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“We only hire one of 12 applicants,” said Louis Provenzano Jr., CEO of… (VERN FISHER/The Herald)


Louis Provenzano Jr. wasn’t familiar with Language Line Services when he was recruited to the Monterey company seven years ago, but he knew right away it would be a good fit.

The company’s main business, interpretation services, “was near and dear to my heart,” said Provenzano, who became the company’s CEO last month.

Provenzano, 51, took an early interest in languages while growing up in New York and earned degrees in romance languages and business law at Boston College. He speaks six languages.

Provenzano, who came to Language Line to head sales efforts, moves up from chief operating officer and president of the 29-year-old company. Dennis Dracup, CEO since 1999, will remain an active board member and significant equity holder.

The change means more responsibility, Provenzano said with a smile during an interview at his office in Ryan Ranch. Language Line, with $300million in annual sales, is more than 10 times larger than its nearest competitor in over-the-phone interpretation, he said.

The company has been growing steadily, and Provenzano expects growth to continue.

“Every 19 seconds, a legal immigrant comes into the country,” he said, citing U.S. Census figures from 2006-07. As more people come to the U.S. who are not fluent in English, there is a growing demand for interpretation.

Hospitals are required to provide such services, though they don’t get reimbursed. If they cut corners, they can be held liable if mistakes are made because of confusion over language.

“Every week there’s all these patient-safety issues,” said Provenzano.

It’s not just hospitals and government agencies, such as courts, that are seeing a growing need for interpretation, Provenzano said — it’s businesses, too.

Provenzano said doing business with somebody in their own language makes sales more likely.

“Big business has realized this,” he said.

The vast majority of Language Line’s work is over-the-phone interpretation; 70 percent of it involves Spanish. The company has call centers in Panama, the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, London and Monterey.

Of the company’s 5,000 interpreters, 60 percent work from home on set shifts — they can’t be wandering around the house when the phone rings.

Of the 176 languages the company has interpreters for, the top 20 account for 95 percent of the business, Provenzano said.

Language Line, which is owned primarily by Abry Partners, an equity firm, was owned by AT&T for 10 years, ending in 1999. The AT&T connection helped the company’s technological capabilities, said Dale Hansman, who does web marketing and public relations for the company.

The company has continued to embrace new technology, Provenzano said.

“We’re constantly reinventing our product,” he said, including a teleconferencing system for sign language.

Last year, the company took a leading role in setting up national standards for medical interpreters. Medical interpreting accounts for 30 percent of the company’s business and requires an experienced person on the phone.

“We only hire one of 12 applicants,” Provenzano said. There are people who are fluent in two languages who aren’t hired because they don’t have the ability to go back and forth quickly, he said.

Much of the interpretation is about serious matters. There are 911 calls, medical emergencies — Language Line interpretation is needed in the birth of about 11 babies a day — and court hearings.

But there are lighter moments, as well. Provenzano chuckles when he tells of a client on the East Coast who complained that Language Line didn’t offer British interpretation.

The company’s answer: “They speak English over there.”

Lane Wallace can be reached at 646-4478 or