Her baby boy sick with an earache, Cathy Lopez Negrete came home to discover the water had been turned off due to lack of payment. Days later, Alex Lopez Negrete was leaving for an important business meeting when his car was repossessed.
A week like this one might have deterred many budding entrepreneurs. For the co-founders of Lopez Negrete Communications, these tribulations in 1989 were mere bumps on the road to success.
The firm has grown into the nation’s largest independent, Hispanic-owned and operated full-service advertising and marketing agency.
Next year, it celebrates 35 years in business with a client roster that includes household names like Walmart, Fiat Chrysler and McDonald’s.
It all began when Cathy and Alex met at a record store in Houston, Texas where they both worked. They married while in college.
In this interview, the Lopez Negretes talk about overcoming tough times at the start of the business, their advice for entrepreneurs, and what they hope will be their legacy.
Today In: Business
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
When did you decide to open a company?
Cathy: Our daughter Michelle was born. Alex had been out in the real world. He’d worked for newspapers and radio stations, then an ad agency.
Alex: It was when the oil bust hit Houston, so the city was in terrible economic shape. We were running a pretty lean family operation already.
Cathy: There was no fear. We were young. We didn’t have enough income. It was like, “Why don’t we do it ourselves?”
Alex: For one of my first clients, I was running their marketing and ads—even doing some selling for them and training their salespeople. When you open a business, you do anything and everything. I was doing translations for Shell [Oil] and voiceovers for other clients.
Cathy: I was cleaning houses, selling Avon.
And you started doing ads for the Houston Rockets, a huge account.
Alex: Sports accounts are never big accounts but they’re very visible accounts. It was enough to give us our start.
Cathy: Well, it was big for us.
How did you grow?
Alex: We were invited to pitch the Metro account, the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Houston, by Bill Fogarty and Rich Klein who had Fogarty & Klein at the time. They were looking for a Hispanic subcontractor on the pitch. They didn’t get the business but Bill picked up the phone and called Jim Hine, who was running Ogilvy & Mather Houston at the time, who got the business and said, “Hey, if you guys don’t have a Hispanic partner, you ought to talk to these two kids. They’re really bright.” We had the Metro account for seven years, our first really good Hispanic account.
What’s the toughest day you remember after launching the company?
Alex: The tough days never stop coming.
What about in the early years, an “I-don’t-think-we’re-going-to-make-it” day?
Cathy: I’ll never forget my worst day. My son Patrick was a baby and had some kind of fever. Michelle was like six. They turned the water off at the house because we hadn’t paid the water bill. I don’t even know how I knew. I went home, grabbed some pliers and threw the cover off the water thing in front of all my neighbors. I turned it on and was like, “This is it. This is the day that things are going to change.” Then Alex had his car repossessed.
Alex: I was going to a new account pitch and had my portfolio. I opened the door and there’s the repo man. He said, “I’m here to take your car.” I gave him my car keys, got a cab and went to pitch the account.
Cathy: We had staff then. We would never, ever think of paying ourselves before we would pay our staff, right? We always came last—that’s the way it should be. When you make a commitment to people, that better be your first priority. We were fine with that. But working for ourselves, we’d never been in this kind of position. We’d had it. When I get pissed, I’m pissed. It takes a lot but when I get there, I’m there. That was it. I was going, “As God as my witness, I’m never going to turn my own water on again.”
What was the secret to your company’s survival?
Alex: The secret is something Cathy already mentioned: fearlessness. We needed to make a living. We needed to build this little thing that we had created. Knocking on a big door, knocking on a small door is the same thing. The “no’s” sound the same, so why not get a “no” from a big one—or a “yes” from a big one, right? The beginning of conversations with every clients was, “How’s business?” With Metro, it was, “How’s ridership?” “Among Latinos it’s terrible.” “Well, let’s begin to figure out why and what can we do about it.” Our focus on our clients’ success and how they do business, as well as our own fearlessness are two key ingredients. Plus, the love for our community and the love for our clients.
Cathy: It makes a big difference how you connect. Do you want to hire somebody that’s kind of bitchy but has good clients? Or do you want to hire somebody you want to talk to everyday? Personality and human touches are such an important thing in life.
