Matías García, the Salvadoran who challenged the elevator’s empire

Salvadoran Matías García, who arrived in Canada in 1989, co-founded IQ Elevators and Right Angle Metal Fabricators 14 years ago. IQ manufactures, designs, and installs elevator interiors, an ever-growing on-demand service in the GTA’s booming real-estate market. Today, both companies generate around $3 million dollars annually. García has now risen to prominence as a much-needed triumph symbol for Hispanic entrepreneurship in Canadá.

Matías García, who hails from El Salvador, is, together with his partner, Morgan Culford, the founder of IQ Elevators and Right Angle Metal Fabricators.

“ALL SAFE, GENTLEMEN, ALL SAFE,” were the enduring, life-changing words that Elisha Graves Otis triumphantly exclaimed to an exhilarated crowd of suited-up New Yorkers as he demonstrated his new invention, the safety elevator, which promised to transform mobility and development in myriad ways. It was 1854’s World’s Fair – also named the Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations – and its famed crowd of industry captains, innovators and fair share of non-believers – as in everything – that beared witness to Otis’s safe and secure landing. This victorious display brought vast and boundless possibilities, spurring the blossom of a modern form of construction and the birth of an era – the age of the skyscraper. Three years after the completion of a then-unlikely feat, on March 23rd, 1857, Otis Elevator Company performed the first-ever installation of a commercial elevator, at the premises of a department store located in 488 Broadway in what now comprises the trendy, fashionable SoHo district of Manhattan.

Manhattan. It is precisely this similitude to it, this parallel concrete jungle that emerges from Lake Ontario and beyond that has pioneered Toronto’s rise as an urban metropoli – and as one of the de facto capitals of the high-rise world. Skyscrapers abound on the horizon as we transit the dense, impenetrable traffic that pervades the Don Valley Parkway and connects into the MacDonald-Cartier Freeway – also known as the Ontario Highway 401. The steel-and-glass towers hover on the distance as we approximate Scarborough – one of many industrial zones of the GTA, and in many ways, responsible for keeping these structures running. “210 Milner Avenue,” prompts our driver, Jaspreet, a turban-wearing, grey-bearded Sikh who arrived in Canada in 1989. “We have arrived, gentlemen. Have a nice day.” The doors for the black Lexus open and close abruptly. Nothing more said. We are in here.

Amiably and warmly we are greeted upon arrival. Our host is Matías García, who hails from El Salvador, and who is, together with his partner, Morgan Culford, the founder of IQ Elevators and Right Angle Metal Fabricators. Established fourteen years ago, IQ manufactures, designs, and installs elevator interiors, an ever-growing on-demand service in the GTA’s booming real-estate market. Before entering, we set ourselves in the green gardens that surround the industrial complex that encompass the firm’s headquarters. Matías, who is proudly sporting a navy-blue long-sleeved polo with the IQ Elevators logo embroidered in it, kindly smiles and hands our students red cups with white letters that read Tim Hortons: Toujours frais wrapped in the typical frail wood-coloured recyclable cup-holders while they get settled. We contemplate the unfolding scenario amidst a mutual grin. Canada. It’s vastness. “The land of promise,” he says, overhearing the excitement of the kids for visiting Canada for the first time. The cohort groups around.

Initiated in Summer 2016, the Building Bridges Between Mexico and Canada initiative has brought generations of Mexican youth leaders to Toronto and Ottawa to learn about the city’s education ecosystem. Here, a delegation stands outside the IQ Elevators factory and main office.

“How did you get to Canada?,” asks the first student: Julieta, a student from Mexico who has never seen snow and dreams of being an architect. “I arrived here in the 17th of June, 1989”, he remembers, fondly. It was the Immigration Act of 1976, introduced by former PM Pierre Elliott Trudeau – father of current Prime Minister, Justin – that facilitated Matías’s entry into the Great White North, together with his brothers. “Three of them lived in Galveston,” referring to the Texan coastal city, “two of them were there illegally. So coming to Canada was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” He tenderly remembers the moment of landing in Toronto Pearson, safely. How many promises open up with the sliding, screeching wheels across the grey tarmac that indicate a secure landing? How many possibilities light upon an elevation on the deep-blue skies? “I was surprised that there were so many opportunities,” says Matías, who as a newcomer, started his Canadian adventure by enrolling in school, to learn English, of which he didn’t speak a word. It has been this passion and yearn for learning that jumpstarted his growth, and that gradually, played a key role in opening up doors for his professional and personal development.

MATÍAS GARCIA was not born in silver lining. He comes from a family of eighteen brothers. “Eighteen,” he remarks, not hesitating to reveal that he has always held big ambitions. “Since I was a kid I had the dream of doing something. I initially loved football (soccer) and music. I wanted to be a professional soccer player. I saw myself winning the Ballon d’Or. Being someone people knew,” he declares. The kids smile. Laughs spill. Surely they can relate. “I came from a home that had a lot of needs. I was taught to work since I was little, which instilled me with the desire of overcoming obstacles and pushing myself forward.” He embraced schooling opportunities that came his way to master new crafts and skills. He evokes the time when, in fourth grade of elementary school, a professor came to offer the chance to learn electronics. He took it, oblivious of how later, it could change his life.

