Never Say No, Non, Nein, or Nee


Never Say No, Non, Nein, or Nee

Liz Elting's company spells success in more than 100 languages

Reader's Digest
February 2010
By Margaret Heffernan

It was an international drug trafficking case, one that involved a lot of money and a lot of violence. Undercover agents who had infiltrated the cartel had worn wires and collected evidence for years. A conviction depended on an accurate translation of their tape recordings. "Five languages were involved," says Liz Elting, 44, one of the owners of TransPerfect, the translation company chosen for the job. "The slightest mistake could mean the criminals would go free." For weeks, company linguists worked closely with prosecutors and agents to help win a conviction.

When Elting launched her business 18 years ago with Phil Shawe, both were attending New York University's Stern School of Business. Neither realized just how many situations would require their services. "We've transcribed black box data after plane crashes," says Elting. "We've done mergers and acquisitions. Translating Hooked on Phonics into eight languages was especially challenging because we were doing sounds, not words!"

Elting had once worked for a translation company, and she knew that the industry was essentially lots of tiny outfits delivering patchy quality. She also knew how important it was to get things right—like the instructions for medical devices. Ad companies, too, needed accurate translations that took cultural differences into account. She and Shawe were certain that if they delivered a quick, reliable service, they could build an international business that would stand out.

They set up shop in Shawe's dorm room. (The two were engaged until 1997. Though the wedding never happened, the company forged ahead.) While Shawe finished his MBA, Elting recruited freelance linguists and made hundreds of cold calls seeking clients. One of their first jobs was to translate an 800-page feasibility study of a Russian gold mine in 30 days.

Once the partners were out of survival mode, they hired people to help grow the company and told them to run their area as if it were their own business. "If they did well," says Elting, "they owned that success."

Elting and Shawe paid themselves $9,000 a year each and plowed everything else back into the business. Their ambition and naïveté, however, at times threatened the company's growth. In 2000, a major retailer promised $15 million in business—more than double their revenue. They opened an office in Miami, but when the Internet bubble burst, says Shawe, "the client pulled out. Today we get money up front; we share risk. Commonsense things."

TransPerfect’s 4,000 linguists cover more than 100 languages. Last year, the company had revenues of $225 million; the average annual growth rate is 30 percent. Elting and Shawe still work together as co-CEOs. "Phil is good at developing systems and creative sales ideas," says Elting. "I focus on operations and making sure our clients are happy." Shawe's take is a little different: "Liz is more risk-averse, and I'm more risk-tolerant."

With more than 1,800 employees, and offices in 57 cities in 18 countries on four continents, they still focus on the details. They keep a meticulous list of client preferences: soda or soft drink, sofa or couch.

Even now, at the top of the world's largest privately held language company, Elting refuses to be complacent and would prefer a slightly different translation: "We want to be the world's premier language company."

Getting Ahead with Liz Elting

What inspired you to start TransPerfect?
When I was eight, my dad bought a KFC franchise in Portugal. Unfortunately, the Portuguese didn't want anything American after the Communist revolution. They thought my dad was a CIA spy! That taught me how fast things can change. I've studied in Spain and worked in Venezuela. This business is the perfect combination of my passions for languages, cultures, and business.

Is the staff multilingual?
Many are. I speak French and Spanish. My partner, Phil, who is American, likes to say he speaks English on a good day.

What languages are requested most often?
Spanish and Japanese. Chinese, Middle Eastern, Indic (South Asia), and Eastern European languages are on the rise.

How difficult is it to manage such a diverse workforce?
Our challenge is to be culturally appropriate in every country. When we hand out year-end bonuses in the U.S., for example, we have to remember that in India, bonuses are distributed in the fall.

How important was your early training in finance?
The No.1 reason companies fail is that they run out of money, so you have to be very aware of the numbers. I've learned that doing a great job is more about the soft skills—going with your instincts, acting with integrity, appreciating clients and employees, and dealing with them effectively. Do these things well, and the rest will follow.

Any advice for someone starting a business?
Get started before you have kids. In the beginning, I didn't know how to do this business on the side. I wasn't married, didn't have kids, and wasn't concerned about balancing my work and personal life. Now, with strong managers in place, I can spend more time with my family [husband Michael Burlant and sons Zachary, nine, and Jason, seven], traveling and playing baseball.

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