Tapping into Tapia
Newly appointed United States Ambassador to Jamaica Donald Tapia has achieved his American Dream.
Now 82, he has done it all – from sleeping on the couch in his mother’s one-bedroom, to selling newspapers or doing odd jobs and running a successful electronics business – Electrical Surplus Sales Company (ESSCO) – the largest Hispanic-owned business in Arizona, for more than 30 years. Tapia’s company is now being run by his sons.
He sat with Outlook for his first interview since assuming duties here.
Introductions include a bonding session with Ambassador Tapia’s best buddies and constant companions ... his three beloved dogs: Higgie, Maya, and Wackette that have travelled to Jamaica with him.
Ambassador Tapia is proud to tell his life story and does not omit the fact that he grew up very poor in a depressed area of Detroit, Michigan, with his mother and sister after his father abandoned the family.
When she became ill and could not keep both children, he was sent to live in Terre Haute, Indiana, with an uncle who built him a bedroom in the basement. While his friends saw it as a literal “step down”, young Tapia was elated to have his own room for the first time in life.
“When I was growing up, my sister and I shared a small room with a Murphy bed and I slept on a couch, so when I got my own bed, I thought what more could you want,” he says as he recalls going out the window for all-night fun and returning before dawn, with his uncle being none the wiser.
“I graduated high school, with two choices – either go back to Detroit or remain. I did not want to return to Detroit so I joined the air force doing stints in Korea, Japan, and the Philippines, but I had no combat duty. At the end of my four years, I went to work as an air traffic controller,” Tapia said.
But like many of the shrewd, self-made businessmen of his time, Tapia did not go to college.
“I was building a successful company and all my staff members had a degree. Additionally, I always preached the importance of an education to my grandchildren and that no matter what level of education they wanted, I would pay for it,” he said.
When his oldest granddaughter called with news that she’d enrolled in San Diego State University, he reflected on his promise to guarantee their degrees were paid for, while not having his own. That led him to an online search for something he wanted to do and then enrolled in St Leo University in Tampa, Florida, but he had it in mind to beat his granddaughter to completing it.
“I got my undergraduate degree at age 63. Neither my children nor business partners knew I was going to school; I used to leave the office at 3 p.m., daily, to go home and study. After three and a half years, I got my degree. I had the option to have it mailed, but I said I worked hard for it, so I would go and walk for it. I was the oldest person on stage that day, and I beat my granddaughter by three months,” Ambassador Tapia said in proud reflection and feeling happy to have beaten his granddaughter.
Graduation led to a meeting with the university’s president and shortly thereafter, he was placed on the board of trustees, followed by the elevation to chairman. The master’s degree also followed.
But how did he achieve such phenomenal success without formal business training? Ambassador Tapia says that he read extensively about accounts, spread sheets, and so on, but admits: “I don’t think you actually know in the beginning that you have the ability to grow a company successfully. People can own (a company) and work and make a living, but that does not mean you have the faculties and ambition to grow the company. There is a difference in knowing when, and basically I knew that after we were successful in the first wholesale warehouse, we would do a second and third and so on. It became a case where, if you want to get ahead, you have to keep growing,” Ambassador Tapia said. His competitors were the national firms like General Electric and Westinghouse, and the only way to be competitive was to become larger.
“I got started in business without a college degree, by going to the library and going through old spread sheets and accounting books for about 14 months; today there are computers. No matter what life is about, it’s all in a book, so when I looked at where I wanted to go, I knew I had to know accounting to succeed in business. Back then, we did not have cell phones, so I had to sit in the library for hours to read these boring books on the principles of accounting,” he said.
He got good at it, learning debit, credit, understanding financial statements and how to read a balance sheet. So when one of his branches got into trouble, armed with the knowledge, he could fix it.
Love for dogs
Growing up poor, Tapia never got pets, his first dog came when he had children and this was one way of teaching them how to be responsible; he has never been without animals since. He later got two cats after seeing a television programme about cats that were to be euthanised. That led to an association with the Arizona Animal Welfare League (AAWL) where he joined the board, serving for 12 years and continued to be a major contributor.
Dogs have taught him how unconditionally loving they can be and Ambassador Tapia, lets out a hearty chuckle when he says they, unlike wives, tails wagging, are usually very happy to see you come through the door. Cats, the avid animal lover believes, are both dependent and independent, and if raised properly, both dogs and cats can get along.
An unapologetic philanthropist, Ambassador Tapia who is divorced, has also been a decades-long supporter of the Foundation for Blind Children, the Childhood Language Centre, his alma mater St Leo University, as well as the St Leo Tekes and the Republican party.