JACKSONVILLE -- Jose Sabatier's parents struggled to get him out of communist Cuba shortly after Fidel Castro came to power. The socialist regime was flexing its political muscle and Sabatier's family feared it was just a matter of time before the then 18-year-old was forced to pick up arms and enter a bloody military conflict.
When Sabatier managed to wrangle a visa and secure a seat on one of the last freedom flights from the tiny island to the U.S., he came with only the clothes on his back.
That was more than 40 years ago. Now, Sabatier is president and owner of Zabatt Inc. a generator and engine business with 53 employees, three locations and more than $18.1 million in annual revenue.
"He came without a dime," said Michael Sabatier, Jose's son and chief financial officer of Zabatt.
Recounting his father's story, Michael admits it may sound more like myth than fact, but it's all true. And he can only imagine how difficult it was for his father who didn't have a grasp on the English language when he came to the U.S. But Michael is quick to point out that his father had an iron will.
How else can you explain how a young man can come from Cuba, get a job as a mechanic and later start what would become a multimillion dollar business, one of the largest generator distribution companies in the country?
Tom Nehl of Tom Nehl Trucking Co. isn't surprised by Sabatier's success.
Nehl has been an employer, mentor and close friend to Sabatier, giving him one of his first jobs in the U.S.
Nehl saw something special in Sabatier. His intelligence and skill caused him to rise above the rest and he became an asset to Nehl's company, even at a young age.
Over the years, Sabatier has adapted to the technology of the times, changing his business model when necessary. He said it's the only way to survive. "You have to continuously upgrade the way you do things."
After decades of hitting the grindstone, Sabatier has stumbled on something other than diversification that could be a big cornerstone of his success.
"The harder I work the luckier I get," he said.
And everyone around him admits he works pretty hard. Already in his mid-60s he said people can ask him about retirement in another 30 years.