Second-Generation CEO Is Focused on Evolving—and Vietnamese Food
I agreed to meet Francesco Pagano, the CEO of Interpreters and Translators (iTi), at noon to attend the Rotary Club of Hartford meeting. We haven’t seen each other in years. It’s a few minutes before noon on Monday, May 2, 2022, and 50 people are milling around and eating an international smorgasbord of foods at the Parkville Market in Hartford, Connecticut. But I don’t see Francesco.
The market promotes itself as Connecticut’s first food hall—a much smaller version of New York City’s Chelsea Market or Quincy Market in Boston. I make several slow, time-killing loops around the first-floor perimeter past food stalls the size of a walk-in closet, carefully examining each posted menu as if I were Gordon Ramsey, the British chef and restaurateur.
Abruptly, I change my plan and go outside, hoping to intercept Francesco entering the building. All of a sudden, a stranger approaches me. His voice says, “Anthony?” It’s Francesco—but I barely recognize him.
He is casually dressed in jeans (he has ditched suits and ties), a green gingham dress shirt and a half-zip sweater, with a distinctive black Louis Vuitton cross body bag hanging diagonally across his chest. His long black hair is rolled into a bun. At this moment, he is the most interesting man in the market.
Rotary International is a 110-year-old global organization with over 46,000 chapters committed to solving world problems. Only six people have shown up for the Hartford meeting, including Anthony Pagano, Francesco’s retired father, who munches on his lunch. A few other people are eating; Francesco is focused on a bowl of pernil, a traditional Puerto Rican dish of slow-roasted marinated pork. He wastes no time eating.
The agenda is anemic, with the current president mentioning they are looking for a new president, almost begging anyone to volunteer. No one does (Francesco served as the president from 2017 to 2019). The meeting ends, and the participants scatter like cats.
He’s 'very bubbly' and a 'try-to-get-to-know-you type.'
Knowing it would be a short meeting, Francesco had brought a canister of darts to use on the dartboard hanging on the wall. Francesco removes his sweater and begins throwing darts by himself. He is content. The back and forth banter between Anthony Pagano and Francesco is entertaining.
After the meeting, I speak to Katie Biggs Price, a 33-year-old risk analyst at a credit union and a prospective Rotary member. She describes Francesco as “very warm and welcoming.” He’s “very bubbly” and a “try-to-get-to-know-you type.” When referring to Francesco and Anthony Pagano together, she says, “they have that father-son dynamic, and it was nice listening to them joke and go back and forth.” She comments specifically about Anthony Pagano, “He has that personality that really stands out.”
The Window to a Diverse World
Francesco, 41, the father of two kids, has two younger siblings, a brother and a sister. He says, “I’ve been a part of this company by default for like 75% of my life, which is kind of weird. My life flashes before my eyes when I think back to 1986. As far back as I can remember, this company has existed in one shape or form.”
One summer, when Francesco was nine or ten years old, and the business was based in the family’s home, he remembers looking out of the kitchen window for about 30 minutes and watching three people come and go. He didn’t know if they were dropping off timesheets or going through some type of language proficiency assessment.
One of the three was “really dark,” another seemed to be of Asian descent, and the other person appeared Caucasian. “So it was always super interesting in life, and curious to me this industry, this company, because just by the nature of the beast, it is just so diverse,” says Francesco. Diversity is not a corporate buzzword for him because he is the offspring of an Italian father and a Puerto Rican mother.
Originally from Puerto Rico, Elby, Francesco’s mother, visited her aunt in Manchester, Connecticut and liked the area so much that she decided to move there. As the story goes, Elby worked as a clerk in the bankruptcy court of the Connecticut Judicial Department, and one day a judge asked her to interpret for a case. The work was intriguing and led her to seek freelance work as an interpreter in the criminal trials. Over the years, she took courses to improve her knowledge and comfort level with the court's terminology.
That was the last job my mom had before starting her own company.
Elby was promoted to be the chief interpreter for the Connecticut Judicial Department. She oversaw several interpreters speaking dozens of languages: Spanish, Russian, Polish, Hindi, Urdu, and African and Slavic languages. Francesco spent a lot of time with his mother during those early days because she didn’t have daycare. “I remember roaming the halls of that office and meeting interpreters,” says Francesco. “That was the last job my mom had before starting her own company.”
In 1986, after managing the Connecticut Judicial Department’s Interpreter Services division for 13 years, Elby started Interpreters and Translators, Inc., in the basement of her house. She planned to spend more time with Francesco and his younger brother. In the beginning, business was “so slow, I had time to have another baby (Annie),” she said in a Hartford Courant article on November 18, 1999.
Elby’s husband, Anthony Pagano, a now-retired attorney, completed the legal documents for the new business. In the company’s origin story, Anthony Pagano is not mentioned. Francesco states, “I think my dad played a bigger role in starting this company than anybody, including myself, gives him credit for because he’s a natural promoter and because he was an attorney.”
Building on the momentum of his convictions, Francesco says, “I guess you could say he's a co-founder and maybe the first director of marketing, or the first salesperson.” As the business grew, it needed more space, which led to an addition of a two-car garage with an office above for the business. Growth continued and led to purchasing a 3-story building on Main Street in Manchester. Today, the company is located in a 10,000-square feet space in Glastonbury, Connecticut.
Leaving the Business
At eighteen years old, Francesco left the family business from 1997 to 2006; he says, “I honestly felt like I was on a mission to better understand how corporations work.” He would work for Brookstone, Cigna, and Verizon, among others.
