Six Enter Biz Hall Of Fame

May 6, 2005
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Six local business leaders were recently inducted into the West Michigan Business Hall of Fame by the local chapter of youth business education group Junior Achievement. For each of the last 16 years, the group has chosen a handful of individuals who “serve as an inspiration to the entire community … and who also serve as outstanding examples to students learning about business” to be awarded with the honorary distinction.

Among this year’s laureates were Miguel and Isabel Navarro. Hard work and a “troublemaker” spirit got Miguel Navarro where he is today. Navarro, commonly known as Mike, has transformed himself from a 60-cents-an-hour day laborer to the head of a multimillion-dollar food company.

Navarro first came to West Michigan in the mid-1940s as a migrant worker, picking sugar beets, celery, onions and potatoes. In 1949, he left his native Mercedes, Texas, in hopes of making a better life for himself and his wife Isabel. After 10 years of low-paying, backbreaking labor, Navarro and his brother Daniel had saved enough money to open their own business: the 503 Bar (later to be known as the Alma Latina).

“We were the first so-called ‘Mexicans’ to own a bar in Grand Rapids,” Navarro said.

It was during the early days of the bar that his activist spirit began to show. His first ongoing project was to lobby local officials to hire Spanish-speaking employees to serve the growing Latino population.

“You have to remember, when we started, there were no (Spanish-speaking) teachers, no police, no firefighters. You got to go out there and raise hell,” he said.

His efforts paid off. After finishing her high school and college education,

Isabel was one of the first Mexican-American teachers hired by the Grand Rapids Public Schools.

While Isabel taught at HallElementary School, the brothers’ bar flourished. However, in the mid-1970s, entrepreneurial inspiration struck Navarro again. Noticing that there was no local tortilla manufacturer to serve the needs of the Hispanic community (and to respond to Americans’ growing taste for Mexican food), he decided to start his own factory. Within a few years, the factory was doing well enough that Isabel had to leave her teaching job to help her husband run the business.

Now, 30 years later, El Matador Tortilla Factory cranks out a bag of golden corn tortilla chips every few seconds, to the tune of several million dollars each year. At 77, Navarro is still at the factory nearly every day, overseeing operations, chatting with old friends and, of course, sampling a few chips.

In addition, Junior Achievement honored Eileen J. DeVries of Merrill Lynch investments and Doyle A. Hayes of Pyper Products Corp. JA also honored two business leaders posthumously: H. Monroe Taliaferro, whose leadership at American Seating Co. brought the firm to the pinnacle of the public seating business, and William F. Beebe, who led Holland Group companies to a leadership position supplying the heavy truck industry.

The diversity of this year’s winners is striking, with a range of business disciplines, generations and ethnicities represented.

“It’s probably one of the few times — if not the only — when a broad cross-section of Grand Rapids and West Michigan business leaders have been recognized,” said Jay D. Ediger, vice president of development for Junior Achievement of The Michigan Great Lakes.

While the ages, industries and personal backgrounds of this year’s winners show wide variation, they bear a common thread.

“All of them share this: that they have made significant contributions to West Michigan’s economic health. Their businesses are part and parcel of our success as a region,” said Ediger.

Recognizing the success of the area’s most influential business people is worthwhile, but for Ediger that honor comes second to the example those leaders set for the youth his group serves.

“We hold (the Hall of Fame laureates) up as models — standards for which our students can seek to achieve. We give kids a picture of what the world outside the classroom is like,” he said. “You honor those individuals who are at the top of their game. You hold them up and say, ‘This is a group of folks who are very successful at what they’re involved in.’ It works with the mission of Junior Achievement.”

According to the organization’s Web site, that mission is “to educate and inspire young people to value free enterprise, business, and economics to improve the quality of their lives.” The local chapter hopes that these awards will inspire the children of West Michigan to better their lives.

The Navarros came as migrant workers and fulfilled the American Dream,” Ediger said. “One day, one of the high school students or kindergartners we’re working with might become a Mike or Isabel Navarro.”

Navarro considers it a great honor that he and his wife were inducted into the hall of fame.

“It’s very big. I feel very big. (The past winners) are big guys. To be chosen — a little one like me and my family — it’s very big. I feel very big.”

As for being the first Latinos inducted, Navarro is proud but humble.

“There have been a lot of firsts for us living in Grand Rapids,” he said.

This year’s slate of laureates brings the membership in the West Michigan Business Hall of Fame to 70. Nominations for the awards are taken on an ongoing basis. Contact Junior Achievement of The Michigan Great Lakes at (616) 575-9080 for a nomination form.    

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