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Listening Aid


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  • | 6:00 p.m. November 28, 2008
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Alternating between Spanish and English, Pete Salazar is trying to sell a group of Hispanic customers who have come to see him one day recently.

The challenge: Their buyers want the field produce such as tomatoes washed and there's no way anyone can do that by hand.

Salazar's company, Salazar Machine & Steel in Immokalee, builds produce washers, but they don't come cheap. After examining one stainless steel washer with his prospective customers, Salazar disappears back to his tiny office inside the manufacturing facility near Immokalee Regional Airport. He emerges with a small piece of paper scribbled with the price tag of just over $35,000. An add-on circular belt to make packing easier will cost them another $10,000, Salazar estimates.

The prospective customers — two men and two women — have their poker faces on and don't reveal any surprise at the price tag. The two men wander off to the side to whisper and the women follow Salazar back to his office to exchange phone numbers.

They'll probably be back. Produce buyers increasingly are demanding that vegetables and fruits be washed because of the tomato scare earlier this summer. Several hundred people fell ill this summer from salmonella and tomatoes were suspected, then largely cleared, but not before costing the industry millions of dollars.

Entrepreneurs like Salazar have seen this coming for years. The son of migrant farm workers, Salazar understands the agriculture business intimately. That, combined with grit and perseverance, has helped him build a company that sells washers that can cost north of $100,000 each.

This is what sets entrepreneurs apart from the rest of us. They see trends coming years ahead of anyone else, they grow their business by working tirelessly and they listen to their customers.

Welding at night

Salazar, 49, started almost with nothing. He was born in Texas and moved to Immokalee in eastern Collier County when he was a small child with his parents who were tomato pickers.

Salazar attended high school in Immokalee and then vocational school where he learned to be a welder. After graduation, Salazar moved to New Mexico and then Michigan, where he took math classes, learned machining and to read blueprints at night school.

He returned to Immokalee in 1983 and worked as a welder for a machining company and taught welding to students at night.

But Salazar secretly harbored a dream: “I've always wanted my own business.”

Despite having three school-aged children, Salazar gave up his job and bought used welding equipment and a truck. He laughs when he recalls that the welding equipment was made the year he was born: 1959. “I was so proud of it,” he says. When he showed off the antique welding equipment to his wife, Linda, she told him curtly: “That's nice. Now get to work.”

Salazar credits Linda for helping keep the family afloat financially, especially in the beginning. They had three small children at home when he started on his own. Linda Salazar now is the principal at Immokalee High School.

Salazar drove around in his truck, taking on any welding jobs farmers would give him. He charged $25 an hour. Word quickly spread about Salazar's skills. “In a small community, people know who's who,” he says.

There's no easy way to save up enough to start a business, Salazar says. “If you ever save up some money, let me know how you do it,” he laughs.

Giant washing machines
Still, Salazar scraped together enough money to move into 2,000 square feet of space in space set aside by Collier County for incubator businesses. He was paying $7 per square foot, a discounted rate to foster job creation.

Shortly after moving into the space, a local vegetable and fruit packing company came to Salazar with a problem. They were washing by hand the bins that pickers used. It would take three to four employees to wash hundreds of bins every day and thousands of gallons of water. Could Salazar design a bin washer that would cut down on labor and water expenses?

Listening to customers is the secret to Salazar's success. “You see what they need and ask yourself: How can you help them?”

Salazar spent a year to design a bin washer, something of a cross between an airport x-ray machine and a washing machine. A worker places a bin on a conveyor belt that moves through the washer and it comes out clean and dry at the other end. The washer can be lifted with a forklift and trucked to different locations. Its cleaning system contains a tub that recycles water and cleaning solvents so it saves on those expenses.

These bins aren't small. They measure four square feet and they're 29 inches tall. The washers rotate the bins 180 degrees, cleaning them completely inside and out.

After a year of design and more than $20,000 in patent attorneys' fees, the packing company bought four bin washers at more than $100,000 each. Surprisingly, Salazar managed his business and created the bin washer without borrowing any money. “Everything I have, I own,” he says.

How did he do it? “It's perseverance,” he shrugs. “You've got to want it like it was your last breath.” He continues: “You've got to set goals. Then you've got to have a plan together.”

Salazar Machine now has 6,000 square feet of space and he's planning to expand to 20,000 square feet some time in the next few years. (Salazar declines to cite revenues or other financial information.)

Besides bin washers, Salazar also has designed washers for smaller crates and another for cleaning produce. The produce washer cleans tomatoes and other vegetables and fruits using a curtain of water as they move down a conveyor belt. The washer comes with a 15-horsepower blower that dries the product, eliminating the need to remove them from the crates.

All the washers can be customized for each customer's specifications and include add-ons such as longer conveyor belts for packing or sorting the products as they come out of the machine.

Salazar isn't too concerned about the economic downturn, though he says some customers have delayed purchases. But he knows food safety will become an even bigger issue and he expects business to pick up when the economy rebounds. “My clients are very proactive,” he says.

 

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