The language translation business is more than just any business to Oscar Jofre Jr.
The dynamic president of Babel Fish Corporation takes it personally, and it’s no wonder.
As a young immigrant to Canada from Chile in the 1970s, Jofre faced the daunting challenge of breaking down language barriers, a challenge that has become his life’s passion.
Now the 37-year-old Edmontonian’s business does the same, by providing translation services in 46 languages through his new company formed recently through IO-TEK’s acquisition of and merger with Babel Fish. The name of the merged company has just been changed to Babel Fish.
Well, let Jofre tell the story – in superb English.
|Jack Dagley, for Business Edge|
|Oscar Jofre Jr. appears to have the world in his hands when it comes to business opportunities for his company, Babel Fish, to provide translation services.|
1. Was it an easy decision to acquire and merge Babel Fish with your original business, IO-TEK?
“It was serendipity. Everybody has wanted this company because of the brand and it was right here in Edmonton. I didn’t even know it was based here. Babel Fish brings everything we ever wanted. IO-TEK had the technology, but didn’t have the brand. Babel Fish has the brand and the recognition. It just needed the technology that IO-TEK had. Product plus brand equals success. We have the best of both worlds. In equity, the acquisition cost us about 10 per cent of our company, so it was a good investment.”
2. How has the merger with Babel Fish affected your growth strategy?
“We are taking Babel Fish from the Internet to actual physical brick-and-mortar locations. Besides offices in Edmonton, Vancouver and Montreal, we’ll have locations in Calgary, Toronto, Mississauga, Ottawa and Moncton. So when a customer logs on to our website, then they can access an office in their area and a representative can deal with their multilingual solutions. We’ll be opening the Calgary office in the third week in January. We’ll also be opening two locations in the U.S. in the first quarter of 2003. We’re going to existing translation companies and merging with them.”
3. Have you been able to raise capital in this difficult climate?
“We’re in the process of opening an offering memorandum in Alberta in which we’ll be seeking about $3 million. I think the launch will be in January. Next year, Babel Fish will be going from under $1 million a year (in revenue) to about $8 million because of the new locations. The existing language translation companies that we’ll be buying are already doing in excess of $1 million. They’re business owners and they have to look towards the future.”
4. So you have an aggressive growth plan?
“Yes, I’m either going to knock on their door or their neighbour’s door. You’ve got to create an energy like a locomotion. I’m very blunt and to the point: I’m going to deal with you, but if you’re not interested I’m going next door. There are 30 to 40 companies in (Calgary), but I only need one. I’m only putting one Babel Fish in every major city in Canada. And that’s all I need because it will flush out the rest. Babel Fish will go into a city like Calgary and get rid of the other 15 or 20 translation companies that are there. The time has come. The market needs a Babel Fish in every city so customers can feel comfortable.”
5. What’s your vision for Babel Fish five to 10 years out?
|Jack Dagley photo illustration, Business Edge|
“Once there are 35 locations owned by the Babel Fish Corporation, we’re envisioning to become a worldwide company. We will then begin franchising the Babel Fish name. Currently, we’re in the midst of selling rights to the Babel Fish brand to a Japanese company for $1.5 million. We see Babel Fish being in every major city worldwide run by independent owners and utilizing the Babel Fish technology. Also in the foreseeable future, we expect it to become a publicly listed company within two years, if not sooner.”
6. What’s your outlook for the language-translation business as a whole?
“Language translation is a necessity now. If you’re a publicly traded company and you sell to 20 shareholders in Quebec, you’d better have everything in French or you’ll have the securities people after you. In California, there’s a law that says you have to have all medical records in Spanish. This is a high-growth business.”
7. How difficult was it for you to build IO-TEK?
“I built it with no money for two years. There were 75 employees, and none of us were getting paid while developing a technology. And we survived. Where other people were burning $20 million per year, we had zero dollars.”
8. Where do you think your entrepreneurial spirit came from?
“I’ve always had a thing for being in business since I was a youth. When I was six years old, I used to work at the train station (in Santiago, Chile), lifting people’s luggage. I did it while my parents were having their siesta between 12 noon and 4 p.m. as people there did because of the heat. After arriving in Canada when I was 10, I did a lot of jobs, like selling ice cream, delivering the Edmonton Journal and installing railroad ties. Early on, I learned the value of hard work. I don’t recall any period of my youth when I didn’t work. People don’t realize what you can learn by delivering a newspaper. You learn how to manage yourself.”
9. How difficult was the language barrier when you arrived in Canada in 1975 knowing only Spanish?
“I learned to speak English by listening to The Beatles. It’s amazing what you can learn when you want something so bad.”
10. What was your first job after high school?
“Out of high school, I spent some time as a disc jockey at a nightclub owned by (Edmonton entrepreneur) Peter Pocklington. It was fun doing that, but there was no career in it. Eventually, I cut off my hair and moved on with my life. I got a business diploma at Bara Academy and then I got my first adult career job with Future Shop in the early 1980s. I learned a lot there – positive thinking, positive reinforcement, a positive atmosphere, treating customers right. I eventually managed the store.”
11. What do you remember about your early years in the high-tech industry?
“I had a lot to learn, and I failed. But I got up again. That was part of the whole exercise. The things you learn from those experiences, you can’t learn from books. What I learned is that you’re going to make mistakes, but what’s important is how you deal with those mistakes and the people you surround yourself with. That’s critical. I’ve learned that the more people you surround yourself with who are smarter than you, the better off you’ll be. It has an amazing effect on you. It hurts sometimes because you think you’re right, but they’re actually right. You’ve got to take a back seat once in a while.”
