Respect, honesty are lodestars for Plastec's Hector Sosa

Excerpt from Plastics Machinery Magazine article, January 2022. 

Written by Bruce Geiselman

Plastec USA Inc. cofounder Hector Vicente Sosa’s life turned upside down in 1961 when, at age 18, he went from being a promising engineering student at the University of Havana to a struggling dishwasher at a Union City, N.J., coffee shop.

Sosa fled Cuba following the Communist Revolution and the unsuccessful Bay of Pigs invasion in fear for his life. He arrived in the U.S. alone and with only a rudimentary knowledge of English, but he practiced the language by reading and re-reading a borrowed paperback copy of “The Gladiators,” a novel about Spartacus, a gladiator who led a slave rebellion against the Roman Republic. He also read out loud the names and words on street signs as he walked to and from work.

On his first day on the job, his boss outfitted him with a stained uniform that reeked of body odor, handed him a broom, and told him to sweep the sidewalk. As he swept, well-dressed young men and their girlfriends and wives walked past him, and he remembered how he felt when he was 12 years old and watched 150 poor laborers working on his wealthy grandfather’s tobacco farm in Cuba. At the time, Sosa felt superior to them. Now, the tables were turned.

“I learned my lesson, and it was a fantastic lesson for life,” Sosa said. “I asked myself, I wonder how many great minds have been lost because people didn’t have the opportunity to go to school or maybe their parents didn’t induce them to go to school. And here I was thinking that I was such a great guy. I learned my lesson.”

For the rest of his life, Sosa has respected the janitor of a corporation as much as the president “because we are all human beings and created equal,” he said.

In 1962, one year after arriving in the U.S., Sosa got his parents and sister out of Cuba.

Sosa cofounded Plastec in 1985 and, more recently, the affiliated company Globeius Inc. They are distributors for more than two dozen manufacturers of plastics, industrial and agricultural equipment. Plastec concentrates on Latin America, while Globeius focuses on the U.S. and Canada.

Sosa’s son Ernesto is now president of the company, and his other son, David, is GM. Two of his grandchildren and Ernesto's wife also work for the company.

Sosa recently spoke with Plastics Machinery & Manufacturing Senior Staff Reporter Bruce Geiselman about what brought him to the U.S. and the challenges of operating his own family-run multinational equipment distributorship.

Tell me about your early years. Why did you come to the U.S.?

Sosa: I was born in Havana, Cuba, in 1941, and I was very happy there. My father was a doctor. I had things rather easy, and everything went well until Fidel Castro took over and began to destroy the nation and established a communist state.

We had supported Castro when he was in the mountains fighting the dictator at the time. Unfortunately, when he took over, it was for us, my father and me, a sad situation. We had thought of Castro as a Robin Hood. Instead, it turned out that he took everything over, destroying all opportunity to prosper and live in freedom.

In any case, I was already in college when the [April 17, 1961] Bay of Pigs invasion took place organized by the U.S. Sadly, even though I was in the underground, we were not aware exactly when the invasion was to take place. We were all caught by surprise when the government announced over the radio that we were being invaded.

On the third day, while the invaders were still fighting, my father and I were notified that the police were looking for us at the beach that we frequented every summer. They found a document that they thought proved that we were counterrevolutionaries. Both of us ended up in jail.

Thank God, we had a relative who had been in the Communist Party for years. He had the power to get my father and me out, but I had to leave immediately. I knew that the next time I was caught, they would execute me.


I left for Jamaica because my father was a friend of the Jamaican consul, so he was able to secure a visa and a seat on a plane for me. I spent a month and a half in Jamaica until I received residency for the U.S. When I arrived in Miami on July 24, I told them at the refugee center that I wanted to join the second invasion, but I was told there was no talk about a second invasion or even a training camp.

They offered me $68 a month and a couple of bags of food every two weeks, and I said, “I didn’t come here for that.” In Miami at the time, there were no real job opportunities.

I got a one-way ticket to New York, where I had a friend. I arrived there July 27, to a one-bedroom flat in Brooklyn, where five of us lived; and the following morning, they took me to a coffee shop where I started the first job in my life. I was washing dishes and cleaning toilets.

How did you end up in the plastics industry?

Sosa: Within four weeks, I was able through acquaintances to get a job at Phelps Dodge in Yonkers N.Y. operating a single-screw extruder producing insulation for wires and cables. I worked there through 1965.

In 1965, already married and with my first boy, Ernie, who is now the president of the company, I went back to college. I borrowed money wherever it was available — from the state of New York and a loan for exiled Cubans. I attended college full-time.

Luckily for me, and I say “luckily,” but I always say you have to have your eyes open and be ready for opportunities, I saw three well-dressed men go through one of the hallways at Manhattan College. I found out they were from IBM, and they were looking for students for a pilot program to upgrade huge computer systems.

I was almost like the uncle of the other students. They were 17, and I was already married and had a boy. I managed to get three other guys interested. We applied, and IBM hired us and offered us training. At the time, minimum wage, I believe, was $1.25, but we were paid $7.50 an hour. They understood we were in college, so we could work any time, any day. We picked our days and hours. I worked one day a week in the afternoon and then on Saturday. They were sending me all over the place to see customers that had problems. I did very well, and I worked there for three years.

