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Ron Zellon, left, and Business Coach Dale Bruder talk over the direction of Zellon's business, Sonora Translators & Interpreters. Zellon is hoping to devote more time to translation, which is where he makes his money, and less to everyday office tasks. Photo by A.E. Araiza


The Story

Growing up in Peru, Ron Zellon had two native languages: English and Spanish. He also learned Portuguese. He has parlayed his linguistic skills into a successful translation and interpreting business. He wants to grow his firm, Sonora Translators & Interpreters, but finds himself bogged down with office tasks like bookkeeping, invoicing and paperwork, and he is offered more jobs than he can handle. He hired business coach Dale Bruder to apply solutions to this dilemma.

Ron Zellon loves working with words. As an English/Spanish translator and interpreter, he uses the languages he mastered while growing up in Peru.

"Spanish and English are both my native language," he said.

He dabbled in interpreting and translating most of his life, and has turned a hobby into a career.

He enjoys working in a wide variety of locales, and in different settings, including trials, conferences, court proceedings, commercial litigation, free trade negotiations and medical reviews.

He is certified to interpret in U.S. Federal Court and travels the world to offer his services to his clients.

There are three types of interpretation: simultaneous, or as a conversation progresses; consecutive, after a speaker stops talking; and sight translation of printed material.

In often-tense court settings, interpreters typically work in pairs, switching off in 30-minute shifts.

"You have to think fast, think on your feet," he said.

"It's like being part of a Perry Mason episode. I listen to the case from beginning to end."

After beginning court work in 1987, he launched his business four years ago, which has grown to an in-demand translation and interpreting operation. He recently moved from his in-home office to a separate office he built next to his house.

Now, it is time to crank up his business. "I'm starting to expand my horizons," he said. But the more mundane office tasks, including invoicing - made more complex by charging different rates for different tasks - bookkeeping and handling the mail, are siphoning his time and energy from his core business, interpreting and translating.

"My time is better spent doing what I do well," he said. "The office work is my Achilles' heel."

He wants his office to run more efficiently and professionally so he can focus on growing revenues from the core business. Spending less time on office chores and more on translation and interpretation would bring in more money, letting Zellon be more selective about the type and location of projects he takes on.

But finding interpreters and translators to help him has been a challenge. "It's very difficult to find qualified people who will perform to my standards," he said. "It's hard to control the quality if you have an army of subcontractors. Quality is always No. 1."

The Advice

The typical translator spends 20 percent of his work time on administrative tasks like bookkeeping, marketing and education. That leaves 80 percent for billable hours, said Business Coach Dale Bruder.

That means Zellon spends 400 hours a year on tasks that earn him no money.

Zellon's charges vary depending on the project but average $75 an hour for interpretation, $50 an hour for transcription and 15 to 25 cents per word for translation.

In order to devote more of his time to the higher-skilled, higher-paying work that brings in a paycheck, Zellon must start seeing himself not as a one-man shop, but as the leader of a growing company. That means writing a business plan to chart the firm's future and hiring employees - at least an administrative assistant, and perhaps a staff of up to three people to take on administrative duties, bookkeeping, marketing and translation.

Rather than jumping into this new enterprise all at once, Zellon can grow the business as cash flow allows. For example, freeing up more of his time for billable translation or interpretation hours should help cover the cost of an assistant.

Beyond that, he might start by using temporary and contract workers who could transition into full-time employment.

These moves will reduce, but will not eliminate, Zellon's non-billable hours. But such hours could now be used to oversee the office to make sure it's running efficiently, build relationships with clients and expand the firm's market share, Coach Bruder said.

To find translators and interpreters who meet Zellon's high standards, he should write a job description that includes ethical and professional standards, Bruder said. Then he must make sure everyone working for his company follows it at all times.

As Sonora Translators and Interpreters grows, it can begin a 10- to 15-year ascent toward building enough equity to make the business attractive to potential buyers, Coach Bruder said.

A lucrative sale would be a rewarding payoff for Zellon's years of discipline and using his time to its highest possible value.

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