Photo: Daniel Portnoy
CEO of AmeriKooler takes aim at 'Goliath'
Several years back, Gian Carlo Alonso decided he needed a competitive benchmark against which to judge progress at the walk-in refrigerator and freezer manufacturer his father founded in Hialeah. The 60-employee AmeriKooler was a bit player in the field.
Alonso decided his company should aspire to the same level of success as the industry leader. “Let’s go after Goliath, if we’re going to go after someone,” he says.
That decision drove choices that have made AmeriKooler the nation’s fastest-growing manufacturer of walk-in coolers. The firm has increased employment to 300 and moved to the cusp of $100 million in annual revenue. Alonso has a rising profile in the food-service industry and in Florida manufacturing, where he’s built a personal brand on social media and elsewhere as “Mr. Manufacturing” chronicling ways to do things better, improving the company’s exposure and helping recruitment.
AmeriKooler “stands out as a shining example of the potential for rebirth of manufacturing in the U.S.,” wrote Total Food Service, an industry publication.
Tall, with a resemblance to actor Bradley Cooper — at least the part of his face visible above a mask — Alonso is the son and grandson of Cuban refugees. His entrepreneur grandfather moved the family to Puerto Rico after Castro seized power and his business. Alonso’s father eventually made his way to South Florida, where he founded AmeriKooler and where Miami-born Gian Carlo worked as a youth.
He earned a bachelor’s in finance at Florida International University, joined the family business, then left for commercial real estate. He returned in 2010 to AmeriKooler as president and CEO. Since then, he’s earned a degree from Harvard’s owner/president management program and, from FIU, credentials in the Six Sigma approach to improving processes. His office wall has a framed Psalm 23 and a row of books with the Bible and faith-themed books interspersed with The One Minute Manager and business tomes.
Once in charge at AmeriKooler, he added capacity to be ready for more business and built relationships with dealers. AmeriKooler doesn’t sell direct to consumers and relies on dealers for orders and installation.
Coolers aren’t high tech, but Alonso wants to innovate where he can with a startup mentality. He’s trademarked “Taking Cool Further” as the company tagline. He’s proud of AmeriKooler’s virtual reality tool, new to the industry, for teaching dealers to assemble and service coolers. He wants to launch a Shark Tank-like innovation incubator for manufacturing startups next year.
AmeriKooler was rolling up eight consecutive years of record sales when the pandemic hit. Unlike some manufacturers, AmeriKooler never closed because of an on-site COVID outbreak nor, like some nationally, was it closed by government order. Gov. Ron DeSantis “was like, ‘Look, you guys are operating your business. You do what you need to do to be careful,’ but it wasn’t like ‘everyone shut, go home, stay home.’ There was more freedom,” Alonso says.
He shored up his raw material supply as the pandemic took hold. “So, thank God, we didn’t have an issue there,” he says. That wasn’t the case with labor. “That was a huge challenge. I didn’t anticipate the effect of the unemployment benefit plan. We desperately needed another 100 people. We just couldn’t find them anywhere. Now, thank God, we have stabilized, and we have the people we need for the most part.”
AmeriKooler generally builds coolers to order. Rigid blue insulation is sandwiched between thin metal end pieces to form panels. The panels are shipped to dealers who assemble them into refrigerators or freezers at customer sites.
As Alonso walks the 200,000-sq.-ft. factory’s floor, greeting workers in Spanish and English, handling growth is much on his mind. The factory started a second shift this year, and he’s planning a third “mini” shift overnight to ready the factory for each new day. He repeatedly is “excited” or “super excited” as he points out places where new sheet metal working machinery will be installed in coming months. Workers make about $15 an hour.
Micah Daugherty, a business adviser with public-private partnership FloridaMakes and the South Florida Manufacturers Association, says he’s worked with and watched as Alonso and AmeriKooler streamlined production and used labor and floor space more efficiently. “They have a heart for manufacturing,” Daugherty says. “Gian Carlo is a very passionate and dynamic person. He’s done a lot to build AmeriKooler to a completely different level than where it was 20 years ago. They’re definitely helping to develop the economy here in Florida.”
The company sells in 50 states — about 90% of the business — and in the Caribbean and Central America, though it has shipped as far as Guam. Freight costs are a constraint for South Florida manufacturers of large products looking to ship outside the state. Alonso says he may add a large factory or several smaller factories around the country to be closer to customers. He also wants to acquire companies in the “refrigeration space.”
“Every day we’re getting better and better,” Alonso says. “We still have a lot of room for improvements. But we’re making it happen.”
Read more in Florida Trend's December issue.
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