As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Rifino Valentine, Founder & President of Valentine Distilling Co.
Rifino has a passion for quality and this passion makes quality the key ingredient in everything that Valentine works on. He spent his childhood growing up in Leelanau County in Michigan. He then ventured off during his college years to attend Cornell University where he majored in economics as well as was a team member of the wrestling team. In 1993, Valentine graduated from Cornell with his degree. From there, he went on to Wall Street where he was an equities trader for 11 years.
His adventure into the spirits industry all started while he was out one night and had ordered a dirty martini. Valentine realized that the only way he could receive a dirty martini was to consume a mass-produced, imported vodka. And people were claiming those to be “top shelf.” Yet, he didn’t understand why he wasn’t able to find a quality American produced vodka. This set him out on his mission that is known today as Valentine Distilling Co.
In 2005, he came back to Michigan and started working side-by-side with Dr. Berglund who leads Michigan State University’s Artisan Distilling program. Dr. Berglund mentored Rifino to show him the ropes of fine distilling craftsmanship.
His experience on Wall Street led Valentine to realize we were losing quality manufacturing in America. It is moving overseas, and mass production has diminished the quality of products. Rifino set out on a goal to create a manufacturing business revolving around distilling quality products in the former birthplace of manufacturing known as Detroit. And in 2007, he founded Valentine Distilling Co. with the intent to show America that quality manufacturing still exists in Detroit. Valentine Distilling Co. is globally and nationally recognized.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I grew up on a farm in the northern lower peninsula of Michigan. I was actually born on the farm, my dad serving as a midwife. It wasn’t a typical farm though. It was more of an effort of my parents, who both grew up in cities, to get away from the unhealthy aspects of life. So, we raised chickens and goats. We ate mostly what we grew or raised organically… I still can’t stand the taste of goat’s milk! What we didn’t grow or raise ourselves, we bought from local farm markets.
We planted evergreens to replace the barren pastureland at first just for the benefit of the environment. My dad also ran tree planting crews every spring and fall, and figures they’ve planted more than 2 million trees in the tri-county area. The trees that we planted on the farm eventually turned into a Christmas tree and landscaping tree business.
I wrestled since I was nine years old and that led to being recruited by Cornell University. After earning a degree in Economics, I landed a job on Wall Street and worked there for more than a decade. It was there that I saw firsthand the degradation of manufacturing and is ultimately what led me to start Valentine Distilling Co. in 2007.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
It wasn’t one! It was a multitude of mistakes. If I had known what I didn’t know about this industry, I may not have even started this company! In general, though, it was this preconception that if you make a better product, people will buy it. When I was writing the business plan, I got the best piece of advice from someone in the industry. And that was, “you are not in the liquor producing business, you are in the liquor selling business.” But even with that advice, I didn’t realize the strength of the corporate machines that create our shopping experiences. What I mean is, every shelf, every placement in a retail store is controlled by a handful of massive conglomerates. To breakthrough that as an independent manufacturer was a massive undertaking. Quickly learning how to break through that and speak directly to consumers was crucial to our early success.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
I think what helped me most in my career was the people that I was surrounded by. Beginning with my parents, who were organic farming entrepreneurs, and then through Cornell and my NYC days. Many of my friends from those times are the hardest working, dedicated, and successful people. Books and podcasts seem so far removed from my everyday life that it’s sometimes hard to relate. But, actually, being around people that do amazing things, you can’t help but have that rub off on you and inspire you. I do enjoy podcasts now such as Alex Bloomberg’s Start Up. It lets you know that you’re not alone in the difficult times you face as an entrepreneur.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
When I started Valentine Distilling Co. my vision was to create a distillery focused on quality above all else, because that is simply the way business is meant to be done. Along with this, I had a purpose and drive to prove manufacturing in America and specifically Detroit is excellent. My vision and purpose stems from an appreciation of the American craftsman, working by hand, making one-of-a-kind items that stand the test of time. In distillation, this means selecting the best ingredients, distilling in small batches, and taking care in every single step of the process.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
My number one principle goes back to my vision and purpose in founding Valentine Distilling Co. It’s my philosophy that everything I do must be done with quality in mind above all else; the way it was meant to be done. When I am making decisions on the future of Valentine Distilling Co. and how we can pivot during difficult times, such as what we are seeing now, I make those decisions based on quality. Regardless of what we are producing, it is the Valentine promise it is produced with the highest level of quality always.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
I think one of the most important things that I’ve realized from this pandemic is the mental strain that it has been for all of us. Recognizing the mental stress and anxiety, accepting it, and moving forward is important.