It was October, 1989, and his New Canadian life had gotten to a slower start. The school that he had enrolled at went on strike, and he was running out of patience.

It was October, 1989, and his New Canadian life had gotten to a slower start. The school that he had enrolled at went on strike, and he was running out of patience. It was then that with the support of his brother, he netted a job as a janitor, with the task of cleaning the factory of an industrial manufacturer. That company was Northern Elevators, which was later bought by ThyssenKrupp and merged into ThyssenKrupp Northern. It was Steve Jobs who said “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future,” and for Matías, it was upon arrival at Northern that this point of interconnection emerged.

Recalling his grasp and comprehension of technical dexterity, he began to teach fellow employees how to wire. He applied his knack to speedily master other stages of the operation. Elevator Panels. Cabins. Walls. The Roof. Soon enough he was heading the Product Architecture Division as a Supervisor, being a direct liaison between the Senior Management Committee and the Operational Floor. His was by all means a story that exemplified the rise of the underdog, that story of the immigrant rising among unsurmountable obstacles – that same narrative that the world currently and desperately needs to hear. Nevertheless, the tale was just about to begin.

ROAMING THROUGH THE HALLWAYS OF THYSSENKRUPP NORTHERN, the then-President of the firm overheard a conversation where one of Matías’s direct employees, a man who hailed from the Phillippines and whom García considered a “reliable, hard-working, and honest employee, who would even override his lunch break if that meant being of service for a client,” allegedly was masterminding a plot to incorporate the Union into the corporation. Frustrated, and saddled with fear, the President and his management team asked Matías to fire him, to which he refused.

“Why was I supposed to fire him, when he was an outstanding and loyal worker who had devoted his life to this job, and did it well?” He has always been someone who embodies and exemplifies integrity. Regardless, in the moment, that incident damaged Matías’s relationship with the multinational’s upper management, which led him to consider the option of leaving.

Matías García arrived in Canada in 1989. It was the Immigration Act of 1976, introduced by former PM Pierre Elliott Trudeau that facilitated Matías’s entry into the country, together with his brothers.

With the feasibility of a departure and a sudden switch of gears, Matías started pondering the alternative of opening his own corporation. He began brainstorming ideas with Culford and working his way through all the necessary procedures to start, and, determined, registered the name IQ Elevators. It was then that ThyssenKrupp Northern, eager for a reason to take revenge on his decision not to fire his employee, resolved to fire him, under the argument that since he had already started his own company, he came into a direct conflict of interest, despite IQ Elevators had not formally begun operations.

If launching a venture is a daunting task, the breakup with ThyssenKrupp Northern severely tarnished IQ Elevators first year of operations. “The elevator industry is a monopoly,” says García, as he explains that on the first years of operations, him and his team would take on painting jobs and “basically any kind of assignments that provided an income and allowed us to keep the lights on. I went from having stability – a well-paying job, secure, to having nothing, and for the first five or six years, having to scramble to pay bills, debts, rent. I had no shortage of excuses for quitting.”

NEXT TO MATÍAS AS HE WALKS US THROUGH THE HISTORY OF HIS COMPANY we have his wife, Lincka, whom he credits with providing “a critical bastion of support.” “She was always there. Late nights, whenever the worst came. She was there, helping us stay afloat. Both as a business and as a family.” Now she is the Office Manager for the corporation. Yet, IQ’s challenges were hardly the only summons that the Garcias were defied to withstand. Together with him and Lincka also stand his son, David Adrián, and his daughter, Ibriana Gabriela. It was her that, as the company was struggling to get off the ground, contracted leukemia, a disease that can be lethal. It was a pivotal point in the family, but for Matías, another motivation to continue.

IQ Elevators Headquarters.

“I had an enormous debt with the bank. We didn’t have clients for our core business. My daughter was sick, and for countless nights, all I wanted, was to make sure I had the opportunity to see her again,” he says, moved to tears, as he recalls going to the hospital by night, hoping this was not the day where she gave up to the illness. “Having started my own company, I was creating a dream that was starting to manifest as a reality,” he continues, in a display of faith and inner strength, “it was a tough decision – with many temptations along the way. I had plenty of job offers (mostly by TKN’s competitors), that offered me a sizeable salary, which meant returning to stability, and a healthy job environment. As with everything, there were many reasons to quit. But if you aim to find it, there will always be one reason to prevail.”

The enthusiasm and sense of possibility spreads throughout the group. We are now in the main floor of the factory, congregated between heavy machines and sleek-white walls that boast certificates of achievement that IQ Elevators has obtained throughout its history. Next, Arturo, a 17-year-old coming from Guanajuato, who, before this trek to Canada, had never boarded a plane in his life. He promptly introduces himself, confesses he is a firm believer in destiny, and states that he daydreams of becoming a successful entrepreneur. “Is there a moment, Mister, that you would judge as defining into the history of your company?”

