There are those who live by a motto—something they use to inspire action or inform decisions. For Gabe Guerra, that phrase has always been: “positive influence.”
“I chose a personal license plate reading ‘+NFLUNC,’” says Guerra, the director of manufacturing operations for plastic manufacturer Pelican Products. “I have spent my entire life trying to impact people’s lives both professionally and personally.”
Guerra believes in the concept of influence because he, himself, was impacted by another’s influence.
As a youngster, Guerra was a skilled athlete who excelled in baseball, but didn’t earn good grades. “As a student, I never applied myself unless I was in P.E.,” he says, laughing. “I honestly feel like the bar was set too low for me. I didn’t think I was smart enough to be an engineer. As a Latino, there is a tendency to get very comfortable in the status quo.”
When it came time to think about college, Guerra was torn, especially after seeing the typical struggles of a hard-working father trying to provide for his family. He decided it was best for him to work and provide financial assistance for his family rather than continue on the path of education. “I think that is a mistake, and it’s a mistake I wouldn’t make with my own children,” he says.
After one semester in college, Guerra returned home to work odd jobs in everything from refrigeration to mechanics. At twenty-one years old, he began to work as an injection molding operator, moving up the ranks in a completely Hispanic workforce.
“They said I had potential,” he recalls.
When conversations would turn to furthering his education, Guerra admits that he would often try to put the idea off, thinking that the amount of time away from his then-growing family wasn’t enough to entice him. Yet, after nearly ten years of working full-time, a positive influence came into his life, inspiring his mission to do the same for others. The owner of the injection-molding business, Brad Rehrig, encouraged him to go back to school, and offered to pay for everything, including a full-time salary.
“That’s when my life changed for the better,” he recalls. “I felt like my life was in a free fall for a while until I landed back in school.”
From there, his professional life took off, landing him in a variety of engineering positions across the country, from Georgia to California. Today, he oversees three hundred employees at Pelican Products, a company that designs and creates technically advanced flashlights and high-impact watertight cases sold in the United States through specialty retailers, such as Grainger and REI.
By far, the most rewarding part of Guerra’s job is the chance to not only influence his employees but also to ensure that they know he is open to each and every one of their ideas.
“When someone comes into my office, I push my keyboard away and take the mouse out of my hand and push my chair back. I’m then open to listen wholeheartedly and completely.”
“Many people talk about having an open-door policy, but if you are not listening, you are not being fair to anyone in attendance,” he says. “When someone comes into my office, I push my keyboard away and take the mouse out of my hand and push my chair back. I’m then open to listen wholeheartedly and completely.”
He is also committed to telling his success story, especially to those in the Pelican Products workforce who show promise to move forward professionally.
“I always try to tell them my story and how you can have an ambitious path no matter what people are saying around you,” he says. “But I can’t make them do anything. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. They have to take that first step. They have to take the initiative.”
Guerra’s influence has most recently been focused on professional challenges that lie ahead, including the rising costs of labor in California. As labor costs continue to soar, the manufacturing industry must remain diligent in finding the most efficient methods to operate their businesses. One very logical step to consider is automation. Although automation costs are high, the benefits of an automated system typically far outweigh the cost.
As automation becomes more prevalent in the manufacturing industry, many view it as a threat—a means to cut personnel.
“If manufacturing businesses are to survive in this highly competitive market, I strongly believe automation is the answer,” Guerra says. “And if this statement is true, then it should follow that automation saves jobs by maintaining manufacturers’ competitive edge and securing business long-term rather than focusing on how automation cuts jobs.”
A strong position to take, it’s a position that Guerra stands behind, and is evidence of Guerra’s open, authentic leadership style, and the realistic-yet-positive approach he uses to inspire his team.
Regardless of what it brings, the future no longer scares Guerra. Instead, he looks to the future as yet another opportunity to influence the generations of Hispanic executives to come.
Playing—and Paying—it Forward
There is another area of Gabe Guerra’s life that holds a special place in his heart, and that allows him to further spread his positive influence.
“My passion for softball is something I can’t really put into words,” says Guerra, who has coached highly skilled players in the youth travel-softball community for the past twenty-five years and has mentored, guided, and assisted more than two hundred student athletes in securing athletic and academic scholarships.
“As much as I love my job, if Pelican Products didn’t pay me, I’m not sure I would come to work. But with softball, I don’t get paid a penny, yet I look forward to coaching every weekend. My payment comes in the form of gratification received from the impact I make on student athletes and their families who normally don’t have the knowledge nor the means to pursue a path of higher education.”