BY THE TIME Don and his trusty copilot Glenn crossed the California state line, they had $147 left after making a donation to the Las Vegas craps tables, but still weren’t exactly sure where Don’s family lived. “I just remembered they were in Buena Park near Knott’s Berry Farm and Disneyland. As we made the turn to I-5, there was a sign that said Buena Park. We pulled over at a gas station and looked them up in the phone book.”
Where a million things could have gone wrong at that particular moment, the stars aligned for Don. “That was my savior,” he says. His family was listed in the phone book. They welcomed the duo to stay with them for a couple days.
After a spending a month with Don’s family, the pair moved to their own one-bedroom apartment. Don landed a position at General Electric. Despite saving money by renting only a one-bedroom apartment—each rotating every other week between the bed and the couch—Don was sending money back home every month to his wife and two kids.
“So because neither of us had any money, we knew every place that had hors d’oeuvres at happy hour,” Don says. “I remember going to the bowling alley because they had pizza and meatballs. Then the next day we’d go to the bar that had sandwich sliders. We did that for two or three months. We had it made.”
By the time six months had passed, Don had saved up enough money for his wife and two children to make their way to California. And after five years, he left General Electric to join International Telephone and Telegraph. “Keep in mind, I’m 27 years old with the responsibility of consolidating local warehouses. I was dealing with presidents of their divisions, telling them I’m taking away their warehouse. It didn’t make me a very popular person.”
Despite Don’s unpopular role, his compelling personality and “there is no try, only do” attitude kept him moving upward in the climb to success. “And during all this, nobody ever asked me about my education,” he says. “I just interviewed really well. Everyone assumed that I had a college degree.” Where Don had lacked in college degrees, he made up in an unrivaled ambition. In his spare time, he went to the library to read countless finance and business books and journals.
“If you’re going to run a business, you need to know about finance,” he says, plainly.
From then on, it seemed Don was unstoppable. A brilliant proposal to cut the sales overhead for ITT some 15 percent earned him the opportunity to develop Cal-Neva Electrical Products.
Don later divorced and promised never to be 30 minutes away from his children, which prompted him to buy out a partner in a troubled business relationship. He was officially part owner of Electrical Surplus Sales Company located in a 2,500 square foot warehouse.
“In six months, our sales more than doubled,” Don says. “Keep in mind, I knew nothing about the electrical business. We were doing so well that we took over the 2,800 square foot unit right next to us. We took it over and took a forklift through the drywall into the next building. That was our expansion.”
Two years later, they outgrew the space they were in and expanded to another 15,000 square foot warehouse. Had it not been across the street, Don likely would have taken the forklift through that building, too. It’s been an analogy for life: breaking barriers as a young Hispanic from the streets of Detroit to Paradise Valley.
In the years that followed, Don continued to find success. He sold Cal-Neva Electrical Products and focused on the development of Essco. The business grew from Orange County, California, to Lake Havasu, Arizona, to Phoenix and several other areas between the California-Nevada border, all while building a reputation as the premier go-to for wires, cables, tools and equipment in the construction industry. At its height, the company employed roughly 300 people in 14 offices and warehouses across Arizona and California.
Essco even went on to become the largest Hispanic company in Arizona and was ranked 56th nationally in the Hispanic 500, which prompts Don with a memory he can barely express between spirited laughter.
After accepting the award on stage presented by the Arizona Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Don pronounced his gratitude by compiling the most Spanish he knew: “Gracias! Viva la Mexico!”
Without hesitation, he walked off the stage and made his way through the door and out the exit where his son and president of the company stood in disbelief. “That just tells you some of the fun experiences I’ve had in life” he says. “It’s been a fun life, a good life.”