Business Leaders of Valencia County

BELEN — It’s got to be your passion.

Those are the first words Michael Vallejos says when asked how to run a successful small business.

Julia M. Dendinger | News-Bulletin photo
Michael Vallejos, right, owner of HDI in Belen, and store manager, Karen Vigil, both say customer service is the key to keeping a small, local business afloat, as well as offering products customers can’t find in big, chain stores.

“You can say, ‘Oh this guy is doing good,’ and let’s say he’s selling popcorn. If you don’t like popcorn, if that’s not your gig, you’re never going to do good,” Vallejos says.

As the owner of HDI — High Desert Industrial Supply ­— in Belen, Vallejos’ passion is wide and varied and comes from his desire to help his community. The store on North Main Street features everything from welding helmets to lavender bath products.

What started as his parent’s welding and medical gases business in 1966 has morphed into a specialty shop with a fresh meat counter and hot deli tucked in the back of the building. Vallejos and his wife, Leslie, bought the business, formerly Speedy Welder, and rebranded it as HDI in 2006.

“The welding industry throughout the years has just kind of slowly gone down,” he says. “It’s not as vibrant as it used to be.”

The rise of big, corporate retailers able to undercut costs through scale, a decline in a need for welding repairs thanks to items being made for disposal and a fall off in interest in the trade has all contributed to the decline.

So when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, Vallejos accidentally pivoted into the next iteration of his business.

“When COVID hit, we were selling some pinto beans and things as just more of a courtesy. Then people were coming in asking for things they weren’t able to find in the grocery stores,” he said. “Well, I have a lot of friends in the grocery business, so me and my wife would go every day, sometimes twice a day, with this big, old box trailer and get what people needed. We didn’t really make nothing; it was more of a courtesy.

“It was a way to help my community and I thought, if it works out, maybe we’ll stick with it. So, that was our pivot point right there.”

Business boomed and things kept moving until COVID restrictions relaxed and other retailers fully reopened.

“We added the deli and the meat market, which have actually been part of a master plan for 20 years,” he said.

HDI also started offering products like breakfast burritos and hot lunches ranging from Frito pie to bologna sandwiches.

“That has done really well and it’s picked up the rest of the business for us, because it’s all about the number of customers, right?”

Leveraging those customer numbers, Vallejos has dedicated the third Tuesday of every month to the New Mexico Cancer Foundation, donating the proceeds from the hot deli sales to the organization. Diagnosed with colon cancer himself in March, Vallejos said he wanted to find a way to give back.

“It’s cancer. For some, it’s a tough deal.”

Vallejos says he’s also found ways to diversify his offerings and customer base. The store features a variety of New Mexico made products, many of which are from right here in Valencia County.

“We can’t compete with Lowes or Walmart, not at that scale, so the next best thing for us to have is things like fresh meats, fresh deli items, unique New Mexico products that nobody else really carries,” he said. “That’s a way to help out our own economy.”

Unique products will only get a business so far, Vallejos says. Success comes with sacrifices for both a business owner and their family.

“You’ve got to be willing to work the weekends. You’re going to miss birthdays and holidays. You’ve got to be willing to work when nobody’s there, and that means customers too,” he said. “You’re going to have some really good days, where every thing’s exciting and you’re busy, but you’re gonna have a lot of days when no one’s there and you’re like, ‘What the hell? Why am I even here?’”

Staying consistent and working through those lulls are key, Vallejos said, reminding businesses they can’t just close the doors in the middle of the day because it’s slow and they’re bored.

Karen Vigil, the HDI store manager for five years, encouraged small, local businesses to “hang in there. Believe in what your product is and what you do. People who own small, local businesses really focus on good, customer service and being good to their customers. Give a local business a chance. You never know what you can find.”

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Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.