Cuellar Sheer Will To Succeed

    ZEELAND — From working on the factory floor to mentoring other companies, Noël Cuellar has learned a lesson about mentors and opportunities and hopes to pass that lesson along to others.

    In 1994, when Cuellar and Ethan Barde started Primera Plastics Inc., a precision injection molding company, they did it with two presses and with the two of them, along with Cuellar’s wife, Janet, working “ungodly hours” in the factory. Cueller is now president and CEO, while Barde is vice president of sales and manufacturing.

    Now, 12 years later, the company employs 140 people and had $18.1 million in revenue in 2005 — a big payoff for someone who initially had a difficult time obtaining financing for the business.

    “It was a big commitment on our side from personal financing,” Cuellar said. “We couldn’t get any financing; it was all with personal money.”

    Cuellar said he and Barde were mentored by Herman Miller and Gentex, and were offered support by their former employers at Prince Corp.

    The partners have invested 100 percent of the company’s profits back into the company to aid growth. They have also invested in technology and robotics.

    “We’ve had a major shake-up in our industry, as far as injection molders,” Cuellar said. “That just makes you strive to be better.”

    Cuellar said the company has also invested in the community, through service as well as a commitment to keep the company — and jobs — right here where it began.

    “We’ve been enticed to move the company to other states, but Ethan and I are committed to West Michigan,” Cuellar said.

    Cuellar said one observation that has an effect on him is realizing that, as the years go by, he sees newer and newer cars in the company parking lot, indicating the economic prosperity of the employees. He said it makes him realize the social responsibility of running a business.

    “We have 140 people that are counting on us,” he said.

    The commitment to the employees and community is made evident by the company’s tuition reimbursement program and a community scholarship program that gives students $1,500 a year for four years. Cuellar said it is optional for the students to then work with the company; they are not obligated.

    They also have given seed money to the Tulipanes Art and Film Festival and are co-founders of the Hispanic Educators Leaders and Professionals group. Cuellar said they work with students to encourage them to stay in school and complete college or a trade school. He said it is important to keep the work force educated and up-to-speed by helping students succeed. After all, Cuellar said, “It’s our future.”

    Cuellar, who is Hispanic, moved with his family to Holland in 1966 where he learned English. His parents were migrant workers and settled in West Michigan after his father got a job at H.J. Heinz’s Holland plant. Cuellar is a HollandHigh School graduate, and although he attended Grand RapidsCommunity College as a youth, he didn’t graduate. He has been taking classes at DavenportUniversity and hopes to earn his business degree in the near future.

    “I’ve put so much time and effort into it,” he said. “If I would have known then, I’d have done it when I was 18.”

    Cuellar said sometimes it is difficult to mentor and encourage students to stay in school and go to college when he did not graduate himself.

    “It’s not where it needs to be, because I haven’t achieved my personal goal,” he said.

    Despite not earning his degree yet, Cuellar has met other goals, such as building the new Primera facility, accomplished with a Small Business Administration 504 loan in partnership with Huntington Bank and Lakeshore 504.

    The building is a showpiece, Cuellar said. It was awarded the 2004 American Building Company Excellence in Design Award. Cuellar said local contractors were used during construction, including Lamar Construction Co., which received the award.

    The new building allows for the business to grow three times as large, and Cuellar said he sees that growth happening in the future.

    “When we built the building, we couldn’t afford to do it, but we couldn’t afford not to do it,” he said. Now the company is focusing on paying down the debt and growing in a slow, controlled way.

    One of the ways the company has been successful is by diversifying its products and clients.

    “We don’t have any customer that is more than 20 percent of business,” Barde said.

    Cuellar said that while he and Barde had experience in manufacturing when they started Primera, they did not have much business experience.

    “We had to surround ourselves with the right people,” Cuellar said, mentioning finance and human resources as two areas of business in which they had little experience.

    Throughout the years, the company has celebrated the birth of 15 children, including his son, Mitchell, who is now 7.

    “That’s my biggie — making sure that we invest well in him and prepare him for life,” he said.

    Cuellar said he has slowed his pace a bit since he first started the business. “You have to sit down and juggle business and family,” he said. “That helped me slow down and think.”

    Cuellar said with all the changes over the years, the company now is taking its growth one step further by trying for TS certification at the end of the year.

    One of the keys to success that Cuellar has discovered is having happy employees.

    “When people are happy, they’re more productive,” he said.

    Cuellar said he knows what makes employees happy because it wasn’t that long ago that he was in their place, working on the factory floor at Prince and in the beginning years of Primera.

    “We grew up in the same families as our employees did,” he said. “We’re cut from the same cloth.”

    As the president of the company, Cuellar said he believes it is important to be both visible and accessible to the employees. He said he often walks the floor to be available to the workers. He said 80 percent of the employees at Primera Plastics are Hispanic, and they are recruiting more minorities, especially to the management team. Cuellar said he prefers to promote from within.

    “We need to all work together to make sure we can attract good people to come here and help us out,” he said.

    The company is a certified minority-owned company, but Cuellar said that does not make it any different from others when it comes to work.

    “It’s still about cost, it’s still about delivery, it’s still about quality,” he said. “It’s just a sheer will to succeed.”

    The company has gone through a recent transition, Cuellar said, rearranging some management positions and letting go of two people, as well as hiring the company’s first professional operations manager, Bob Buresh, and promoting Comptroller Chris Feenstra to chief financial officer. These moves have made the company well positioned for continued growth, Cuellar said.

    “This year seems to be our cross-over year,” he said.

    Primera Plastics has also had a banner year when it comes to recognition. The company was chosen as one of the 500 Top Hispanic Businesses in the nation by Hispanic Business. Cuellar said the company has seen total revenue rise by 15 percent since 2004, to $34.8 billion. Primera has also been honored with the Best Small Business Award from the Michigan Small Business and TechnologyDevelopmentCenter and as the 2005 West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Business of the Year.

    “We’re very honored and proud to represent West Michigan.”    

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