Dec. 11, 2019
What alumnus Tomas Romero’s geography studies taught him about entrepreneurship
Tomas Romero enjoyed the travelling and experiences he got through international field schools and programs while studying geography at the University of Calgary.
Now, 15 years after graduating with a Bachelor of Science in geography, Romero has embarked on different kind of adventure — as an entrepreneur running his own rum-making business.
He and his father, Diego, co-founded Romero Distilling Co. just over a year ago. They invested several millions of dollars in state-of-the-art equipment and set up shop in southeast Calgary.
“We’re the only dedicated premium craft rum producer in western Canada,” Romero says. “We’re making a Canadian product using Canadian-processed molasses and we’re a local craft distiller, building a national brand that hopefully will be international one day.”
Romero says his UCalgary education played an important part in his journey to entrepreneurship.
UCalgary’s Department of Geography program allowed him the flexibility to do independent study in Australia, supervised by geography professor (now emeritus) Arthur Limbird, on methods to remediate soils contaminated by salts. He then applied his research to cleaning up spills of saline-contaminated produced water in Alberta’s oil and gas industry.
“University taught me how to research and how to apply my research,” Romero says. “It’s about learning to learn.”
After graduating, he worked in environmental consulting before shifting to the oil and gas industry. He then became a project manager for MasTec Canada, an energy and industrial construction firm, as part of the leadership team involved in a joint venture to build the Walterdale Bridge across the North Saskatchewan River in Edmonton.
During his 3½ years on that job, Romero obtained an MBA from Athabasca University.
“It’s the educational component that allowed me to do all those things,” he notes. “To transfer your skill set to a different field is very difficult without the education piece. I’m confident that I can learn and do other things.”
Becoming an entrepreneur
Romero says he always thought about starting his own business. The bridge-building project wrapped up last year around the same time his engineer father decided to retire.
Tomas, who was interested in rum making, thought it would make a good business. “Before we made any decision to move forward, I had all the numbers laid out and we had an honest discussion about whether this was worth pursuing.”
After discovering old photographs in the Glenbow Archives, he and Diego decided to frame their business story on the “untold history of Alberta rum running.” The true tale includes a character known as “Emperor Pic,” who ran rum, whiskey and other spirits from the Blairmore Hotel in the Crowsnest Pass, through mountain passes in Alberta, British Columbia and the U.S. Pacific Northwest.
Along with a compelling story, more learning was required. Romero took workshops from the American Distilling Institute, and he worked with commissioned industry experts to learn how to make a high-quality product.
Romero Distilling now sells, at its Calgary location and online, its “sugar-cane spirit” brands. The company’s rum, now aging in dozens of large, hand-made oak casks, will be ready next July.
The business already has three employees and is contributing to the diversification of Alberta’s economy, Romero says. “Five years down the road, we’d like to have good market penetration in Alberta and neighbouring provinces and to be establishing some solid export markets in Europe, Asia and the U.S.”
Family’s links with UCalgary
As an alumnus, Tomas isn’t the Romero family’s only connection with the University of Calgary. His two sisters completed BSc degrees in the Faculty of Science.
Parents Joy and Diego support the university broadly in their philanthropy. Joy also serves as an advisor on the Faculty of Science Dean’s Circle.
“The University of Calgary is our local university and it plays so much into the fabric of our community,” says Joy, a metallurgical engineer by training.
Joy is vice-president of technology and innovation at Canadian Natural Resources Limited and is involved in several collaborative networks (including as chair of the Clean Resource Innovation Network and vice-chair for Petroleum Technology Alliance Canada). So she’s well positioned to provide the Faculty of Science with advice on the industry’s needs.
“We want to make sure that the sustainability component associated with oil and gas is a component,” she says. “And that graduates have the digital skills and other training required.”
Joy and Diego met and married as university engineering students 41 years ago. Their shared commitment to charitable giving, which began as soon as they got married, includes providing nearly 20 different organizations and community groups with financial support.
“We’re very fortunate,” Joy says. “Our educations opened doors for us and allowed us to be able to provide for our family, and contribute to where we’ve worked and to society as a whole.”
“We want to ensure that other people have the same opportunity,” Joy adds. “It’s time to give back, and it’s important to give back.”