Operator Q&A- From a Cuban jail, to civil war, to the American dream via ZIPS
September 01, 2013
Angel and Anne Marie Ramos, center, with their children, graduates of the U.S. Naval Academy. “We feel so lucky that they are serving a country that has given us so much,” Anne Marie says.
Angel Ramos: I was military in El Salvador for 31 years. I was commander for one brigade. I had 2,000 soldiers under my command, but I work in several different combat units between 1980 and 1992, when we had civil war in El Salvador. Between 1995 and 1997, I was the brigade commander. My last assignment was in Washington, D.C., as defense attaché, in 1998 and I retired in 1999.
Anne Marie Ramos: I was born in Cuba in 1961. When I was born my father was in jail because he had conspired against Fidel Castro. My mom would go visit my father at the jail, and it’s funny because my mother knew a friend that knew an officer in the Castro regime that was there at the jail, and my dad sometimes got special privileges to see my mother and that’s how I was born.
He was in jail for four years, and when he finally got out we all had papers, and my father was able to get fake paperwork, and we left Cuba and went to Mexico. Nowadays people call them wetbacks, but a long time ago we did the same thing because we were in Mexico but wanted to get to the U.S.
Because of the Bay of Pigs, any Cuban who places a foot in U.S. soil, they have to be residents and U.S. citizens. We crossed the border, it was my sister and I in the car with my mother and these two Mexican gentlemen that were paid, and my father was in the trunk. I remember I was crying all the way, and they said, ‘Please don’t cry.’ The car had that little hole in the back so he could breathe. My father would put his fingers through to calm me down.
We crossed the border and took a Greyhound bus to Miami and started the process that many, many Cubans do. My father started working with the U.S. government and we went to Latin America, where I grew up.
FT: How did you meet?
Angel: The reason I love my father-in-law is that was the reason I met my wife.
Anne Marie: My family happened to be in El Salvador at one point. I had graduated from college and I opened an export business with a partner. Angel and I crossed paths because we were trying to sell parts for vehicles, and he was the one that had to try some of the equipment that we had to sell.
My husband sacrificed much of his life to the war. When we met it was still part of the civil war, and we lived many, many interesting moments, and our children did, too. Here I go into this place that’s in the middle of a war and my husband is a major at the time. I lived with him through a couple of attacks; I was inside the brigade when it happened. And my children lived to see their father go to war a month at a time.
Angel: I remember many things, very happy and sad, too. The happy was nothing like the custom in America. You need to go for the correct way, through the father, then the mother. When I met Anne Marie and she liked me, and I said, ‘Angel, this is my opportunity, this is my woman, this is my wife.’ I tried to go first to my mother-in-law. I leave flowers, the mariachi music in the house in the evening. I try to sing for her. Finally my wife says to me, ‘OK, I will go with you.’
FT: That’s a long journey to dry cleaning.
Angel: The huge line, that’s how the idea began for us. Now we have 36 stores. In the beginning when talking with my wife, we took in what kind of opportunity we could do in the United States. And we talked about the gas station. But one day my wife brought a uniform to clean, and she saw the huge lines to drop off and pick up the garments. She said, ‘Hey listen, Angel, I think I saw a couple of minutes ago the opportunity for us, a dry cleaner.’
Anne Marie: We’re part of the founders, the ones that became ZIPS Dry Cleaners in 2002, which we started franchising in 2006, on the East Coast. This past year we decided to take it a step higher. We wanted to grow and we felt, why don’t we get a strategic investment company to come in and help us grow? So we have partnered with JPB Capital, selling a controlling interest, and we feel this will get us to the next step.
We came to the agreement that when you get to a point you need an injection of money. We feel who knows, maybe we can have another 50 stores in a couple of years, and then a hundred. The idea is in five years to have 250 stores or more.
FT: What do you think about life in the United States?
Anne Marie: For me I believe this country is the best country in the world, because where can you get opportunities like this? They received us, and the opportunities are out there for everyone.
Angel: For me, I can’t expect more. I have my business, I have my kids’ education and a good education in the Naval Academy. In this situation right now with the economy in the United States, we feel very proud because we continue to give jobs to 35 people in my store. In short words, I have American dream.
Angel: I need to apologize for my English. I know it’s so bad.
FT: You should hear my Spanish.