SUBSCRIBER CONTENT: May 29, 2015, 3:00am PDT
On a recent Monday afternoon somewhere in America, a Finnish person walked into a Walmart pharmacy and needed help communicating with the clerk.
So Walmart called a toll-free number to link to Certified Languages International’s call center on Macadam Avenue in Southwest Portland. Within seconds, a dispatcher connected a Finnish interpreter with the store. While the language request was somewhat unusual, the basic drill was not.
Certified Languages International, or CLI, has been offering interpreting services for the past 19 years, with between 10,000 and 20,000 calls coming in 24/7 to call centers in Portland and Phoenix. The company has quietly grown to the third largest interpreting service in the country and among the top 10 in the world since it was founded by current CEO Kristin Quinlan’s father.
“There’s a huge industry out there nobody knew existed,” Quinlan said.
Strategic investments in technology and the use of contractors rather than the in-house interpreter model favored by competitors have allowed CLI to outpace many competitors. The interpreting industry is growing at an 8 percent annual rate, while CLI has been growing at 23 to 30 percent a year, all of it self-funded.
Quinlan expects that rapid growth to continue.
Last year, revenue grew to $23.5 million, up from $12.8 million in 2012. Quinlan expects revenue to reach between $27 million and $28 million this year.
All about speed
CLI was founded in 1996 by Quinlan’s dad, Bill Graeper, who had previously founded 1800DENTIST. He thought if he could connect interpreters with people who need them, “it would be cool,” Quinlan said. He launched CLI with $160,000 in seed money from a friend and former partner.
“The company blossomed, as the technology allowed us to,” said Quinlan, who started working at CLI in 2000 and became CEO in 2006. Quinlan had worked in consumer electronics, then took time off to raise her two kids. She came to CLI as her youngest child was starting kindergarten.
Graeper is no longer involved in day to day operations, though he and Quinlan’s mom still own 90 percent of the company, while she owns 10 percent.
“He and I have a similar business philosophy,” Quinlan said. “We believe in a management style from the bottom up, not the top down. I come from Corporate America, which is the opposite.”
One of CLI’s selling points is its speed. The company developed proprietary software that enables the fastest connection times in the industry, Quinlan said. For Spanish requests, it takes less than 10 seconds from the moment the call comes in, and often much less. Other languages may take up to 20 seconds.
“We made a huge investment in technology, which allowed us to scale,” Quinlan said. “We’ve never sat back and rested on our laurels.”
Today, CLI has 3,000 clients, including some major corporate brands: GMAC, Hewlett Packard, US Cellular, Holland America, Citizen’s Bank, Marriott, Hilton, Visa, Best Buy, BMW, the Kennedy Space Center and the state of Virginia’s court system. It also does interpreting work for a national human trafficking hotline.
About 60 percent of CLI’s business is health related. Clients include Oregon Health & Science University, Swedish Medical Center in Seattle, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Providence Health & Services and insurers such as Cigna, Humana and BlueCross BlueShield in Minnesota. CLI is in the running for a contract with CVS pharmacy.
OHSU has its own staff interpreters for American Sign Language, Spanish and Russian, but relies on outside vendors for other languages, said Kalen Beck, manager of Language Services at OHSU. CLI is its primary phone vendor and also provides backup for Spanish, with a special five digit number for even faster service.
“They are super fast. In the three years I’ve worked with them,” Beck said. “I’m not aware of any downtime experiences. We’ve had other vendors whose platforms have crashed.”
Parlez vous Sylheti?
CLI’s interpreters speak 211 languages, with more being added all the time as the need arises or refugees settle in various pockets of the country. The most common languages are Spanish, Chinese and Korean. Vietnamese and Russian also are requested frequently.
Recently, CLI added interpreters in Tajik, a Persian language, and Sylheti, a Bengali dialect spoken in part of Bangladesh. About three years ago, the need arose for Karen, a language spoken by Burmese refugees. At one point, it was CLI’s third most requested language.
Quinlan is on the board of the Joint National Committee for Languages and The National Council for Languages and International Studies, whose mission is to “raise public awareness of language as an enterprise vital to national well-being.”
She recently spoke about the interpreting business at an international conference in Seville, Spain.
CLI’s success rate is 99.7 percent, Quinlan said. The goal is to have 25 percent more interpreters on call than needed at any one time for the most requested languages. Occasionally, a request comes in for which there is no interpreter immediately available, so it may take a few minutes to locate one.
Interpreters — 2,700 of them, scattered around the U.S. and working from home — are paid by the minute.
Most of CLI’s competitors use in-house interpreters but Quinlan said the contractor model is more scalable. The company puts them through its own credentialing program, which includes a 90 minute test.
“It allows us to hire professional interpreters at a good rate,” Quinlan said. “Our competitors can’t figure it out.”
The global market for telephone interpreting hit $2.03 billion in 2014, and the overall market for outsourced language services was $37.19 billion in 2014, according to the Common Sense Advisory.
Despite the global potential, Quinlan is content to serve the growing North America market.
“We have as much business as we want in the U.S.,” she said.