He won't rest his case

THE BALTIMORE SUN

By all accounts, Richard J. Otero Sr. is entitled to some rest.

Over the past several decades, he has built two companies from scratch and sold them for several million dollars apiece. He's fought in a war, founded several minority business organizations, dined with three U.S. presidents and is on a first-name basis with Vice President Al Gore.

He lives in a pristine gated community overlooking the South River's banks in Edgewater, drives a Cadillac and doesn't want a larger house or a nicer car - though by his own calculations he can afford to buy a top-of-the-line Mercedes every day for the rest of his life.

But instead of retiring and idling away hours on the golf course, Otero spends long days hunched over a desk, wolfing down a pizza lunch on the fly and taking in meetings in his khakis. He has started a third business, EZCertify.com, which makes software to help small businesses write business plans and earn certifications to become government contractors.

Otero, 61, tried to retire in 1998 after selling his second company, RJO Enterprises Inc. EZCertify.com was conceived as a chapter in a book he was writing about Small Business Administration programs. The chapter sought to explain the arcane application process for the SBA's 8(a) Business Development Program certification, which gives minority-owned businesses incentives to compete for government contracts they might otherwise lose out on.

But the book's editors thought the chapter was too detailed, and suggested that he package it as a CD-ROM.

Though RJO owed much of its growth to the 8(a) program, Otero was inclined to scrap the project because he didn't think there was much of a market for it. But in the summer of 1998, the SBA broadened the eligibility requirements to include white women and people with disabilities. Otero estimated that the changes would allow more than 1.5 million new businesses to qualify.

Otero feared the 4-inch-thick application, which could involve months of back-and-forth mailings to government bureaucrats, would turn off many of them. So he converted his CD-ROM plan into a software program that takes four hours to complete. He will introduce it at the Minority Enterprise Development Conference in Washington today.

"Some of us suffered through it the hard way," Otero said of the certification process. "The way I learned was by doing it wrong half a dozen times."

Though he may have stumbled through his application, Otero's resume suggests few missteps.

"I'm not sure he's done a lot wrong," said Al Coke, a longtime friend who met Otero when he became a consultant for RJO. Coke, an independent management consultant whose client roster now includes Nike Canada and the Royal Bank of Trinidad, calls Otero "one of the most detailed guys I know."

The son of Puerto Rican immigrants, Otero spent his childhood outside Newark, N.J. His father was trained as an accountant, but became a machinist during World War II.

Otero graduated from the New Jersey Institute of Technology with a degree in electrical engineering in 1961. After a stint with Bell Labs, he was called into the Air Force as a captain. He shipped out to South Vietnam on Aug. 11, 1963, where he flew over the ravaged countryside installing communications and radar systems.

He returned in 1965 and landed a job at the Illinois Institute of Technology's research institute, which had a three-employee outpost in Annapolis specializing in electromagnetic compatibility. Two years later, when the Annapolis office grew to 1,000 people, Otero and two IIT partners struck out on their own, founding National Scientific Laboratories as a communications and engineering company.

With little in start-up capital - Otero didn't even have a credit card - they grew NSL into an $81 million company. In 1971, Atlantic Research Corp. bought them for $81 million, which the partners split three ways.

At age 31, eight years after his first flyover in the South Vietnam jungles, Otero was a multimillionaire. By then, he'd earned his master's degree in electrical engineering from George Washington University.

Otero then spent nine years as a vice president with Aeronautical Radio Inc. in Annapolis, during which time he also earned a master's degree in business administration from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But the entrepreneur in him was restless. So in 1979, he started RJO Enterprises Inc.

In Otero's basement, a mix of seasoned NSL managers and young graduates built RJO into a global software and engineering company.

The staff remained close even as RJO grew out of the basement, moved to a Crofton office park and finally settled in Lanham. But the bond became a mixed blessing for Otero when he had to fire some of his closest friends, a move he calls the most difficult in his career.

Coke remembers his friend's quandary. "Some people weren't pulling their weight," he said.

Coke said the cuts helped propel RJO's growth. But the 8(a) certification, which RJO sought in 1983, proved the biggest boon. It let RJO tap into what Otero estimated is a $200 billion market for government services. Sales climbed as the U.S. military's demand for RJO's software soared. Another big client was Microsoft Corp., for whom RJO created the Encarta Encyclopedia.

Otero was eager to spread the certification message to other minority entrepreneurs. As an early member of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Maryland and co-founder of the National Federation of 8(a) Companies and the National Coalition of Minority Businesses, he had ready listeners.

"When he spoke, you just knew he had a hold. He was the boss," said Richard Colon, owner of Mace Electric Co. and a longtime activist with the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Maryland.

Otero remained active in the organization even as he expanded RJO into a $100 million company with 1,120 employees. Top managers were treated to luxury cars, and even the most junior employees could buy stock. Even as the company opened offices around the globe, he insisted on meeting all new hires.

After an illness in 1998, Otero decided to sell RJO. Microsoft bought the software arm - 60 percent of the company's revenue - while MTS3 Inc. of Fairfax, Va., bought the systems engineering component. Between them, they paid $100 million.

Otero gave each of his six children enough of a windfall to take a year off and decide what they wanted to do next. Two of his sons opened the Steamboat Landing Restaurant in Galesville, where Otero is a partner.

Between the restaurant and EZCertify.com, Otero is spending his 60s much busier than he thought he would be. But the office view offers perspective: EZCertify.com is in the same Crofton office park where RJO began.

Though the spot is the same, the focus is different. This time, it's about sharing the wealth. After all, Otero said with a grin, "You can't buy but so many houses."

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