Devil in the Details

As he plays tour guide at his engineering firm's expansive north Houston headquarters, Fred Martinez radiates pride. He shows off the advanced soil- and asphalt-testing labs boasting the latest in diagnostic equipment; demonstrates gadgetry in the high-tech computer systems wing; grandly sweeps a hand through his personal conference room decorated with a framed chronological history of his company, Atser LLC.

He calls his employees by their first names and introduces them like old friends. Coffee is served in Atser-embossed mugs, on Atser coasters. "The Lord is blessing me," Martinez says, smiling the broad smile that punctuates every sentence.

Martinez, a youthful 41, has been counting his blessings, and the list is long: a close-knit family, a $750,000 stucco mansion in Cypress, influential positions in the community that include membership on Mayor Lee Brown's Hispanic advisory committee. And there's Atser, an engineering consulting company that only three years ago was flirting with bankruptcy. Today, armed with millions of dollars in city, county and other government contracts, Atser has become one of the most successful minority-owned firms in the region.

Not bad, Martinez says, for the son of a Port Lavaca janitor. He's so pleased with his life that he plans to share his story. "I'm in the middle of writing a book about Atser," he says. "It's a very spiritual issue for me."

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Most of his issues, in fact, touch on the spiritual. He's active in his church, and peppers his speech with biblical references. The text of Atser's framed history is couched in religious terms, with such headings as "Revelation in the Fire" and "When Things Really Tight [sic] -- A Word from God."

A pair of lines at the end hint at another facet of the Atser story, the triumph over darker forces: "My God is Awesome," followed by, "He has delivered me from my enemies!"

Martinez won't name those enemies, he says, because "it's my Christian training not to identify them." But he says it's inevitable that achievement breeds jealousy. "The reality of situations is that people don't want you to succeed."

Some of his detractors are willing to identify themselves. Research chemist Beryl Gainer, an early Atser investor and member of the management team, left the company after two years and a trail of broken promises. "It's disgusting and distasteful," Gainer says of his experience. "Next to getting cancer, it's been the low point of my life."

Other original investors share Gainer's view. They all say they were promised stock in exchange for start-up capital and their expertise, which they provided for free or for a nominal wage. But the stock never materialized, and Martinez defaulted on pledges to pay back their investments. "He kept stringing everybody along with this carrot that never came," says J.J. Martinez (no relation), the firm's former accountant. "Any businessman who operates that way has no business being in business."

Accusations that Fred Martinez promises more than he can deliver don't stop there. An investigation by the Houston Press indicates that he has filed conflicting information with government agencies and failed to live up to several agreements, including lucrative contracts to manage the city's street and sidewalk programs. In at least one case, Atser's inspector signed for work that was later discovered not to have been done, a matter the city apparently has whitewashed. But that doesn't stop the public money from rolling in; last summer the city extended his program-management contract without a formal review.

No one contacted by the Press disputes that Martinez is a talented asphalt engineer. And they concur he's a masterful salesman who has made friends in high places. "He can sell ice to an Eskimo," says J.J. Martinez.

What disturbs them most, they say, is the contrast between his avowed faith and his apparent willingness to cross ethical boundaries to get what he wants. "He's supposed to be a big Christian," scoffs Gainer. "He's a heathen."

Martinez rejects the various accusations. "I suspect my enemies have spread untruths about me," he says. "There's another story here: that we're pretty doggoned good at what we do."

Growing up poor in Port Lavaca wasn't so bad, Fred Martinez muses. Recounting his life story across Atser's hardwood conference table, he says his family always had food on their plates, even if it meant his father sometimes had to work several jobs. "You don't know you're poor when you're poor," he says. "You just kind of exist, and you're happy as a lark."

His youth wasn't free from tribulation, however. Before his fourth birthday, he contracted an illness ("sleeping sickness," he calls it) that left him unconscious for three days. As he lay near death, his mother prayed for his recovery, he says, "and I woke up."  

At age seven Martinez was diagnosed with a degenerative hip condition that required him to wear an immobilizing body cast for a year. His siblings fashioned a makeshift wagon out of an old lawn mower chassis and wheeled him around. Again, his mother looked for divine help: She brought him to a revival in Victoria. "I went up there and got healed," he says. When he went to the doctor shortly thereafter, "The bone had grown back."

