Juan Murillo said business was slow at American Wheel Specialist on a recent Wednesday.
But within the span of five minutes, two men in an old Army truck pulled up to the front door of the plant at 1010 East Bruneau Ave. in Kennewick looking for help on a wheel for the truck.
[blockquote quote="Juan knows everything about wheels all the way back to the pre-1960s." source="Faron Schultz, vice president of purchasing for Les Schwab Tires" align="right" max_width="300px"]
While Murillo assisted them, a man in a van came in looking to pick up some wheels. Right after him, a man driving a Les Schwab truck pulled in to pick up more wheels.
If this is a slow day, a busy day must be a blur.
Each person Murillo greeted received a warm smile and some friendly chitchat.
“People love him for his customer service and his reputation,” said his son, Shaun Murillo, who runs the day-to-day operations of a company that brings in a yearly revenue of about $1.2 million, according to Buzzfile.com.
The original equipment manufacturer makes specialty wheels and rims, and a full line of wheels for a variety of industrial, agricultural and forestry equipment. It also offers a range of finish options, including painted, powder-coated and spray-on chrome finishes.
Darik Noble, a regional sales manager for Commercial Tire, said he enjoys doing business with Murillo.
“For me, for what I do, their customer service is top notch,” he said. “Juan is always so happy. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Juan have a bad day. I think the world of him. If he ever needed anything, I’d be there to help him.”
Faron Schultz, vice president of purchasing for Les Schwab Tires, feels the same way.
“We’ve known each other a lot of years,” he said. “We do a reasonable amount of business with him. He’s a guy who can get it done. He’s honest and forthright.”
One other thing Schultz says about Juan Murillo: “His is a Horatio Alger story.”
It’s true. Murillo grew up in Mexico, but he had always wanted to live in the United States.
“My dad came here sometime in the early 1960s,” Juan Murillo said. “He said this was the best country in the world. So us kids always wanted to come here. We came to the United States for a better future.”
It wasn’t until 1980 that he made the move, wanting to see the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.
He eventually found his way to the Northwest.
“I wanted to get a sponsorship in Royal City and go to school, but I couldn’t,” he said. “I was going to get deported, so I started working in the fields.”
In 1985, he took a job working at Tyson Foods in Wallula.
In 1986, he became a U.S. citizen.
He also found a job that year at Interstate Wheels in Pasco, where he spent the next 16 years.
“I like wheels,” Juan Murillo said. “For me, it was something naturally that came to me. And I got better. What helped me with wheels was at Interstate they sent me out to the fields to work on various tires.”
He became an expert in the field.
“It’s real specialized, and not a very big industry,” Schultz said. “That’s because most new vehicles come with perfectly good wheels. But Juan knows everything about wheels all the way back to the pre-1960s. There are only four or five people in the world who are close to his expertise. We’re so lucky to have him in the Northwest.”
His son agreed.
“Dad knows a lot of the obsolete stuff that no one else knows,” he said.
In 2002, the owner of Interstate died suddenly. The company was sold and everyone was laid off.
“People came to me and asked me to start my own business,” Juan Murillo said. “We retained 90 percent of our customers (at Interstate) with a phone call.”
That was in 2002. Back then, it was Juan Murillo, his wife Diana, son Shaun, and two other employees operating in what he described as a building in Pasco that wasn’t much larger than a small shack.
Today, American Wheel Specialist has 13 employees.
The Kennewick building, where the company has been for the last six years, is undergoing an office expansion.
In one area are parts his employees made that need to be shipped to various parts of the country.
Two rooms house machines that cut and build specialty wheels, all the way up to an Implement 54 wheel for a tractor. Another room features a spray-coating machine for the wheels. In another room is a large kiln.
Larger manufacturers make wheels too, Juan Murillo said, “but theirs aren’t perfectly round. We do ours by hand, and they are perfectly round.”
Last November, American Wheel Specialist acquired a powder-coating business, Armor Performance Coating of Richland, and moved its assets to the Kennewick campus.
It’s given the Murillos another revenue source.
Shaun Murillo said the company recently produced 2,000 L brackets for the new Auto Zone facility in Pasco.
On a recent day, two employees were powder-coating metal pieces that, when assembled, would provide shade for Kennewick School District playgrounds.
“My guys are amazing with the job that they do,” said Shaun Murillo. “We’ve had some Harley Davidson jobs, with the two-section pieces (for 4-wheelers), and we’ve already done 10 Harley Davidsons this year. I can see this business (powder-coating) eventually surpassing wheels.”
Juan Murillo said his company needs more employees, and it’s looking for them.
Right now, he said 80 percent of his company’s business is in agriculture, such as fixing wheels on tractors and trucks.
But with a solid repeat customer base of tire companies, such as Les Schwab, Commercial Tire, Tire Factory and Discount Tires, the Murillos’ employees stay busy.
“Customers have been pretty pleased,” Juan Murillo said. “They come once, and then they come all of the time.”
“I’m a regional sales manager for six stores for Commercial Tire. I do a lot of business with Juan,” he said. “But our company has 50 locations, and I’ll bet you every one of them has done business with Juan. You are not going to find better people. They’re a joy to be around. And they build an excellent product.”
Juan Murillo is training another person to help his son so one day he can eventually leave the wheel business.
“I’m hoping by next year I can step away,” he said. “I’m also a preacher, and I have a little church at 411 East Sixth at the old Sonshine Auto Body in Kennewick. It’s just 15 people in my congregation, mostly family and friends. I would like to do this because some people need spiritual guidance.”
This is important to him because he needed some spiritual guidance in the 1980s.
“I was a lost soul here. I was going to commit suicide in 1986,” he said. “I was into drugs and alcohol. But then I found God.”
He said he had his suicide planned.
“My plan after drinking one night was to run my car into a telephone pole. I pulled out onto Glade Road in front of a police officer. I tried to escape,” he said.
The officer caught up to him.
“The turning point came when I didn’t have an ID, insurance, or papers on me,” he said. “The officer took pity on me and gave me a $175 fine. He could have sent me to Mexico. But he let me go home. I went to my mom, who lived in Pasco, and I told her then, ‘I’ve got to change.’”
He did, working to get his U.S. citizenship, finding a stable job, then building a successful business that provides for his loyal customers and employees, all the while making countless friends along the way and helping others in need.
“What God has done for me I can’t explain,” he said. “He gave me a wonderful wife, Diana, that I’ve been married to for 26 years. I have three great kids. I found the (American) dream because it was God who brought me here.”
American Wheel Specialist: 509-737-6079, amwheelspecialist.com.
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