01 Oct 2000

Carlos A. Saladrigas: Hardworking Optimist

Alone and virtually penniless, a young boy arrives in America
by Susan Young


Three dollars in cash, six changes of clothing, five bottles of rum, and a box of cigars. These were the items that belonged to 12-year-old Carlos Saladrigas when he arrived in Miami in 1961. His parents chose the risk of sending their only child to the United States by himself over raising him in communist Cuba. "It's only now that I have four children of my own that I understand what a painful decision that was," says Saladrigas, who, while still in Miami, has traveled far from those humble beginnings without leaving them behind all together.

During his first year in the United States, Saladrigas managed to save $400 -- by mowing lawns, delivering newspapers, and waxing cars -- to help his parents get settled when they arrived from Cuba in 1962. Tragically, his mother then developed cancer, and Saladrigas dropped out of high school to help care for her and support the family. After his mother died, Saladrigas continued to work full-time -- as an office boy and a salesman -- and finished high school at night. At 19, he met and married Olga Maria León, whom he describes as "a great woman with twice my energy," after selling her a pair of shoes. He then went on to earn a degree in accounting at night while working days and came to HBS at the urging of his boss, who even offered to pay his application fee.

Saladrigas's friendly, regular-guy demeanor belies his lengthy list of personal and professional accomplishments. A "recovering accountant" who worked for Peat Marwick after graduating from HBS, in 1984 he cofounded Vincam, a staff-leasing firm that provides HR functions to small companies. Two years after its headline-making 1996 IPO, Vincam's revenues exceeded $1 billion, and the firm became the largest Hispanic-owned company in America. Through a merger last fall, Vincam became ADP TotalSource, and Saladrigas, as CEO, oversees the company's twenty regional offices and over eighty thousand employees.

A Man of the Year award from the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation and an Alumnus of Distinction honor from the University of Miami are but two of the many awards that line the shelves of Saladrigas's office. In addition to fighting corruption in local government, he was involved in last spring's negotiations between Elián González's Miami relatives and U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno. That task proved more dangerous than anticipated, says Saladrigas, who was in the relatives' house when federal agents removed Elián. "The silver lining in this difficult situation," says the diplomatic and optimistic Saladrigas, "is that the Cuban community has been brought together."

Saladrigas traces his moral compass to his Jesuit upbringing, his parents, and his love for his family. "I wouldn't be able to look my children in the eye if I wasn't certain that I had made ethical choices," he says. Summing up his lifelong strategy, Saladrigas observes, "The best way to achieve business success is to walk the moral high road. I have always known that it is far better to do what is right than what is profitable."


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