Something positive came from those difficult periods, Martinez says. "Those diseases really gave me an intense desire to succeed." His father, an Alcoa janitor, prodded him as well with descriptions of the well-appointed engineers' offices at that company. Martinez put himself through Texas A&M, graduating in 1983. But engineering jobs were scarce, so he re-enrolled, in the master's program. The school engineering lab specialized in asphalt, and when he emerged with his degree, he landed a position with Southwestern Laboratories. He moved quickly up the ladder and in 1989 took over the construction materials engineering department.

Despite his vastly improved social and economic standing, Martinez wasn't satisfied. Invited to speak at his former high school, he traveled back to Port Lavaca and heard an old message from his mother: "The one thing you lack is Jesus, son."

Driving back to Houston on U.S. 59, that changed. "I just accepted the Lord right there," he says. "He just changed my whole life."

A year later, Martinez married. In 1992 the Texas Society of Professional Engineers named him Young Engineer of the Year. Within months, he started his own company, Atser -- Advanced Technology Science Engineering Research. He recruited from the ranks of his friends and former associates and brought with him a grand vision: to create a major national force in the engineering field that could compete for multimillion-dollar projects.

That vision, at least initially, proved elusive. "For three and a half years," Martinez says, "I thought I was crazy."

Milt Geiselman reclines in an overstuffed chair in his rented Sugar Land home. A real estate developer and broker, Geiselman has seen his fortunes rise and fall with Houston's boom-and-bust economy. When his pastor introduced him to Fred Martinez in 1993, he saw an opportunity to get on firmer financial ground.

Martinez was looking to start his company, and Geiselman could help with a lot of the initial detail work: renting commercial space, developing a business plan, securing financing. He agreed to invest $50,000 in Atser and work for free in exchange for a 13 percent stake, and withdrew the $38,000 in his retirement account as a down payment. Early company documents list him as vice president and, along with Martinez, one of the two company directors.

Martinez drew from his Southwestern Labs days for additional talent, hiring Fabrizio Dinelli, who also agreed to buy 10 percent of Atser. He convinced his personal accountant, J.J. Martinez, to trade his services for 3 percent, and made the same deal with attorney Daryl Crown, who handled the firm's legal work.

Geiselman and Dinelli co-signed loans with Southwest Bank of Texas, but the company still needed working capital. Enter Fugro-McClelland, an engineering firm based in the Netherlands, which offered $100,000 cash and a $250,000 line of credit in exchange for 20 percent of Atser's stock. Joe Kasparek, Fugro's U.S. president, saw Martinez and Atser as a strategic asset as well as an investment opportunity. "He had pretty good pavement expertise," Kasparek says. "It wasn't an area we were strong in."

Atser was looking to capitalize on the increase in opportunities for minority firms both locally and beyond, but government agencies had stringent requirements that included minority control and a ban on offshore ownership. So at the end of 1993 Geiselman resigned as a director, and early the following year Martinez converted Atser's structure from a corporation to a limited liability company, in part to allow Fugro's participation.

But when Martinez sold Beryl Gainer 5 percent of Atser's stock in 1994, Geiselman became alarmed. Totaling the various agreements, including Martinez's 51 percent ownership, he counted 105. At least a portion of someone's share didn't exist. "I figured he'd sold someone else's stock, maybe mine," Geiselman says.

As it turned out, no one's shares existed. Martinez had never issued any stock -- except to himself, the previous October. The question of ownership wouldn't be formally resolved until several years and a few court cases later. But while Martinez was signing ownership agreements with various principals, he simultaneously was representing himself as sole owner on applications to qualify as a minority business. And various company documents conflicted with one another on ownership stakes.

After working for free for nine months, Geiselman was hurting for cash; he asked to either unload his ownership interest or start collecting some of the salary he'd been promised. But the new corporate documents gave Martinez total control of the books, and he refused. Geiselman persisted; in March he was fired and ended up with nothing. "When he had used me to the extent that he could," says Geiselman, "he threw me away."  

Even had Martinez wanted to pay Geiselman immediately, the money wasn't there. Atser was scrambling for business, but the returns weren't keeping up with expenses (in particular, wages for more than 20 lab and field employees who, unlike the principals, had to be paid). "Not having a lot of money is a good thing," Martinez says. "It forces you to be very careful about what you buy and what you spend."

But his former partners say Martinez was anything but careful, embarking on an ambitious expansion program before the ink had dried on the incorporation papers. Atser bought the assets of a company in Victoria and opened an office there and in San Antonio. He explored additional satellites in Dallas, Austin and Washington, D.C. And Martinez poured company resources into a separate entity, Atser Systems, that was trying to develop construction industry computer software. "Those were mistakes," he admits. "In retrospect, it was very foolish on my part."

