Opportunities Keep Popping Up for Gopher-Trap Maker

Special to The Times

As an independent businessman, Steve Salas has but one goal: to build a better gopher trap. That means more of the old-fashioned kind.

Although there are now electronic gopher traps on the market, Salas' tiny family business specializes in the traditional but still-popular box and metal traps.

The 42-year-old Santa Paula resident began making the devices in the eighth grade, when he worked after school for a man who made gopher traps out of his garage. Salas enjoyed his apprenticeship and remained in the job through high school.

When the owner decided to sell the small company in 1980, Salas convinced his father, now 70, to buy it for $5,500. Salas taught his mother how to solder, and soon the family was working out of a relative's garage, making traps and shipping them to wholesalers.

Gradually, the business grew and moved into a local industrial complex. Meanwhile, Salas, in his early 20s, decided it was time for a change. He moved to Sacramento and worked a variety of jobs.

Three years ago he moved back home, taking a part-time job as Santa Paula's city clerk, a job once held by his father, Victor Salas Sr.

A year later, Salas' father convinced him to rejoin the gopher-trap business. Steve immediately put his sales talent to work and began pushing to expand the company, now called Salas Manufacturing. Besides Salas and his father, the company employs three people and produces about 6,000 traps a month. The traps sell for between $7 and $9 each.

The company's distributor, Excell Garden Products, sells the traps to Green Thumb International, Orchard Supply Hardware, Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse and several independent companies, said Johan van Vliet, account manager at Excell. Salas' company recently purchased a bar-coding machine, making it easier for stores to keep track of inventory.

Salas projects $120,000 in sales this year, up from an average of about $70,000 a year. He hopes to outpace other mom-and-pop competitors in the gopher trap business, while aiming to become a one-stop source for customers who want to remove all types of rodents without resorting to poisons or gases.

"I want to be the whole trap company," he said. "I want to create a research and development department."

But for now, Salas is concentrating on gopher traps, which he discusses with the zeal of a man with a mission. He constantly tinkers with the traps, searching for the tiniest improvements, such as switching paints on metal traps to allow quicker movement of their parts.

Farm supply distributor Steve Mahaney, president of Sacramento-based John Mahaney Co., said the gopher trap industry has room to grow.

The biggest manufacturer, Los Gatos-based Macabee Trap Co., which makes about 3,500 traps a week, can't expand much more, said Macabee General Manager Ronald Fink. And while baits and electronic anti-gopher devices exist, most buyers prefer the old-fashioned traps, he said.

Although Salas and his father are not getting rich, their business is doing well enough to keep their entrepreneurial spirit alive. "Next year, the sky's the limit," Salas said.

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