A little-known chapter of the Cold War changed Tony Arias' life. In 1961, Arias was one of about 14,000 children who emigrated to the U.S. from Cuba through a program run by the Catholic Welfare Bureau and dubbed Operation Pedro Pan. Now 56, Arias founded NCG Medical Systems, a $3 million software company near Orlando, in 1992. The 30-employee company, which makes and installs medical records, billing, and practice management software, is the latest phase of what has been an incredible journey.
I was born in Guantánamo, Cuba. My father owned a small coffee plantation. My mom was a homemaker and teacher. When Castro came to power, my dad was imprisoned for 10 years. While he was in prison, we heard that the Catholic Welfare Bureau was starting a program to bring young children to the U.S. My brother and sister were too old to go, but my mother wanted to send me. My father didn't, but my mother convinced him.
I remember the day very clearly. It was Nov. 16, 1961. They separated us from our families by a wall of glass. We called it la pesquera, the fishbowl. You see your mother across the glass for 10 hours. You put your hands on one side of the glass and she puts hers on the other, and that's all you can do. I was only 12. You feel that your parents don't love you, and you don't know what's going to happen. I still struggle with the memory.
We arrived in Miami. Most of the kids went to orphanages or foster homes. But I stayed with a family friend and then my uncle arrived from Cuba, via Spain. We moved to Puerto Rico, where my uncle and some friends bought a milk processing plant. When I was 14, there was a fire in the plant and my uncle died. He was my godfather, my father figure, so it was a very difficult time. I kept working in the plant, and eventually I went to the University of Puerto Rico. My degree was in accounting. I passed the CPA exam before I graduated.
STARTING OVER -- AND OVER
I started an accounting practice in the mid-'70s. I bought one of the first IBM (IBM ) computers and found the software quite lacking. IBM gave me a tape to program myself, and soon the IBM salesperson started referring customers with problems to me. That's how I became a consultant.
I fell in love with computers and sold my CPA practice. I was 31, married, with three kids under age 7 when I got the first PC dealership in the area from IBM. I put a lot of money into opening a retail store. But IBM granted about a dozen other dealerships within a small radius to big companies. In a couple of years, I was almost broke.
In my accounting practice I'd had many doctors as clients. I knew that the software out there for them was not geared to third-party billing, which doctors need because of the health insurance companies. So I started over.
NCG stands for Northwest Consulting Group, which was the name of my first business in northwest Puerto Rico. We are very proud of the service we provide. Unlike other companies, we install the software. I instill in my employees the same values about service that I had. Our latest product, d-Chart, is an application for electronic medical records. We introduced it in 2004. It's doing quite well.
"JUST A BUSINESSMAN"
My parents are still alive. After my dad served his prison term, they went to Mexico, and because I was a U.S. citizen, they were able to get a visa for the U.S. We reunited in Puerto Rico, where they still live.
I am just a businessman. No politics for me. I vote every four years. But I'm very grateful to the Catholic Welfare Bureau. After you have kids, you realize the sacrifices parents make.
As told to Marilyn Harris