Atser's overreaching drove materials engineer Rich Burkholder from the company. Burkholder, a close friend of Martinez's, had worked with him at Southwestern Labs and been a groomsman at his wedding. Like his co-partners, Burkholder had exchanged cash and sweat equity for a percentage of Atser.

Burkholder had wanted Martinez to build the company slowly, focusing on its core asphalt-testing capabilities. When it became apparent that the situation wasn't going to reverse itself, he quit -- after only four months. "It was a small little business," Burkholder says, "and he was trying to treat it like something else."

Martinez had always preached the concept of team management. But when it came to actually making decisions, his was the first and last word. "When you have a leader," he says, "the leader has to set the direction, right or wrong."

One by one, the initial investors gave up and dropped out. Accountant J.J. Martinez walked away after promises to issue stock and put him on the payroll were repeatedly deferred -- even though the boss was drawing a decent salary and had a $500 monthly car allowance. The lack of income took its toll on his personal life -- both he and his former wife (who never trusted the promises) say the pressure contributed to the breakup of their marriage. "Everybody had families to support," he says. "There's nothing wrong with putting things off, but your word should be worth something."

Fugro-McClelland bailed out in January 1996, agreeing to convert its interest to a three-year promissory note for more than $180,000. Atser repaid almost $20,000, then missed the next payment. Fugro won a summary judgment for the debt and accepted a settlement. "It wasn't the whole thing, but it was a goodly amount," Fugro's Kasparek says. "I wasn't gonna walk away from it."

Dinelli also settled for a fraction of what he was owed. "Was it satisfactory? No," Dinelli says. "I don't have any ill will towards Fred. I'm disappointed that he chose to take advantage of people who believed in him and tried to help him."

Fred Martinez has trouble recalling the specifics of those first years, and some of what he does recall is inconsistent with records: He denies, for example, that anyone else had ownership interests in Atser, although the Press obtained signed agreements to the contrary. And though documents indicate he was the second company official to get on the payroll, he recalls otherwise. "I was the last one to take a check."

Regardless, he empathizes with his initial investors. "These potential partners never really got under the vision," he says. "They just didn't have faith that the company would succeed. I really can't blame them."

And while he says some of them weren't really cut out for the business, Martinez still holds them in high regard. "Those are all, in my estimation, very dear friends and great people."

Despite the rancorous departures and Atser's financial woes, Martinez remained cheerfully optimistic about his company. On financial disclosure forms submitted to potential lenders and others, he projected huge increases in business: For February 1994 he forecast $250,000 in revenues but grossed only a fifth of that; by June, monthly revenues had increased to $93,600 but were still only 20 percent of the projection. Despite the bottom-line evidence that the numbers were unrealistic, Martinez continued the pattern throughout 1995.

In 1994 Atser scored a contract with the National Highway Institute to train state highway engineers in asphalt construction techniques. The contract covered more than 20 states and ultimately expanded to four foreign countries; it also gave Martinez the opportunity to make useful contacts. Despite Martinez's global ambitions, however, most of Atser's work consisted of subcontracting on local government pavement projects. It was enough to cover expenses but little more.  

One of those local jobs, with Missouri City, was to have helped establish the credibility of Atser's software branch. The company would survey city roads, feed in computer data and spit out priorities for reconstruction and overlay projects. But according to a former employee who worked on the project, Martinez employed unqualified survey workers, and Missouri City had to go in behind Atser to clean up the mess.

Some of those people, another former employee says, were green-card immigrants whose chief attraction for Atser was working for less than the market rate. "I recall that we had some questions about the qualifications of a number of the people that were working there," confirms Missouri City Public Works Director Lee Dorger.

Martinez doesn't dispute the claim, but says that Atser's capital crunch meant he couldn't pay competitive wages. Consequently, "We had tremendous human resource problems the first few years." His biggest mistake, he says, was miscalculating the time lag between hustling work and actually getting it. "You chase something for two years before you ever have it."

By 1996 Atser's creditors were getting antsy over unpaid bills. A former lab worker remembers Fisher Scientific threatening to cut off deliveries if the invoices weren't paid. Martinez, the employee says, simply switched suppliers. "I'd never seen anybody run a business like that," the former worker says.

On the verge of bankruptcy, Martinez remembers, he felt so blue in his office in late 1996 that "I just laid on the floor and cried." His memory again playing tricks, he claims that "it had been years since I'd taken a check." When he went home that day, he told his wife he was thinking of shutting Atser down.

