Tony Argiz (BAcc '74) was only 9 years old when he arrived in the U.S. alone as part of the Operation Pedro Pan program that airlifted 14,000 unaccompanied Cuban children to the United States. His parents felt they had no choice; life in Cuba had grown very uncertain under Fidel Castro's tightening grip, his private school had been shuttered, and there were rumors that children would be sent to Russia to further their studies. After spending a year with a tutor who shared his love of numbers, Argiz arrived in the U.S. having mastered math at ninth grade level, though he didn't speak English. "I've always been able to look at numbers and get percentages in my head quicker than a calculator" he says. Just 33 days after arriving in Tampa as a ward of the Catholic Church, Argiz passed third grade.
Today, the numbers whiz sits at the helm of Morrison, Brown, Argiz & Farra (MBAF), a business he has led to become one of the nation's top 40 accounting firms and the largest Florida-based firm. Since taking the reins of the firm in 1997, he has grown its revenue from $8 million to more than $130 million, and it is repeatedly cited as one of the 25 best-managed accounting firms by INSIDE Public Accounting. At the same time, he has worked tirelessly to support the Miami-Dade community, generous with both his time and his money. One of his favorite causes is FIU, which he credits for not only launching his career but connecting him with Conchi, his wife of 43 years.
The couple, long supporters of the university, most recently pledged $500,000 to endow a scholarship for FIU Business students. The Argiz Family Eminent Scholarship Endowment will provide full tuition support for top students from the School of Accounting who demonstrate academic excellence and financial need. Four students, starting in their junior year, will receive up to $10,000 each year to cover tuition, fees, books and other expenses, with the possibility of additional scholarships awarded to students entering their final semester of coursework. Scholarship recipients will also have the opportunity to meet with Argiz over lunch on an annual basis.
"And it's not going to be our last gift," Argiz promised. "It's only right to give back to the school that has given me, my family and the firm so much. I had to rely on the charity of the Catholic Church as a kid, and that's why giving back is so important in my life."
Though Argiz flourished under the guidance of the Catholic Church, learning the language and adapting to the culture at a Catholic boarding school, the only family he had around was an older brother who couldn't take care of him. His brother would pick him up on Sundays for a few hours, and they spent some summers together. Argiz was determined to bring his parents from Cuba to Tampa, so at the age of 11, he launched a letter-writing campaign to his congressman, Rep. Sam Gibbons. He pleaded for his help, emphasizing that he was just a kid who needed his mom and dad. At last, five years after they had said goodbye, Argiz secured their move to Tampa. "It was a fantastic feeling to see my parents once again," he recalled. "There was a lot of catching up to do in those five years. It made me really happy."
A baseball scholarship to FIU brought Argiz to Miami, a natural fit for the bilingual Cuban American. Though he loved baseball, he began to notice his ball not reaching home plate as fast as it once did. "I realized I wouldn't make a living out of baseball," he said.
Argiz still had that affinity for numbers and remembered being impressed as a child by neighbors who worked as auditors, so he joined the inaugural class of FIU's accounting program in 1972. He earned his bachelor's degree in business administration and got a job at a public accounting firm. But before long, he suffered a temporary setback that would have derailed many others. He was fired. "They said it was a tough profession and I wasn't cut out for it," he recounted. "It strengthened my drive and it gave me the competitive edge to prove them wrong."
Argiz answered a newspaper ad for a firm with 13 accountants, and they offered him a starting salary of $12,500. He countered that he would need an additional $1,000. It took them a full month, but the firm finally came back and offered Argiz $13,500. He quickly hit it off with founding partner Al Morrison, the mentor who would train him and years later, hand him control of the firm. "I called him my Jewish father," Argiz recalled. "I can't say enough good things about the guy."
Founding partner Alvin Lloyd Brown, who headed up the firm's tax department, knew from the beginning that Argiz was a homerun hire. "I introduced him to public speaking," Brown said. "We would videotape him and review the tape. He did extremely well and handled himself nicely. I wish I had that tape!"
Before long, Brown appreciated many other attributes. "He's like a sponge," he said. "He just absorbed everything from the older partners." Laughing, he added, "Then he surpassed the teachers."
Many accountants, Brown says, focus on the past, but Argiz has a remarkable ability to anticipate the future. "He's a good listener, and he's a great thinker," he said. "He is always looking at the long picture. He's a problem solver. He brought all of that to our firm, and he became the managing partner as a result."
Argiz also proved himself to be quite the rainmaker, a skill he says comes from lessons he learned early in his life. Growing up on the baseball diamond, he says, taught him the importance of fostering a cohesive team. His first job, mowing lawns in Tampa at age 11, taught him how to sell. "I had to knock on people's doors and tell them their lawn wasn't normal," he said. "I'd tell them I had my lawnmower here so give me a buck and I'll cut it right now. You learn how to provide a service for clients, make your customers happy, retain repeat business. It taught me the fundamentals that I used to grow my accounting firm years later."
While bringing in business and managing the flourishing firm (he says he loves to hire FIU students because of their work ethic and talent), Argiz also focuses on audits, business planning, economic damages, fraud examinations, valuations and litigation cases.
The Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce (GMCC) honored Argiz last year with the prestigious Sand in My Shoes Award for his community leadership. When he chaired the GMCC from 2014 to 2015, it was a record year for the organization's revenue and profit. As chair of the United Way of Miami-Dade from 2007 to 2009, he guided the organization through the recession, and in 2011 Tony and Conchi Argiz received the Tocqueville Society award. He also has chaired FIU's Council of 100, the Adrienne Arsht Center Foundation and the Orange Bowl Committee. In addition, Argiz, who enjoys collecting Cuban art, has served on the board of the Pérez Art Museum Miami.
"He is always looking at the long picture. He's a problem solver. He brought all of that to our firm, and he became the managing partner as a result."
Alvin Lloyd Brown, Founding Partner, MBAF
As Argiz worked his way up at the firm and delved into helping the community, he always made sure to carve out ample time for his wife and three children. When his now-grown daughter did not gain admittance to Carrollton School of the Sacred Heart for the three-year-old program, Argiz used the same persuasive skills he'd employed on Gibbons to convince the school to change its mind.
Sister Ann Taylor, who was then head of the school, said Argiz reminded her of the biblical story about a man who keeps returning to knock on the door to get what he wants. "His daughter didn't speak English, but he said she would pick it up quickly like he did, not to worry about it," Taylor recalled. "He had a conviction about education and that this was the place she should be. He was very persuasive, and his persistence convinced us. I'm very grateful."
The two became very close friends, and Argiz has been a tireless advocate for Carrollton, serving three times as chairman of the Board of Trustees and currently as a member of its board. His daughter, meanwhile, graduated from the high school.
These days, when Argiz isn't working at the firm he loves or volunteering in the community, he enjoys downtime with his family. He and his wife take their three grown children and three young grandsons to the Bahamas and the Hamptons ("that place in New York, I can't remember the name," Argiz says). He took his oldest grandson to the Major League Baseball Home Run Derby when it was in Miami, but he looks forward to the day, coming soon, when the grandkids are old enough to regularly enjoy baseball games and trips to the theater. "My family is the greatest joy of my life," he said. "They motivate me every day."
It is for his grandkids, he says, that he wants to leave a legacy of giving. "I want my grandkids to know that I was a good person and cared about the community, that it was not just about making money, but I had a heart for people who were in the same situation." After a pause, he added with a genuine air of humility, "I'm just a humble Cuban refugee who is grateful to this country and all it has given me."