DELAWARE — First State Manufacturing owners Eli Valenzuela, Sher Valenzuela, and Ashley Wolfe have been selected as the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Delaware Small Business Persons of the Year. This is the story of the genesis and growth of their business.
It began in 1998 with a man, a woman, a sewing machine, and a dream in a Milford, Delaware garage. A humble beginning that today has become First State Manufacturing (FSM), a thriving business employing more than 40 technicians working in a new 66,000 sq. ft. facility funded by a $650,000 Small Business Administration (SBA) 504 loan.
As an Army communications technician, Eli Valenzuela took a correspondence course on upholstery while serving with the Second Armored Division in Germany. Little did he know that the course would lead to a second career and ownership of a multi-million dollar business.
After his military service, Valenzuela returned to Texas and first worked in civil service upholstering military aircraft and later moved to Delaware, where he secured a position at Dover Air Force Base upholstering the C-5 Galaxy, one of the largest aircraft in the world and the largest airlifter in the Air Force inventory.
Oftentimes, as he discussed his work day with his wife Sher, he would think out loud about how much American taxpayers paid for upholstery work contracted out for the C-5, specifically how he knew ways to provide a better product at a better price. Together the husband and wife decided that they should start a business to do just that.
With help from SBA resource partners SCORE and the Small Business Technology and Development Center the Valenzuela’s composed a business plan and opened First State Manufacturing in their garage with an old but reliable sewing machine named “Betsy.” Rapidly outgrowing the garage, they secured financing through a SBA $20,000 Express loan and leased space in a 2,000 sq. ft. warehouse.
Providing higher quality at lower costs led to rapid growth and with assistance from their local Procurement Technical Assistance Center (PTAC) they secured more and larger contracts. Earning an SBA 8(a) certification enabled FSM to leverage a number of long-term contracts from 2000 to 2009 as the business expanded to include military and commercial contracts across the country.
Mr. Valenzuela, president, is known for his ability to create, design and manufacture textile products to meet a commercial or defense customer’s exacting specifications and has led FSM to more than $10 million in government contracts.
Ms. Valenzuela has significant experience in public relations and marketing campaigns for FSM and a variety of Fortune 500 companies. The important addition of Ashley Wolfe to the ownership and management team brought a different area of expertise to the business as executive director.
Wolfe contributes his 30-year background in manufacturing and production with an emphasis on efficiency and innovation. Together the three principals have developed a strong management team with a workforce that produces and delivers quality products while providing above-average wages to more than 43 employees.
By 2001 FSM was ready to grow again, with a $96,500 SBA backed 7(a) loan to modernize and expand their inventory, with recurring business from national restaurant and hotel chains. Their reputation grew for quality, cost effectiveness and innovation. Through extensive testing with Chili’s restaurant chain, FSM developed a trademarked seating product, Speedy Cushion, made with environmentally-friendly cushion foam and a “green” maintenance protectant that reduces fading from the sun.
The 9/11 tragedy brought a massive downturn in business to FSM and challenged their very existence…