Rick Tromble (’78 BBA) is an entrepreneur, a successful business owner and a gentleman farmer. Tromble’s business journey began with an idea, a Small Business Administration (SBA) loan, and a Bachelor of Business Administration from the University of Michigan—Flint. Although his path did not happen exactly as he imagined it, his entrepreneurial spirit, attention to “the numbers”, and his dedication to faith and family led him to success.
Full of Ideas
Rick began working at his father’s accounting firm at the age of 17 and continued to work full-time while pursuing his education at the School of Management. From a young age, he’d had a desire to own a car dealership. Rick soon discovered that breaking into the car business was hard and started to look down other avenues. After graduation, he implemented his plan to build a drive-thru convenience store in Lapeer, called “Pop Stop,” where people could buy drinks and snacks. He secured an SBA loan, and after sucessfully operating the business for just six months he sold it for a considerable profit.
At twenty-four years of age and with $100,000 in his hand, Tromble moved on to his next idea. Again using an SBA loan, he purchased his second business, a Bay City department store called “Goddeyne’s.” Goddeyne’s was a cluster of retail stores that included a hardware store, an appliance store, and a sporting and trophy shop. Tromble worked side by side with his employees to improve the profitability of businesses over the next three years. Ultimately, in 1985, he broke up the cluster and sold them to several of those employees. The trophy shop is still owned by the woman who bought it.
With a portion of the money Rick had made in his early years, he and his wife Michele built their first home on Mullet Lake, near Cheboygan. Figuring that they had a home in Michigan to fall back on if things didn’t work out, Tromble began looking for a new entrepreneurial venture. He found it in a small fast food franchise and in 1987 moved his family to Florida to pursue his plan.
In 1988, Rick bought a single Taco Bell franchise in Venice, Florida. At the time, there were only three Taco Bells in southwest Florida, all of which were owned by Pepsi. When making his decision to invest in Taco Bell, Tromble was confident a brand owned by a company like Pepsi was a “good risk” to take. Still, the first year was not without doubts. “Here I went from wearing a tie and setting behind a desk to standing behind a fast food counter having customers yell at me over a one dollar taco,” said Tromble. He worked as the daytime manager, while his wife, Michele, was the night manager. At the same time, the couple was raising their two young daughters. Tromble admits he sometimes wondered just what he had gotten himself into.
Their dedication to the business paid off and they soon had a profitable franchise. Rick realized the only way to make his business the success he was looking for was to add more locations. That is exactly what he did. Over the next two decades, the Trombles accumulated 65 Taco Bell franchises in locations including: Tampa, Sebring, Arcadia, Avon, Naples, Vero Beach, Boca Raton, Key Largo and Key West. In the 90’s, the corporate franchise adopted a multi-brand, dual restaurant approach adding Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut to many Taco Bell locations, some of which were owned by Rick.
The Trombles built 40 stores themselves, and also purchased failing franchises and turned them around. One of the things that set their business apart from many other franchise owners was that they owned much of the real-estate associated with their businesses.
In 2005 Rick and Michele embarked on another business idea: hay for horses. Michele Tromble, an equestrian, began to board horses as they sold off several of their restaurants. After a short period of caring for their horses, Michele and Rick realized the hay grown in their home state of Michigan was far superior to the hay grown in Florida. “That stuff grown in the heat of Florida doesn’t grow well, and isn’t as nutritious as hay that’s grown in Michigan”, said Tromble.
Tromble’s entrepreneurial wheels started turning again, and he decided to grow hay on a piece of property he owned in Cheboygan, Michigan. “Michigan’s natural resources make it prime real-estate for new business,” Tromble remarked. The idea took off, and Tromble Bay Farms now has five full-time employees. In addition to the hay that started the business, the operation has expanded to include Angus beef cattle and Michele’s Tromble Equestrian Center. Each week, they send a semi-truck of hay bales to markets in Florida.
