By THE INLAND VALLEY DAILY BULLETIN | email@example.comMay 19, 2017 at 9:33 pm
ONTARIO >> As he looked out among the sea of graduates, Richard Montañez was 2 miles from where it all began.
Where once he was the janitor at the Frito-Lay plant on Archibald Avenue, he now was Chaffey College’s keynote speaker.
Before the commencement Thursday, Montañez sat in a lounge at Citizens Business Bank Arena, sharing his life story with one person, then to a group of Chaffey College dignitaries, then ultimately to the audience at the college’s 100th commencement. Each time his tone shifted, the passion emanating from his booming voice was obvious.
Now an executive, as a janitor Montañez took inspiration from the elote man, or corncob vendor, to invent Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.
It’s not a simple journey, but the good ones never are.
On this Thursday evening, Montañez, who donned a pinstripe suit, was reminded of his father’s reaction shortly after his then 18-year-old son had been hired at the Rancho Cucamonga factory in 1976.
Montañez senior: “When you mop that floor, you make sure it shines and you make sure they know a Montañez did it.”
“I took that and have been living that statement ever since. It doesn’t matter who I work for, I work for my last name,” he said. “It’s not about how much money you make; it’s not about your title. It’s about your last name.”After hearing his story, people often tell him, “But Richard, you started at the bottom,” he said. To them, he responds: “No, I started at the beginning.”
The same goes for those who are waiters, drivers or janitors. There is no such thing as just a janitor “when you believe in your heart you’re going to be the best janitor in the history of Frito-Lay,” the Ontario native said.
Montañez is no stranger to facing adversity. He comes from a modest upbringing; his father and grandfather worked in the vineyards of what was then known as Guasti, near Ontario International Airport. He is one of 11 children, the eldest male.
The family later moved to Ontario, he said.
“You were poor, but it was a fun kind of poor — where it didn’t matter what you were wearing; where, if you were hungry, there was always a peach tree or orange tree that you could pick from,” he said prior to the graduation ceremony.
Going to school proved difficult because he only knew how to read and write in Spanish. “That’s all we spoke.”
But he recalls one day, classmates staring him down for bringing a burrito for lunch. Ashamed, he put it back in his bag and later told his mother to make a bologna sandwich, like all the kids bring, the next day.
Instead, his mother told him to embrace who he was. The following day she made him two burritos, one for him and one to share with a classmate. By that Friday, he was selling burritos at school for 25 cents each.
“That’s when I realized, that as much as I wanted to fit in, it was impossible because none of us were created to fit in. We’re all created to stand out,” he said.
Montañez ended up dropping out before earning a high school diploma. It’s not something he’s proud of, but his only option was to go to work.
By the time he was 18 years old, he had done everything from pick grapes, clean cars at a car wash, work at poultry factory and as a gardener.
He candidly shared that he was always worried at that time about his future because he had no education.
Then a friend told him they were hiring at Frito-Lay in Rancho Cucamonga. With the help of his wife, Judy, who could read and write in English, Montañez told her what to say on the application form.
He was hired on the spot as a janitor.
“I just thought, if I could get a job at Frito-Lay that would change my legacy,” he said. His determination was prophetic.
Still, how did a front-line worker, who wasn’t even a manager, get the CEO’s attention?
Again, it wasn’t simple.
Montañez likes to say all you need is one revelation that will lead to a revolution.
His did, a corporate revolution, he told the thousands gathered at the arena. The story goes like this: Montañez was grabbing corn from the elote man. Biting into the corn, with all the fixings, he had his revelation.
“ ‘That looks like a Cheeto. What if I put chili on a Cheeto?’ ” he said.
He and wife made chili, and he garnished his Cheetos. Next thing he knows, he’s calling the CEO and pitching his idea. The CEO tells him he’ll see him in two weeks.
The rest, as they say, is snack food history. Montañez said he started to climb the ladder in management, landing speaking engagements and opportunities to market PepsiCo products.
Flamin’ Hot Cheetos continues strong sales even as some school districts banned them because of their addictive and mostly nutritionally vacant qualities. In PepsiCo’s 2016 annual report, the company says Frito-Lay’s volume grew 3 percent, “reflecting high-single-digit growth in variety packs, and mid-single-digit growth in trademark Doritos and Cheetos,” offsetting declines in its Sabra joint effort products.
“Graduates, remember, you were not created to fit in. You were created to stand out,” Montañez said to a standing ovation.
Then the Ontario native with no high school diploma was given an honorary associate degree from Chaffey College.
It prompted Montañez, who had already concluded his speech, to take the microphone one more time.
“I teach leadership at a couple of universities, and one time I was speaking at an MBA class when a student asked, ‘Where did you get yours?’ ”
His response? University of Cucamonga.
Puzzled, the student asked where that was, to which Montanez countered with, “Never mind, it’s a private school and you could never get in,” he said as the hometown crowd chuckled at his inside joke.
“But I do have a Ph.D.,” he said before leaving. “I’ve been poor, hungry and determined.”