Stone Bold

Fort Worth entrepreneur – and part-time Texas legislator – Ramon Romero builds a life’s business in luxury pools, stone, and rehabbing houses in his Poly backyard. And about that restaurant…

Ramon Romero Jr.’s dad was never short on lessons he dispensed to his eight children when they were growing up in Southeast Fort Worth’s middle-class Poly neighborhood. “My dad used to say, ‘when you make a little money, spend a little money,’” Romero says. “But when you spend money, spend it on something that gives you money back. Don’t spend it on cars. Jewelry. Women. Spend it on dirt.”

Ramon Romero Sr. retired from a 40-year job as a line butcher, making $13 an hour, but that was more than enough to make some investments, Romero says. “Whenever there was a house for sale in the neighborhood, he’d buy it.” Then he put his kids to work on it. “I grew up under the house or on the roof.”

“Compra ganado,” the dad would say. Buy cattle. “Back in those days, if you had cows, you won,” says Romero, whose father emigrated to the U.S. from Mexico on a work permit at age 20.

So, here’s Romero, now 44, driving across the bridge over Sycamore Creek, where he fished golf balls out of the stream, sold them to golfers on the course, and then decamped to Ashburn’s on East Rosedale Street for ice cream.

Here’s Romero driving the neighborhoods where he used to work beneath houses as a kid. Only now, he’s got his own houses he rehabs and keeps as rentals or flips to somebody he’d like to see move in and help bring Southeast Fort Worth back from beaten up.

Here’s Romero dropping by the main Poly offices of the pool coping company he started 23 years ago and the stone supply company he launched in the same offices after he had a bad experience with a vendor and decided, why, he’d just get into the business. “I’ll be straight with you,” Romero says. “Ramon is not rich. Ramon has a lot of stone to sell.” Ramon has built his business – he estimates an average $5 million in sales per year. Where he once focused on volume, now he likes to take high-end jobs where building the pool cap and accoutrements sometimes takes weeks. Where he once had about 80 employees, he now has about 40.

Here’s Romero, dropping by the midcentury modern home he bought in Poly at age 21 – adding the third home to his portfolio at the time – just a few blocks off of East Lancaster Street, known as Fort Worth’s homeless corridor. Romero still lives here. The 1-acre lot is a shady, quiet oasis, and, of course, there’s a pool and more in the backyard. “So,” Romero says, entering the backyard, “I build fireplaces, swimming pools, cabanas, outdoor kitchens.”

Finally, a short time later, here’s Romero, back behind the wheel, driving up East Lancaster toward downtown, up a little hill off of the street and into an encampment of tents and people who have no homes. Just days earlier, Romero had participated in a citywide homeless census. He wants to dispel what he says are a lot of myths about homelessness. “They’re not all mentally unstable. They’re not all vets with PTSD. There are a whole lot of normal folks out there.”

Things have come full circle for Romero. “It’s not about making a profit anymore,” he says. “It’s about what input can I have on people’s lives.”

Romero, in the backyard of his Poly home with fiancee Marylou Cabral and dogs Kobe and Carter

“Experience to Lead” Romero, who served on Fort Worth’s planning and zoning commissions, ran for City Council representing the Southeast Fort Worth district that includes Poly in 2012 and lost the race for an open seat. In Fort Worth, incumbents typically have establishment money lined up behind their re-election campaigns. Romero’s campaign was unusual in that he had a good number of those contributors behind him, even though he didn’t have the office.

Steve Murrin, the former city council member widely recognizable for his handlebar mustache and 10-gallon hats, still keeps the “Ramon Romero” folder he filled with notes from when he introduced Romero around ahead of that election. A flier in the folder touts Romero’s “experience to lead,” his ownership of businesses in Poly, service on the city’s golf advisory committee, presidency of the El Poly Pyramid Neighborhood Association, and family history in the district.

“He was on the zoning board, and I noticed him there,” Murrin remembers. “He always had a businessman’s approach to zoning. I just liked him personally. He could stand back and do what was good for the city of Fort Worth. I called all these people and said, here’s a guy who needs to get elected, and he won’t disappoint you. We raised about $8,000.”

