Willie Munoz moved from Cuba to the United States when he was 10 years old, sold company to Tropical Shipping in 2009.
By Hilary Reeves
In 1982, Willie Munoz was a 10-year-old kid with a faulty heart struggling to survive in his native Cuba. Fourteen years later, he founded Deluxe Freight, a company offering white-glove shipping to the Cayman Islands.
Munoz was born in Cuba, but came to the United States with his mother on a humanitarian visa due to a heart condition he’d suffered since birth. They were reunited with Munoz’s father and brother in Miami two years later after proper migratory procedures were carried out. The family was poor, but with proper treatments, Munoz’s conditioned improved.
“The beginning was rough as my parents struggled to get by,” Munoz explained. “They had no choice but to work two jobs each, seven days a week, to survive. I helped them after school and on the weekends as much as I could. We were poor, but I felt very rich because I always had their love and support.”
Munoz began working not long after his move to America.
“I remember selling food on the streets to help my parents, but my first official full-time job was during high school at Publix Supermarkets,” he said. “I worked there for five years right out of high school.”
After Publix, Munoz began working at the airport for Cayman Airways, where he began his transportation industry journey as a cargo agent, and eventually became the Cargo Supervisor for Cayman Airways in Miami.
“I was fortunate to have work on a small airline where you had no choice but to wear many hats,” said Munoz. “The experience I gained was priceless in the years to come. Five years later, I realized there was a need for white-glove service into the Cayman Islands. I left Cayman Airways, and in 1996 I started Deluxe Freight with my mother at the age of 24.”
According to Munoz, starting Deluxe Freight was no easy task.
“I was naive enough to not know what I was getting myself into,” he said. “I was completely broke and quickly realized that I was in trouble. But I was young, I was hungry, and I had the support of my family who have always been there for me. Failing was not an option. Working seven days a week was the norm; giving up everything in my life to make sure I succeeded was my only business plan.”
Munoz said, at the beginning, he was like a one-man show, taking care of customers, preparing documentation, loading containers, and even getting on a plane time after time to do his own overseas sales.
“It was astonishingly hard to balance everything, but I was having fun and I knew that one day it would pay off,” he said. “At the time, surviving was the only intent.”
In 2004, disaster struck the Cayman Islands with a destructive Category 5 hurricane. “Once again, when I thought that everything was lost, God had a different plan for me, and during the disaster, he reminded me that I was blessed with the most loyal family and employees anyone could ever ask for,” said Munoz. “We got back to work like never before. They were fighting next to me day after day for long hours until we were back on our feet again. We had not only survived, but we managed to flourish until 2008 when we were hit by the economic recession.”
Munoz said he knew tough times were again on the horizon, and that – again – family service, and loyalty would be put to the test.
“Earlier in 2008, we had moved to a new warehouse facility after signing a five-year lease, and the timing could not have been worse,” he said. “The economies in the United States and the Cayman Islands had come to a complete halt, and we were in deep financial trouble. I kept on working hard and smiling at the world, but my world was falling apart. I was dying inside because so many people depended on me, and I felt that I had failed. Once again, the unconditional support and love of my family and my staff is what kept me going.”
But according to Munoz, God has a sense of humor.
“One day, Tropical Shipping came knocking on my door to see if I was interested in selling Deluxe Freight. They had no idea of my situation, and I acted as if I was doing them a favor,” he laughed. “They had been my direct competitor since day one, so I never envisioned it was even be a possibility. Selling was not something I was looking to do, but I agreed to entertain Tropical’s offer because I had nothing to lose.”
In November of 2009, after many months of negotiations, the sale was complete, and Deluxe Freight came under Tropical’s wing. Munoz was remained President, and continues to deliver the best service to the Cayman Islands.
“I still treat Deluxe as my baby, and I have received the support and respect from the Tropical organization to allow me to operate our company as we have always done,” Munoz said. “I’m proud of my staff, especially those who were there during our darkest moments.”
Munoz said he’s most proud of refusing the quit, even when he was feeling lost and hopeless.
“I don’t know what the future holds,” he said. “I live in the moment. I don’t have to work another day in my life if I choose not to do so, but when you love what you do and are still having fun, why stop?”
Munoz said he dislikes talking about his journey from heart patient to company president, but that his wife encouraged him.
“She has worked by my side for the past 15 years, and her support has been overshadowed by the fact that she is married to the president of the company,” he said. “She has been my everything, and she is the reason why I’m telling this story today. I also have to recognize my staff throughout the years, and those who are still here today. I might be driving the bus, but they are the engine that keeps on running to make Deluxe a success. We are a team, and we have succeeded because we are a team.”