Mike Bronner speaks with Edwin Gomez about his journey from production line to machine operator to Dr. Bronner’s Director of Operations
A version of this interview appears in our 2018 All-One! Report.
Where did you grow up?
Chicago for two years when I was a baby. We moved to Mexico because of my mom, and then California, first to Modesto and then to San Diego.
Which was your favorite place of all those?
Mexico was great. I got to play with little farm animals and do all kinds of weird stuff that you never get to do around here. We had a big yard and avocado trees and all kinds of stuff to play around. And in Modesto, we had this huge yard with a walnut tree and a pecan tree, and the almond tree, and all these cactuses and toads.
What were your hobbies?
I used to play a lot with RC cars, those little radio-controlled cars. You buy this thing and it comes in a million pieces. And I remember when I bought mine, when I started putting it together and I thought, man, this thing is tough, but I got it all assembled.
How did you get to be so good with machines?
I always used to see what my brother was doing, I think that’s what would always push me to be so handy. He’d get a go-kart and I was like, how did he put that thing together? So then, I’m trying to figure that out. And same thing—he’s over there building a go-kart and then he gets a real car and then he’s doing audio systems by hand and I’m helping him. So I’ve learned all that stuff through him.
What was your typical day in high school?
High school was very short for me. In ninth grade I got kicked out. One of my childhood friends, he dropped out after junior high. And then next thing I know, you see him show up in a brand-new car that he had worked for. So then I got a construction job. I was getting paid 20 bucks an hour, when I was 17 years old. I thought I had it made: I thought I figured out the recipe for life at that point.
Where did you get your work ethic?
I think I’ve always been a hard worker, except when I was irresponsible. I just always pushed myself to get things done. It’s just integrity: if you say you’re gonna do it, you should do it well. If nobody’s telling you what to do, you look for something to do. Try to read the boss’ mind, or ask if you can help.
Let’s talk about you being irresponsible. When did you join a gang?
I never joined a gang. If anything, my friends joined a gang, and I continued to be friends with them. Some of the older gang members, they’d actually tell me not to join a gang because they regret not having a normal childhood. They couldn’t go to certain areas, because that’s where the rival gang’s at.
So, what did you do that got you sent to jail?
Well I guess the first time we were just doing dumb stuff. Stealing cars. I was in jail for three days and it scared me pretty good. But not enough. Later on I got arrested for assault, even though I was like twenty feet away from where everything was happening. It’s that same thing where we were all hanging out and I’m thinking I’m not gonna get in trouble, and all of a sudden, the cops just arrest three of us. The three people that they arrested, me and two other guys, none of us did anything that day.
The detective shows up and he’s like what are you guys charging these guys with? With assault, they say. “Assault? Charge him with attempted murder,” and he laughed. And they did, they charged us with attempted murder. Attempted murder has no bail so we couldn’t even bail out.
So were all three of you who were caught given the same sentence?
It was kind of eye-opening there. You kinda see the whole favoritism thing where people that got money get out of jail. One of my friends had a lot of money, hired this supreme lawyer, and got out. I hired some cheeseball lawyer who would just kinda sit on the coattails of the other lawyer: any time he spoke my lawyer would speak for me. My other friend had a public defender so he got the worst of it.
So yeah, I really saw that, I was like, wow, this is not the game you wanna play if you don’t have money. That’s kinda when I took a hard look at everything.
Was jail tough this time around?
It was not super bad. I already had some experience, like when I got arrested for that car stuff. There were some scary times. Often jail stuff happens but you kinda just man up and just get through it and whatever. But I knew that it wasn’t gonna be forever and you can’t be whining about your situation when there’s other people around you that are in there forever.
They mix everybody in there. You meet people that got life for a third DUI, or for killing a wife that was cheating. Other people get caught in a wide net of people but who didn’t do anything but they can’t say anything and they’re charged with a way more serious crime than I was.
Were there any tools that you could use in prison to get back on your feet or move forward?
I went to a fire camp program when I was in there. I learned a bunch of stuff in there, like how to use a chainsaw to cut trees. When you finally graduate, you get to go fight wildfires. And they took two months off because I went to that program.
So you clear brush, and make fire breaks and stuff?
Yeah you work hard alongside the official firefighters except you’re getting paid a dollar an hour. It gives you a bit more liberty though and you’re not shackled.
You’ve got people there to keep an eye on you so you can’t run?
No, nobody cares. You can run if you want, but it’s stupid. I remember one time at a fire there was a car, turned on, key in the ignition and a group of us, 50 inmate firefighters, pass by next to it and everybody is just laughing. But nobody dared to jump in that car.
