The second day of Polk State’s Panamanian adventure began with early-morning transit from the City of Knowledge to the Pacific end of the Panama Canal. The travelers boarded their ferry at 7:30 a.m. and spent the next 10 hours traversing the Canal to its end at the Atlantic. Between oceans, they learned about the lock system, which raises and lowers the ships along their routes so they can clear the land below the water, and marveled at the barges carrying containers stacked several stories high.
The Canal is a vital thoroughfare in global trade, and therefore of particular interest to Torrey Muhammad, an entrepreneur several times over who now runs an air conditioning business that he aspires to take international.
“In two to three years, I want to own a distribution company and have companies all over the world buying their parts and supplies from me,” he said.
Muhammad, 46, grew up in Bartow and always had an entrepreneurial spirit. Aside from six years spent serving with the Marines, two years as a corrections officer, and another six years working for Polk County, he’s mostly been his own boss. He did landscaping and janitorial work. He started a catering business that he later gave to his daughter.
About five years ago, he started NuAir Air -Conditioning, based in Lakeland.
“Air conditioning is a viable job. It’s something people need all the time, not just sometimes. I don’t want to make ‘sometimes money,’” he said.
Since starting his company, Muhammad has serviced more than 900 customers across Central Florida. Their names account for nearly all the contacts in his phone. Sometimes, they text in the middle of the night, desperate for cool air. Muhammad doesn’t mind the interruptions, though.
“The money I’m making now trumps the money I made in my other jobs,” he said.
Two years ago, Muhammad took a careful look at his business. It was already successful, but he wanted more.
“I wanted to go into international trade, and I realized, I needed more knowledge to do that. The competition isn’t going to teach you unless you want to come work for them. They’re going to teach you to stay right below them,” he said.
To gain a competitive edge, he enrolled at Polk State.
“Here I was a dinosaur with a lot of young people. But I realized I was wasting time. I wanted to be an example for my daughter. I can’t tell her to go to college if I didn’t do it myself.”
Muhammad persisted, graduating with his Associate in Science in Business Administration in late 2014. Still wanting more, he immediately entered the Bachelor of Applied Science in Supervision and Management program.
Six months ago, he created a new screen saver for his computer. One photo shows a service van. He’s since bought one just like it and had it branded for NuAir. Another photo shows him in his cap and gown. He will graduate with his BAS this summer. Another photo, and the reason he traveled to Panama, shows a globe being circled by dollar bills.
“That’s international trade,” he said.
Already a licensed dealer for several major air conditioning companies, Muhammad is cultivating contacts in Africa and Panama, both of which are experiencing construction booms. As he moves into foreign markets, he said, he will be building on what he learned through the BAS program and the trip to Panama.
“The BAS has taught me how to be a better business person and how to deal with people. It’s taught me that I have to keep up on technology and laws to be a viable business. Things are constantly changing. I’ve learned to take the time to build my infrastructure so that I can grow my business” he said, crediting Business Professor Herb Nold for much of his newfound knowledge.
“This trip is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It’s going to help me in my business. And it sets an example for my kids. They’ve been texting me the whole time, asking me, ‘How is it?’ and ‘What’s going on?’ and ‘Did you spray for mosquitos?’” he said. “It shows them that they can do anything they want to do if they work for it, even study abroad.”
Polk State’s Institute for Global Initiatives offers campus events, study-abroad opportunities, and international internships designed to help students live and work in a globally connected society.