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November 2004
Say What!?
By Ellison Clary

     Many entrepreneurs craft a vision for their business, but few are as vivid as the one Michelle Menard conjured up unintentionally.

     Menard was pursuing degrees in French and International Business at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte when the manager of a restaurant where she was a part-time server asked about her post graduation plans. She replied that she wasn’t sure. He asked, “Why don’t you start your own business?” Seeing her blank expression, he added, “translating.”

     “I had this flash of pictures and they were in browns and reds and splashing one behind the other of what this business would look like,” Menard remembers.

     The result is Choice Translating Inc., with more than a million dollars in annual revenues and 13 employees. In 2,400 square feet on the 26th floor of the Interstate Tower, the firm’s offices afford striking views of Charlotte’s center city. Inside, maps adorn the walls and stands display globes perfectly fitting for this Charlotte-based company which provides translating and interpreting services in 65 languages.

     Choice Translating, Inc. is a full-service linguistics company concentrating on translating, interpreting, brand analysis and tagline localization. The industries it serves include marketing, advertising, medical, legal, pharmaceutical, educational, manufacturing and financial as well as government agencies.

     Obviously, Menard, who was Michelle Luhr at the time of her vision, acted on what her mind’s eye saw that November evening in 1994. “I told my friends about my vision and they were happy for me but they thought I was crazy,” she recalls. “My family thought I was crazy.”

     She was undeterred. “I got a couple of hundred dollars and started in March 1995.”

     If the vision came out of the blue, the manager’s question didn’t. He knew Menard was fluent in French, that she did some freelance translating, and that she sometimes edited her mother’s translating assignments. It came naturally to Menard, born in Charleston, S.C., of a French mother and schooled in France for grades 1 and 3. “Until I was 18, I spoke more French than English,” she says.

     With her mother, Menard started Choice Translating & Interpreting, Inc. From their home, they translated written documents and interpreted the spoken word.


Growing Up – A Business

     It worked that way until 1998. Menard graduated from UNC Charlotte and mother and daughter took separate business paths. Soon after, the daughter met Vernon Menard, who owned a Charlotte company that made and exported racks and enclosures for communications equipment.

     Vernon Menard had concentrated on International Studies and Spanish at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota. He spoke fluent Spanish but knew he needed professional help with translating sales and marketing material for South America.

     “Vernon was working on a Saturday and faxed a document to the office, which was a shack behind the house,” Michelle remembers. She arranged a business meeting with him. Ten months later, they started dating; they married in September 2001.

     Vernon invested in Choice, which helped at a time when the company needed growth funds but was being turned down for loans by bankers who didn’t understand the translating business. In 1999, Vernon and Michelle moved the firm into the Ben Craig Center, a University City-area business incubator. The same year they hired their first employee. Vernon sold his business in 2000.

     In the incubator, the couple learned quickly. “They taught us how to get government contracts,” Michelle says. “They taught us how to grow, but not too fast, and about human resources issues and hiring the right people.”

     When the pair emerged from the incubator last year, they’d simplified the name to Choice Translating and adopted a gyroscope logo “because it represents stability in motion.” They picked an uptown location, central to their regional customer base. The offices are designed with a quiet area for translating, separated from the louder interpreting function.

     The couple decided to live downtown as well, moving into a second-floor condominium on North Church just blocks from their office. Although they work hard, Michelle and Vernon maintain their sense of humor. They have no children but do have Chaika, a 10-year-old black Labrador retriever. She has learned to open the front door – and operate the elevator. Recently, she was discovered in the lift, seven floors up.

     Back at the office, President Michelle and Chief Operating Officer Vernon preside over a business that has grown to well more than a million dollars in annual sales and is the Carolinas’ biggest linguistics agency. The company is in the top 80 such firms in the United States, out of several thousand.

     Industry-leading clients include Bowne & Company, Inc. of New York, a billion-dollar firm whose translating business approaches $200 million annually, and Lionbridge Technologies Inc., a Massachusetts translation company with sales of $140 million.

     “It’s a very fragmented industry,” Vernon Menard explains. “We’re already in the top one percent. There’s a small group of companies that are significantly larger. We intend to join that group.”

     Michelle smiles about her goal of attaining an annual sales number that required two commas. “We first hit $1 million in 2001,” she says. “We’ve grown every year. We should do $2 million through the end of June 2005.”


Keeping Growth Coming

     Choice Translating recently hired a senior project manager from TransPerfect Translations, culminating an 18-month pursuit by the Menards. She left the Manhattan-based corporation with sales of $25 million. “She felt comfortable in the direction we’re going and decided she would be appreciated here,” Michelle says.

