Meet the woman behind First State Manufacturing

August 6, 2012

Sher Valenzuela, along with her husband Eli and their business partner Ashley Wolfe, were named the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) 2012 Small Business Persons of the Year for Delaware. Owners of First State Manufacturing in Milford, Del., they received state and national recognition in Washington, D.C. and Newark, Del. in May. 

SBA District Director Tony Leta commented at a press conference attended by U.S. Sen. Tom Carper earlier that month: “All across the country, American businesses like First State Manufacturing are doing amazing things to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world. It’s wonderful to see them being recognized by SBA as Delaware’s Small Business Persons of the Year.”

The upholstery company started out truly small — with nothing more than one sewing machine — operating out of the Valenzuelas’ garage in the evenings after they’d finished the day at their “real” jobs. The couple had married in 1989 and not long after moved their blended family to Delaware to be closer to Sher's widowed mother in New Jersey. Eli got a job at the upholstery shop at Dover Air Force Base and Sher worked at home as an editor for the Delaware State News. That’s when they learned their son Simon, was autistic. Rather than give up their son to the dire prognosis of the experts, they quit their jobs and threw themselves into their own business, believing in their ability to bring in the funds required for specialists. Banking on "Old Betsy" (the name they’d given their sewing machine), one computer, a small loan from Sher's mother and an abundance of will power, First State Manufacturing was born. Fifteen years later, the business is an international success and Simon has entered the University of Delaware as a freshman.

First State Manufacturing provides quality seating, insulation and textile solutions for the transportation and hospitality industries — customers such as restaurants, hotels, movie theaters — and for hospitals and health clubs. FSM also provides volume seating and products for bus fleets, Amtrak, the Delaware River & Bay Authority and TW Murray Jeeps. Government customers include the U.S. Department of Defense, and state and community police stations. You'll sit on FSM's handiwork at regional casinos and amusement parks, or in Black Hawk helicopters.

As company spokesperson Ivy Bonk described it, the company does everything from the booth you sit in at Chili's, to the insulation of aircraft for the C5, to the seating for VIP aircraft. Its products range from protective padding for Major League Baseball umpires, to engine covers for aircraft and combat vests for the Israeli Army. FSM has just been awarded a million-dollar contract to work on C-5 aircraft insulation. 

According to the SBA, First State Marketing has more than doubled its revenue over the past four years by primarily expanding from local businesses to national and international markets. 

The company moved into its new location last September (it had long ago moved out of the garage), and now operates from a 70,000-square-foot facility, providing competitive wages to more than 70 employees.

Believers in giving back, the owners have donated 13,000 square feet of that space to open a downstate campus for Junior Achievement. “It’s critical to support the future leaders of our communities and the employers of tomorrow,” said Sher.  

Their support for the state includes the Memorandum of Understanding FSM just entered into with Delaware State University and The City of Milford. Signed in May, the MOU forms a public-private partnership and launches the “First State Moves the Nation” Business Accelerator which will create, increase and measure growth for Delaware’s small businesses, providing bulls-eye access to advanced manufacturing practices and technology, explained Sher. “It creates the model for no-cost, low-cost services with the most direct line to access to capital, marketplace intelligence, government contracting success, workforce development, legislative and regulatory support, operations management, proposal writing, industry-related mentors, and supply chain economy." Sher, who is also the Republican candidate for Lieutenant Governor of Delaware, continued, “We believe the Accelerator will create a standard for the nation.”   

The partnership is something Sher has been working on for years, and supports Senator Carper’s challenge to Delaware State University to stimulate economic growth in Kent and Sussex Counties. FSM will provide the physical space necessary for the project — 20,000 square feet.

Sher grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, daughter of a tool and die maker and former drill sergeant. 

Never a stranger to hard work, she was a syndicated columnist, feature writer for several daily newspapers and a former communications director for IBM. She currently chairs the Economic Development Panel in Milford, and is an executive member of the Delaware Workforce Investment Board, an arm of the Department of Labor.

A sampling of other awards and recognition her business has received includes the Lockheed-Martin Minority Small Business of the Year, Defense Supply Center Richmond Gold Medalist for Quality and On-Time Delivery, SBA Minority Small Business of the Year and Defense Logistics Agency Vendor of Excellence.

FSM has established a reputation for producing high quality products for a wide variety of aircraft, and was featured in 2012 on the nationally syndicated “World’s Greatest.” Bonk said Sher and the owners of First State Manufacturing are "social entrepreneurs, doing whatever it takes to communicate and demonstrate excellence.” 

Obviously, they’re succeeding.

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