12. What initially piqued your interest in language translation?
“One day, I saw something in Las Vegas (in 1984) that just shook me for the rest of my life. I saw (speech industry pioneer) Dr. Janet Baker talking to a computer. From then on, I never looked back. That’s when I got involved in speech recognition technology, developing technologies so that doctors, lawyers and dentists could talk to their computers.”
13. How much importance do you place on the power of a positive attitude?
“How you look at life is so important. It’s easy to look at the bad. It’s easy. It’s there every minute. It stares at you when you pick up the newspaper. But we have a choice. How strong are you to fight that off? Our brains work in such a way that if we want to be negative, it can be so simple, it’s amazing. In fact, it’s easier to become negative than it is to become positive.
“To become positive is not just smiling or anything like that. It’s actually understanding the principles of looking at a bad situation and turning it into a good situation. It makes you a good manager. This is one city, one country, that gives you the opportunity to do whatever you want whenever you want and there are no barriers. None. Only your imagination.”
14. Who has had the greatest influence on your life?
“My father (Oscar Jofre Sr.). He taught me to constantly educate yourself. Now the people that influence me are the company board. They are now like my three fathers. They guide me. They slap me. But, most important, they know what it takes because they’ve done it before.”
15. What do you need to learn to become a better business leader?
“My biggest challenge today is to find people with the same level of drive that I have and the same energy to work 12 to 14 hours a day without actually blinking an eye. And we’ve got to learn to educate each other. I’m like a sponge. And I feel there are people like me who are like a sponge who I need to feed. I like to be around people who will provide the experience that they have so we can both learn from each other. I learn very quickly off other people’s experience. My main focus this year has been to surround myself with more people with the experience, the ability to teach and the ability to work with a high-thrust individual. I’m a locomotive running 300 miles per hour.”
16. Are you a workaholic?
“Very much so. And a father (to four-month-old son Oscar Jofre III). A proud father. My wife (Olga, who is involved in the company in recruitment of translators) and I have made the commitment to Babel Fish. Because of technology, when I travel, I get to see my wife and child every day. They have a little camera so they both say hi to me every day when I’m away. My wife and I both believe that if we work hard, things will pan out. We know that if we take the approach of going to work from nine to five, things won’t get done. We know that we’re young now and if we work hard today, the rewards will come at a later time. I don’t have any vision that I’ll be a millionaire tomorrow morning. I know that if I do all the things that the people around me are teaching me, things will go the right way. That’s business. If you do the things you’re supposed to do, it’s just a matter of time before you’re successful. I think that in order to succeed in this world, you need the support of your family. If you don’t have that, it will destroy you.”
17. What’s the best advice you’d offer a young entrepreneur?
“Don’t try to do it all on your own. That’s the mistake we all make. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and put the ego down if you can. It’s hard to do, I know. But just go to people. You’ll be surprised at how many people will want to help you. In fact, I believe in that so much that we started a group in Edmonton called the IT Executive Group to give support to executives and help young entrepreneurs. I felt that’s something I never had. I’m not blaming anyone for it. Maybe I didn’t know where to look for it.”
18. Who’s the entrepreneur you most admire?
“It would have to be Mr. Bill Gates (Microsoft founder) because he basically did what others thought was impossible.
“At the end of the day, we can criticize Microsoft for what it is, but, in essence, what it is is somebody taking information and trying to make it available to everybody.”
19. Ideally, how long would you want to remain CEO of Babel Fish?
“As far as the day-to-day operations go, as soon as the company goes through its next stage, as a $50-million to $100-million company (in annual revenue), that’s where Oscar Jofre knows that his expertise has come to a halt. That doesn’t mean you can’t remain part of the company. It just means that you get people who know how to run companies with that kind of money. That’ll be in about two to three years. It’s no different than what Bill Gates did with Microsoft. He was smart enough to realize that he wasn’t an operations guy. That’s not my skill set. My skill set is being in front of investors, the media, the customers and partners, telling them what we do.”
20. What do you see in your life’s crystal ball?
“I see Babel Fish growing and I see more children, at least three or four more.”
THE COMPANY: Babel Fish Corp.
* Profile: Babel Fish Corp. is the privately held
company formed through IO-TEK’s acquisition in July of Babel Fish. The merged company provides human and machine language translation services. Babel Fish bills itself as the premier online certified human translation portal on the Internet and its website has more than two million visitors per month from more than 55 countries.
* Stats: Babel Fish works through a network of about 7,500 accredited or certified language translators dealing in 46 languages.
* Website: www.babelfish.com
* Address: 1700-10020 101st Ave., Edmonton, AB
* Phone/Fax: 780-944-9964, 780-432-5700. Toll free: 1-877-946-8325.
IN PROFILE: Oscar Jofre Jr.
* Born/raised/age: Santiago, Chile; 37.
* Title: President/CEO/chairman/part owner, Babel Fish Corporation.
* Family: Wife Olga, son Oscar III.
* Career: Jofre’s work has revolved around voice
recognition systems and related technology since the early 1990s when, with the assistance of the National Research Council, he developed a voice imprint
technology for lawyers, medical professionals and dentists that communicated with the computer. He says he created the largest value-added reseller network for voice and speech support products in North America. Jofre has also worked in retail, as a store manager with Future Shop.
* Moonlighting: Jofre is on the board of directors of the Languages Industry Network Canada.
* Passions: Action movies, languages.