     Besides its full-time staff, Choice Translating employs freelancers from around the globe. The Menards used to find them while attending industry conferences but, these days, linguists as far away as Russia and Saudi Arabia contact them.

     The Menards quote prices based on individual projects. “We have experience handling lots of different projects, so we give firm quotes,” Michelle says.

     “The first thing I ask them for is an estimate and it’s something they can give me within hours,” says Adriana Taylor, an immigration paralegal at the Charlotte office of Moore & Van Allen. “Generally, they are very competitive.”

     Taylor’s projects run from birth certificates to contracts and needed languages often are Italian, German or Spanish.

     “They’re also good at quality control,” Taylor adds. “When a corporate client asks about a translator, I don’t hesitate to refer them to Choice.”

     Translating services deal with written documents and include applications such as packaging, online training programs, immigration documents, patents, contracts and business cards.

     Gary Klipp of The Quality Group in Charlotte was glad to find the Menard’s firm nearby when he recently needed to translate a Six Sigma course into Spanish. Headquar-tered in Atlanta, The Quality Group specializes in Web-based training.

     “I’m absolutely impressed with what they did,” says Klipp, product development president. Previously, he used a company that had him dealing with translators in Ireland at 5:00 a.m. Eastern time. “It’s a lot better face-to-face,” Klipp says. “When you’ve got somebody here and willing to work with you, you can turn around the product much quicker.” He’ll come back to Choice Translating soon, he adds, because he has a tool-maker’s Spanish translation project in the pipeline.


Customer Satisfaction a Top Priority

     “We want repeat customers,” Michelle says. “If you’ve got someone who is extremely satisfied, they’re going to spread the word about your business.”

     For Choice, interpreting is primarily a Carolinas-centric business, often involving government agencies such as police and social services as well as hospitals. The company offers interpreters on call 24 hours a day.

     For brand name analysis, the Menards consult with linguists in target markets. Using a custom-built Web-based application they answer questions about the possible meanings and connotations of proposed product names. Michelle remembers a name for a diet pill that its maker was high on. Research showed the proposed moniker meant “you’re fat” in French.

     Often, the Choice Translating tagline – “meaning turns on a word” – is pertinent. Vernon Menard recalls the document a Spanish-speaking man received, directing him to a specific location. “He couldn’t tell what city because the document read ‘Carlotta, North Carolina.’ Turns out Carlotta is Spanish for Charlotte.”

     That document might have been produced with computer software, a procedure the Menards are wary of. “There’s no replacement for the human brain in looking at the whole project and knowing how it’s going to be used and what the target market is,” Michelle says.

     Still, Choice Translating uses high-end technology in many applications. One such situation was with a training document for a gas turbine power plant in Mexico. It was filled with thermodynamics terminology and technical terms. Software helped the Menards create a 3,500-line glossary of technical terms that kept word usage consistent for 3,000 pages.

     Although that project took 22 people and six weeks, Choice Translating prides itself on quick turnarounds. Christy Gordon, communications coordinator for IRWIN Industrial Tools in Huntersville, likes that when it comes to translations for packaging.

     “We have worked with several other translations firms and we were always given promises of quick service, but we’d be waiting a while for the translations to come back,” Gordon says. “Choice always guarantees a time and it’s usually 24 hours or less. They’re willing to work with us on ways to expedite things and willing to come out and visit with us. They go out of their way.”

     That willingness to go the extra mile has paid rewards other than financial. Michelle won the U.S. Small Business Administra-tion’s “Young Entrepreneur of the Year” award in 2000.

     She serves on the executive committee of Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory’s International Cabinet and chaired the Charlotte Mayor’s International Community Awards Selection Committee from 2002 through 2004. She and Vernon serve on the board of the Charlotte Chapter of the Young Entrepreneurs Organization. Vernon also is a board member for the UNC Charlotte Chapter of Students in Free Enterprise.

     Obviously both Menards enjoy community service and they add that they find business rewards in civic activity. Both have worked with the Small Business and Technology Development Center (SBTDC) for the last four years.

     “SBTDC has been a valuable sounding board for discussing current issues and long-term growth strategies,” Michelle says. “They have provided help in most areas of our business.”

     But linguistics is their first love. “We enjoy them all,” Vernon says of the world’s languages, 92 of which are spoken in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

     Michelle enjoys the challenge each language poses. She remembers dealing with Russian financial projects several years ago when the country was emerging from a cash-based society. The language had no words for such terms as line of credit and interest. “The Russian translation community and everyone was working together to devise financial terms,” she says.

     “The most exciting thing,” Michelle adds, “is that you always get that sense of completion and satisfaction in seeing the results of your work. You find out the impact that it has with a client. That makes a big difference.”
Ellison Clary is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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