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Feb. 6, 2003: OC Metro


Every successful entrepreneur stresses that you've got to work hard to succeed. But most admit that it also takes a certain element of luck to achieve your dreams. Joe Morabito, president and CEO of Paragon Decision Resources Inc., with headquarters in Rancho Santa Margarita, says that synchronicity is part of the reason he heads a worldwide consulting company specializing in domestic and international relocation for Fortune 1000 and Forbes 500 companies. He was in the right place at the right time.

The right place was a barbecue in his brother's back yard ... the right time was when he decided educational administration just wasn't for him, and he wanted to try something else. Morabito had started out as a teacher. With bachelor's degrees in political science and history and a master's in educational administration, he was working his way up the ladder toward becoming a school principal. But he must have suspected that education might not be the right fit for him, because he was doing the coursework for a real estate broker's exam on the side.

"In 1979, after six years in teaching, I decided I could do more with my life," says Morabito. At a barbecue at his brother's house, he announced that he wasn't going back to teaching in the fall.

"Why don't you sell real estate?" asked his brother, who knew he'd been preparing for the exam.

"No," replied Morabito, "I'm not interested in selling real estate."

"Well," said his brother, "why don't you call Merrill Lynch?"

"Merrill Lynch?" asked Morabito. "I'm not a stockbroker!" His brother explained that he heard that Merrill Lynch had another division that specialized in relocation management.

"You mean companies will pay someone money to do that?" asked Morabito.

Three months later he was hired as the youngest manager in the company. Morabito believes it was the combination of people and communication skills he had developed in teaching and the real estate knowledge he had picked up that made him an attractive candidate. He ended up founding a group move and consulting services division at Merrill Lynch. By the time he left six years later, Morabito was regional vice president.

Morabito thanks Merrill Lynch for giving him the experience he needed to create and build his own successful company. He was given the opportunity there to build a business from scratch under the umbrella of a large, stable company. In six years he traveled to 45 different states, working with clients all over the United States as well as in Britain. "That gave me contacts and an experiential base to understand the business and the industry," Morabito says. In 1987, he leveraged his experience by founding Paragon. Morabito started with 13 employees; today he employs 130. Paragon partners with dozens of companies in real estate, mortgage, banking, transportation and immigration services in countries throughout the world to help other companies move their employees. This year, the company will assist 10,000 families with relocation to more than 35 countries.

When Morabito founded Paragon, once again, timing was everything. "We formed our company on a Wednesday in May. We went from being Premier Decision Management, a Weyerhauser company, to being independently owned Paragon Decision Resources."

When he worked for very large companies Morabito never had to worry about making his payroll.

"When we formed Paragon on that Thursday, for the first time ever, I had the weight of 13 families on my shoulders. It was the first time in my life I'd felt that. It was an interesting dimension."

Fortunately, the weighed-down feeling didn't last long. The very next day, on Friday, Paragon was awarded a move of 1,250 employees by a company downsizing from nine locations to two.

"We had bid the account as a Weyerhauser company; it helped us make that Friday payroll and gave us a huge jump start."

The business hasn't slowed since.

Morabito admits it hasn't all been smooth sailing. There were moments when he doubted his ability to pull it off. Encouragement sometimes came from odd sources. A stranger on a five-hour flight to New York gave him the words he needed to stick to his goals.

We chatted, and I enumerated the challenges I was facing, the obstacles before me. He said, 'You don't realize what you can accomplish.' I would call him an angel. He gave me very sound advice, and I followed it."

Morabito is proud of the fact that Paragon is an employer of choice in the relocation business.

"We attract very talented people," he says. Two things make Paragon attractive, says Morabito: flexibility and stability. "All of us came from large companies," he says. "We've taken the best from the large companies - their discipline and organizational structure - but left the bureaucracy behind."

This makes Paragon a flat, entrepreneurial company; there are no hierarchies to negotiate, and decisions can be made quickly.

Another factor in Paragon's attractiveness as an employer is stability.

"In the last 20 years, 20 major relocation companies have come and gone," says Morabito. "Our company has been stable for 12 years, and it's not for sale. I'm not interested in selling. That's important today. People want to know the company they're working for will be around in 10 years."

Morabito strives to create a good working environment for his employees, providing compensation plans that reward both short- and long-term performance.

If there's one thing Morabito knows about the future of Paragon, it's that he wants to be in it. He comes from a hard-working immigrant Italian family with a tradition in the grocery business.

"The saying goes, 'Our family dies at the cash register,' and it's actually true," he laughs. "One of my cousins did. They called the ambulance, but they didn't close the store. My aunt was telling the story, and I asked her, 'Was it a Saturday?' I knew the answer would be yes, because Saturday's the busiest day of the week ... no grocer would close a store on a Saturday. I love that story. It's intrinsic to who I am. In my book, the show goes on, no matter what. I see myself working until the last day."

Companies have approached Morabito about selling Paragon. He asks, "What would I do?" "Buy another business," they say. "But why?" he asks. "I love my business. Money is not the only measurement of success. It's how happy you are. I love what I do." Morabito's company is currently in expansion mode. Paragon is working on acquiring stand-alone, ancillary businesses, such as mortgage, freight, or payroll companies that enhance its relocation services.

Focus and discipline, says Morabito, are critical to anyone's personal success. Do you have it, or don't you? "You can't succeed without it," he warns. And the fear factor, he adds, is crucial. Most people are afraid to take the risks you have to take to start a business.

"If you're not a risk taker, don't try to start and run your own business. You have to be willing to sign your name and put everything on the line. If that's going to make you unable to sleep nights then don't start a business."

Return to: 2003 Feature Stories