Armando Soto on How To Make It In Miami & Live the American Dream
By Nadja Atwal / Photography by Alessandra Fiorini
Sometimes we just need an inspirational story that reassures us that the American dream is still alive. We would rather work smart than too hard, since in the end we work in order to live and – especially in a place like Miami that needs to be enjoyed all year around.
Armando Soto shows us that is no problem at all and we do not have to wait until we qualify for a senior pass to get there. The 32 year old investment banker and start-up-company genius left his home country of Guatemala at age 15 to live with his American mother. He struggled with learning English and getting into college he became a plumber by trade. After refusing to let go of his dream of working in the business world he would read the Wall Street Journal out loud in front of a camera and play back the tape to improve his pronunciations; signed up for college at age 24 at The City University of New York and jumped into the finance industry. Today he handles billionaire clients and has transacted over 500 million in Leveraged Buy Outs. He currently finances and restructures client investments while building new companies like kids build sandcastles in Miami beach. A frequent guest commentator on national business TV shows, he recently started to make waves across the country as a motivational speaker in front of large audiences especially young people turning up in great numbers to hear his speeches in search of smart guidance with both IQ and EQ.
NA: Your story is fascinating and unique and attracts thousands of people to events when you appear as a motivational speaker. Tell us about your early years when you arrived in the US?
AS: The early years were very difficult, simply because I was starting my sophomore year in a suburban high school in the middle of nowhere New Jersey. Between the language barrier and the culture shock, school was difficult and making friends in a new country was not simple either. I was bullied by many people including my mother’s brother in law. I remember an instance where I was helping him take out a bag full of garbage and he said to me “practice your new profession”. I could not believe my ears but in hindsight I believe many people discriminate or are racist because they feel threatened in one way or another. I was fortunate enough to have my neighbor Louie who had moved into town from Brooklyn; he was new in school as well so we became good friends and his size deterred many people from bullying me in my junior year. I learned a lot from him in regards to becoming more confident and not taking any abuse from people. Academically with English as a second language it was very tough for me. I was able to learn to speak English fluently by the time I graduated High School and my prospects looked a bit dim for college. I didn’t get accepted into any Universities so I turned to the plumbing trade and went through a four year program. By the time I graduated from Plumbing school I realized it was not my passion at least I learned trigonometry in-depth.
NA: Did you have anything like a big American dream?
AS: As a child I would watch the movie Trading Places with Eddie Murphy. I asked my father what the World Trade Center was and why the buildings in New York City were so tall. He would tell me all the big business in the world happened there. As a child I would day dream about walking in the streets of New York and working in the trading pits, there was something about the motion creating emotion. When I moved to the United States I mentioned my dreams to friends and they would laugh at me.
NA: How did the switch happen from plumbing business to the finance world?
AS: When I was 22 years old I realized being an engineer by trade was not my passion and I felt that I had an untapped potential. The construction markets were starting to show signs of distress right before the great recession. I asked Phillip, a family friend who is a very successful investment banker for a dinner meeting and after eight months of coordinating with his assistant he had some time to meet with me. I had three hours to absorb as much information about investment banking as possible and I told him my plan of going back to school to break into finance. After looking back and thinking about our meeting, I really got key parts of “the recipe” that night.
I started commuting to CUNY from New Jersey. It was a rough start but mentally, there was nothing that would stop me and this was just the start of climbing a mountain that would only get steeper with time.
NA: Why did you decide not to finish university?
AS: I began to look at everything from a finance perspective and I did not have enough money to finish school without falling very deep into debt. I was offered a great job opportunity in finance and asked my Economics professor for advice on whether to take the offer or continue school. He said to me “opportunity knocks…” I answered “once” and he said “well there you go, I wish you the best of luck. Although it seems like you don’t need it”. I base my decisions based on facts but that day it was based on intuition.
NA: Tell us how exactly how you managed to lose your Spanish accent and what motivated you to do this?
AS: I used a camera to record myself reading the Wall Street Journal and played the tape back to focus on my mispronunciation. Practice certainly helps. In business being clear and concise when you speak is one of the most important qualities you need to have. The motivator was to fit into America, I came to this country and from day one I always wanted to embrace it for what it is. A place where people from all over the world have immigrated to and settled in for hundreds of years. Where there are no monarchies or dynasties. A democratic republic where focus and hard work pays off irrespective of race, creed or religious affinity.
NA: How long did it take you before you landed big clients?
AS: I quit the investment banking business and decided to go out on my own as a buy side consultant and analyst for institutional investors. My big break finally came in the spring of 2013 when I landed a hedge fund as a client. I hit it off with one of the partners on the phone and he invited me to lunch. He was a very nice person, down to earth and told me he barely graduated college and now made millions based on his people skills not his math skills. He taught me to never be intimidated to pick up the phone or ask for a meeting with someone deemed important since they are probably more desperate to put money to work than you are to sell your investment if you have access to investments in their sweet spot.
NA: What do you think were your qualities that made wealthy individuals trust you to guide them through the jungle of investments?
AS: The one quality that I believe I was able to work on best and hone in was to listen to my clients and always put their interests first. Learn what makes your client comfortable and its easy for them to understand. If I find the best technology company for sale but show it to a private equity fund that only invests in industrial companies I am not going to get anywhere.
