A Life Distilled

Thomas Neely could have been satisfied with a successful business life. But he chose to throw himself into a small Fort Worth distillery.

By Jason Forrest
Forrest Performance Group

Thomas Neely walked into a liquor store one day as a regular shopper, not expecting to audition for a new job. As it turned out, this day would be quite different than any other.

By December 2015, Neely had already been in the alcohol business for 20 years. And while visiting the liquor store one day as a patron, he ran into one of the owners of a Fort Worth business called Trinity River Distillery. The company had been open for just four years at the time and didn’t yet have a facility open to the public, and Neely impressed them with his knowledge and savvy in the course of an otherwise run-of-the-mill conversation.

Eight months later, Neely put pen to paper as the company’s newest CEO, president and owner alongside the other four owners. He knew the hours at a small business would stretch him, and he’d routinely be pulled outside his comfort zone as a man asked to wear a number of different hats in the company. Given the fact that the alcohol industry markets to recreation, that would mean lots of odd hours and weekends spent promoting the brand and traveling for marketing and business purposes.

But he refused to let such an enticing opportunity pass him by. From the company culture to the product itself, Neely was sold on the tribulations and triumphs to come.

“I was just shopping at one of the stores by my house, and I ran into one of the owners, Don Alexander,” Neely said. “He was doing a tasting, and I tried the products. He and I spoke for a few minutes, and I talked about my background in the industry and basically just gave him some free advice. Don and some of the other owners called me back after that, and I guess we just got to the point where they decided they’d offer me a position.”

It turned out to be quite the decision. Sometimes, the safest place to be is the one that feels the scariest. Lions are designed to provoke fear. But the real danger lies with the smaller, quieter lionesses. In the animal kingdom, the lion’s job is to roar and send prey scattering away from the startling noise—right into the path of the waiting lionesses, the true hunters.

Likewise, humans sometimes have an instinctive desire to shy from pursuits that look and sound scary. But often, running toward those challenges and conflicts is the best – or only – way to grow and meet our goals. In business, those who run from the deafening noise never reach their full potential, while those who turn and face the fear thrive.

Neely ran directly into the roar, and Trinity River is flourishing in part because of Neely’s decision not to play it safe.

In 2016, Neely’s first year, Trinity River doubled its revenue from the previous year, and they’re on pace to double it again in 2017 to nearly $3 million. Thanks to a locked-in sales team, a great product and some business-side help from Neely, the company is rapidly becoming one of North Texas’ fastest up-and-coming whiskey and vodka brands. And they’ve done some things to shake up the market in the process.

One of Trinity River’s most distinctive qualities is the water they use in the distilling process. Instead of using tap water, or even purified water, they use rainwater collected from a basin on the roof of their Fort Worth warehouse. This smooths out their products, removes the bite and creates a more distinct flavor that gives them a layer of uniqueness all their own. Realizing this fact was perhaps undermarketed, Neely and the team put small water drops on the bottles and market them as “Made With Texas Rainwater.”

As a CEO of a small company – the distillery employs nine salaried employees and about 10 hourly – one of the realities Neely knew he’d have to juggle was the constant tug-of-war over his time.

“Time management is one of the most difficult things for a CEO or a president of a small company,” Neely said. “You’re tasked with having to be a part of every department. And not just having a weekly meeting with them; it’s day in and day out.”

For Neely, that means working with the individual sales reps on the ground and coaching them to best represent the product. It means setting the agenda for marketing programs to get the brand’s name into the public eye.

It means being in on the operations side, doing things like changing labels, filling orders or overseeing inventory. It means community outreach events like connecting with charities and hosting local events on weekends.

How do you juggle all those balls and do each one at peak efficiency and quality? That’s part of the roar Neely was running toward, and he and his team responded with unquestioned energy.

Not only has the team succeeded under the weight of its growing size and product demand, but it’s thrived as well, as one of Fort Worth’s most exciting young brands.