At age 6, Heriberto “Berto” Guerra, Jr. was shining shoes and sweeping floors in the barber shop his dad owned when a man wearing tennis shoes walked into the small store. Trained to offer every customer a shoe shine, but smart enough to know sneakers don’t need polish, Guerra hesitantly asked the question.

“Sir, would you like a shoe shine?”

Turned out the man had a pair of muddy boots in his truck, and he paid Guerra three times the usual amount to clean them. From that experience, Guerra drew his first lesson in business: Always ask the question – the response could be “yes.”

Guerra, 67, is chairman and CEO of Avanzar Interior Technologies, the largest supplier to the Toyota Texas Manufacturing plant; co-owner of three local auto dealerships; vice chairman of Vantage Bank; and chairman of the San Antonio Water System board of trustees. He is a former restaurant owner and executive at SBC, now AT&T, and a former chair of the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Guerra’s dedication to entrepreneurship and civic duty was recognized last Saturday as he was named San Antonian of the Year by the North San Antonio Chamber Of Commerce at its 43rd annual gala.

The story of Berto Guerra is the tale of a self-made man if ever there was one. Born in 1950 in the border town of Roma, Guerra and his family moved to Corpus Christi and took up residence in a tiny room behind the barber shop. He entered kindergarten speaking no English, but with the help of an understanding teacher, Miss Gibbons, he persevered.

When Guerra was 13, he told his father that he didn’t want to be a barber when he grew up, nor did he see himself shining shoes for the rest of his life. With his father’s blessing, Guerra applied for a job at the new Dairy Palace in town. After being turned away twice, he was hired and paid $10 a week, plus lunch.

He worked there until he left for college. But when the restaurant began losing money, the former owner, Bill Spivey, encouraged Guerra to purchase it, loaning him the $80,000 to get started.

“I paid it off in one year,” Guerra said. “That’s how I ended up in business.”

By age 19, he had bought another restaurant, and by age 24 had joined his friend Art Torres in developing what eventually became 253 Pizza Hut and Taco Bell restaurants in several states. But because his work forced him to miss church with his wife, Tammy, and four children, he left the restaurant business and began a career in external affairs and development with SBC that lasted more than 25 years.

About that time, former San Antonio mayor Henry Cisneros approached Guerra about a joint venture with Johnson Controls to start minority-owned Avanzar Interior Technologies in 2005. Avanzar, an on-site supplier for Toyota,  now manufactures interior door panels, car seats and headliners for every Tundra and Tacoma truck that rolls off the assembly line on San Antonio’s South Side.

Guerra purchased one of the first trucks to come out of the plant in 2007 and drives it every day. It has 252,000 miles on it. But giving a recent tour of the Toyota plant, Guerra was behind the wheel of a shiny, brand-new 1794 Edition Tundra. He pointed out the “tuggers” his company uses to transport the parts they make, the ones that give off “that new car smell,” and talked about his 924 employees who build the highest-quality seats in the nation, according to JD Power.

Heriberto "Berto" Guerra Jr.
Heriberto “Berto” Guerra Jr. in his office at Avanzar Interior Technologies.

With Avanzar and the car dealerships Guerra has purchased or built in recent years – Toyota of Boerne, Nissan of San Marcos and Nissan of New Braunfels – he leads a total workforce of 1,300 in San Antonio and said his businesses have an annual combined sales total of $800 million.

“I love it. I love the challenge of business,” Guerra said. “It’s so complex, and there are so many facets. I love the fact that we take in materials and manufacture goods from scratch.”

The work hasn’t always been easy. Guerra said Avanzar “struggled a lot” during the 2008 recession, and the plant closed down for 14 weeks. Then former mayor Julián Castro asked him to chair the SAWS board, even enlisting Castro’s mother to help persuade Guerra.

“I had lived in Austin for 15 years, and always admired how San Antonio could put together a diverse group, go to D.C., united in an effort, and come back with lots of goodies for San Antonio,” Guerra said. “But the one thing I didn’t admire was that San Antonio couldn’t diversify its water supply.”

More than five years into his SAWS leadership, that mission has been achieved with the development of new water sources and infrastructure – an accomplishment Guerra calls a team effort by SAWS President and CEO Robert Puente, area government, chambers of commerce, and “the citizens who were willing to accept a rate increase that is conservative, thoughtful, and visionary for the future.”

It’s a legacy sure to last far beyond Guerra’s entrepreneurial successes as San Antonio continues to grow and attract new and diversified industries.

And while economists talk about flat contributions from manufacturing, falling oil and gas prices in recent years have increased the demand for trucks likes the ones built in San Antonio. “We are working Saturdays now to keep up,” Guerra said.

Saying he’ll never retire, Guerra has plans for more car dealerships. He also has brought his youngest son, Christian, into the business as a general manager.

“If you find a business you love, you’ll never work another day in your life,” Guerra said. “But it’s important to keep improving, to make it the best – and then some. And as you grow, never judge a book by its cover. Always ask the question.”

Shari Biediger has been covering business and development for the San Antonio Report since 2017. A graduate of St. Mary’s University, she has worked in the corporate and nonprofit worlds in San Antonio...