publisher of classified ad newspaper El clasificado reaps rewards and awards as she carves out huge niche in burgeoning latino market

Martha de la Torre thought she had a sure-fire idea for a successful small business to fill a major void in the Latino community.

She wanted to start a weekly Spanish-language classified ads publication similar to the Penny Saver to be distributed throughout major Latino neighborhoods in the Los Angeles area.

So on May 4, 1988, with money from friends, family and herself, she launched El Clasificado, a compact booklet of black-and-white ads for automobiles, furniture, home services, mariachi bands, rental properties and employment opportunities.

But shortly after the first issues were distributed, the recession got a firm grasp on Southern California. Months later, de la Torre was selling her house and car and moving in with her parents to keep her business going.

For several years it was touch and go. In between, she worked part-time as a certified public accountant to make ends meet.

"There were times I didn't think I'd see the light at the end of the tunnel," the 43-year-old recalls, sitting inside her City of Commerce office, blocks away from her core target market in East Los Angeles. "Customers who placed ads at the beginning would say, 'The publication looks good, but we're not getting any results on our ads.'"

By 1992, conditions had improved. The publisher of the free publication changed her distribution plan. Instead of delivering her publication to individual homes, de la Torre arranged to have it dropped off at various locations such as local meat markets, bakeries and independent shops. Delivery costs plummeted from $35 per 1,000 copies to $10 per 1,000.

By 1994, de la Torre's husband, Joe Badame, also a CPA who had been helping part time, took over distribution and computerized the system so that each location could be monitored weekly.

"The two biggest things we did was to get a contract to distribute at supermarket locations, because Latinos we learned like to go to the supermarket every day," noted de la Torre.

Pervasive presence

Now the company owns 700 street racks and has 2,000 drop-off locations, including Kmart, Albertson's, Vons, 7-Eleven and Blockbuster stores.

El Clasificado's circulation has grown to 110,000 copies distributed to 11 zones that stretch from the San Gabriel Valley to Orange County. Next month, distribution will begin in the Inland Empire.

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