He says, “I almost felt like a corporate spy.” He spent nine years away from the family business. During this time, he talked to Elby frequently about the business. At the time, the company had ten employees.
Elby lured him back to the family business through an industry conference. At that conference, he realized the business's potential by seeing all the other companies in the industry. Previously, he had never thought about the companies that made up the interpreting and translation industry. It was time to go back to the business.
We like to experiment with things, whether it’s a new process or a new service, anything to see what works.
He credits Elby with giving him “the freedom and flexibility to play around with my ideas like Play-Doh.” He learned that experimenting could lead to innovation. “We like to experiment with things, whether it’s a new process or a new service, anything to see what works.” While his mother didn’t always make correct decisions, Francesco learned from her.
Francesco remembers another lesson he learned from Elby. When he was younger and still living at home, he would go out, and Elby had no idea what he might get himself into or what time he would come home. She gave him a simple message: do the right thing. Whenever he finds himself at a crossroads in business or life, he remembers that message.
IBIS World estimates that the market for translation services is $7.7 billion in the U.S, with nearly 5% growth each year from 2017 to 2022. Language Wire values the industry at $56 billion when you add in the 18,000 language service providers (LSP) and translation technology, like Google Translate and Grammarly.
Francesco views the Interpreters and Translators company like a younger brother. “I’m not protective over it,“ he says. “I’m more curious to see what this thing is going to be when it grows up.” To help it transition to the second generation, the firm hired a chief operating officer in 2010. By 2013, the transition to the next generation was completed when Francesco took over as the president of the business.
Family dynamics can be an emotional minefield, particularly when it involves succession. A Businessweek.com 2010 report estimated that roughly 40% of U.S. family-owned businesses make it to the second generation, and about 13% are passed down to a third generation. Still, only a tiny 3% survive to a fourth or beyond.
Francesco knows the business must evolve and grow. He considers himself a “deep thinker,” more of a visionary futuristic-type person and a bigger thinker than Elby. They complemented each other when they worked together because she was a linguist and did the work.
“It wasn’t easy,” he says. There were times of friction. He remembers when Elby fought him “tooth and nail” over his idea to add an automated telephone system. It took him two months to realize that it wasn’t just about efficiency. He values the lesson he learned about how a personal touch outweighs everything else.
The company is focused on providing a localized white-glove service to customers. So when a customer calls from the Midwest, they want to offer a linguist from the Midwest, and the same for services in other parts of the U.S. or the world. Francesco admits that they are not there yet.
Elby is retired but may stop by the office once in a blue moon. When she does, Francesco uses those precious moments to teach employees about the culture and values that started with Elby. Sharing those stories with staff is how he reinforces her values and makes them relevant in the growing company.
I think it needs to evolve, just like everything.
When talking about the company’s trajectory, Francesco says, “I think it needs to evolve, just like everything. The story is not over, right?” He is focused on the company creating an identity of its own but not running away from its heritage. He sees his role as “reinforcing the values and the type of behavior we expect out of anybody who’s working [for the company.] He appreciates any opportunity to mentor and help staff.
Francesco is the captain of the ship. He describes the business as “Growing like crazy.” As the company approaches 50 full-time employees with access to over 10,000 contracted linguists, the future is bright.
The business provides services in 250 languages and has operations in Connecticut; Quebradillas, Puerto Rico; and Denver, Colorado. Francesco is part of a company that works with people of every color, from every walk of life and every corner of the globe, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
It’s a family effort. Diana Pagano, Francesco’s wife of nine years, is the vice president of Interpreters and Translators. Diana joined the company in 2015. Annie Pagano, Francesco’s sister, works as a brand strategist for the company, and “she really likes it.”
Francesco says, “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a CEO. I never knew why, but I never really looked up to any athlete or movie star or anyone like that.” He gives his dad credit for his desire to be an executive. He gets his natural curiosity and networking ability from his dad. Francesco calls his dad “the first promoter” of the company.
“I feel like I’m a pretty good blend of both [his father and mother],” Francesco says. Both parents' jobs were rooted in the legal system, Anthony Pagano as an attorney and Elby in the Connecticut court system as an interpreter. But Francesco credits his mom most because she “took the bull by the horns and raised this thing.”
I don’t really have to prove anything to anybody anymore.
These days, Francesco is relaxed and comfortable in his role—and casual dress and persona. He says, “My wife is kind of the opposite where she’ll dress up like she’s going to the biggest sales meeting of her life just to go to the grocery store.” They balance each other out.
Francesco is eager to pass on what he has learned. “I don’t really have to prove anything to anybody anymore.” He doesn’t say that with arrogance, but like someone who has paid his dues. “Getting this company to where it is today took a whole lot of my efforts, and I was the face of the company.” These days, his target audience is internal employees, helping them grow and develop with the company.
When asked if he sees himself growing with the company or growing out of the company, he doesn’t have an immediate answer. Francesco says, “I really enjoy this industry. I really enjoy this company. I’m not saying I won’t start another company. But all the lessons that I learned from this are completely applicable to anything.”
Francesco’s happy place is being in a car. He claims he is not tied to any one car, but he does drive a black Tesla Model S.
Food may be his weakness. He loves Vietnamese, Italian and Puerto Rican food. He says, “Vietnamese has captured my heart for more than half my life, and if I could eat one thing every day for the rest of my life, it would be that.”
For a man who seems to have it all, the family, kids, a big home, a thriving business, and a Tesla Model S, Francesco is down to earth and happy.
Anthony Price is an entrepreneur, writer and publisher of Mini Books, concise stories for people who are curious about the world.