Temple City Entrepreneur Donates Fillmore Ranch
James Jimenez’s father, a Mexican immigrant, earned a living with a pick and shovel as a railroad worker in San Bernardino. “If you study,” he told his son, “you won’t end up doing this.”
Jimenez never made it to college, turning down a full scholarship to Stanford University to help support his family in the depths of the Depression. But his unshaken belief in the wisdom of his father’s advice recently led the 86-year-old self-made entrepreneur to help others get a college education.
He deeded his $1.4 million, 546-acre Fillmore ranch to Occidental College in Los Angeles to create an endowed scholarship fund. A portion of the gift is earmarked for students at Fillmore High School and Los Angeles’ Lincoln High School who attend Occidental, where his wife Katherine and two of their daughters went to college.
For the past 10 years, Jimenez has provided scholarships for books and other materials to high school students in Fillmore. Thus far, some 80 students have received stipends of $250 or more per semester.
Now the man whose inventions transformed the Mexican food industry has expanded his giving to benefit Fillmore students when they go on to college, and to offer similar support to students at Lincoln, his own alma mater on the east side of Los Angeles.
“The key to joining the mainstream is education,” said Jimenez, a Temple City resident since 1949. “The more educated people are, the better they can solve problems.”
The second of 12 children, Jimenez started working while he was a student at Sacred Heart School in Lincoln Heights, shining shoes after school and on weekends and picking grapes in the summer.
Elected student body president at Lincoln High School, he continued to work – on milk and newspaper routes in the morning and at a machine shop after school – before graduating with honors in 1933.
But he abandoned his plans of becoming a doctor when it became clear he needed to keep working so that his siblings could stay in school. For the next 15 years, Jimenez worked at a variety of jobs, washing dishes, sanding floors, selling insurance, and working as a bookkeeper and machinist.
“Adversity can be a wonderful thing,” he said. “It forces you to think and to innovate.”
The $50-a-week position Jimenez took in 1948 as a salesman for J.C. Ford, a Los Angeles-based maker of corn grinders and tortilla ovens, began as just another in a series of jobs. But in his first year, the company’s sales soared, thanks in large part to Jimenez’s efforts.
Jimenez not only boosted company sales but put his expertise as a machinist to work on Ford’s double tortilla oven, which was supposed to bake two rows of tortillas simultaneously but was so plagued with problems that the company was ready to drop it. He succeeded in perfecting it, rendering its predecessor, the single oven, obsolete.
His success at Ford made it possible for him to buy Pronto Products, makers of equipment for the Mexican food industry, and later to form Electra Food Machinery Inc. with a partner in 1963.
Electra introduced one innovation after another, each making the production of Mexican food faster and more cost-efficient. Jimenez and his crew developed an infrared burner system for tortilla ovens that baked dough from the top and bottom simultaneously, cutting cooking time in half.
The same system is now used by national fast-food chains to cook hamburgers, as well as a two-belt system developed by Electra for grilling patties and heating buns at the same time.
An astute businessman who retired after selling Electra in 1978, Jimenez believes that an investment in college students will earn huge returns. By helping just 20 students each year, he estimates that gifts like his will add billions to the economy.
“Ninety percent of the children of college-educated parents go through college themselves, leaving a legacy that is perpetual,” he said. “By using just the interest on an endowment, so much can be accomplished with almost nothing. That’s a lot of leverage. It’s mind-boggling.”