Romero subsequently got himself elected to the state Legislature, representing Southeast Fort Worth. “Life is hard for everyday folks,” he says. “These people don’t have a lobbyist. I consider myself a lobbyist for these folks.”

Murrin says he has no idea of Romero’s political ambitions; Romero, a Democrat, keeps these tight, if he has ambitions beyond being a state legislator. “I think he’s the kind of guy who could be governor,” Murrin says. “I think he’s like me, and I consider myself to be a Remocratic Depublican. I go both ways.”

Debra Smith, co-owner of Pulliam Pools, one of Romero’s earliest clients, has been one of his longest-standing mentors. Romero was 21 when he asked for work from Pulliam. “I gave him a chance,” Smith remembers. “Something happened on his first job, and I wasn’t going to let him back in, but he came to me, hat in hand, and asked for another chance.”

Romero became one of Pulliam’s highest-volume producers before he changed his focus to more complex jobs from high volume. “They’re still my No. 1 client,” Romero says. “We do about $1 million in business with them” annually.

Smith isn’t saying what happened on that first job. “I don’t want to say what,” she says, laughing. “People who are very young don’t always understand keeping an even keel. It took him a lot to admit you may not have done your best. I find that to be 90 percent of success.”

Smith, a Republican, says she wouldn’t be surprised if Romero one day reached for national elected office. “I wouldn’t be surprised one iota if he reached for that level,” she said.

“God, Send Me a Signal” Romero’s business life hasn’t been free from lows. In June 2013, a man was killed after being shot in the parking lot of the popular restaurant, Picante Sports Cantina, that Romero had opened months earlier at East Rosedale and U.S. Highway 287. The incident, widely covered by local media, even made the New York Times Weekend Gun Report blog. “Do I have to talk about the restaurant business?” Romero says.

Picante represented Romero making adjustments on the fly. He and Pulliam Pools owner Barry Pulliam decided to go in together on a showroom on the site of a junkyard at Rosedale and U.S. 287 that Romero had purchased and cleaned up. Their plans for what the two envisioned as an outdoor products design center were scuttled when Pulliam learned he had cancer.

Romero had to move onto another idea, and he chose restaurant, investing $400,000 in buying, cleaning up and renovating the property. His aim was to bring a good restaurant, watering hole and neighborhood meeting place to the retail-starved highway gateway to Texas Wesleyan University. “We just need a place to have a quality restaurant,” Romero says of his rationale. “There isn’t any place to drink a beer at a quality establishment without going downtown.”

Picante opened in May 2012 to strong reviews of the food, ambiance and experience, and it quickly became a meeting spot for Poly groups, as Romero predicted. Picante was doing $80,000-$90,000 a month in revenue, Romero says. “It was fairly successful,” he says. He and the staff were wary of hooligans, sending anybody whom they suspected of ill intentions away. Unfortunately, “there were some influences who brought the wrong people in,” Romero says.

Romero was in the restaurant when the late-night fight broke out. It poured into the parking lot, where shots erupted from a passing vehicle and a man was struck. The man wandered off and died later at a hospital. The restaurant’s “Picante” sign appeared prominently in television news coverage. Afterwards, Romero says he prayed.

“God, send me a signal.”

And God said, “I just did,” Romero says. “Loud and clear. Right then, I put the restaurant up for sale.” He still owns the real estate, home to a Tex-Mex family-oriented restaurant that doesn’t serve alcohol.

Today, life is considerably more peaceful for Romero. Besides his coping and stone businesses, he’s grown his portfolio of 36 residential and commercial properties since the recession, where his stock market portfolio got creamed in the downturn. “This is my moneymaker,” Romero says, showing off the measuring wheel he keeps in his 2013 Mercedes-Benz.

Most of the property is in Poly, around where Romero grew up. He has people working on a house in Morningside that he’s remodeling. He bought the house for $22,000 from the city and is investing about $60,000 in remodeling costs, including new roof, electric, plumbing, and siding, gutted interior with new windows and refinished wood floors. “Will it be worth 250 when the neighborhood changes? Absolutely.”

He’s also working on a rehab in South Hemphill Heights, paying $36,000 to buy it. He’s got another $50,000 in it. “This one is about $100,000 away from complete renovation,” he says. “But you’re a house or two away from a really good block. For $20,000 [in cheap remodeling], I could have put somebody in paying $900 [rent], and it’d still be an eyesore.”