Guiding is the easier part. There are many investments that I came across at one point or another and chose not to recommend to clients because I deemed them risky or unsustainable and wound up being home runs for others. I look for companies or investments where the down side risk is like jumping out of a basement window. If we hit a home run it’s typically a pleasant surprise; but we aim for singles and doubles because that’s what wins the championships. Reducing strike out risk and getting on base is always my main objective.
NA: You are self-made man and claim one does not need to work hard, but work smart. Sounds simple, but please give us some details.
AS: I like to encourage people to hone in on their clients needs and focus on what exactly it is that they are looking to buy. It all goes back to listening. I learned early on that the approach of throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks is a really futile exercise and a waste of precious time. Instead, focus on a more tactical approach. Learn what works and what doesn’t by trial and error and adjust your strategy until you hit pay dirt. Once you have a formula that helps you find success and become more productive at work, stick to it until it needs more adjusting. The world changes every day and what worked yesterday might not work in three days. There are good days and bad days; everyone has them.
Remember that the rate of change is never constant, don’t be discouraged in down days, instead eat some comfort food and think about what you could do to make your work easier on you. Meditate in the morning while you are laying in bed between snoozes and visualize yourself accomplishing your goals. If it worked for me I believe it can work for anyone. Burgers and 10 minute snoozes changed my life.
NA: If someone desires a career in the finance world or simply in the business world, do you think a college degree is a must or is learning by doing the way to go?
AS: I chose a path that became more treacherous as time went on and many doors were closed on me for the simple fact that I did not graduate. I would encourage everyone to research the school they are planning to attend before signing up. In theory College prepares you for the real world you will face once you graduate and will prevent you from making costly mistakes. I encourage everyone looking at finance or business to sign up for a good school and finding a mentor. The world becomes more competitive every day and I know of many places that pile resumes based on grades and throw out anything under a 3.5 GPA because there is such a wide pool of talent to pick from. Go to school and get good grades.
NA: Men especially seem to suffer from burn out syndrome in their late thirties, early forties. It seems many have the goal just to make it big as fast as possible and then to be done with work in their mid forties. Is that aligned with your life philosophy or do you believe in a life that is always full of a balance of work ( that should be enjoyed ) and play – like the Europeans favor it?
AS: This really goes back to my work smart not hard philosophy. Although it is hard to balance work and life because finance is so demanding, you have to be on call 24/7 to make something happen, you need to take vacations and enjoy the world that is here today. Taking a vacation and changing your environment is important to decompress. Bad stress usually comes from the downs in the cycles of markets or industries. Shifting your focus to new ideas helps decompress. The people that get into business to only focus on making money and become greedy are the people that burn out. I don’t think I could ever be just done with work. I enjoy what I do and I make sure what I do adds some type of value to society. The business world brings different challenges every day and always keeps things interesting.
NA: Did you ever face personal struggles dealing with the stress of high demands of your clients and the sometimes unforeseeable setbacks – and if yes how did you manage to move on?
AS: Many deals do not close for reasons beyond your control even after putting a lot of work, money and paying different parties to help you close a transaction, as well as spending your clients money. It does put a lot of stress but it is part of the business. Sometimes the psychological setback is harder to deal with than dollars spent and lost. Moving on is hard, it feels like a break up where your significant other didn’t show up to the wedding and instead opted to marry someone else. On one particular transaction it took me two months to get over the fact after six months of work. Moving on was easy once I found a better opportunity. It is something that I learned to deal with over time and studying how to best move on so I don’t have a solution yet but will have one soon. Life has ups and downs and so does success. You need to be determined and navigate those peaks and valleys.
NA: What are the major lessons you’ve learned during the course of your career so far?
AS: Many people like to burn bridges and relationships in this business over money because they make up ideas in their mind. Always get your agreements in writing unless you have found someone you can truly trust. Speak up when you are not comfortable with terms in a transaction and be willing to compromise in order to keep moving forward. Flexibility is a big ingredient to success.
NA: The whole immigration debate has divided the country. What is your position as a latin, legal immigrant?
AS: There is no one solution solves every problem. Immigration has been one of the biggest drivers of innovation in this country, take Einstein as an example; he was an immigrant that came to this country and called America home. Every country needs borders and a vetting process to allow new immigrants that would be proud to add value to the country. Any immigrant should embrace American culture and learn the language and the American ways as fast as possible.
If you want to bring your culture to the country and impose your way of life on others you should be quickly shown the door back to wherever you came from. I often chuckle when people compare America to Europe. If you like Europe or anywhere else so much maybe you should move there instead of trying to change this country we all love.
NA: You have two 2 homes – Miami and New York. What is the difference in business mentality that you have noticed?
AS: New York people tend to have a more business formal mindset where in Miami you might meet your next client at a party. In my opinion Miami is the next financial center of the country thanks to the business friendly approach the state and city are taking. Although New York has an electric feeling to the city. Miami has a better quality of life and energy about it like nothing else in this world. Miami will grow to be a financial powerhouse, I have no doubt about it.
NA: Kindly finish this sentence “If someone whats to make it big in Miami, he should …..”
AS: Stay focused on one goal at a time. Relationships take time to develop, and don’t let all the Miami splendor get in the way of your dreams. There are a lot of national and international business players in the area. Success doesn’t happen overnight, focus on staying healthy and building wealth for the long term, don’t get distracted by material things even though nice things make you comfortable and might impress people. Focus on building something for your future generations instead of trying to impress your neighbors who probably don’t care about what you have.
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