From earthquake kits to big business: George Rivera, CEO, Total Resources International shares his story of faith and success

From earthquake kits to big business: George Rivera, CEO, Total Resources International shares his story of faith and success

During lunchtime on a Wednesday, more than two dozen employees of first aid company Total Resources International (TRI) are gathered inside a fellowship hall in Walnut, California. Sitting behind transparent acoustic panels, George Rivera, the company’s CEO, strikes his drum sticks against the instrument in front of him while singing along to worship songs in English and Spanish.

“God is good,” Rivera says after the worship segment of the fellowship. “It’s up to us to recognize God’s goodness.” He also welcomes first-time guests and tells them that the fellowship hall is the most important building in the seven-acre facility his company stands on.

It was July 1991 when then 40-year-old Rivera established Total Resources International, and as his business enters its 25th year of operation, he takes no credit for his continued success. “You see, the thing is, it’s not me. And I would never tell you that and you to write that it was me, that I made this big. I made myself available for God to use and he is the one that’s making it big,” he told the Asian Journal.

Sitting on a black chair inside a TRI conference room with an assortment of first aid kits displayed across the walls, Rivera makes it clear that everything in his life ties back to his relationship with God. On a gold chain around his neck hangs a cross encrusted with jewels that twinkle against the light.

“You know,” he says, “this company is a church. We just happen to make the best first aid kits in the country.”

From earthquake kits to first aid

Before incorporating TRI, Rivera and his wife, Merlyn, initially sold a product called Ed-U-Case, an educational briefcase she designed for earthquake emergencies. In 1989, Merlyn told the Los Angeles Times that the product was created after the couple purchased a plain plastic briefcase from West Germany as a gift for their children. She decided that if it were decorated with alphabet letters, safety tips or animals, it could both serve as a case to carry items and be educational.

Rivera pitched Ed-U-Case to supermarket chains and was rejected 12 times by stores including Food 4 Less. But he kept going and eventually struck a deal with former supermarket chain Alpha Beta.

Ed-U-Case sold well whenever earthquakes shook Southern California. But because sales were seasonal, TRI eventually transitioned into selling first aid kits. Before making that move, Rivera purchased kits from a number of drug and grocery stores to examine their contents and discovered they were basically band-aid kits that lacked wipes, ointments, scissors and other essentials.

When he decided to compete in the industry, first aid kits were dominated by Johnson & Johnson and were characterized by white boxes with a red cross. Despite this, Rivera was confident he could succeed.

In 1994, TRI secured a test run year with Sam’s Club, a membership-only warehouse club chain, to see if it could outsell Johnson & Johnson, the chain’s exclusive first aid kit provider. The company outsold its competitor by more than three times and became Sam’s Club’s new exclusive provider with a contract for an initial order of $5 million.

But some time after receiving that order, Rivera underwent an episode of anxiety. A month before he established TRI, he was going through bankruptcy and lost everything. He wondered if securing the contract with Sam’s Club would lead him to a similar loss.

“I was sweating, I was nervous, my heart was pumping, I didn’t know what was going on. That’s when I prayed, ‘Lord, please, tell me what’s going on. Reveal to me what this is all about. Are you making me see these millions again so I can experience what I experienced when I lost [everything]?’ I said, ‘I don’t want that.’ That’s the worst thing that ever happened in my life,’” he said.

After praying, Rivera took a 45-minute nap, and then began to write out his vision for TRI:

“To be the most dependable and excitingly innovative manufacturer of first aid kits and emergency survival preparedness products in all categories of home, office, school, auto, sporting goods, outdoors, marine and farm for the purpose of spreading the good news, supporting ministries and missionaries of all nations in their calling and election to care for orphans, help the poor, feed the hungry, shelter the homeless and encourage, comfort and urge everyone to live lives worthy of God.”

That phrase was never edited and is now TRI’s mission statement.

“That statement is what we live by now,” Rivera said.

To this day, TRI remains the exclusive first aid kit provider to Sam’s Club. In June, the company is set to host its 25th anniversary celebration where 500 to 600 guests – including vendors, partners, sales representatives, and current and former employees, along with their plus-ones – will be invited to attend.

The company is also planning to direct additional efforts toward advanced and active wound care kits, given that China is now entering the first aid kit market. TRI products can also be found at Walmart and may be sold at Target in the future.

The company today employs about 100 workers, including his four children (one son and three daughters): Gregg Rivera, 37, is the company’s president; Gina Rivera, 44, is director of new products; Dawn Rivera, 46, is director of special projects; and Geolyn Gonzalez, 39, is the marketing director.

