Eli Valenzuela: NaVOBA 2016 Hispanic Vetrepreneur of the Year

MILFORD — Eli Valenzuela, who says he was once deemed the “one most likely to fail,” has surpassed the odds once more.

The Milfordian and founder/owner of First State Manufacturing is the National Veteran-Owned Business Association’s 2016 Hispanic Vetrepreneur of the Year.

The award comes after 19 years in the upholstery business and a stint in the military.

“I have met other people who have been awarded this honor, other vetrepreneurs, in the past and I usually call them and congratulate them,” he said, adding that being chosen himself was a surprise and an honor.

Mr. Valenzuela is originally from Corpus Cristi, TX. After his father died at the age of 39 when Mr. Valenzuela was just 13-years-old, he said his life took an unfortunate turn for a time.

The cover of the most recent issue of Vetrepreneur. Eli Valenzuela, NaVOBA's 2016 Hispanic Vetrepreneur of the Year, founded First State Manufacturing in Milford in 1997. He still owns the company with his wife, Sher. Special to The Chronicle

The cover of the most recent issue of Vetrepreneur. Eli Valenzuela, NaVOBA’s 2016 Hispanic Vetrepreneur of the Year, founded First State Manufacturing in Milford in 1997. He still owns the company with his wife, Sher. Special to The Chronicle

“I was stupid for several years. Then I decided to join military and start a correspondence course in upholstery. My brothers and sisters all thought I was crazy to move to Delaware for upholstery. This [award] is huge for me,” he said.

Lori Tovcimak-Speed, manager of marketing and partner relations, said Mr. Valenzuela was a runner-up for the title last year after the Milford-based company nominated him. But he couldn’t attend the ceremony.

“He, of course, was honored to be chosen as such. Because he was unable to attend the event for 2015, we provided a video of the facility and a tour because Eli couldn’t be there,” she said.

The video may have helped in explaining Mr. Valenzuela’s influence to those who choose honorees, according to Ms. Tovcimak-Speed.

She said of the decision, “The folks at Vetrepreneur said it was kind of a no-brainer.”

Although Mr. Valenzuela has traveled many times in the past, the honor will additionally take him to Minneapolis in November along with his wife.

Ms. Tovcimak-Speed said the honor may include other opportunities to travel and speak as “vetrepreneurs” in past years have been seen in the news, including national broadcasts.

Growth in First State Manufacturing

Although the business now operates out of a 76,000 sq. ft. facility, it began in the Valenzuela’s garage in 1997 with the help of SCORE, a Delaware-based organization that teams those interested in owning their own business with others who have already done so successfully.

They now employ more than 70 full-time employees, a stark difference from its beginning when it was just the Valenzuela’s. And it continues to grow, according to Ms. Tovcimak-Speed.

“Ultimately for the Valenzuela’s, really I think their passion is about providing jobs for the community and their business. It’s just the way they do it. In the upholstery business, Eli is a master craftsman. He truly enjoys his work and apprenticing and growing his team. It’s really about other people,” she said.

The team behind the fabric of FSM has helped facilitate a 20-30 percent growth each year in recent years, Ms. Tovcimak-Speed added, which results in an interesting challenge: more high profile jobs requiring more skilled employees.

“The benefit of that is growing jobs. We’re still hiring,” she said cheerfully, adding that those currently employed through FSM include “a good mix” of demographics.

Beyond diverse ethnicities, FSM’s workforce has another group of employee’s that stand out from the rest.

“We’ve also reached out to people just coming out of incarceration,” Mr. Valenzuela said. “When they come out of that for so long, they become some of your best employees. They want to work and they like the idea that this is such a good, family-friendly place. It’s a good place to work.”

Ms. Tovcimak-Speed added that many of those who join the company after incarceration learned their craft while Delaware still offered vocational programs in the field.

“They have training in upholstery. It’s been very rewarding because some of these folks come in and are not confident. They’ve been within the system for a while. It’s been very interesting to watch them grow and understand that they’re supported and understand that the work that they do is valued and makes a direct contribution to the success of the business,” she said.

Mr. Valenzuela quickly added that these employees “walk out of here feeling empowered.”

The company also does not shy away from employees who have other differences, such as disabilities.

“My son works here, and he’s autistic,” Mr. Valenzuela proudly said. “His work ethic is off the charts. When he doesn’t get to work and make money, he’s sad.”

Despite the feel-good stories of the many people employed at the Milford business, not everyone is a good fit for the work performed by FSM. It’s one of the hardest “bumps in the road” to owning a business, according to Mr. Valenzuela

“When we first started, we needed some people who knew how to sew and work. So we contacted the Department of Labor who sent an ‘expert tailor,’” Mr. Valenzuela explained.

The job in question involved a bus from Dover Air Force Base. To do the job well, the seats would need removing before the job began and reinstalling after the job was complete, along with a variety of other jobs which didn’t directly require sewing.

The tailor wasn’t around for long.

“This guy… he said, ‘I’m breaking my fingernails.’ So I said, ‘Your fingernails are more important than working?’ It’s people like that that get me and really don’t want to work,” he said.

Luckily for Mr. Valenzuela, that experience, he said, has been limited to the few.

“We have close to 100 families that we’re providing work for. And it’s a big blessing for us. We have a team right now that is just all around amazing,” Mr. Valenzuela said. “That’s how it feels, you know, when you talk about getting an award and breaking barriers. The vision keeps on going because we want to provide for other people.”

What is the local impact of FSM’s employment rates? About 75-85 percent of the company’s current employment base lives in Milford, Ms. Tovcimak-Speed said.

The small town that was once new to the Valenzuela’s has now become home to them and their employees.

“I love the little town feeling and the people you get to see at the grocery store and whatever. People know you. It’s a beautiful thing. My family loves it here,” Mr. Valenzuela said.

And to add to the town’s charm for the family, they now get to bring home the honor of Mr. Valenzuela’s 2016 Hispanic Vetrepreneur of the Year award.

“It’s a huge deal,” he said of the honor. “Mostly, for me on that, is to be able to encourage people that this is America, a place where dreams come true. If it can happen to me, it can happen to anybody. When you have a passion to do what God puts inside of you, it’s a huge thing.

“There were many times when I slept with my eyes open in fear wanting to know if we’re going to make it another week. We have never missed a payroll. Don’t give up if this is your passion, if this is your heart. We all come up to roadblocks, but we all have a dream pushing through, too.”

Jennifer Antonik can be reached at mc@newszap.com

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