Over the years, Tromble hadn’t given up on his original idea to own a car dealership. He’d investigated buying dealerships in Michigan and Florida, but nothing worked out. Finally, in 2005, while shopping for some trucks for his farm, he made contact with his local Ford dealership. While negotiating with the dealer over the price of several trucks, Tromble made an inquiry about buying part of the dealership. Before it was over, he had purchased one third of the dealership. “Some ideas take more time than others but now I buy my trucks at wholesale”, said Tromble.
Find a Good Banker Friend
“If I had one piece of advice for someone just starting out it would be to find and keep a good banker friend” says Tromble. From the very beginning, Tromble cultivated good relationships with bankers. His first business was helped by the bankers he met in community service organizations like Kiwanis and the Rotary Club. “Being involved with your community and doing service is good for business”, says Tromble. He built up several of his businesses from SBA loans and his venture into Taco Bell was first prompted by the suggestion of one of his banker friends.
During the Taco Bell days, Tromble maintained the confidence of his bankers by inviting them to his monthly managers meetings. In these meetings, Tromble expected his store managers to report on their store’s profit and loss statements and to give detailed accounts of how their store’s status was impacting the bottom line. Tromble still feels today that the bankers were impressed with this level of attention to detail and accountability.
Tromble perhaps never needed his bankers’ confidence more than in 2000, when CBS New’s program, Sixty Minutes, ran a special reporting on Taco Bell’s use of genetically-modified corn in their taco shells. This practically killed all sales. “Everyone dropped 15% overnight,”said Tromble. His company was nearly bankrupted, at one point about $35 million in debt. For the next year, banks and creditors worked with Tromble, trying to turn it around. Tromble did turn it around, and for the next several years, experienced double-digit growth.
It was a banker friend again who made the suggestion that Rick consider selling his restaurant business. “One of my bankers informed me that he was representing the interests of several private equity groups, who were looking for a company with assets of approximately $100 million dollars. When I was first approached about the sale of my business, I didn’t think it was worth what the investors were looking to spend. So, I went back to my office and did what I do. I ran the numbers. After a few calculations, I found that the business my wife and I had created was in fact in that ballpark,” Said Tromble.
In 2005, when the capitalization rate was low, Rick and Michele decided it was time to sell. At that time, they sold 29 properties, and in 2007 they sold the rest of the company. Tromble did keep several of the best real-estate holdings from his restaurants. The new owners now pay him rent on those properties. “I kept those for a little retirement income”, said Tromble. What does “retirement” look like for Rick? Not what most us would consider retirement. For Tromble it means continuing to run twelve companies in the farming, real-estate and property management industries.
Tromble feels his BBA from the School of Management has served him well. The skills he gained as a SOM student and in his accounting work enabled him to be successful. Tromble acted as the Chief Financial Officer of his restaurant company, and did all of his own accounting. In fact, up until the last two years of owning the business, he signed all 1500 of his employee’s paychecks and on average produced 4000 W2 forms annually. “An accounting degree from UM-Flint gives you the knowledge you need to see how companies run and operate. If you understand accounting, work hard, and are disciplined about looking at the balance sheet you can be successful. Understanding the details of your business allows you to stay focused on the big picture.” said Tromble.
Success is More than Dollar Signs
Rick Tromble is not just an accomplished entrepreneur. He’s also a husband and father. He and Michele met while students at Lapeer High School, and married young. The couple celebrated their thirty-fifth anniversary in 2011. Between the farm, the horses, the car dealership, and all the other things that make up life, they’re busy people. When asked about how he was able to balance all the things in his life he offered this piece of advice, “Commit to a date night once a week with your spouse. And it does not hurt to have a little help from up above.”
The Trombles currently split their time between their farm in Cheboygan, Michigan and their oceanfront homes in Englewood, and Key West, Florida. When they are not working on the farm, Rick enjoys hunting and reading Field and Stream Magazine. Michele enjoys spending time in a garage that Rick renovated into an art studio for her. The couple enjoys spending time with their five grandchildren.
What’s next for Rick Tromble? It seems the possibilities are endless. And it all started at UM-Flint.