Can you share a few of the biggest work-related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Valentine Distilling Co. is based in Michigan. As many other states have done, a ‘Stay Home, Stay Safe’ executive order was ordered. Bars are closed and restaurants are limited to takeout and delivery. We are still in a period of uncertainty in regard to when bars and restaurants will open fully. As a result, we had to make difficult decisions, as many others in the beverage hospitality industry have done, on what our pivot was to keep the company running, producing quality products, and our employees fed. We’ve addressed these challenges by pivoting to producing hand sanitizer. It was important to us to make this pivot as we pride ourselves on being Michiganders and a regional manufacturer. Due to a supply chain breakdown, many Michiganders were unable to find hand sanitizer on the shelves. Since we are a regional manufacturer, we were able to quickly provide them this high-demand product. Our pivot plays into a larger story on how regional manufacturing supports the local economy and fills a need conglomerates cannot. We urge consumers to remember this and remember how regional businesses supported them throughout this time, so they can support them through buying their other products.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the corona virus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
Everyone is experiencing some level of anxiety in relation to or as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. To offer support to my family and loved ones feeling anxious, I reflect back on purpose. We are all living a new normal with no clear sign of an end. While everything is unclear, I find it is important to make sure one’s purpose is clear. For my business, it is quality and that dictates my decisions. I encourage those feeling anxious to reflect on their purpose and make their decisions in alignment.
Obviously, we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
I believe a few of the opportunities align with what Valentine Distilling Co. has been doing all along. I believe the first opportunity is in changing the culture of manufacturing. Manufacturing is not just a profit machine. Quality of products and manufacturing socially and environmentally responsible should be a priority, as consumers want to know they are being taken care of from a health standpoint. I also believe regional manufacturing has thrived throughout COVID-19. As I mentioned, we were able to fill a need in the supply chain no one else could. I believe there will be opportunity to continue this momentum as people will remember the small companies that were there for them throughout this time. Finally, I believe there is an opportunity to continue being socially responsible. We raised $12,000 to support beverage hospitality workers in need throughout this time. Giving back to the community needs to be a norm after this crisis is over, not just an exception.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
While no one can tell the future, I think consumers overall will be more conscious of the brands they are purchasing from or engaging with. Many experts are predicting social distancing will be the new normal for many months once lock down orders are lifted. If those in the hospitality industry cannot comply, or are not performing at the highest health standards, consumers will not purchase from them. We know positive word-of-mouth spreads fast, but negative word-of-mouth spreads faster. That is why meeting health standards will be vital or a business will simply not survive.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
Early on, we pivoted our production to hand sanitizer. We ceased all other operations to devote all our energy and resources toward that end. For me, it solidified my business philosophy; the importance of regional manufacturing. Regional manufacturers are part of the fabric of a community. We are connected to our neighbors in a way that global corporations cannot.
Whether we continue hand sanitizer as product or not, I’m preparing the business to come out of this stronger than we were before. We’ve got a long way to go before that happens, but we’re taking the steps now. The extra strain on the business has exposed some of the weaknesses we had as an organization, so while we have the time, we are fixing those issues and trying to look as far forward as we can and plan for the new landscape.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
I would encourage others to find a pivot that makes sense and to dive in, casting fears to the side. We pivoted to producing hand sanitizer, because we wanted to help support front line workers. Then it became a need for Michiganders across the state. When pivoting, I encourage others to pivot in a direction which supports your purpose and vision for the company as well.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Gold medals aren’t really made of gold. They’re made of sweat, determination, and a hard-to-find alloy called guts.”- Dan Gable
You’ll never be the smartest, make the best decisions in the world, or have all the answers. But most shortcomings or mistakes can be overcome with just plain hard work.
How can our readers further follow your work?
You can further follow our work via our social media channels.https://www.instagram.com/valentinedistillingco/