His mother, ever trusting in divine intervention, gave him a spiritual pep talk. "She really prayed," Martinez says. "She said, 'Son, when you were two years old, the Lord heard my prayer and healed you. Now that you're in your thirties, do you think the Lord is gonna let you down?' "

The family went to a little church, where the preacher beckoned Martinez and his wife forward and told them, "God says that by the end of the year, you're gonna have a financial breakthrough."

Three months later a contact he'd made on his National Highway Institute tour paid off when the state of Utah offered him a piece of a huge interstate highway project. "It was like a light switch," says Martinez. Within three years, he would break ground on his plush $1.3 million Houston headquarters.

The Utah job, at least according to Martinez, provided Atser with the opportunity to showcase its full-service capabilities. "We had a construction-management role," he says. "We were part of the oversight team, in charge of verification of construction progress."

That's not quite how a former member of his Utah crew recalls it. "We were part of the oversight team, yeah," the ex-employee says, "but it was mostly on test-result verifications, not construction management." Moreover, he says, Martinez got the project with the promise that he would provide an innovative computer program to chart results. But the program didn't perform as advertised. "He did a big snow job on that," the former employee says. He says he and others left after Martinez failed to honor numerous guarantees of promotions and overtime pay. "We were just misled by promises I don't believe he had any intention of keeping."

Back home, Martinez's efforts to build political alliances were paying off. He tapped the reservoir of county jobs available to the supporters of county commissioners, especially Jerry Eversole. He worked his friendship with Metro board member Rafael Acosta, whom he'd supported in a failed bid for county commissioner. And he spread contributions to a variety of other candidates, the standard first step in soliciting business from officeholders.

His savviest political move came in 1997 when he became one of the first engineers to support mayoral candidate Lee Brown. Many of the bigger engineering firms lined up behind opponent Rob Mosbacher, and Martinez figured he had nothing to lose by contributing $3,000 to Brown. "I thought he would give minorities a new opportunity you wouldn't get with Mosbacher," Martinez says. "The line was so long with Mosbacher, I would have been way down the list with him anyhow."

Within a month of Brown taking office, Martinez had added another $3,000 to his campaign coffers and been named to the mayor's public works transition team. Martinez saw a chance to land bigger fish than the testing contracts that had been Atser's staple. Up for grabs were some of the pricey consulting contracts to manage the city's road-building programs.  

Few contracts have as much day-to-day impact on Houston residents and commuters. Program managers oversee every aspect of street and bridge design and construction, monitoring progress, holding contractors' feet to the fire for improper work, and handling citizen complaints. As the Press documented in a 1997 series, program mismanagement under the previous administration resulted in millions of dollars in repair work to right the wrongs that should have been prevented by the consultants.

Then-public works director Jerry King was looking for some new blood, especially in the wake of the revelations in the Press and subsequent critical audits by Controller Sylvia Garcia. And Atser fit with the new administration's desire to elevate minority firms to high-profile roles.

Ordinarily the city would publicly advertise for consulting contracts, requesting proposals and qualifications from interested firms. But Brown's office encouraged a more behind-the-scenes approach, which made it easier to award no-bid contracts to favored firms.

According to a source familiar with the details, only Atser and two other companies lobbied for the sidewalks and overlay management job, and Martinez's competitors were old-guard firms with too much baggage for King's comfort. Martinez touted his Utah project as proof that he had the management experience to do the job. King also was impressed by Martinez's promise to bring the city out of the technological dark ages with sophisticated software programs to track construction progress.

Martinez pushed hard for the job, gaining additional leverage through his connections with Brown and Hilda Scott, the now-deposed public works deputy director. "He has direct access to the mayor, no question about it," says the source.

That was enough for King, who negotiated an $880,000 yearlong contract with Atser to begin in July 1998. To overcome his shortage of trained personnel, Martinez immediately went on a hiring spree. Says the former Utah employee, "His philosophy was, Hey, win the job, then worry about how to staff it."

In late 1998 the city contracted to have storm sewers installed on Fennel Street in southeast Houston. Twice, the contractor discovered some old water lines under the pavement that were in the way of the storm sewer and would have to be bypassed. As is typical in such projects, the contractor requested additional funds to complete the job. Atser, which was managing the project, reviewed and approved the request, and the city paid for the contractor's added work. But when the city conducted a final inspection of the project in January 2000, something atypical was found: The bypass work hadn't been done.

