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Arthur R. Velasquez, CEO and founder of Azteca Foods, spoke to the TMP Latin Management Association on November 18, 2004.

From the frying pan into the freezer

CEO tells how Azteca Foods helped turn tortilla into a household word

By Deborah Leigh Wood

11/1/2004 - Like its founder, Azteca Foods had humble beginnings on the southwest side of Chicago. The company was started in 1972 by Arthur R. Velasquez and several of his Mexican-American business associates using $80,000 in borrowed money.

Arthur R. Velasquez, Founder and CEO of Azteca Foods 11/18/04
Named for the Aztec Lions Club that Velasquez and his associates frequented in their inner-city neighborhood, Azteca Foods has grown from a struggling company selling tortillas to a successful enterprise selling tortillas and their fancy offspring — chips, salad shells and wraps (oversized tortillas). Before Azteca Foods came into existence, tortillas were made by local bakeries and sold in local grocery stores. You couldn’t buy them at the supermarket, said Velasquez in a talk Nov. 18 at Wieboldt Hall, home of the Kellogg School’s part-time MBA curriculum, The Manager’s Program (TMP). Sponsored by the Kellogg TMP Latin Management Association, Velasquez’s talk was the first of the school’s 2004-2005 Fireside Chat series.

Although they had never made a tortilla, Velasquez and his buddies knew the product would be popular— ethnic food was just starting to catch on with the public. To fulfill his dream of owning his own business, Velasquez bought out his partners and, as the firm’s chairman and CEO, poured his energies into Azteca Foods. With $40 million in annual sales, the company helped make “tortilla” a household word outside the Mexican-American community.

"Mr. Velasquez's example once again proves that the American Dream does in fact materialize," says Dmitriy Kuzin, a member of the Latin Management Association.

Velasquez credits a “strong family atmosphere” with helping him succeed. He grew up in an apartment across the street from the Jane Addams Hull House. In fact, that’s where he showered. Upon graduating from Notre Dame University in electrical engineering, he became the first in his family to earn a college degree. He went on to earn his MBA at the University of Chicago, then used his newly learned marketing skills to position Azteca as the first marketer of tortillas in the Midwest.

The modest tortilla now had a brand, a shelf life and some status. But until the concept caught on, Velasquez and his growing family had no health insurance, and his wife, Joanne, worked for one year without a salary. Six kids later, she’s still there … and she gets paid.

In 1984, Velasquez sold Azteca Foods to Pillsbury. Five years later he bought it back at three times for what he sold it. The company’s products are now in 30,000 supermarkets and 5,000 restaurants. And you can still find Azteca Foods on Chicago’s Southwest Side.