Ruben Guerra said a high school dean told him, “You have only two paths… (Irfan Khan, Los Angeles…)
The gig: Ruben Guerra, 44, is the chairman and chief executive of the Latin Business Assn. He also founded and runs Municipal Energy Solutions Inc. of Los Angeles, which supplies LED light fixtures and equipment to corporations and cities in California and Mexico.
The light bulb goes off: Guerra has always had a knack for business. Starting when Guerra was 10, his stepfather would take him and his seven siblings to the fields in Bakersfield every day in the summer and on weekends during the school year to pick fruits and vegetables. "I remember we'd all go and sell watermelons and oranges in East L.A. It was great because I would sell the most and make the most money. That's when my entrepreneurship started."
Future dims, then brightens: Growing up in Lincoln Heights in the late 1970s and 1980s wasn't easy for Guerra. "There were so many gangs and they were always trying to recruit me." He bounced among five high schools before he dropped out his junior year. "The dean told me, 'Ruben, you have only two paths in this life. You're either going to end up dead or in jail.'"
Determined to avoid such a fate, he earned a GED and went to work for a packaging company. He recalled learning almost every aspect of the business before the founders closed shop. "I knew all the manufacturers and customers by then, so I started my own company when I was 21." At the time, he said, R.G. Packaging was the only Latino-owned packaging company in the industry. Guerra sold the company five years ago for an undisclosed amount and remains a partner in the business.
Glimmer of hope: In 2006, he started a residential construction company, but it failed during the recession. The economic blow caused him to "get creative." He attended a renewable energy expo and noticed a flyer about a lighting trade show in China.
"So I got on a plane and went to China. I learned all about LED lighting and said, 'This is what I'm gonna do.' I just jumped in to the lighting business and I knew nothing about it.... It's been a blessing that I've come this far."
Time to shine: Guerra was a member of the Latin Business Assn. for more than a decade before he took a leadership post. The association has three staff members and 3,600 paid members but says it represents 800,000 Latino-owned businesses in California. It, among other things, seeks to connect its members with opportunities for business growth in California and overseas. As chairman, Guerra travels frequently coordinating U.S. and international trade pacts.
The volunteer position is like having another full-time job, he said. "The work we do creates jobs and gives back to the community. The more they say 'thank you,' the more I want to keep doing it."
Family first: Guerra's home life in Rosemead with his wife, Lorena, 17-year-old daughter Karina and 14-year-old son Ruben Manuel is different from his jet-set work life, but both thrive from his mantra: Be there.
A recent work trip had him driving and flying all over the Mexican states of Sinaloa, Sonora and Baja California. "I got home at 4 a.m. and then woke up at 6:30 a.m. to take my daughter to the iHeartRadio concert in Vegas for her birthday," he said.
"In business, we do things that people don't understand," such as driving around Mexico solo to personally fill orders for clients, he said. "It's our survival. In business, there never is a 'no.' You do what you have to and be there for your customers."