U.S. Army, 1975-1990
First State Manufacturing
Year Founded: 1997
Location: Milford, Del.
If you’ve ever taken a ride on an Amtrak train, flown in a U.S. Air Force cargo plane, had a meal at the Olive Garden or even walked through a turnstile, it’s possible you may be familiar with the results of Eli Valenzuela’s passion. Valenzuela, 63, is the founder of Milford, Del.-based First State Manufacturing, a firm that specializes in upholstery for commercial and government clients across
Valenzuela was featured in the September 2015 issue of Vetrepreneur® as one of the Hispanic Vetrepreneurs We Love. Since that time his business has experienced explosive growth landing contracts in the U.S. and abroad. His dedication to integrity, going the extra mile for his clients and always giving back has helped his business grow far beyond his wildest dreams. NaVOBA is proud to recognize Eliseo (Eli) Valenzuela as the 2016 Hispanic Vetrepreneur® of the Year.
In 1975, the 23-year-old Texas native was searching for an opportunity to learn a skill and joined the Army as a communications specialist in the Signal Corps. Eventually he came to manage the entire telephone system for the Army in Munich during his first enlistment with the 2nd Armored Division. His second enlistment was a blend of frantic activity followed by periods of relative boredom. It was during his down time that Valenzuela started thinking about his life after the Army.
He enrolled in a correspondence course specializing in custom upholstery and design. For the next year, his free time was spent completing two years’ worth of coursework. Doing all the work by hand, Valenzuela received all the projects by mail, completed them and sent them back to be graded.
The First Stitch
Valenzuela left the Army in 1981, returned to Texas and joined the National Guard to continue his duty to serve his country. He also found work modifying vans, but more importantly he bought his first sewing machine.
“I wanted to be the guy who could turn a van into a traveling living room, bedroom or luxury passenger area,” Valenzuela said.
For eight years, Valenzuela rehabbed and refurbished Army helicopters, preparing them to go back on the flight line at Corpus Christi Army Depot. Meanwhile, his own garage was doubling as a workshop for the upholstery projects that would come his way. Not only did the extra income help, but he was keeping his passion alive.
Taking the Leap
The catalyst for Valenzuela’s plunge into entrepreneurship was perhaps a little different than most. His son, Simon, was diagnosed with autism and was told that he would never speak nor have any real quality of life. Sher Valenzuela, Eli’s wife, took Simon to every specialist they could find, but none of the expenses were covered by Valenzuela’s medical insurance. They took another leap of faith, quit their jobs and focused all their energy on their family and the little shop that occupied the garage.
“I wanted to make a better life for our family and provide the support that Simon needed to thrive and grow, as well as provide for his future,” Valenzuela said.
An article about the contract and the work that FSM was doing for Amtrak was published in an international rail industry trade publication and that led to even more opportunity. Representatives from Fabricca Italiana Sedili (FISA), an Italian company that produces railway passenger and locomotive driver seats, read the piece and were impressed.
“Now we’re going to be working on high-speed rail trains that will be traveling across Europe,” Valenzuela said. “I overheard one of our team members answer the phone and she said ‘First State International, I mean manufacturing.’ I told her I liked international better.”
FSM also has done work for the Israeli government and has recently begun to work with the Japanese government on aircraft upholstery as well.