“Absolutely. But among many, I will tell you two.” He continues: “As we were riding uphill, a client requested an order, and we didn’t have the equipment to serve the request. We looked for places where we could find the necessary machinery, and found an auction where we won it. The problem was, we didn’t have money to pay. We were scrambling. But then, by the close of business day, a client that owed us money arrived. He was coming to settle the bill. So we went on and used the money to pay for the machine and be able to serve our client. I had no doubt it was God. It was a reminder that there is always time for miracles.”

The second one has to do with karma. It has to do with the actions he opted for not taking. “Three months after I was fired from ThyssenKrupp Northern, their manager for Human Resources resigned. She came to our office, and confessed that the company had no grounds to fire me, which would have enabled me to take legal action. I consciously chose not to.” He credits his intuition with this decision for not taking his former employer to court. Thirteen years later, as ThyssenKrupp decided to shut down their manufacturing arm, all of Garcia’s former colleagues were left without a job. Not safe, gentlemen, not safe. And nevertheless, this meant good news for Matías.

Today, IQ Elevators and Right Angle Metal Fabricators generate around $3 million dollars annually.

Since their manufacturing branch was off, the maintenance division of ThyssenKrupp’s operations – ThyssenKrupp Service – no longer had a factory that provided them with replacement parts, or that manufactured on-demand product when they needed it. So they called Matías. ThyssenKrupp’s decision came with an offer to warehouse IQ Elevators and Right Angle Metal Fabricators, and they hired them to be their contracted manufacturer. “Had I chosen to take them to court, they would have never called me,” expresses Matías, adding that “I trusted in my own capacity to keep going, without the need for revenge.”

Between ovations and as we walk through the narrow hallways that connect the paths within the warehouse, there is time for one last question. It comes from the back row. “What would you recommend to fellow aspiring entrepreneurs like us?”

“That there will always be obstacles. That building something requires sacrifice and hard work. But that comes with that dream I, like you, have of doing something remarkable. Of being more that what we have already been. I had, like many of you, that dream of proving myself that I was capable, as I know you are, too.”

Javier Ortega-Araiza and Mexican Delegates with Matías García at IQ Elevators Headquarters. (2016)

MATÍAS’S HEROIC PROWESS has been significantly praised and has earned him numerous awards and tributes. He won the Vision Awards under the “Entrepreneurial Visionary” category, granted by the Toronto Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and he has become a referent for the Latin American business community in Canada. In an age of Donald Trump-like anti-immigrant rhetoric, he acknowledges the biases that can exist against a Hispanic community that still grapples to trounce numerous development and integration indicators.

“Unfortunately, in this country statistics show Hispanics as one of the communities that rank on the lower end when it comes to studies. They don’t finish. Don’t graduate. That gives us a bad reputation – and unfairly provides the public with a blatantly wrong impression of what we have achieved here. I know, personally, many Hispanics that have been significantly successful with their companies. What I truly want is for one day, for people to see that us as Hispanics are capable not only of successfully and meaningfully contributing to society, but also, to be able to pull together and push a country forward.”

Today, IQ Elevators and Right Angle Metal Fabricators generate around $3 million dollars annually. The sole obstacle stopping an elevator is a roof, but that too, is a man-made boundary, that he is determined to break. When questioned about the future plans for his venture, he remains bold, enthused, and committed. “We are developing our own innovations. Our own indicators,” he states, articulating that they are developing proprietary technology so that they don’t have to rely on suppliers to compete in the market. It’s an attitude that any entrepreneur would do well to fully embrace.

Matías García, who landed in Canada twenty-eight years ago, safely, but without speaking English and began his journey sweeping floors, has now risen to prominence as a much-needed triumph symbol for Hispanic entrepreneurship, a beacon of integrity through his gallant endeavor and a living proof of perseverance and hope. He remains as confident as ever, as he guides us on the factory’s final pathway, overlooking his creation, that 164 years after Elisha Graves Otis’s improbable feat, and after 14 years of fighting all odds, he can pronounce the everlasting words: “All safe, ladies and gentlemen, all safe.”

Javier Ortega-Araiza
Born in Mexico, re-born in Canada, and a global citizen and part-time digital nomad, Javier Ortega-Araiza is a serial entrepreneur who has founded companies in the tourism, education, and financial technology space, always with the intent of building bridges and increasing the social impact engagement of the business community. He is also an engaged community leader serving on the Board of Directors of several not-for-profits in the GTA and abroad and a Visiting Professor in Social Entrepreneurship in Universities in Canada, the United States and Colombia. Javier Ortega-Araiza is a lifelong traveler, writer and documentarist who contributes on business & innovation, politics, travel, sports, and stories of people being people.