Six years ago, Pete Salazar didn't have an office.
At least, not a real office.
He traveled from one job site to another with his mobile machining and welding service. His car was his office.
For years, Salazar was a one-man show.
But times have changed since he moved into the last available spot at the Immokalee Manufacturing and Technology Center in 2000. At 2,000 square feet, the manufacturing bay looked "like a mansion," Salazar recalls.
"It was definitely an opportunity for my business to take a big step and we did," he said. "Ever since then, the business has been growing every year."
Now, Salazar, owner of Salazar Machine & Steel Inc., has six employees. He has branched out nationally and is looking to build a headquarters with 20,000 square feet of space next to the manufacturing center at the Florida Tradeport, Immokalee's regional airport.
On top of that, he has patented a produce bin washer that he is marketing across the country. It can sanitize and clean as many as 300 bins an hour.
Most of Salazar's business comes from agricultural companies. He has built conveyor and packing systems for the nation's top packing houses.
Locally, he works with such large growers as Farm-Op, Pacific Tomato and Nobles Collier Inc. He has designed harvesting trucks and other heavy machinery to improve their operations. He also fixes broken equipment.
"In the produce business, there is so much to do," Salazar said. "There's so much manufacturing to do."
Garry Crossno, a project manager in Florida for Farm-Op, one of the largest tomato growers in the eastern United States, said Salazar has built a lot of machinery for his company's vegetable farms here and in other states, including South Carolina, Virginia and Georgia.
"If I didn't have him, I don't know what I would do," Crossno said. "He's done a real good job for us and a lot of people around town."
Farm-Op has purchased a couple of Salazar's bin washers.
"Food safety is getting bigger all the time," Crossno said. "It's the way things are going to be from now on. People in the industry just have to get used to it."
Sam Adams, president of T&S Harvesting, which has headquarters in Felda, said Salazar has manufactured fruit-hauling trucks for his company that follow mechanical harvesters. The trucks collect the oranges that are picked by the harvesting machines.
"Without the trucks, we couldn't run the machines at all," Adams said. "These trucks, he designed to where they swivel 180 degrees. They go forward or backward. There is probably not one or two guys that I'm aware of in this country that could build these trucks like he did."
Adams likes doing business with Salazar for many reasons.
"He's just top notch," he said. "He does a heck of a nice job. He's a great guy to work with."
Everett Loukonen, agribusiness manager for the Barron Collier Partnership in Immokalee, said Salazar recently built a vegetable bin washer for the company. It hasn't been installed yet, but the company expects great things from it.
"It's simplistic and affordable," Loukonen said. "It's half the cost of some of the other machines offered by other companies."
The bin washer will be used locally in the company's tomato operations. In the past, the grower has used a pressure washer to manually wash every bin by hand. And the bins haven't been washed often because it has been too time-consuming, Loukonen said.
Salazar has sold five bin washers so far. They are priced in the mid-$50,000 range. They have gone as far as Maryland and Virginia.
Salazar received a patent about a year ago for his bin washer. It took three years to get.
Cranking up the bin washing machine behind his shop for a demonstration, Salazar, 46, looks like a proud father. The self-contained, gravity control system uses chlorinated water to kill bacteria in bins up to 28 inches tall.
The bins are fed into a conveyor system. Nozzles spray down the bins. A patented technology tilts the bin to dump out dirt, leaves and any other bits of produce that are left behind, which are then circulated through the water into a trash box.
Salazar describes the system as environmentally friendly. Water is recycled through the system and can be dumped at the end of the day.
"It's easily transportable," Salazar said. "It saves time and water and it's cost-effective."
In January, he showed off the bin washer at the Northwest Food Manufacturing & Packaging Expo in Oregon. On his desk is a stack of letters from attendees requesting a video on the product. One of those letters comes from an executive at Ocean Spray.
He's even had an e-mail inquiry about his machine from a company in India.
"There are other bin washers out there," Salazar said. "But they're not like mine."
Salazar, who grew up in Immokalee and graduated from Immokalee High, started his manufacturing business at 26. It was a long way from where he came from.
He was the first in his family to graduate high school. His parents were migrant workers and he grew up picking the tomatoes that he now builds machines for.
Salazar got his inspiration from a cousin who was a welder. He went to vocational technical school to learn the trade.
Now, he's training the workers he hires, offering them jobs that pay better than average in the small, poor town of Immokalee.
"It's really neat when you are able to meet customers' needs," Salazar said. "It's very rewarding. But I think what's more rewarding is teaching others your trade."
Salazar Machine & Steel Inc. would be the first to grow out of the Immokalee Manufacturing and Technology Center, designed as an incubator for start-up businesses.
Tammie Nemecek, president of the Economic Development Council of Collier County, said Salazar's success story is being used as a model to attract other companies to Immokalee. In the past few years, the council has put an extra focus on trying to attract better, higher-paying jobs to the town, where agriculture reigns king.
On Sept. 27, Collier County commissioners approved more than $175,000 in incentives to help Salazar expand and build a new headquarters. That includes $45,000 to help cover impact fees and $100,966 for job creation.
The expansion project is expected to have a total economic impact of more than $2.3 million. It would create 15 new jobs, paying an average wage of $28,125. The capital investment is estimated at $1.4 million.
Salazar hopes to begin construction later this year.
"It's all about creating jobs," he said. "I see our little town changing. Not only is the town changing but there are people's lives that are changing."
In the last three years as Salazar's office manager, J.R. Rios, who also grew up in Immokalee and graduated from Immokalee High, has seen the business quadruple in size.
He's running the office so Salazar can spend more time growing the business. He too is the son of migrant farmworkers.
"The business is booming," Rios said. "Someone told me they were jealous of me being in the position I'm in."