Born in Colombia and raised in Venezuela, Rafael Gonzalez, Owner of The Tools Man Industrial Supply, began his professional life as a Sales Manager for Nestle. After spending two years living in a hotel, while on a work assignment, he was ready for a new opportunity. For Gonzalez, this involved more than just a career change. He was also ready to move to a new country.
"I was sitting in my hotel room one night and I knew I wanted to move to a different country to do something different," he said. "I thought about the U.S., Canada and Australia. A few blocks away from my hotel was a U.S. consulate office. I said, 'Ok, let's go there'. Thirty minutes later, I walked out with a passport and a visa. Two weeks after that, I was in Miami."
When Gonzalez landed in Miami in 1991, he was greeted by his mother's friend's son, Luis. Gonzalez stayed with Luis's brother for a few months until he found his own place. He initially worked three jobs to make ends meet and saved every penny he could. After working a variety of jobs, Gonzalez landed a position with Interstate Batteries. He spent six and a half years with Interstate and became a Route Sales Manager before a conflict with management had him looking for new opportunities.
"I always wanted my own business," Gonzalez said. "I gathered all my savings and purchased a Snap-on Tools franchise. At the time, I didn't have a clue about tools, but it was a great opportunity. At first, it was a very humbling experience. However, little by little the business grew and by 2008, I owned four territories. After the economy crashed, I went back to one franchise, but we also started working with the government. Through Snap-on, we primarily did commercial work. Now, under the name The Tools Man Industrial Supply, we were in a better position to work with local and federal governments."
Gonzalez and his team developed strategic relationships and started winning government contracts. These contracts led to additional opportunities to work with more manufacturers, which led to even more government contract work. Today, The Tools Man Industrial Supply has over 20 master agreements with federal and local governments. They've provided materials and supplies to repair highways and bridges and to help with the reconstruction efforts in Puerto Rico by providing hundreds of light poles. They've also supplied water meters, hazmat suits, concrete barriers, lockers, masks and other industrial supplies. According to Gonzalez, they've made over 1 Million products available to the federal government. Much of their growth comes down to providing exceptional service and being lean.
"We connect with our customers," Gonzalez said. "We service them from A to Z. We don't just take orders. When they call us, we take care of them. We even do things other companies are too "big" to do. For example, when the Broward County Sheriff and Fire Department needed new lockers, they originally wanted to go with Grainger. However, Grainger was too busy to do the measurements. Even though that's not something we'd traditionally do, we did it and we also found someone to help them remove the old lockers. In many cases, we're able to save companies and governments money, compared to the big guys, because we have such low overhead.
Gonzalez continued, "In the last two years we have identified a niche market with the federal government, developed relationships with procurement officers through our GSA Advantage contract with over 800,000 products, acquired certifications for Small Business Set Asides opportunities such as SDB (Small Disadvantaged Business), HUB Zone and most recently the very coveted 8(a) Business Development Program."
Gonzalez described the GSA Advantage Contract as giving businesses the ability to have their products in a portal that resembles an 'Amazon' for the federal government. After proving you've been in business for a certain period of time and that your products are reasonably priced, you're then able to upload your products to the portal. The 8(a) Business Development Program allows The Tools Man Industrial Supply, by way of a federal mandate that instructs the federal government to allocate 20% of their budget to working with small businesses, to do even more work with the federal government. Both programs have played a significant role in allowing the business to expand its reach.
Gonzalez also believes in community involvement and takes pride in helping local small businesses succeed. "I have been part of the Broward County Small Business Advisory Board," he said. "We worked to pass policies in Broward County that allow more small businesses to have more opportunities to work with the county. The county has a big budget, but sometimes that money goes out of state. We want to keep that money here. I was also part of the School Board of Broward County's Diversity Outreach Program (SDOP). The program is designed to help small, minority and women-owned businesses get a piece of the pie."
Looking ahead, Gonzalez is focused on continuing his company's tradition of providing exceptional customer service while delivering quality supplies. He empowers his team members to be "dream catchers" for their customers. He's also focused on a relatively new niche selling 'clean weapons', these are non-deadly weapons used for practice, and eventually would like to become a dealer of arms and explosives for the federal government.
What advice does Gonzalez have for aspiring entrepreneurs? "Fear prevents us from being the best we can be," he said. "In order to follow your dreams and passions, you'll need to put fear aside. Don't let it handcuff you. Have passion for what you do and if you fail, get up and keep going. Also, make sure your customers are happy, your employees are well compensated and that you don't allow yourself to worry about things you can't control."