Romero prides himself on having been debt-free since he was 21, but says, lately, he’s taken on some debt in the rehab business.

Romero, on the bridge over Sycamore Creek, where he fished golf balls as a youth

Always a Salesman Romero says he’s always looked for ways to make money since he was a child. “Growing up Latino, the boys are told to go to work, and the girls are told to stay home and study,” he says.

He used to sit outside a self-service car wash on East Rosedale near his home. Anyone paying to clean their own car might pay $1.50, he says. Romero offered to wash customers’ cars for $5, pocketing the $3.50 profit.

As a high school sophomore, he worked as a part-time telemarketer, setting up health insurance appointments on commission and estimating he was making $450-$700 a week.

He left home at 16 years old. Ranked 7th in his class at Poly High School, he skipped a day. His father found out. “He said you skip one more day, and you’d better find somewhere else to live,” Romero says. So, Ramon left home, renting a house in Fort Worth's Arlington Heights. “I was already making a lot of money,” he says.

At 17, he bought his first house after his girlfriend – and future wife – became pregnant with their son. “Dad sold me a house for $7,000,” says Romero, who remodeled and lived in the garage apartment and rented the main house to a tenant.

He started an irrigation business because he wanted a skill. “I was spending a lot of time digging holes,” he says. Then in 1995, he went into the pool business, starting A-Fast Tile and Coping with one employee, his brother’s best friend, who’d been doing the work for 10 years. Romero knew nothing of pools – “I’d never even mixed a bucket of cement” – but he provided the capital, ran the back office while his employee managed the jobs, and learned the trade. “The expertise was there,” he says.

In 1999, Romero started Stone Mason Supply out of A-Fast’s Poly offices, after a prominent Fort Worth vendor charged him an $800 restocking fee for stone that Romero says the company incorrectly loaded. “I said, ‘man, I need to be in that business,’” Romero says.

Smith, his Pulliam Pools mentor, says that’s when Romero’s business began to take off. “He found different quarries on his own, he drove all over the U.S. finding quarries,” she says. “He opened his own yard. That’s when his business really grew.”

Romero expanded A-Fast’s menu beyond coping – building the caps around the edges of pools. Figuring he was already on a job site doing stone work, he looked for other pieces of work he could pick up. A-Fast designs and creates plans for pool renovations and offers itself up as provider of everything in the outdoor setting. “What else can you do while you’re there?” Romero says. “Why is my portion of the job only $10,000?”

Romero scaled back on volume after the 2008 recession, but his average ticket has gone up. His ticket, once an average $4,000 with 25-30 jobs per week, now ranges between $30,000 and $50,000, with four to five jobs per week, he says.

In 1995, Romero bought his third house, the one where he lives today, buying it out of businessman Jack Newell's estate for $21,500. Romero added a pool, waterfall, slide, cabana, outdoor kitchen, and fireplace, and bought more property around it, for a site that’s now 1.6 acres. It has two outbuildings, one of which Romero – divorced several years ago – is rehabbing for the offices of his fiancée, Marylou Cabral, a marriage and family counselor.

Romero levers efficiencies from his businesses to lower the costs of the rehab jobs he does and add value, like nice countertops and floors. “When my guys have extra time, I put them to work on my projects,” he says. “We cut out the middlemen. We cut costs. We run a really tight ship.”

His dad, now 76, liked to help his tenants find homes to buy. “You can do a deal and help your community at the same time,” Romero says. Here’s where Romero does things differently than his dad, who he says would let things go with his properties. “I was always telling him, if you raise the rent, you can afford to fix these things,” Romero says.

On the flip side, “I wish I had a little more restraint. But you should build as if you were going to live in it yourself.”

Romero continues to live frugally. He started paying himself a $58,000 annual salary in 1999, and says he reinvests his surplus earnings in his businesses. “I’ve never paid myself more than that.”

He likes life outside the box. “I’ve been outside the box my whole life,” he says. “I’ve been a commissioned salesman everything I’ve ever done my whole life.”

Photography by Olaf Growald