While a mechanical designer at Steelcase, Javier Olvera decided to go into business for himself when the economy began to fail. Photo by Michael Buck
Remember the name Javier Olvera.
He’s already a successful and respected local entrepreneur. But now, Olvera, the president of Supermercado Mexico and La Mexicana Bakery, is looking to make his mark as a mover and shaker in Grand Rapids by doing something few business leaders have attempted. He wants to serve as West Michigan’s business bridge to its Hispanic community.
In January, Olvera is set to become the only current Hispanic board member of the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce. When asked what that felt like, Olvera laughed and then became serious as he paused before answering.
“To tell you the truth, sometimes I feel intimidated.
“But,” he continued, “I feel like I could help out being in there. There’s so much they could learn from our culture, and I mean Hispanic culture. I know there’s a big potential for everyone to do business together, and that’s what I’ve been doing now.
“By being there, I could be the bridge to the Chamber and other groups, (help them) to understand the Hispanic community, businesses, communication — all those things. That’s why I would like to join, so we all benefit.”
Olvera, the second of seven children, was born in Torrance, California. When he was 4 years old, his parents moved the family back to their native Guadalajara, Mexico, where Olvera spent most of his youth. It was a peaceful, fun place to grow up, and it was a larger city, he said.
Both his parents had their own businesses, and each of them taught him something about being a business owner, he said.
“My dad owned his own business — it was more like Two Men and A Truck — and I’d help him after school. We’d move stuff with his truck. My mom also had her own business, selling toys, candy and food,” he said.
“From my mom I learned about looking for opportunities. There’s many ways to make money. She (had) many small businesses, helping the family. With respect to my dad, (I learned) be persistent.”
Even at a young age, Olvera already was following in his parents’ footsteps and became his own boss, something that isn’t uncommon in places like Guadalajara, a city where everyone seemed to be an entrepreneur, he said.
“My first business that I can say was mine was when I was 12 years old. My dad rented a small shop where I was taking care of that business after school, and my older brother was taking care of it during the day. I did tire repair,” he said.
“So many people in Guadalajara did this because there’s not many jobs. You have to create your own opportunities, your own business, and that’s the way it works a lot in other countries — you’ll see entrepreneurialism everywhere. … And there are fewer regulations, so you can start a business right away from not much cash. It’s not just my family. It was everywhere.”
When he was a 16-year-old sophomore in high school, Olvera’s parents decided to move back to the United States and chose to move to Grand Rapids where they had family.
Olvera attended Union High School, graduating in 1993. At the time, he couldn’t speak English at all, he said.
He then attended Grand Rapids Community College, and eventually Ferris State University where he earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in 2003.
Meanwhile, he also was working full time at Grand Rapids-based Knape and Vogt Manufacturing Co., where he did mechanical design throughout his college years.
In his studies, he excelled at math — numbers are the same in every language, after all. He did an internship at Steelcase Corp., and it was while he was working on his senior project — designing an office panel for Steelcase — that Olvera feels he got his “big break” when he discovered the true secret to success in business: making connections.
“We had to form groups to finish the project. Just forming groups to accomplish it — that was my big break. For me it was not about what you know, at all. For me it was about finding your people, finding your team for solutions, for a project — for anything in life,” he said.
“That’s what I’ve been doing all along. When I started with the supermarket, I didn’t know much about grocery stores, but family members did. I knew more about mathematical problems and engineering stuff. But that’s what I was doing: finding people who knew how to run (a grocery store).”
Olvera worked as a mechanical designer at Steelcase for nine years, and although he loved his job, he began to think about going into business for himself when “the economy started going bad.”
“There were a lot of layoffs. I thought, ‘I need to get ready in case something happens to me.’ I started looking at places where I could do another business, so I’d be already working my business. I didn’t want to have a gap in my income, and I saw the opportunity to grow as much as I could,” he said.
“Our first grocery store we purchased in 2006, which was named La Vencedora, and the name we re-named it to (was) La Tapatia. … And then in 2010, we acquired the first Hispanic grocery store … and at that time we renamed both grocery stores to Supermercado Mexico. … And the third one, we opened in 2011,” he said.
He described Supermercado Mexico as an international supermarket that specializes in Mexican products and services.
“I feel like there was a connection with the culture, with the food. And also, it was less risky to be in business with a grocery store. We all have to eat three times a day. I could secure my investment that way. And also I had family members that knew the business.”
Olvera’s Mexican roots have made him deeply committed to the success of West Michigan’s Hispanic community. Not only did he serve on the board of the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce from 2011 to 2014 — he’s still a member — he also has dreams to create “something similar to Downtown Market but Hispanic style,” with the building he owns at 900 Grandville Ave. SE in Wyoming, which he purchased June 3 for $285,000, according to city records.
Olvera also became president of Mexicana Bakery, which supplies bread to grocery stores in Grand Rapids and Holland, and also to Meijer stores, he said.
In 2014, he became the treasurer for Latican Sports, the company behind ABK Futsal Academy in Grand Rapids.
“All over the world, soccer is huge, and in the United States, it’s coming. That’s going to be a big trend, so there’s a big opportunity right now in soccer,” he said, adding that looking for that kind of opportunity is how he approaches a new business.
“I look at opportunity — what’s growing fast, and the people, the attitude they have. I tend to buy businesses that are (already) running well and have potential. If I want to create a dream team, then I focus on the attitudes of the other owners and the trends of what’s becoming big.”