On an average workday, Jose de Jesus Legaspi logs over 250 miles in his black Toyota Land Cruiser, getting out frequently to walk the streets of South Central and East Los Angeles. Others, less familiar with these streets, would give them up as the burnt-out shell of the inner city, symbols of urban decay in the United States. Legaspi knows better.
Using his knowledge of the Hispanic community and his feel for the streets, the 44-year-old Mexican-born marketing consultant and real estate developer has brought to life a staggering variety of flourishing retail outlets, including a series of Blockbuster Video stores, a retailer of top-of-the-line Sony and Panasonic electronic equipment, and a thriving charbroiled-chicken chain — successful businesses that pull in annual sales-per-square-foot on a par with Beverly Hills's high-priced Rodeo Drive. In the process, Legaspi has helped transform dozens of urban retail areas left for dead in the early '80's. But Legaspi's brand of inner-city revitalization has little to do with the hopeful visions of a social planner; his approach is built on the business results of a new breed of entrepreneur.
Since founding his full-service commercial real estate firm 20 years ago at age 26, Legaspi has been driven by a single vision. "My very simple mission in life," he says, "is to bring goods and services to inner-city communities, particularly the Hispanic consumer."
It's a vision built on customer focus rather than social consciousness. "If I do not keep customer focus and profitability in mind," says Legaspi, "then I'm doing a disservice to the community."
Legaspi came to the United States from Mexico as a 14-year-old boy. In his twenties, the aspiring entrepreneur fell into real estate with a project for El Pollo Loco charbroiled-chicken chain. When the company proposed changing its name to the Crazy Chicken, Legaspi applied his particular street-level marketing methodology to test the franchise's strength in the Hispanic community.
El Pollo Loco not only kept its name and grew its locations successfully in Southeast Los Angeles, but the name also became synonymous with charbroiled chicken in California. The experience also validated Legaspi's contention about the power of the Hispanic consumer. "We help bring goods to the Hispanic community," he explains. "The Hispanic community also provides a loyal customer and strong income base for businesses to move into the more competitive general arena."
Legaspi built a 45-person real estate brokerage, development, and management company on that success. His real estate business has grown by a steady 20% each year and promises to expand by 100% this year — a reflection of the recent appearance of the Hispanic consumer as a major force in mainstream marketing. Legaspi is quick to point out the demographics : more than 22 million Hispanics in the United States represent a $220 billion market; in the year 2000, one out nine Americans will be Hispanic; in 2040 one in five will be. And yet, says Legaspi, "this tidal wave is still an unserved market in many cities."
Legaspi hears the question again and again — and from successful retail chains: "Why won't they buy from us?" "The answer," says Legaspi, "isn't the competition and it isn't the customer. It's always, always, always you." For example, Thrifty Drug Stores had trouble in high-density areas of Hispanic consumers. It took Legaspi's street smarts to point out the obvious truths about the Hispanic customers. "The stores were serving recently arrived Hispanics, people with money in their pockets but no bank accounts, no credit cards — people living paycheck to paycheck," Legaspi says. His advice: "Set up a check-cashing machine inside the stores, and also make it possible for people to pay their utility bill at the store. If you help them, they'll buy more from you." Thrifty's sales went up by 20%.
Now Legaspi has embarked on his most ambitious project yet as one of three developers of a dramatically different kind of public high school called the Belmont Learning Complex. The $180 million, 35-acre school will be the first public school built in Los Angeles in more than 20 years; more important, it may be the only school in the country to include retail space. Legaspi is developing the 70,000 square feet of retailing space on the campus, which will serve both the school and the surrounding Hispanic community.
What really excites Legaspi is the project's unique educational model. "The concept is a high school as academy, where each department trains kids not only for college, but also in specific skills if they don't want to go to college," he explains.
In the academy system, an HMO will sponsor the health sciences department; an aerospace company will sponsor the engineering, math, or science academy. "The idea is to get students ready for high-tech society," Legaspi says, "while also emphasizing college preparatory courses." The vast site will house sports fields, tennis courts, a swimming pool, and a community center — all open to the surrounding neighborhoods.
Until three years ago, Legaspi described himself as apolitical. Then he became the television and radio voice in Spanish-speaking Los Angeles for entrepreneur-turned-politician Richard Riordan, helping him win the race for mayor. Now Legaspi is on the city's influential board of water and power commissioners, the largest municipal utility in the United States.
The lesson hasn't been lost on him: he's pressing ahead in local and community politics as a way to gain more opportunities to practice his hybrid approach to economic development and social activism. Says Legaspi, "I always tell people, 'Don't promote, educate. Don't sell, advise.'"
Susan Beck (email@example.com) is a writer based in San Francisco.
A version of this article appeared in the Dec 1996/Jan 1997 issue of Fast Company magazine.