Teresa Arredondo: Former chili picker worked her way up the aviation food chain

TERESA ARREDONDO: Survived an expensive lesson in hazardous materials. (Photo courtesy Teresa Arredondo).

TERESA ARREDONDO: Survived an expensive lesson in hazardous materials. (Photo courtesy Teresa Arredondo).

By RUSS HULET

When Teresa Arredondo tells you that every day is a new challenge, she isn’t just repeating a cliché from pop philosophy. She has faced a lifetime of challenges and persevered through all of them.

One of 10 children and fatherless at age 5, she quit school, came to the United States from Mexico and began working in the fields at age 15. “My first job was picking chilies,” she recalls, “and my second job was picking strawberries.”

After nine years in the fields, she decided to change her dead-end life of picking crops. She learned English in four months, and completed high school by earning her GED. She then studied electrical engineering and business at the Center for Employment Training in Santa Maria, California.

A newspaper advertisement led her into the aviation business. The ad was for an upholsterer at Aeroflair, an aircraft painting and refurbishing company at the Santa Maria Airport. She didn’t get the job, but she reapplied and got a job as a painter. “I ended up painting airplanes by accident,” she said.

A year later her boss offered to sell Arredondo the upholstery end of the business. She borrowed the money and took the offer. After repaying her loan, she bought the other half of the business, but by then Aeroflair was on the verge of bankruptcy.

“I had no idea what it would take to run a business like this,” she admits. Saddled with unmanageable debts, she was ultimately forced into bankruptcy.

Undeterred, she started over and revamped the business as Artcraft, but soon ran into problems with air-quality regulations. The Air Pollution Control District was concerned with the company’s painting practices. Many of the chemicals and acids used to strip and repaint aircraft were classified as hazardous materials.

“I didn’t have a clue about this kind of compliance,” she said. “The inspectors were coming three or four times a year and levying fines. Pretty soon I had fines of more than $60,000.”

Faced with those huge penalties, Arredondo turned for help to the very people who were threatening to put her out of business. She went to the regulators and asked them to explain the regulations and record keeping she needed to understand in order to be in compliance.

“They were a great help,” Arredondo said. “They assigned Fred White and John Barnett to my case, and they taught me how to be in compliance. They were great. I have a completely different attitude toward the government than I used to have.”

No longer threatened with the possibility of closure, she turned her attention to building her business, which she did by exceeding customer expectations — whether the work was for private pilots, corporate accounts or government contracts. “I haven’t had a single customer return a plane because they were not happy,” she said.

Artcraft now services about 100 planes a year, and Arredondo’s customers come to the Santa Maria Airport from all over the United States, as well as foreign countries such as Spain, Russia and Argentina.

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 had a serious impact on Artcraft, and the company has not yet completely recovered. “For three or four weeks there was no work at all, and it will probably take another four months to get back to where we were,” she said. She has had to reduce her work staff from 17 to nine because of the drop in business.

The work that particularly fascinates Arredondo is the restoration of World War II-era aircraft. “They’re more interesting to work on because it seems like you are reconstructing something that has a lot of memories for our customers,” she said.

Working from old photographs and other sources, her team faithfully replicates the colors, lettering and logos of P-51s, T-33s, T-28s and DC-3s. “You have to be very talented to do that kind of work, and I have the best employees,” Arredondo said. “When you have this great team, how can things go wrong?”

Arredondo admits that she doesn’t like to fly, but she loves aviation. “I like to see a plane become a piece of art,” she says. “Some of the planes that we get come in here looking ugly, and they go out looking brand new.”

A big believer in the educational training she received, she now sits on the advisory board of the Center for Employment Training. In fact, she has hired seven employees who attended CET.

Arredondo looks back on her struggles and views her future with the same resolve that has brought her success. “Aviation is a man’s world, and for me being a Mexican and a woman is twice as hard. You have to love what you do. My heart is in this business, and my heart is in aviation.

“I am a very persistent person,” she said. “I never give up. If you want to do something, the sky is the limit. Don’t let anybody stop you from doing what you think you should do.”

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