Small Business Runner-up

She's boss in translation
By Dail Willis

Michelle Menard started Choice Translating Inc. 10 years ago with $200, her mother and a simple definition of success: sales of $1 million. The business brought in $10,000 its first year, and even six-figure revenue looked as daunting as Mount Everest. Five years later, the Charlotte business hit the $1 million mark. “I remember thinking, what’s next?” The answer so far is more growth. Revenue in 2005 is likely to approach $1.4 million.

Menard, who was working her way through UNC Charlotte, and her mother, Monique Caselli, provided French-English translations, working at a $20 rolling computer desk by the washer and dryer in their apartment kitchen. Her mother translated; Menard edited her work. Now the company has seven full-time employees, can tackle any major language and has a network of about 1,000 contract workers who both translate — work on written materials — and interpret — convert speech.

Clients include Fortune 500 companies, small firms and local agencies. The company is helping Atlanta-based National Automotive Parts Association translate its “NAPA filters keep on trucking” ad campaign into something that will have the same cultural nuance in Spanish. Other jobs have included translating a nuclear plant’s operations manual from English to Spanish. The company also provides interpreters across the state when someone in a medical emergency, social-services crisis or criminal investigation doesn’t speak English.

Menard, 34, is the daughter of an American Army lieutenant and a French woman. “They met in France, married in Switzerland, lived in Germany and divorced in the U.S.” She spoke French at home, English outside it. Born in Charleston, S.C., she moved to Charlotte at age 3. At UNCC, she majored in international business and French, graduating in 1997. But she never considered translation as anything but a side venture until a manager at the Olive Garden restaurant where she waited tables suggested she start her own translating company. “I had this ‘aha’ moment,” she says.

By the end of 1998, she was ready to expand, but her mother wasn’t. So she struck out on her own. One client was Vernon J. Menard, co-owner of Rack Technologies in Charlotte, which made metal racks and cabinets for computers. Although fluent in Spanish, he wanted help in translating sales and marketing materials for South America. Business meetings evolved into dates. He sold his company, bought half of hers and became managing director in 2000. They married the following year.

In March 2000, the company moved into the Ben Craig Center, a business incubator affiliated with UNCC. The couple regularly sought advice from George McAllister, regional director of the Small Business and Technology Development Center in Charlotte. “They’re always pushing the envelope, always looking at ways of doing things better,” he says.

In March 2004, the business moved to downtown Charlotte. She is president; her husband is chief operating officer. Until now, the company has grown through referrals and repeat business. It will hire 10 sales people in the next year. “Sales and marketing are now the focus,” he says. Revenue target for June 2006 is $3.5 million.