I graduated in 1969 with honors, and I already had lined up a job with Stauffer Chemical in Tarpon Springs, Fla., where I became a plant engineer. They gave me a department to run that was not producing enough of a material that was needed for use in an electric furnace. The estimated cost of additional equipment to increase production was $6 million to $7 million, but I was able to double the production by shuffling the existing equipment at the cost of about $250,000. That has been my thing. Whenever I went to another job, I was always able to increase efficiency.

While at Stauffer Chemical, a job hunter contacted me. They were looking for somebody with plastics knowledge and practical experience. I took a job at Olin [Corp.] in their PVC plant in Miami. There, again, I was able to improve the efficiency of the plant. I was promoted from plant engineer to production manager, and eventually I took the position for a short time as the manager.

Then, Pepsi-Cola in Miami called me, and I was hired as an operations manager. This plant was one of the largest of the General Cinema franchise. The plant was 22 in efficiency out of 22 plants. In six months, I had it running as the second in efficiency.

I was bored of doing the same thing, so I answered a newspaper ad for a [service] technician, and I took a job with Cincinnati Milacron. That was in 1976, and in 1977, I was promoted to sales manager for injection molding machines in Latin America.

In 1985, together with Walter Sula, who was an extrusion salesman, we presented to Milacron that we wanted to become their distributor in Latin America. That’s when we founded Plastec USA. We also set up a second little company to buy and sell used injection molding machines and extruders in 1985. We brought Milacron sales from an average of about $4 million or $5 million a year to Latin America to about $10 to $12 million.

How did your family get involved in the business?

Sosa: Eventually, I offered a job to my son Ernie, who was then a regional sales manager for Ford Motor Co.’s Lincoln Mercury division. I said, “I need someone here to run the business while I do the sales.” I made an offer in writing to him, which he accepted.

A year later, my youngest son, David, graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering like me and joined my sales force.

As we grew, I had to hire more people. One thing I always say, I like to surround myself with tigers. I want to hire people that I consider within some years will be competing with me. I say to them, it’ll take you a good six to eight years to get to that point. But in those six to eight years, I’m going to be even better, so I’m not afraid. I would like for you to go ahead and start your own business if you can. If you want. I am proud that several have.

Everyone has a responsibility, and everyone has to do a good job. There is no favoritism, not with family or anyone else. That’s very important.

How did your experiences in Cuba influence your business decisions?

Sosa: My father was a doctor, but he never acted as if he was somebody superior. He considered himself like anybody else. Sometimes, if a patient was poor and he could tell that he couldn’t make a payment, he would say, don’t worry about it. He would even supply medication free of charge. He was always a very honest and giving man.

I had two other very important persons in my life — my two grandfathers. My grandfather on my mother’s side was a humble cigar maker. He worked hard and had a family of 15 children. He worked 16 to 18 hours a day. He owned his own home, and his family was very honest and down-to-earth.

On my father’s side, my grandfather had been an immigrant from the Canary Islands. He arrived in Cuba by himself with nothing but the cloth he was wearing, leaving his wife and children back at home in the Canary Islands. By the time I was born, he had a thorough knowledge of farming. He had already bought a farm where he grew every year one and a half million tobacco plants. He was a millionaire for his time. This was in the 1940s and ’50s.

I relate a lot to those two men. One was a poor person but a hard worker, and the other was a hard worker and farmer with great foresight who made it big. They had one important commonality: They were both very honest.

Why did you become an independent distributor?

Sosa: I realized, among other things, that there were a lot of other things that could be sold and needed to be sold in Latin America to complete the whole circle.

In 1985, there was a plastics show in Chicago. I already thought that we could do a lot better if we were on our own. Then we could sell for Cincinnati Milacron and for other companies like mold makers, auxiliary equipment manufacturers, and all of that.

At dinner the night before the plastics show, I approached Ray Ross, who at the time was the big chief in Cincinnati Milacron’s plastics division, and I said, “Ray, I would like to talk to you about the possibility of becoming your distributor in Latin America instead of a sales manager. I can sell for you, but I can also add more sales for ourselves, and it would cost you a lot less.” The next day, he said, “I like the idea.”

What is your greatest career accomplishment?

Sosa: I secured an order for more than $11 million, which I worked on for a good 10 years, and I have estimated my personal volume of sales with Plastec to be over $300 million. But my greatest career accomplishment I would have to say was creating a business that has put food on the table for many families, including my own.

What is your personal philosophy?

Sosa: “God is my copilot.” I owe everything to him, my parents, my grandparents and my wife for her support.

What is your business philosophy?

Sosa: First, honesty and knowledge are your best advertising. Second, our success depends on the success of our customers. Third, always quote all that will allow the customer to be most efficient and profitable. Don’t quote less just to compete with your competitor.

Fourth, the first order depends on the salesman. The following orders depend on the service department. And fifth, when running a business, you need to be like a chameleon. Be alert to changes and adjust quickly to new conditions.

Just the facts:

WHO IS HE: Hector Vicente Sosa

AGE: 80

TITLE: Chairman of Plastec USA Inc. and Globeius Inc.

LOCATION: Miami

EMPLOYEES: 21 in Florida; 25 in Mexico City

 

 

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