The United States Small Business Administration (SBA) selected local businesses owners Eli Valenzuela, Sher Valenzuela, and Ashley Wolfe in March as the Delaware Small Business Persons of the Year. First State Manufacturing (FSM) has been in business for over 14 years and is currently employing more than 40 technicians at their new 66,000 square foot facility in Milford.
“Through good economic conditions and bad First State Manufacturing has a history of growth and job creation,” stated SBA Economic Development Specialist James Provo in a press release announcing FSM’s award. “From two employees in 1998 to 43 employees in 2011, FSM has continued its growth while many companies were reducing staff. With the recent expansion of facilities, employment is forecasted to continue to increase steadily over the next three years.”
Eli & Sher began what is now known as First State Manufacturing out of their garage in 1998 with one sewing machine and a lot of determination. As an Army communications technician, Eli Valenzuela took a correspondence course on upholstery while serving with the Second Armored Division in Germany. This course ultimately lead him towards developing a career that has been not only financially successful but personally fulfilling. While working at Dover Air Force Base Eli worked upholstering C-5 Galaxy aircrafts for the United States Air Force.
As they looked for a more cost effective, efficient way to create upholstery products and services, Sher and Eli decided to start a private business that would aim to do just that. Business partner Ashley Wolfe was with the Valenzuelas when they started the small operation from their garage. Although the team quickly agreed that Ashley’s expertise was not cutting and sewing material, Ashley did bring a unique management style that became critical to FSM’s success over the years.
“You have to go in knowing you are going to face adversity but you cannot quit,” stated FSM President Eli Valenzuela when asked how they stayed focused over the last 14 years. “There was more than one time when we didn’t know where we could get the money for payroll and more than once we prayed to God. He came through every time.”
Over 14 years FSM has been chosen by the United States Air Force to manufacture upholstery for military devices on the C-5s, V-22 Osprey and Joint Air to Surface Standoff Missiles. The company also works with numerous private contractors such as Chili’s restaurant to develop seating products.
According to the Small Business Administration, FSM has more than doubled its revenue over the past four years by primarily expanding from local businesses to national and international markets. SBA’s decision to honor Eli, Sher and Ashley as the Delaware Small Business Persons of the Year was also contributed to their ability to “actively give back to their local community and state.” Among the services included by SBA was their support of Junior Achievement’s expansion in Delaware, partnership with City of Milford and the State of Delaware and financial support for local family-oriented organizations throughout the third world.
When asked what advice to give current and future small business owners, FSM Vice President Sher Valenzuela stated that “those called to pursue the entrepreneurial dream are already in a unique bunch. Pursue that with wisdom and nurture that dream. Connect with others who have the shared that journey and learn from their experiences.”