“I’m not going to paint [working with family] like it’s pretty and roses,” Gonzalez said. “It’s not. It’s really hard and it is challenging because it is family. But at the same time we’re all committed to the same vision and we see my dad’s vision. We – us siblings –  all have our own individual personalities and we might all have our own passions, too. But I believe we’re all here for a reason and we’re here to learn the business because anything that any of us wants to do, this is the perfect place to learn all aspects of the business.”

Dawn, who has worked alongside Rivera since she was 13 years old, credits her knowledge to her dad. “Everything I know is from the University of George. I never went to college,” she said, adding that she has worked in all of the departments to get an entire understanding of the company’s operations.

Her siblings claim that she could run the company all on her own, but she says she needs them.

“We’re all good at our own different things, but collectively, it would take all four of us to run TRI if anything happens to my dad,” she said.

Overcoming birthing and growing pains

Some years ago, TRI’s banker asked Rivera how he predicted the business would do in the future, after noticing how it was growing. It’s a question Rivera didn’t have the answer to.

“I told him, ‘I don’t know. I don’t want to put a limit to what my God can do’,” he said. Because of his deep faith and relationship with God, it wasn’t until recently that the company adopted a budget. “In the past, it was really never a priority for us because we just know it’s going to be good.”

But circumstances weren’t always good. Even after getting past the bankruptcy, Rivera endured a series of humbling experiences that led him to his current success. Rivera was about 18 years old when he arrived in the United States in 1969, at which time he pursued studies in accounting. Prior to establishing his company, he worked as a controller at International Industries where he managed people in their 40s and 50s. He also went into real estate, a field he discovered he enjoyed.

What Rivera’s real estate job entailed, particularly packaging loans, came in handy when overcoming what he has deemed the most significant birthing pain of TRI: he didn’t have any working capital, nor did he have the best credit. “We didn’t have any money. We didn’t have a bank. Nobody wanted to talk to us. In the meantime, we were already getting busy.”

Eventually he came across some clients seeking to obtain a $2 million line of credit. He helped them secure that loan and was set to receive a 10 percent cut of the amount. But because Rivera obtained the loan for his clients within a week, they didn’t think he worked too hard to get the job done and paid him $2,000 instead of the $200,000 he was due. In an act of desperation, Rivera kneeled in front of the client to request for the money.

“I got on my knees and begged this person to pay me. I never thought I could ever do that. God has really put me through many, many humbling experiences to get me to where I am right now because he knows the task at hand,” he said.

The clients went on to offer Rivera the key to their 700,000-square-foot warehouse and told him he could sell the merchandise in it to earn his money.

“In other words, I had to work for it again. Remember now, I didn’t have a choice. So I just took the key and went in there,” he said.

Inside, the warehouse was full of gift wrapping merchandise like paper and ribbon. The items, however, were submerged in water. “So what did we have to do? We had to take the water out, re-box every single one of the wrapping papers to get it ready to sell. Again, I didn’t have a choice. So I did that.”

Despite all the work involved, Rivera says he wasn’t feeling sorry for himself at the time; he was just focused on the work he had to do. But even after selling $20,000 worth of products and passing the checks along to his clients, they continually shortchanged him and gave him only $2,000.

Rivera said that shortly after he surrendered his life to the Lord, he came across an old friend named Steve who, it turned out, leased the building where Rivera’s delinquent clients stored their merchandise. Steve was also trying to collect money from the clients, and in the end, he transferred the lease of the property to Rivera, which became TRI’s new location.

“Our story here is just like that all the time. It’s not being mushy or anything like that, or being religious. We’re not religious at all. This is our way of life. It’s a relationship that we have with God,” Rivera said.

From its beginnings in a 700-square-foot borrowed warehouse, TRI ultimately became situated on a seven-acre facility. It is a church, Rivera says, that just so happens to sell the best first aid kits in the nation. Every morning, employees gather in the production building where one person will give a 20-minute devotion or prayer. And on Wednesdays, while employees aren’t required to attend fellowship, a good number of them choose to participate.

In addition to TRI, Rivera and his wife established a non-profit organization shortly after incorporating the company. In 1996, they started Vision Himpossible Ministries. The organization supports ministries and missionaries in nations across the globe that feed the hungry, provide shelter for the homeless, and care for orphans, among other things. It also supports pastoral schools and feeding centers in the Philippines.

And it serves as another testimony of how everything for Rivera truly always goes back to God.

“[This is] what drives us to be the best … [and] what we are right now,” he said.

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