Seven years ago when Enrique Rios opened Fingerprint Technologies on Southwest Eighth Street in Coral Gables, he worked out of a 200-square-foot office, bought his copy paper by the ream, and juggled working full time in the narcotics unit at the Coral Gables Police Department while his wife manned the office.
“You had to go outside just to change your mind,” he jokes.
Today, his fingerprinting business includes a mobile unit and three offices, with locations also in Palmetto Bay and Hialeah. Rios has a staff of six and revenue exceeding $1 million annually. And he buys his paper by the pallet.
Both luck and tenacity fueled his rapid growth, said Rios, who plans to retire this month after 25 years with the police department. He opened his business just as technology in fingerprinting allowed easy use of scanning machines, doing away with sloppy and inefficient ink processing. The demand in fingerprinting also increased, with background and identity verification becoming a prerequisite for everything from state jobs to coaching youth soccer.
Rios, 52, drummed up business wherever he could. During his years with the Coral Gables force, he’d observed the city’s fingerprinting services department, so he knew where to look for clients: hospitals, school contractors who needed printing as part of the Jessica Lundsford Act and utility companies. He says he even fingerprinted former Gov. Jeb Bush.
“Look around the county, and how many daycare centers do you see? All of them need it,” he said. “Seven years ago, this was like the 1849 Gold Rush. People didn’t know the gold was there, but I saw it.”
While there are many corporate fingerprint companies, including IdentoGO and Cogent, which has more than a dozen fingerprinting stands in places like UPS stores and healthcare offices, Rios believes he has thrived with his personal touch. He insists he offers better customer service and employs better-trained technicians. He also has the ability to take his mobile unit to executives.
“I’m like the mom-and-pop drugstore or the little hardware store. But I’m the person who has the most hardware stores in South Florida right now,” he said.
Which has created a problem — not unwelcome — for Rios: He has grown too fast for his small staff.
His chief issue is tracking money. Sixty percent of his business comes from corporate clients, including Virgin Mobile, Florida International University, Coral Reef Hospital and private schools like Carrollton School of the Sacred Heart. They send lots of employees for screening, who are then billed by the head. But when accounts aren’t paid, Rios does not have an effective way to follow up. In February, he had about $30,000 in unpaid accounts.
“I don’t know what I make, and it’s embarrassing,” he said.
So Rios, who hopes to hit the ground running when he retires March 26, asked for help from the Miami Herald and the Miami-Dade chapter of SCORE, a national nonprofit supported by the U.S. Small Business Administration with more than 11,000 volunteers and a host of seminars and workshops to assist small businesses.
SCORE sent a team led by Sue Kilrain, an actuary with a background in human resources and mergers and acquisitions who is also an expert in developing business plans. The team also included Phillip Harris, a marketing expert and the CEO of an equipment testing company for more than two decades, and Bill Wetmore, a CPA and former partner in Chicago-based Plante & Moran. The team planned on using the chapter’s new Special Forces approach, which provides extended counseling and follow-up visits over three to five months, as well as input from a board of advisors created by SCORE.
Fingerprinting Technologies marks the fourth time SCORE has tried the approach. Other businesses who say the approach proved effective include Sky Zone, the Doral franchise of the North America trampoline park, and Advak Technologies, a Hialeah Gardens company that produces seats and trim for airplanes, boats and automobiles.
“It involves not just the owner, but key employees,” Kilrain explained. “They complete a questionnaire, and then we put together a SWOT [strength, weaknesses, opportunities and threats] analysis and a generic list of priorities.”
After three or four meetings, the team devises an action plan and then leaves the business alone to implement it, Kilrain said. Six months later, everyone reconvenes to see if it worked.
After their first meeting with Rios, the team said he needed to dedicate a staff member to his books to free him to run the business. A common problem among small businesses is administration. Entrepreneurs often start a company that focuses on what they know, like fingerprinting, and then try to do every task, from marketing to budgets. But the skills they might not necessarily have, like bookkeeping, can hamper their success.
Accounting is an easy enough job to contract out, the team said, but it can be costly. So by the second meeting, Rios’ daughter, Danielle, had taken on the task and started meeting with finance expert Wetmore.
To unravel his books, Wetmore said the Rioses needed to separate accounts for each location. He also found that while Fingerprint Technologies had some solid, big clients, it also had many smaller companies that ate up time without yielding much profit. In addition, its biggest expense was generated by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which charges for background checks. The service accounted for a whopping 90 percent of Rios’ costs, but his books did not reflect how the expense was divided among clients or locations. Wetmore also said the number should be 80 percent.
“You have to look at volume and expenses and look at these customers I’m not billing very much but still paying FDLE,” he said.
Wetmore said ideally businesses follow the “80-20 rule,” or the law of the vital few.
“Twenty percent of customers give 80 percent of profits,” he said. “It’s a unique phenomenon that you can get rid of business and make money,” by focusing on the customers who produce the most business.
After three meetings, Wetmore and Danielle Rios had a better handle on the accounts, but they were still trying to separate revenue and expenses by location. Because Rios uses a single credit card to pay bills for all his offices, separating payments for each location was proving tricky. Danielle Rios had mastered much of QuickBooks, the accounting software that has rescued many small businesses from the jungles of bookkeeping. But Wetmore wanted the books detailed enough to produce graphic representations that would enable Enrique Rios to make quick and informed decisions.
Specifically, he wanted expenses categorized so he could track who was charging what; invoices time-stamped to determine what customers were served where and when to determine individual office’s efficiency; vendor invoices recorded; payments tracked by both cash and non-cash sales; and outstanding invoices detailed in an accounts receivable file.
“Our number one objective has been to provide Enrique with an effective management system that enables him to better understand and manage his business,” Harris said, adding that the team planned on meeting with Rios and his daughter at least two more times. “If all works according to our recommendation, he will have the basic information he needs . . . to make important strategic and tactical decisions regarding the future success of Fingerprint Technologies.”
As for Rios, he’s happy to finally have a plan for the future for his business.
“I’ve worked hard. I want to grow this,” he said. “I want to make it work.”