LAURA BALVERDE-SANCHEZ had been working her way up the corporate ladder at Foremost Foods for about a year and half when she learned that she had a tumor. The discovery instantly forced her to take a hard look at her life, and she realized there were other things she'd rather be doing than mediating employee disputes with the company. The growth turned out to be noncancerous, but by the time she got the good news, she had already decided to quit her job. Not long after, she opened her first business, an antiques store on Larchmont Boulevard in Hancock Park. She's never looked back.
Six years later, Balverde-Sanchez is president and co-owner of New El Rey Sausage Co., a reorganized version of a bankrupt Los Angeles company she and her husband, Joe Sanchez, bought with two partners in 1983.
She is also part of a trend: She's one of the rapidly growing group of women in Los Angeles and the country leaving the corporate world for the rewards of running their own businesses. It's taken back-breaking effort and a single-minded determination, but in the past five years, Balverde-Sanchez has turned her company around with dramatic results. New El Rey, which makes chorizo , a spicy Mexican sausage, as well as chicharrones (fried pork rinds), salsa and cheese, today has 51 employees, a newly renovated 60,000-square-foot plant in Vernon and annual revenues of $4.5 million.
"Not everyone is made to go into business for themselves. It's cutthroat, and I don't advocate it for everyone because you will get divorced and you will lose your sanity," says the still-married Balverde-Sanchez, only half-joking. "But you have a sense of accomplishment . . . and a feeling of seeing your ideas and your work completed."
It's unusual to find a woman executive in the food industry, and finding one in the meat industry is practically unheard of. But this is not the first time that Balverde-Sanchez has been a pioneer in her career. As she dons a paper hair cap and white lab coat to escort a visitor through the company's factory, Balverde-Sanchez also remembers frequently being told: "I didn't know Hispanics could be schoolteachers," during her 10 years with the Los Angeles Unified School District. Similarly, when she took over New El Rey's day-to-day operations in 1983, her peers in the meat industry said: "What does a woman know about meat?"
"I felt I couldn't blame them," she says. "I'd just have to wait my turn, and I'm very good at waiting."
Balverde-Sanchez, a native of Los Angeles, walks past huge vats of ground meat and racks of drying pork chorizo , acting like a proud parent as she points out the company's new lab (for fat-testing and sanitation), accounting office, loading dock, mixing room, and stuffing and drying areas.
"Five years has gone by like this, " she says, snapping her fingers. "When people ask how I turned it around, I say, 'I never knew that's what I was doing--I was just doing it.' "
She was able to rescue the business, she explains, through patience, perseverance and a high energy level that made it possible for her to work 80-hour weeks when necessary. "I've always been a workaholic," she says. "A business will kill you, so you have to find what works for you. You can't cry over spilled milk. You just have to move forward."
That's a lesson Balverde-Sanchez, who refers to herself as a "butterfly in combat boots," learned the hard way. She and her husband, a well-known grocer in the Latino community, originally bought the company as an investment. But for the first six months, all it did was lose money. When her husband suggested that she take over daily operations, Balverde-Sanchez quickly brought in cost accountants to help her with the books; she admits that she knew little about balance sheets. And within six weeks, she set about fixing other problems. She enhanced the chorizo recipes, designed new packaging, changed the company's logo and began doing in-store food demonstrations. Because of the previous owners' debts, the company couldn't obtain credit for the first two years (her husband put up the necessary money).
After three food brokers refused to accept her product, Balverde-Sanchez realized the success of the company would depend directly on her own sales expertise. "The tough part was convincing buyers that it (the chorizo ) would generate sales for them," she says. But, somewhat naively she admits now, she kept going back and pushing the brokers. "I figured if they said 'no,' they meant 'maybe.' "
Her persistence paid off when Certified Grocers of California, a retailer-owned wholesale distributor with about 2,300 stores finally agreed to distribute the brand in 1984. Today, Balverde-Sanchez's company's products are sold in 15 states and carried by almost every major market chain in Southern California, as well as a number of restaurants.