Alex: In 1992 when we pitched NationsBank [now Bank of America], we were up against [leading Hispanic ad agency at the time] Sosa and all the biggies. We were by far the smallest shop invited to pitch. Two things happened. One, they had this weird thing in the RFP [request for proposal], which said, “The goal is for NationsBank to become the financial institution of choice for Latinos within one year.” I picked up the phone and said, “We’re honored to participate, but what you’re asking to be achieved in one year can’t. We’ll be happy to give you a five-year plan, but any agency that’s telling you this can be done in a year is lying.” Then two: The NationsBank team came to Houston and to our little house over on Nottingham. The review folks said, “We just walked in and you guys were irresistible. Your energy. Your enthusiasm. We knew we were going to be great partners.” And they gave us the business. The smallest agency in the entire review. And we still have the account today.
What did you first know you were going to survive?
Alex: You know how they said in the Apollo 11 movie, “Failure is not an option.” We tore off any kind of rear-view mirror. We just went forward.
Cathy: You have to be that way as an entrepreneur. There’s always, always going to be hurdles. There’s never going to be a moment where you say, “This is it. I can rest now because we’ve made it.” We don’t feel that way today. You always need to keep moving in order to keep your business alive.
Alex: If we dwell on the hard stuff, we’ll never do it.
Cathy: The good outshines the bad. There’s nothing bad enough in business that can make your whole day rotten.
Alex: [Lightly] Oh yeah, there is.
Cathy: For Alex, maybe, but not for me. I sit in my office and can see my staff because we have an atrium. It makes me so happy we’ve been able to help people’s lives. That’s my joy. The babies we’ve made happen because of people meeting here. The great marriages. All the fun and laughter and everything you can attribute to Alex and me starting this business out of the entryway in our townhouse.
How do you measure success?
Cathy: It’s really about the people. It just makes me so happy that Alex and I have been able to touch people’s lives—and we still do every day. I have a very blessed life all the way around. We have two great kids. We now have two grandchildren. Have we been able to live a better life because of the agency? Absolutely. But, at the end of the day, it’s really about being able to smile and laugh. That’s success for me.
Alex, for you?
Alex: We’re in the business of making other people successful. That’s why we’re paid. That’s why we’re engaged. I’m happy to say that, by and large, most of the time, when clients have put their trust in us, we’ve made good things happen for them.
Cathy: It seems like our job is to fight for the Hispanic consumers because they never quite get enough of their share. It makes me happy to see we can create advertising and talk to Latinos the way they should be talked to. We’re always fighting for that consumer. Some of our dearest friends changed their names from Hispanic names to English-sounding ones because they were embarrassed to even be speaking Spanish. It’s been a really cool journey to see Latinos more accepted, more successful, spoken to in the right way, given the grace that should be granted—
Alex: The fight’s not over—
Cathy: But it’s so much better than it was in the past.
Alex: The past few years have been difficult. You’d think that by the year 2019, with 30 years of census and directional information, it should be “Of course Hispanics should get 20% of the budget!”
You’re both life mates and business partners. How do you balance the two?
Cathy: We’ve always been respectful of each other’s parts of the agencies. Alex is in charge of the marketing and the creative. I’m on the other side with the HR and the money. We have different jobs. We’re on different floors. But we respect and trust each other.
Alex: We try not to carry it home.
Cathy: But we do. We talk about business all the time.
Alex: But it goes back to trust. The structure is really very simple. Cathy’s the people and the money. I’m the product and the relationships.
What advice do you have for entrepreneurs, particularly Latinos?
Alex: For the entrepreneurs: Do what you love. Make sure that you have a differentiation that makes you unique. Make sure that the world needs you. And then stick to it. Culture and language are extraordinary differentiators. For Latinos, I’d say be proud about being Latino. Be vocal about it. Make sure that you bring your culture and all of yourself to the table. For many years, Latinos would only bring a part of themselves to the table. America is ready for us to take center stage. When you look at who’s driving music, who’s driving fashion, who’s driving film, who’s driving art, Latinos are. This is our time, so let’s claim it. Let’s not be shy.
Cathy, do you have any advice?
Cathy: The key is you have to be the kind of person that when you wake up every day, you’re okay with making a change. As an entrepreneur, you have to leave the fear behind and just know that if you do something every day to make your dreams happen, they will happen. But you have to believe that.
Alex: A lot of entrepreneurs wait too long to take their jump because they try to find that perfect moment or have that perfect plan. But it’s like having a baby. There’s never that perfect moment. Just go do it.
What do you want your legacy to be?
Cathy: Even though it’s advertising, it’s still nice for our consumers to see themselves represented on TV in a respectful way.
Alex: That we made a difference in a lot of people’s lives. That we created something that was lasting, sustainable and positive. As an agency, that we made a difference in how America looks at Latinos.
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