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Natural-Born Entrepreneur Finds Niche in Food Distribution Industry

Natural-Born Entrepreneur Finds Niche in Food Distribution Industry

Rafael Rodríguez-Toymil has been an entrepreneur all his life. 

It should come as no surprise.  His father –Rafael senior— opened a gun shop after working in the insurance industry for many years, and the young Rafael spent a great deal of time helping out in the business any way he could.  One day, his dad gave him a couple of boxes filled with promotional key chains, and Rafael sold them to his friends and neighbors, getting his start in the business world. 

After graduating high school at Colegio Maristas in 1991, Rafael attended Northeastern University in Boston, Mass. His classes were conducted quarterly and, as part of a cooperative education program, after his freshman year Rafael was expected to study for six months and work for the next six.  Upon graduating in 1996 with a double major in Accounting and Management Information Systems, Rafael had already worked at accounting firms, supermarket chains and hotels. 

While those experiences gave Rafael the hands-on knowledge and training he would need down the road, they also made him realize that he didn’t want to work for anyone else again, and back in Puerto Rico he began looking for ideas to start a business of his own. 

A couple of years before Rafael graduated from Northeastern, his dad had sold the gun shop, and to keep himself busy was helping a friend’s son-in-law, who owned a slaughterhouse in Miami, import whole frozen pigs to Puerto Rico.  The senior Rafael rented freezer space in the Bechara Industrial Sector in San Juan and began promoting the product. 

It was while visiting his father one day that Rafael learned about a small meat and seafood shop across the way that was up for sale.  In August 1996, at the age of 23, with $3,000 in savings, proceeds from selling his SUV and his father’s business contacts selling to him on credit, Rafael established Mar y Tierra.   

A couple of days after its grand opening, Hurricane Hortense hit the island, leaving thousands of people without power.  Mar y Tierra remained closed for a month and a half, and Rafael lost his entire inventory. 

“After Hortense, half of my clients came back, but the other half didn’t,” Rafael says.  “There were sales, but I wanted to sell more, so I began knocking on doors.” 

A couple of those doors led to the Caribe Hilton hotel and Charthouse Restaurant, and Rafael began selling seafood to the first and Australian lobster to the latter. But as fate would have it, both clients ceased operations at the same time, and while Caribe Hilton would reopen after undergoing renovations, it was too far down the road.  Rafael needed a plan. 

“I decided to look for a niche market, and began buying whole frozen pigs from my father and selling it to lechoneras,” the entrepreneur says. 

In 2000, space was becoming a little small for Rafael’s business, and he moved to a lot in Trujillo Alto that belonged to the father of a friend. They refurbished an abandoned two-bedroom house to share as office space, while Rafael also rented a couple of freight containers to use as freezers.  By then, Rafael had already hired a delivery man.  Mar y Tierra operated from that location for the next three years, at the end of which Rafael had hired two additional employees, bought two delivery trucks and had signed a distribution agreement with a slaughterhouse in Iowa.  Business was growing and again the space became too small, prompting Rafael to buy a house located on a two-acre lot nearby and build a warehouse with loading docks. 

Another three years later the company had doubled its size, and Rafael realized that he needed to move to an even bigger location to keep operations running smoothly. 

“I bought a provisions company in El Comandante Industrial Sector in Carolina, which was in a rented building big enough to accommodate my needs at the time,” Rafael says.  “I also rented an old lumberyard in Trujillo Alto where I am currently located, with an option to buy, and operated from the rented facilities in Carolina while construction was underway.” 

The year was 2007.   By then, Rafael had already hired 18 employees, among them salespeople, a warehouse manager and a sales manager.  Also, the building he rented had enough space for 12 containers and had a small U.S. Department of Agriculture approved processing plant for meat, seafood cutting and packaging that allowed Mar y Tierra to create its own brand of meats and seafood called “Butcher’s Choice”. 

It took two years for construction to be complete, and another six months for Rafael to get all the licenses and permits he needed, but finally in 2009 Mar y Tierra moved back to Trujillo Alto.  In 2011, Rafael took out a loan with Banco Popular de Puerto Rico under the U.S. Small Business Administration’s 7(a) Loan Guaranty program, which provides financing for a variety of general business purposes, such as working capital, expansion or renovation of facilities, the purchase of machinery and equipment, and the purchase of land, among others.  

With the loan proceeds, Rafael purchased the land on which he built Mar y Tierra’s facilities. But that same year was perhaps the most difficult the business has ever seen, since many restaurants began filing for bankruptcy or closing operations, leaving accounts unpaid.  Rafael had to reinvent his marketing strategies once again, structure payment plans for his customers, and obtain an SBA-guaranteed line of credit. 

Still, the challenges have not gotten the best of Rafael. 

“With time, you learn not to be afraid,” he says. “Perhaps because I started in this business at such a young age, working seven days a week, I have learned to take things one step at a time.  I have overcome the economy’s downturn, which is perhaps the most difficult thing to do in this industry.” 

Mar y Tierra distributes and sells meat, seafood, ingredients to produce pork rind and blood sausage, and local products such as garlic, plantains, and purified water. Among its clients are restaurants, hotels, supermarkets, mom and pop stores, and lechoneras, in addition to a few new ones recently acquired in the Dominican Republic.  With 30 employees and a steady growth in annual sales year after year, Mar y Tierra has served nearly 800 clients since operations began and currently has over 450 active accounts. 

The company’s success proves quite an evolution for the little boy who sold key chains decades ago.  When asked about his advice to other entrepreneurs, Rafael smiles and says “do not be afraid of taking the next step, you can accomplish anything you want.” 

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