First State Manufacturing wins top SBA award

Sher and Eli Valenzuela
Sher and Eli Valenzuela

By Kathy Canavan

A Milford company that started with one man taking a correspondence course has been awarded one of the Small Business Administration’s top national awards.

First State Manufacturing, owned by Eli and Sher Valenzuela, has been named the SBA’s top 8-A graduate. It has its roots in a sewing course its CEO took when he was a U.S. Army technician stationed in Germany.

First State employs 82 and makes an effort to hire minorities and people who are disabled, homeless or formerly incarcerated. The formula seems to be working — the company sold $7.6 million in goods and services last year, and it is growing more than 30 percent a year, Sher Valenzuela said.

First State got its start with SBA programs and partners, especially the 8a program, a business-assistance program for small socially and economically disadvantaged businesses. Manufacturers in the program can receive sole-source contracts up to $6.5 million without bidding.

Eli Valenzuela, an Army veteran, was working as a civilian upholstery installer at Dover Air force Base and doing freelance work repairing upholstery for local restaurants before he and his wife Sher opened their business in 1998. They took the leap into business after their son Simon was diagnosed with autism. The couple knew that her job as a newspaper editor and his at Delaware Air Force Base would not provide what was needed for their son’s treatment. They both quit their jobs to build a business that would.

“It took us one full year to put our 8a application together, so I guess you could say one thing it taught us was tenacity,” Sher Valenzuela said. “We finally enlisted the help of the great folks from the Procurement Technical Assistance Center, and were approved.”

Since graduating from the nine-year federal program in 2009, the company has thrived on its own, working on upholstering everything from restaurant seats to roller coaster seats. Their clients include Amtrak, Lockheed Martina and the federal government. They sell in Israel and have a contract pending in Japan.

While its roots are in aircraft reupholstery, First State makes seats, aircraft curtains, fabric oil plugs for aircraft, sports vests, canopies, aircraft insulation, waterproof missile covers, awnings and military equipment.

“Our 8a certification gave us a foot in the door to the world of government contracting and an opportunity to prove our capabilities against some of the competitors we would have only dreamed of beating,” Sher Valenzuela said. “For instance, Boeing didn’t think a particular plug could be created for the V-22 aircraft that would increase the safety of the crew. The 8a program allowed us a shot at showing what we could do, and we won the award. That first experience proved to us we didn’t have to be Goliath to beat Goliath.”

Simon, the son they quit their jobs to help, is now a graduate of the two-year workforce program at Delaware State University. ♦

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