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8:00pm EDT August 26, 2008

As the Latino demographics in the United States continue to change, so does the concentration of Latino-owned businesses. Houston is a global market and this is also true of the international Latino population. We have a large concentration of Mexican origin, but the landscape for Latinos is broad here in Houston; Latinos here have come from all over Latin America and South America.

“You have Latino owners and then you have some businesses that have diversified ownership,” says Herman Rodriguez, vice president and senior business relationship manager at Wells Fargo Bank in Houston. “It can really be diversified and there’s a lot of assimilation that has come through in the past decade.”

Smart Business talked to Rodriguez about how the landscape of Latino-owned businesses has changed in the last 10 years.

With an increase in the Hispanic population in the U.S., how has Latino ownership changed?

I do know that the Hispanic population in Harris County became a majority in 2007 and I believe that Latino ownership has grown because of those numbers. However, I think that the way it’s changed is that there are a lot of businesses now that are partnered or intermingled with other nationalities. With assimilation has also come an understanding of the business systems in the United States. We have major players that understand how banking, marketing and management contribute to growth and profit.

Growing up in the majority Latino town of Robstown, Texas, a city outside of Corpus Christi, I learned and observed the way business was done. I feel there has been a lot of adaptation by Latino owners to the ways the U.S. market.

What are some of the similarities and differences between working with Latino owners and non-Latino owners?

Similarly, its nice to have a common ground. Whether you’re both Aggies, or you’re both Latinos, either way you have a brethren and a common ground. However, when working with Latinos, you have to take culture, including the language barrier and the level of assimilation, into account because you have some owners who have been in the country for a couple of years and you have others that have been here for generations. The biggest misconception is that all Latinos are recent immigrants. I speak fluent Spanish because it was my first language. My parents not only made me take it in college for reinforcement, but we spent time in Monterrey with my family in the summer to keep my grasp.

Is it easier when you gain that knowledge firsthand?

I think having the exposure to my Mexican culture and Spanish language is a definite advantage. The language by far has exposed me to so many stories in my nine years here in Houston. I know a number of situations due to my ability to communicate in Spanish. This exposure gives me an understanding and a way to not only relate, but to help our clients. Most often, I find common ground with similar experiences and struggles. Latinos who speak fluent Spanish usually prefer to speak in their native tongue, especially when doing business. Formal Spanish is different than Spanish spoken in Mexico or by Mexican-Americans in the United States. And in Houston we are communicating with Salvadorians, Nicaraguans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Dominican Republicans; all of those nations are represented and all of the dialects may be similar and different at the same time. If I speak Spanish, they don’t need a translator and they are hearing their questions answered in their own language so they are able to understand it better. Clients form bonds with their bankers regardless of language, and that is completely encouraged. If you do not have a bond or sense of trust with your banker, I encourage you to find it.

What effect does NAFTA have on relations with Latino clients?

I think NAFTA had a large impact on doing business in the US, period. It has positive and negative aspects, which I do not have the expertise to define. I will say though that in my personal opinion, it has put a welcome mat on America’s front door that says ‘We want to do business with you,’ to Latin American countries. NAFTA opened a new chapter in getting closer to a free enterprise system.

What kind of future do you see for Latino business owners?

Latino-owned businesses, especially those that deal regionally in Texas, are at an advantage because they understand their consumer. Texas has seen a big influx of Latinos, as has California, and to do business in Texas without consideration or a level of understanding would not be beneficial.

HERMAN RODRIGUEZ is a vice president and senior business relationship manager at Wells Fargo Bank. Reach him at (281) 587-3021 or Herman.Rodriguez@wellsfargo.com.