After graduating from Virginia Tech with a finance degree, Giovanni Donatelli took a job as a financial adviser, a seemingly perfect fit, except that it wasn’t.
“It’s tricky to be 22 and telling people twice your age what to do with their money. I didn’t have the intestinal fortitude for that,” he said with a laugh.
Not long after that, however, he stumbled into a field that was the perfect fit: language translation.
The Italian native who grew up in Portsmouth started working for a language company and while he loved the business, he found the management team lacking and resigned. A short time later, at 24 years old, he decided to go into business for himself. He founded The Language Group in 1999 and began pounding the pavement to acquire clients.
“I literally went to the courts by myself, with a suit on, and went to the window where you pay traffic tickets and handed out my card. Slowly, people started calling us,” Donatelli said.
The Language Group provides a wide range of services including onsite, telephone and teleconferencing interpretation, document translation, medical interpreting and government services. The company has 17 employees in its Virginia Beach office and employs more than 1,100 interpreters across the country, offering services in more than 175 languages including American Sign Language.
From fairly humble beginnings (Donatelli remembers the long wait for payments from the state-funded court system), The Language Group has grown to be one of the largest language services in Virginia. Clients include health care organizations including hospitals and insurance companies, area city governments and a variety of businesses.
He said over the years he has gained business by educating potential clients about the benefits his company offers. Today, he said, business owners have a more sophisticated understanding of the language business, knowing there is a substantial difference between having a bilingual employee on staff and a company that can provide interpretation, full-service document translation and deliver publication-level products.
While business was steady until 2013, it really began to take off after passage of The Affordable Care Act which put a premium on language services because it required enforcement of laws that guarantee everyone have the same health care regardless of their language. Institutions that didn’t comply were fined, so that led to a significant increase in the company’s medical clients.
He also said that through initiatives of the Virginia Economic Partnership, more Virginia-based companies are exporting products overseas, resulting in increased need for document translation and language services.
Another uptick came about when Smithfield Foods, one of Donatelli’s flagship clients, was acquired by a Chinese company.
In addition to garnering new clients, including a significant contract with a health system in the Pacific Northwest, Donatelli credits his hard-working staff with increased profitability.
“We have 17 people in the office and two out-of-state sales people,” he said, surmising that for the amount of work they do, other companies would need 40 employees. “We are two times more efficient than the average language company in the industry.”
Above industry-standard compensation has also paid off for Donatelli.
“I pay my staff very well and give them very good fringe benefits,” he said, adding a happy staff translates to happy customers.
– Joy Vann