ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Here are a few aspects of Mario Burgos’ self-described “bizarre life:” He was a professional country-western dancer even though he once hated country music, he was part of an improv comedy troupe that called itself Mice and he had a small part as “Chef Ramon” in the B horror film “Project Metalbeast.”
“It was about a werewolf who has metal skin grafted to him as a science experiment,” Burgos says. “That was my big break.”
All that was a long time ago – “during my quarter-life crisis in my 20s,” he says.
Now, Burgos, who is on the brink of turning 50, is known in New Mexico as a highly successful businessman who has turned a small marketing and consulting firm into Burgos Group, an Albuquerque business worth more than $22 million that does government contract work.
Burgos, who says he always tries to look forward, now has his sights set on Cuba as he seeks international business for the company he owns with one of his two brothers. Burgos and brother David won a Small Business Person of the Year award from the U.S. Small Business Administration in 2017.
His ease with other cultures comes from traveling the world – he recently returned from a trip to Turkey – and his diverse background.
His father is from Ecuador, and his mother’s family is east European.
“On the one hand, the fact that I had that different mix in background has meant it’s very easy for me to fit into lots of different cultures,” Burgos says. “On the flip side, I don’t 100 percent fit in any of them. So someone will decide I’m not Spanish enough, or someone will decide I’m not Jewish enough. I think it’s a huge benefit. Life requires you to be flexible.”
Burgos is a natural in the business world because it’s how he was raised. He helped his parents with their seafood business in Somerdale, N.J., when he wasn’t “out hustling” smaller jobs like mowing lawns and washing cars.
His more lucrative career came at 13, when he landed a newspaper route and finagled his way to “captain,” a supervisory job usually held by a parent. The young Burgos was then able to increase his take-home pay by “subcontracting” routes to kids who couldn’t legally get their own because they were too young.
It was a win-win. The younger kids got to make some money, while Burgos got a share of their revenues.
That same entrepreneurial spirit led Burgos to country-western dancing while he was living in Los Angeles at an acquaintance’s recommendation, even though he had never been a country music fan. (“When I drove a car cross-country, from Oklahoma on, I was miserable because all that was on was country music or church music, and I’m Jewish, so that didn’t work.”)
But he says he got hooked after dancing at the now-closed Denim and Diamonds in L.A. at a time when “country kind of first went mainstream.”
It was a right place, right time kind of thing. Choreographers were looking for dancers who could do the two-step on music videos, and they found Burgos. He says he appeared in Tim McGraw and Brooks and Dunn vidoes and landed a role dancing on “Baywatch.”
“It was crazy,” he says.
How did you get to New Mexico?
I met my first wife in California. She’s a ninth-generation New Mexican, and apparently I missed the fine print that said if you married a ninth-generation New Mexican, you’re going to raise a 10th-generation New Mexican.
Do you have any mentors?
I’ve actually been fortunate to have lots of mentors in my life. One example would be my father. He lost his business right about the time I was going to college. I asked my dad, “What are you going to do now? You’re a smart guy, but you don’t have a college degree. You have a Spanish accent, the only thing you’ve ever done is run your own company, so you don’t really have a résumé. His response was, ‘Well, I’m going to do whatever I need to do. … If I have to get two jobs, I’ll get two jobs. If I have to get three jobs, I’ll get three jobs.'”
I’ve had plenty of ups and downs as I’ve built these different companies, and the idea that hey, you’re going to do whatever you have to do when something fails, because they do fail – so he was a role model in that way.
You’re working to find business opportunities in Cuba. Are there similarities to the way business is done in New Mexico?
To me, there’s a lot of similarities. In New Mexico, we’re one degree of separation from anybody you want to talk to. People lament that this is a hard place to do business. I couldn’t disagree with them more. It’s very similar to Cuba, and it ties in to both sides of my family. The way you do business in Latin America, in general, is that it’s not sending a text, sending an email, video-conferencing. People want to talk to you for a couple of hours before you even talk about business, and same on the eastern European side. Nobody wants to do business with somebody they don’t know. So I grew up like that.
What are your favorite places?
I fall in love with places really, really quickly. Every place is very unique to me, but I just came back from Turkey in June and spent 12 days doing an adventure travel trip. It’s an amazing country. I like Barcelona, just the vibe of the city. It’s one of my favorite cities in the world.
What do you do in your free time?
I have two dogs (and) spend time with them. A lot of times, my week is so full, so on the weekends all I want to do is chill. I live in the mountains, so chill can be hiking. Chill can be going out for a bike ride. I’m fanatical about going to the gym.
What’s the best compliment you’ve ever received?
My sister-in-law had said to my first wife at some point, “Wow, he actually really knows a lot.” I know a lot about a lot of different things.
What are your pet peeves?
Actually, a lot of my peeves have to do with airports. I don’t know why they have carpet on the floors in the airport when everybody has wheeled suitcases. It just drives me nuts.
No. Every part of my life and all these different things I’ve ever done, when you look backwards, I could never do what I’m doing without having done all that – whether they failed or were hugely successful.
Do you have any advice for the next generation?
I got exposure to running a business, but I also learned that when you get engaged, you get involved and you roll up your sleeves and you show up, things happen. I don’t think we teach kids that enough. Every board I’ve ever sat on, professional, charitable or otherwise, is (trying to figure out), how do we engage young people? No matter where you’re coming from, all you have to do is show up at these things – clean – and smile and say, “Hi.”