Tomas Romero: If I couldn’t have done it online, I wouldn’t have done it.
Tomas Romero is an entrepreneur, family man, and Athabasca University (AU) Faculty of Business alumnus. The 2016 MBA graduate spoke with us about how his MBA gave him the confidence to take a calculated risk by opening Romero Distilling Company.
Why AU’s MBA?
Romero comes from an oil and gas background, and it was during this time in his life that he decided to pursue his MBA at AU. Joy Romero, his mother, took the same program and graduated in 2006. She has stayed involved with the program through the Faculty of Business’ Leadership Advisory Council, but he noted that it was his company at the time that really had nudged him to pursue it.
“I had great ideas, but I was young and lacking business acumen,” he said. “I wanted to speed up improving business skills and AU’s MBA program was the right choice for me.”
Midway through the program he transitioned to construction project management as a project manager on the Walterdale Bridge Replacement Project in Edmonton. Working full time and out of town, he had to balance work, a young family, and an education. AU’s flexibility made that possible for him.
“If I couldn’t have done it online, I wouldn’t have done it. I was on the road; I was working long hours. I had family commitments. This was the only fit,” Romero said. “Another program wouldn’t have worked for me.”
The next big thing
Romero completed the program in 2016. In late 2017, as the bridge project was winding down, he started looking seriously into craft distilling. It started out as just an idea, but soon things started to come together. His mother serendipitously sat beside an individual at a networking event that had helped others start up both micro-breweries and craft distilleries. He agreed to meet, they got along well, and shortly thereafter he agreed to mentor Romero through the process.
“It was really a coincidence and such a chance encounter,” he said.
After looking at the numbers and meeting some other successful people in the industry through his mentor, he decided to enter into a formal business arrangement with his newly retired father Diego Romero to seriously pursue the new venture.
Romero said it was also during this time that he leaned on the tools he gained from his MBA to critically explore this new path.
“I was looking at this idea with all different types of lenses, especially in the first year,” he said.
The skills Romero gained from his MBA, combined with his project management and construction experience, were a winning combination. He and his business partner—his father, an engineer by trade—were involved with every facet of the project. They hired engineering and architectural firms to help with the design but served as general contractors throughout construction. They were also general labourers, assembled all the equipment, and then finally were able to start crafting their product.
He explained the process it actually takes to craft his premium spirits is a complicated and lengthy process. They paid deliberate attention to find opportunities for efficiency, including a major energy-saving move. As a product of the distillation process, the excess hot water created is captured and recycled rather than being put down the drain. Not only does this save energy, but it saves water. By capturing it and moving it into a huge 8,000-litre water tank they re-use close to 32,000 litres of water a week and conserve roughly 3 million British thermal unit (BTU) in energy over the same time period. This recycled hot water is used for cleaning equipment and setting the next fermentations.
As the only craft distillery in Western Canada dedicated to producing rum, Romero settled on crafting not just any rum, but a premium rum.
“Beer consumption is going down, while premiumization of spirits is going up,” he said. “And what does that mean? It means people are drinking less but spending more on the spirits they are buying and consuming.”
After deciding that it was going to be a premium rum, he decided to focus on only three products, done really well. He landed on amber, spiced, and dark.
To keep his final products consistent, Romero also chose his casks carefully. He sources his once-used bourbon casks from Woodford Reserve in Kentucky.
“I wanted to make sure that the flavour profile stayed the same and that it didn’t vary from bottle to bottle or cask to cask, so we chose a reliable top quality supplier that will be around decades down the road,” he said.
Open for business
With a full bar, licensed retail space, and the manufacturing area, Romero has created a full-service space. He has three full-time staff, plus himself and Diego.
With the support of his family—including his business partner and father Diego, his mother Joy, his wife Nerissa, and three kids, Isabel, Ryder, and Dani—Tomas isn’t slowing down.
They’re going through five totes a month of custom blended molasses that weigh in at 1,125 kg per tote. They have more than 80 casks aging right now, and that number is also growing.
Already at 7500 bottles a month, this is just the start for Romero Distilling Company.