During a fall semester in Hamilton’s New York City Program, economics major Bobby Finan ’13 discovered a) that investment banking wasn’t for him and b) the consumer products aspect of business was. At the time, craft distilleries were popping up everywhere, and Finan found them fascinating.
He returned to campus convinced he would launch his own after he graduated. “In the naivete of youth, I thought, ‘That wouldn’t be too hard; that looks fun,’” he recalls.
It was hard, but he did it, working with a partner. And his company, Tommyrotter Distillery in his hometown of Buffalo, has been successful. And nimble. Zigzagging with the times, Tommyrotter recently added a product that consumers can’t get enough of — hand sanitizer. Finan and his partner decided to produce sanitizer because of the pressing community need and because it would be good for their company.
His first lessons in the world of spirits came right after graduation, when he went straight from Hamilton to a job with a distillery in Cooperstown, N.Y., learning, among other aspects of the business, to make spirits and to navigate the industry's arcane regulations.
Experience gained, he returned to Buffalo, thinking he could launch a distillery for far less than six figures, with loans from friends and relatives. Not actually, as it turned out, but a high school buddy introduced him to his father, a potential investor who liked Finan’s business plan. Tommyrotter, will mark its fifth year of operation this summer. Finan is the master distiller, creating the recipes.
Tommyrotter has steadily increased its market from western to Upstate New York and several surrounding states. With a new distribution partner, the distillery was poised to break into the national bar market in 2020, but the coronavirus put the brakes on that, prompting the decision to produce sanitizer.
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Finan had to quickly digest newly enacted regulations from an alphabet soup of government agencies. And he had to scout out materials amidst a “mad rush” for ethanol and isopropanol alcohol. The distillery sold its first 500 gallon batch primarily to businesses that provide essential services, and a second batch is in progress.
The plan is to continue to produce sanitizer through June, which is the current expiration date of the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau authorization that allows distilleries to make the product.
It’s been wild at times, Finan says. On the business side, the coronavirus crisis has reinforced for him the value of managing costs. Tommyrotter has always done this with a firm hand, he says, which left it well positioned to deal with the coronavirus economy. “On a personal level, I don't know this is a lesson as much as an unveiling of just how fragile everything can be, whether financial plans or personal plans,” he says.