After a particularly grueling day of picking grapefruit, Ruben Perez took a break and looked at the line of workers dotting the fields. That's when the teenager instantly knew he wanted something more.
"You're young and you see all the people working out there and it's an eye opener. I said, 'No it is too hard and I can do better than this,'" he said.
The University of Texas-Pan American alumnus did not anticipate becoming a trailblazer in the medical industry and one of the most successful entrepreneurs in the state.
"I came from a family of farm workers. We worked in agriculture like a lot of people did then, but you need to ask yourself, 'Do you want to struggle the rest of your life,'" Perez said.
Perez was born in Knox City, Texas, a town near Abilene. His parents met there while picking cotton. The migrant family moved around to different farming communities and eventually settled in Donna in 1963. The Donna High School athlete knew education would be his ticket out.
"I always knew I was going to get a degree. I didn't want to be like my father and all my uncles working out in the fields doing manual labor," he said.
First, he had to convince his father that college was the right option. Initially, he wasn't sold on the idea.
"My father was used to seeing kids graduating high school and then working. He saw a full grown man at home studying and reading books and he was coming in tired from work, so it was hard," Perez said.
Money was sparse, but Perez did not allow that to become an obstacle either.
"Luckily for me and others in the Valley we have a school in our backyard that gives us the opportunity to get a college education even if you're poor," Perez said. "I took advantage of every loan and grant out there. Pan Am had everything to do with my success."
After graduating in 1977 from then-Pan American University with a bachelor's in accounting, Perez moved to Houston with his wife and hometown sweetheart Blanca, in search of an oil and gas accounting job. He quickly landed one, but the very same day he was also offered a position as a financial auditor for Blue Cross Blue Shield.
"It's crazy but I accepted both jobs. The health care job was intriguing. It was auditing hospitals and had a bit more freedom and they gave me a company car. That was the tipping point. I took the job that Monday and declined the oil one," he said.
Perez insists that decision paved the way for his astronomical climb in the medical field and changed his life.
Perez quickly rose up the ranks. After a short time auditing, he was recruited as the chief financial officer (CFO) of Katy Community Hospital, Park Plaza Hospital, then as CFO for The Methodist Healthcare Network in Houston, a multi-hospital system.
In 1988, he joined a team of investors to start a new company, Columbia Hospital Corporation, and assumed the role as partner and senior vice president of financial operations.
"That was my big break. I was the financial guy and was lucky to also be able to invest in it," Perez said. "It grew into a big company. That changed my career from being an employee to being an owner."
The company started with two hospitals in El Paso and eventually merged with Hospital Corporation of America to become the nation's largest healthcare provider. By 1992 it was traded on the New York Stock Exchange and had assets exceeding $1 billion.
That same year, Perez left Columbia and formed AmHealth Corporation, a kidney dialysis company, with his brothers Daniel and David.
"It was time. We wanted to do something on our own and dialysis was the way to go," Perez said.
In 1996, AmHealth merged with STAT Healthcare, a publicly traded company, then later that year with American Medical Response (AMR), now the world's largest ambulance company. In early 1997, AMR was acquired by Laidlaw Corporation in a $1.2 billion transaction.
"Then I took a four-year vacation," he said referring to his work hiatus from AMR.
Following the short retirement, Perez and his brothers formed InterAmerica Wound Centers, a hyperbaric and wound care company in 2001. That company is still in operation. In January 2006, Perez and his siblings also formed CIMA Healthcare to operate four hospice agencies in Texas. In six short years, CIMA became a leading provider of hospice care in Texas.
"We thought hospice was the next big thing and it is. Our population is aging," Perez said. "Providing excellent health care to our patients is what makes us a success."
In October 2011, CIMA merged with Jordan Health Services and together has more than 10,000 employees in Texas. Perez currently serves on Jordan's board of directors.
"I wanted to be the best and most successful business person that I could be, so I set a goal," Perez said. "Take the future in your own hands. Don't wait on anybody else to make decisions for you."
Perez said his favorite quote from Peter Drucker, the famous management consultant, sums up his career.
"'The best way to predict the future is to create it.' I have always lived by that," he said.
He now plans to step away from the day-to-day grind. Perez said his recent induction as a UTPA Pillar of Success, a prestigious honor given to outstanding alumni, gave him a new perspective.
"I am going to use the Pillars of Success as my retirement party from the standpoint of an active CEO. I want to be out of the daily operations. I think that's a better fit for me."
The award came as complete surprise to Perez. "I am totally humbled and grateful to the University that was there as my neighborhood university. If it wasn't in the community, I probably would have never gone to college," Perez said.
His next project is to spend more time at his ranch in Boerne,Texas with his wife and to do some traveling. He also plans to search for promising niches in the healthcare industry and recruit "operator entrepreneurs" in the field to help operate and invest in the new ventures.
"I didn't have any money, but I had some talent and someone recognized that, so we will do that for someone else," Perez said.