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Weekend edition March 08, 2024 | Tom Ballard

Jorge Sanabria came to the U.S. at age 17 and found it to be the land of opportunity

The native of Colombia founded Expoquip in 1998, providing solutions to the private sector, government, and international customers in the construction, earthmoving, and mining industries.

Once Jorge Sanabria got to the United States at the age of 17, he did not want to return to his native Bogota, Colombia, but it took a good deal of convincing before his parents agreed to his request.

Now, the businessman who has lived in large cities like Bogota and New York City and small communities like Elkins, WV, is firmly entrenched in Knoxville where he is growing his company named Expoquip Inc. The journey that brought him to East Tennessee was certainly not linear nor was it without a series of risks.

Jorge Sanabria (Photo from Expoquip Website)

“I feel like I’m always climbing, not looking back in how we got here,” Sanabria says. Yet, his story of persistence and survival is one that other would be entrepreneurs should seek to emulate including giving back to his adopted hometown. Sanabria serves on the boards of directors of Covenant Health and Leadership Knoxville as well as serving as a member of the Knoxville Chamber’s Entrepreneurship and Small Business Council and the City of Knoxville Mayor’s Business Advisory Council.

So, how did a native of Colombia actually get to Knoxville?

It started after his family temporarily relocated to New York City when his father, who was working in the city, was hospitalized with what was thought to be something from which he would not recover. Fortunately, he did and declared one day that it was “time to go home.” By that time, Sanabria had become enamored with the U.S. and begged his parents to let him remain in the country.

It was a tough sell, but they finally relented when Dr. Francisco Becerra, a physician who previously lived in Colombia, and Lilia, his wife, agreed to host him if he moved to Elkins. It was a 13-hour drive from New York City and even though Sanabria was in the “country of opportunity,” he knew almost no one in a very small community. Fortunately, he was a good soccer player and that opened a few doors during high school as well as scholarship opportunities at both Marshall and West Virginia Universities.

Resolving visa issues took eight months, and the scholarship offers evaporated, so Sanabria moved farther South to Wilmington, NC where he enrolled at the University of North Carolina (UNC) campus in the city. He worked multiple jobs while going to college – from Sam’s Club to the Student Union. The greatest result of his time in Wilmington was meeting his wife, Deana, at the university. She was a manager at a retail store in the city and was offered a job running a store in the chain in Knoxville.

They discussed it, and Sanabria moved to his fourth city in the U.S. in 1993.

“Give me an opportunity, and I will take it from there,” he recalls telling Mike Conley of Regal Corporation. The initial opportunity was putting up parts in the company’s Knoxville warehouse, but Sanabria was also on a self-directed learning opportunity as he spent time after his workday ended in the warehouse, learning the ropes of those doing inside sales. He convinced Regal to let him go to Colombia at his expense to sell replacement parts for heavy equipment, and he came back with $12,000 in orders which caused Regal to open an international division.

“I always wanted to be a businessman,” Sanabria said, and he took the leap of faith when he opened Expoquip in 1998. The company provides solutions to the private sector, government, and international customers in the construction, earthmoving, and mining industries. That includes everything from spare parts and components for heavy equipment to rentals. The company is a reseller for Grainger, the largest industrial supplier in the world, and prides itself on partnerships such as the one with Stowers Machinery Corporation.

Fourteen years ago, Expoquip opened a government division led by Deana Sanabria. In doing so, the company drew on the resources of the University of Tennessee’s (UT) APEX Accelerator, then known as the Procurement Technical Assistance Center. Their son, Santiago, is also in the business, bringing new ideas and new energy to the company, while their two daughters are Valentina, who is getting married, and Sophia, who is a UT, Knoxville student.

“Service is most important to us,” Sanabria says, and that shows with customers locally, nationally, and internationally in more than 80 countries. Another indicator is the number of awards the company has won (see list here).

We asked the successful small businessman to share his words of wisdom.

  • “Don’t fool yourself. Understand what you are good at. Rely on others. Surround yourself with people smarter than you.” “Be humble.”
  • “Be grateful to people who have shown you the way.”
  • “Be dedicated. Be humble.”
  • “Be prepared to face the realities of business.”
  • “Give it all to your company.”

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