Did you ever think of being a firefighter when you got out?
Yes. But then I get out and I find out that of course, they have some silly rules that if you were an inmate firefighter, you can’t be a real firefighter.
When you got out of jail, what was difficult about readjusting to regular society?
I was kind of acclimated at the fire camp pretty much, but I would find myself at concerts and it was just weird because in jail, nobody bumps into you at all. Because then you would have a problem. Everyone’s just weaving through each other in there, and out here people are so rude, and you’re like okay, whatever.
What was your first job out of jail?
I worked at a bakery right here in Escondido where the parole officers send you, where they didn’t really treat their employees too well. I was working from 11 at night until 6 in the morning for a year. They have this giant oven and the trays are coming out of there scorching hot and they put somebody at the end, which was me, to catch these things coming at you super-fast and put them on a baking rack. And then you take them and put them in the refrigerator, and all that’s done manually. I actually earned my way up to being a batch maker, I would make these giant batches of icing, and cookie dough.
When did you start at Dr. Bronner’s?
2004. There was no interview [Edwin laughs]. That was probably my favorite part.I was so used to going into all of these places for an interview just to get shot down. So when there was no interview, I was like, this is perfect. I love this.
So, yeah, I showed up expecting an interview, I kinda got a little dressed up. DJ talked to me for five minutes, and he’s like, you’re welcome to work today if you want. That’s fine I said. I had a dress shirt on but I didn’t care. I just went to work and I think he liked that—that I didn’t care if I got dirty that day cuz I had my nice shoes on and my nice shirt on.
I was like, you want me to go to work, I’ll go to work. And he saw the willingness and he gave me the opportunity. He was a tough boss—he really challenged me. He definitely wanted a hard worker, somebody that could keep up with the fast growth of the company. I wasn’t knowledgeable about stuff. I didn’t know anything about plumbing. I didn’t know anything about electrical, construction. So I learned all of that stuff. He would teach a lot of it to me, especially the construction part. And he enjoyed it too. You could tell he would go out of his way for me. To this day, I’m super grateful to DJ and you guys for giving me this opportunity.
What was your advancement at Dr. Bronner’s?
I started on one of the production lines at the end of it, packaging the soap bottles as they come out. And then I would be the helper, the floater. I’d then go do jobs that were a little bit more technical. Instead of just packaging soap I’d go use pumps and hoses, and repair little things around the facility, do a little maintenance. Then I started being the machine operator. I was really good at that so DJ started letting me order my own repair parts and install them, and repair the machine and do other general repair maintenance.
And that’s when we started getting into production planning. I would coordinate the whole day-to-day stuff for Dr. Bronner’s back in the days. I’d go look at the inventory of the soap, and I’d go look at the inventory of the finished goods. I’d go compile the orders on my desk, and I’d go back and give the production schedule to the people on the machines.
DJ knew I had some leadership capability. So he started giving me very slight supervisory stuff, like observing people and how they’re doing, then he’d come and ask me. So I used to have to do evaluations. That’s where I stayed for the longest time, is being the supervisor for production.
And then I moved out of production planning and went into machinery, operations, and installation of equipment.
How many titles have you had?
Production Associate, Production Coordinator, Production Supervisor, Operations Supervisor, Operations Manager, General Manager, and Director of Operations now.
What inspires you to get out of bed every morning?
I like where my life is at today, and it’s easy to just get up and go to work, especially when there’s something that you like to do. It’s pretty gratifying to mentor all these people that have been underneath my wing like what DJ did to me.
I love to drill down on something and try to analyze it in different ways to make sure it’s the most efficient. When I used to pack boxes, in my head, I used to think, what is the way for me to make the least amount of motion? And to get it done the fastest way possible. And I’ve always done that whether it’s me packing boxes or me trying to design and engineer something that fills liquid soap. And so I’ve always looked at everything like that. It definitely keeps my attention, and it’s challenging, but it’s a good challenge.
What was your experience going back to prison to mentor inmates?
It was gratifying to be able to go back and talk to all of those people and give them a glimpse of light and tell them there are good people out there that will give you an opportunity if you work for it.
Would you bring some of them here?
Yeah of course. Because I would be a total hypocrite if not. You gotta pick the right person to give the opportunity to. But once you find that right person, like me, you’ll find someone totally loyal to you guys. And not just in a work way but like a friendly human way—I look at you guys like my friends and my boss at the same time. So, if there’s anything that I can help you guys with, I’d totally be there for you. Maybe somebody that doesn’t feel that gratitude would not reciprocate that way. So yeah I’m looking forward to bring in some of those people, and help them through their tough spot in life.