Contractor Nato Flores ’79 Finds His Place in the World
The Columbia Memorial Space Science Learning Center in Downey will undoubtedly be a place of remembrance for thousands of future visitors. But for Nato Flores, this particular development is also part of his personal history.
It is being built on the same piece of land where Flores attended high school at Rockwell International. The son of a migrant worker, Flores is now founder and president of the multimillion dollar company developing the space center. Occasionally, he hops in his two-seat airplane to fly to a business meeting in San Diego. The plane is a luxury item, but it’s also a symbol of just how far Flores has come.
A 1979 mechanical engineering graduate from Cal Poly Pomona, Flores created Tower General Contractors in 1985 with fellow alumnus Bob Freeman. What started as a small two-man operation has grown into a company with 30 employees and close to $50 million in projects currently under contract.
With Tower’s largest current project underway, Flores has seen his career come full circle. He recalls flourishing in the “pseudo-engineering” program at Rockwell but did not really consider attending college — until he received a scholarship.
A counselor urged him to consider pursuing a degree, and he signed up for the SAT.
“With nearly everything paid for, I would have been crazy to not consider it,” says Flores, who chose Cal Poly Pomona in part because it was close to his home in Hawaiian Gardens.
He arrived on campus unsure of what he would study but considered architecture at one point. After taking extra math classes, he ended up studying and excelling in engineering.
“The professors made the classes so interesting,” he says. “It wasn’t just theoretical book work. We also got to see and discuss what was happening in the real world and how what we were studying applied to that.”
His real-world experiences as a child included accompanying his father to construction jobs. He envisioned himself following in his father's footsteps and working in the construction industry one day, hoping to start his own business. “I always liked building things,” he says. “I like to see the process and how a building develops.”
Four years later, he became the first person in his family to go to college. Once he received his mechanical engineering degree, Flores worked for several engineering firms and took on projects in Saudi Arabia, which often kept him away for months at a time. Newly married, Flores quit and took a financial risk in starting Tower General with Freeman (who is no longer with the company). Tower’s first job was designing a project in old-town Pasadena.
“We designed the project,” Flores says. “And they asked if we wanted to build it. Since we were just starting out, we wanted every project we could get.”
Over the years, Tower General has emerged as a leader in highly technical and large projects. In addition to the Columbia Memorial Space Science Learning Center — an 18,000-square-foot facility intended to honor the astronauts of the Columbia Space Shuttle — Tower General is also in the midst of moving a Huntsman Advanced Materials plant from Michigan to Southern California.
“That’s probably one of the most technical and challenging jobs we’ve ever done,” Flores says. “It’s not just about building a new facility here in Southern California, it’s about moving their plant and their very large machines here.”
When he recalls how his company grew, Flores concedes his lack of financial expertise.
“I’m an engineer,” he says. “Or at least, that’s what I started as. Early on, I didn’t focus on the financial aspects of the company but on getting the job done. I learned that in order to grow the company, we had to find ways to be more profitable.”
He eventually took accounting classes and looked for ways to expand the company’s cash flow, allowing Tower General to pursue large projects, such as the space center. As with many things in his life, Flores has indeed come full circle.
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