When he was a penniless young man of 19 in the Bronx, originally from Puerto Rico, with little or no machine shop experience, John Soto answered an advertisement for a “machinist with one year’s experience.”
As the employer looked at him skeptically, Soto added, “If you hire me, in a year, I’ll be that experienced machinist.”
The documentary tells the inspiring life story of his dad, founder of Space-Craft, the maker of precision jet engine components, a factory, until recently on East Street, and established by John Soto in 1970.
At a screening room at Southern Connecticut State University’s Engleman Hall, 100 family, friends, admirers, and beneficiaries of John Soto’s lifelong entrepreneurial mentoring and philanthropy took in the half-hour film, which was written and directed by Frank Borres in partnership with Connecticut Public Television (CPTV).
The movie airs Thursday on CPTV at 8 p.m. and will encore on Saturday at 7 p.m., Sunday at 10 a.m., and this coming Monday at 10 p.m.
The film contains no interviews with family members. Rather it features the charming and garrulous Soto himself, who died on Sept. 21, and interviews with the many business colleagues and young employees whom he mentored and students helped by his philanthropy.
“The focus of the film,” said Gladys Soto, John’s wife of 22 years, “is to inspire and to raise awareness in the business community of their responsibility. You can’t keep it. You always have to teach someone else what you know.”
The movie’s biographical arc demonstrates how Soto ran with the chance he was given a chance as a young man. He rose from sweeping floors to establishing his own successful businesses. Soto chose to model himself after that seminal experience; his was always a people-centered approach to being successful.
One of the film’s most moving interviewees is Eddie Martinez, a young man whom Soto recruited right after his graduation from Gateway Community College. I’ll give you a month to learn how to operate this machine, Martinez recollects Soto telling him, and if you’re successful, you’ll be my friend and work here. If not, you’ll still be my friend, but you’ll have to go. Today Martinez, after a long career at Space-Craft (last year the business was sold to DRT Power Systems-Space Craft and moved to Meriden) teaches manufacturing engineering at Gateway.
Gateway, SCSU, and the Progreso Latino Fund, are among the many beneficiaries of Soto’s philanthropy, especially in the form of scholarships for Latino students.
That focus — people counted just as much as profits — is another of the film’s themes.
Soto encouraged more employees to start their own shops, one interviewee says, and he would feed them business to get them going on the right foot.
Another employee adds: “He paid for hundreds of mortgages, hundreds of car payments. Even when there was not work, [employees] still worked ten hours a day, and got the overtime. He wanted his people to stay with him.”
John Padilla, another of the founders of the Progreso Latino Fund, met Soto in 1979 as a trainee at the Pratt & Whitney Aircraft procurement department. “He was unique,” he said of Soto. “He created his own opportunities. He could easily have retired to the life of a rich person, but he never did. He enjoyed talking, especially to students, telling them, ‘If I made it, you can too.’”
Of his dad, Pedro Soto recalled, “He always said he didn’t want me to be a bad copy of himself. I started in IT but I ended up going into the business, and loving it. I’ve been inspired by his philanthropy and being active in the community.”
John Soto, A Business Life is part of CPTV’s Hispanic Heritage Month programming.