The project file has only a few references to the problem, but the city ultimately withheld other funds from the contractor, AJS Construction, to make up for the $60,000 overpayment. Public Works Assistant Director Michael Ho called for an audit last March; except for a revised payment estimate four months ago, however, the files contain no indication of what the audit found, if in fact there was one. Atser executive Perry King (no relation to Jerry King) says that the problem occurred because Atser's inspector was sick the day the work allegedly was completed and missed the contractor's false claim. "At the final inspection, we caught it," King says.

That claim conflicts with other reports in the file that show an Atser inspector signed off on one of the two jobs. On the other, the work was not listed on the daily field report but later was inserted into another document. The discrepancy should have been caught by Atser but was somehow overlooked.

Moreover, AJS president Marwan Zakhem later raised a troubling question in letters to the city about the matter: A final inspection, led by Atser, originally had been conducted in November with no significant problems noted. "Is the city claiming that they were wrong in the first place, or are they claiming that the inspection never happened…?" Zakhem wrote. If the city ever addressed the question, it wasn't in the file.

Not everything that should have been in the file was there when reviewed by the Press. A memo from Ho to Atser, obtained later, asked for an explanation of how payments had been made if work hadn't been done, and whether the inspector and project manager had been disciplined. It's not clear if Atser responded, but King says no action was taken against the employees. "I never saw those inspection reports," King says.

A curious lack of documentation is apparent in the majority of Atser's sidewalk projects and others examined by the Press. Signatures are routinely missing from daily reports. Failed test results are stuffed in the file with no follow-up or are noted well after the fact. Projects fall months behind schedule before any note appears. Monthly progress meetings are supposed to take place, but the files rarely include minutes. And inspection reports often lack any note of problems encountered in the field, as when a sidewalk contractor accidentally severed a Warner Cable line last July. A letter from Warner Cable notes the incident and requests compensation, but the inspector makes no mention of it and the file contains no further reference.  

Occasionally the files contain notes from city officials questioning Atser's performance. After a citizen complained about shoddy contractor work on a 1999 overlay project (which Atser's inspectors should have caught), deputy director Herb Lum scrawled a note to Ho: "Again, where are the inspectors?" City project manager Dotun Ogundare criticized Atser's responsiveness in a memo last June about a sidewalk project that had fallen behind schedule. "Unfortunately," Ogundare wrote, "Atser has prolonged taking care of this more than [is] acceptable."

Contractually, Atser is obligated to perform numerous functions as a city program manager. But the thin project files make it virtually impossible to determine if the company is living up to its responsibilities. In at least one respect, Atser's King admits they're not: Inspectors are required to be present at construction sites during certain key times, such as when concrete is being poured. That doesn't always happen. "They go to as many of them as they can," says King. Martinez notes that "it's not good economics" to have an inspector on-site all the time.

But the city was concerned enough about the absence of inspectors to bring it up repeatedly. "This follows up on our various conversations regarding the presence of your inspectors on project sites during the execution of critical items of work," Ogundare wrote in a January 2000 memo. "It is Atser's responsibility to ensure that inspectors are present at work site during all concrete placements and other critical items of work."

A former Atser inspector agrees that its personnel were not always on the job, although part of the blame falls on the city, which has refused to let Martinez hire additional people on the city's tab. But the inspector says he quit because too many corners were being cut, and the paperwork is full of holes because the work wasn't being done. "He was not managing [the program] properly," the inspector says. "I asked him, 'How are you gonna track all these jobs?' He said, 'I don't know.' "

One way the jobs were to be tracked was with Atser's software. But it would take almost two years from the signing of the program-management contract to get the computer system on-line, and even then it had flaws. The ability to enter data in the field, for example, is still in the development stage. Martinez blames this on funding. The system was designed so that inspectors could log reports on laptops while at construction sites, but the laptops weren't built into the budget. At $2,000 a pop for the computers, the new technology would have to wait.

The implementation hasn't been helped by an unusually high employee turnover rate. Martinez says Atser has simply lost people to higher-paying jobs, especially to Metro.

If the city has concerns about Atser's work, it's not reflected in their contracts. The original $880,000 agreement swelled to $3.4 million as additional projects were tacked on and approved by City Council. A new contract for $1.29 million was issued in July 1999; it has since grown to $2 million, with an additional $2 million available for new projects. Add other unrelated city work Atser has received, and the total Martinez ultimately can reap from the Brown administration alone tops $8 million.

