoday.com

 

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