CEO Jeff Brink of Minneapolis-based United Language Group speaks passable Spanish.

He’s lucky to be chief executive instead of a translator.

His challenge and bet is that he and his crew will be able to translate what he and his investors are building into a $200 million-revenue smooth talker over the next five years in the cross-continent language-services industry that is integral to global business.

“It’s an obscure, fragmented, $40 billion industry in which the top 50 companies comprise less than 15 percent of the total market,” said Jeff Brink, 53, an industry veteran. “That makes it attractive for a ‘roll-up.’ And this industry grows at about 10 percent.

“[Scale] will allow us to develop our own technologies — or afford them — and a suite of solutions similar to what the larger companies have — through growth and buying high-performing companies that can stand on their own.”

Brink and his brother, Greg, backed by outside capital, in recent months have quietly assembled a $50 million-revenue company.

It is rooted in their dad’s 1970s printing business, Paul Brink & Associates, in which they worked first as kids. It started to diversify in the 1980s into foreign-language printing for expanding customers.

“Dad looked in the yellow pages and nobody else seemed to be doing it,” recalled Jeff Brink, who began as a document collator at age 8 in the 1970s when his dad needed an extra sorter. “He started doing it for customers as an add-on business.”

Paul Brink’s printing business blossomed as he started producing marketing brochures and instructions in foreign languages for locally based defense contractors and surging medical products manufacturers who were beginning to export to Europe.

Things worked pretty well for a couple decades. And Merrill Corp., the St. Paul-based business-services company, acquired what had become PH Brink International in 2005. Paul Brink retired. Jeff and Greg remained with what became Merrill Brink.

“I didn’t like the corporate culture,” said Jeff, who left after a three-year contract expired to consult on his own.

“We were more entrepreneurial.”

Now, the brothers have a chance to show their independent stuff.

Several months ago, after more than a year of planning and arranging financing, the brothers acquired the original business, now called United Language Group (ULG), back from Merrill Corp. Under new management, Merrill no longer considered ULG a core holding.

Earlier this month, the Brink-led ULG, including industry-veteran Hans Fenstermacher, acquired a second company, Minneapolis-based KJ International Resources (KJI), which specializes in the medical sector.

The sales price of the two companies was not disclosed. Merrill Brink had revenue last year of about $42 million, according to an industry trade publication. Revenue for the consolidated company should be more than $50 million this year.

The Brinks, through ULG and KJI, have landed among the 25 largest players in language service worldwide, according to industry analyst Common Sense Advisory.

The ULG brass believe they can be one of the 10 largest language service providers in the world within a decade, focusing on business- and institutional-language translation.

United Language is backed, for starters, with about $45 million in debt and equity provided by private equity investor Northern Pacific Group of Wayzata, Yukon Partners of Bloomington, and Bell Bank.

The company, with about 250 employees globally, will soon move from offices in the pricey Warehouse District to a larger space in St. Louis Park.

ULG also has offices in New York, Hong Kong, Ireland and London.

The owners are on the hunt for businesses worth up to $100 million.

Donald DePalma, an analyst at Common Sense, said in an advisory this spring that the industry is starting to consolidate and ULG will have to take on large public companies such as HP Inc., RR Donnelley and Xerox. They have translation units and lots of capital.

“In the battle for the top spots in the market, cash-rich private equity group-backed companies like United Language Group and deep-pocketed public corporations like Donnelley will be the [language service providers] to watch in 2017 and beyond,” DePalma said.

Jeff Brink declined to name customers. He did say many have been longtime clients of Merrill Brink, KJ International or predecessor companies.

“We want to build a global organization, a follow-the-sun operation to serve our clients wherever they operate, day or night,” Brink said.

 

Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at nstanthony@startribune.com.