Several public works sources note that the department has instituted more controls on its consultants than was the case in the freewheeling days under former city public works director Jimmie Schindewolf. But as Atser's rather loose execution shows, there's still a long way to go. The public works director can renew the company's program-management contracts without council approval -- both Jerry King and his successor, Tom Rolen, have done that with no formal evaluation of Atser. "There is an evaluation per se by the staff," says acting Deputy Director Showri Nandagiri. A written assessment was contemplated, Nandagiri says, but nothing ever came of it. "We were trying to put something together," he says. "It kind of got stalled."

In December 1999 Atser won a contract from the Harris County Sports and Convention Corporation to serve as "owner's representative" on the project to renovate and expand the Astrodome complex. Three months later the county named Atser to oversee construction of the new football stadium along with Schindewolf. The two contracts were worth almost $2 million to Atser.  

To hear Martinez tell it, Atser already was working on the Astrodome project, so it made economic sense to the county to have his people working both jobs. Plus, he'd made a strong proposal that included a promise to utilize his patented project-management software.

Martinez had another thing going for him: his relationship with corporation chairman Mike Surface, who belongs to the same church as Martinez. According to several county sources, Surface pushed Atser for both jobs after Martinez sold him on his company's merits. Though he acknowledges the church connection, Surface sticks to the story that linking Schindewolf's company with Atser made logistical sense. "Mr. Schindewolf's firm didn't have the support personnel and resources to do the job," he says. "Atser had the people but didn't necessarily have the experience."

But the arranged marriage was rocky from the start. "When we got out there on the project," Martinez says, "Jimmie elected not to use our systems." Martinez says he doesn't know why, although sources say it's because at least some of the Atser software didn't work as advertised. "Once the work got started and Fred started screwing it up, Mike realized he'd been bamboozled," says a source familiar with the project.

The relationship between the partners further deteriorated at the end of last year when Martinez wrote a memo to Lee Brown criticizing Schindewolf's minority hiring record. At the time, both were vying for the owner's rep role for the new downtown arena (neither got the contract). "I have the greatest respect for Jimmie, and I would never intentionally do anything to hurt his reputation," Martinez says. The memo, he says, was just strategic lobbying. "The bottom line is, we were chasing the arena, and that's all there is to it."

Martinez argues that politics has little to do with his success. He's had one-on-one lunches with the mayor but says stories of his influence are overrated. "I can call him," Martinez says with a laugh. "I don't know if he'll call me back."

"I'm gregarious," he continues. "I like people. I guess people perceive that as politics."

Although he has taken advantage of minority set-asides, Martinez says it's his reputation as a top-notch asphalt engineer, not race, that has contributed most to Atser's rise. He points out that when the city encountered problems with the asphalt for the downtown grand prix race course, it hired Atser to engineer a fix. "We didn't get the Texaco Grand Prix [job] because I was brown," he says. "We got it because I was the only one in the city that could do it."

Martinez doesn't shy away from such grandiose statements. Even though huge engineering firms widely employ contract management computer programs developed by software giants, Martinez says his is better. "The difference is in the manner in which we present it." Callers put on hold in the company's phone system hear a recording that brags of Atser's "international consulting" work -- except for his training program five years ago, there's been none. "We're working on [a project] in Vietnam now," he says. "We haven't received the award yet."

And he has often referred to himself as "Dr." Fred Martinez (and insisted that others do so as well), although his Ph.D. was earned by correspondence from an unaccredited institution in New Mexico.

Martinez says he's learned from his mistakes, but some themes from the early days persist. Former vice president John Risher, for instance, sued Martinez last year for breach of his employment agreement. Court documents show that Risher signed a two-year employment agreement in 1999 that paid a salary plus incentive pay if certain targets were reached. Those were reached the first year, according to the plaintiff, but Martinez refused to pay. The day after Risher declined to sign a new contract that eliminated the incentives, he was fired.

He may have once had unrealistic aspirations, but Martinez says he's learned to operate within the boundaries of what the framed history of Atser refers to as its leader's "Pruned Vision." He has become the "Humble Man That Can Handle [the] Pruned Vision," part of "God's Vision," which has resulted in "Sales Sales Sales." "I'm a visionary," he says. "I'm not really a numbers guy; I'm a concept guy."

The final line of the framed history states that "God will make me ruler over a people I did not know." Asked about that, Martinez gets defensive. "That really happened, right?" he says. "There's a lot of people here I don't know."

For just a moment longer, he drops the cheerful demeanor. His relationship with God is personal, and that framed history was not meant to be public. Martinez suggests a look at Psalm 91, which begins: "He who dwells in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty."  

"It's secret," he says.

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