Thomas Marrero was a professor of chemical engineering at MU, and after working for 35 years, he was looking to retire.
That is when one of his twin sons, Tony, decided to keep him busy during retirement by starting a business that also included Tom, the second twin.
“Tony has done a number of startups; he enjoys it and thought, let’s maybe start a business with him,” Tom Marrero said.
That’s how Wakefield Biochar was launched in 2014.
Seven years later, even after their father died, the brothers are co-owners of the company, which produces an organic soil conditioner that can be used on lawns, gardens and trees.
“Unfortunately, our dad passed away soon after retiring, from cancer, so that was the sad part about it,” Tom Marrero said. “But we looked at the company and said, you know, it’s actually got some teeth, things are selling, and let’s keep it in honor of our dad and see if we can keep it going.”
Wakefield Biochar is a “high-carbon-content material made from sustainably manufactured organic waste,” Tony Marrero said.
The product is sold locally at Westlake Ace Hardware and others stores, as well as through the company‘s website and online retailers like Amazon.
Biochar is actually charcoal that results from heating biomass like wood at extreme temperatures without oxygen. The idea to use this process as the basis for a business came from research conducted by Tom Marrero, who has a doctorate in chemistry, and his father at MU.
The company started small but eventually took off when positive reviews led to more sales, primarily on Amazon.
“I mean, literally, the idea of the company was to pay our cellphone bills for a family. That was literally all we wanted to do,” Tom Marrero said.
“It was a big deal to be able to sell just a couple of bags here and there, and then people started giving good reviews and it started to build,” he said.
They worked hard to get their product into stores, knocking on the doors of hardware stores and asking them to sell ittheir product. Eventually, they were offered a warehouse to store their product so they could sell through e-commerce on websites like Walmart and Target.
But Tom said his goal was to help the community and the environment before becoming a successful small business owner.
“I’m a scientist, and so small businesses were not that important to me,” he said. “I didn’t have a drive to have a small business. I had a drive to do good things for the environment and learn how to use materials in different ways.”
Military service did help teach him valuable lessons he would later use in a business field, he said.
As an ROTC graduate, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army in 1994 and actively served for four years. He then was in the Reserves for another six years.
In the Army, he was a team leader with a number of positions. He said he learned to work with people from all parts of the country, as well as understand budgeting and personnel issues.
“I learned how to manage goals and the vision of a unit, the vision of a company, strategically as well as tactically,” he said.
The brothers proudly claim they are a veteran- and minority-owned business on the front page of their website.
“We value that part of it as well and that part of our family history, so to say that we’re veteran- and minority-owned is something. We want people to know that we’ve done things that I think are good and we’re part of a history that we’re proud of,” Tom Marrero said
Reviews of their product on Amazon are typically given four or five stars. According to one review, “Biochar is incredibly easy to use and has wonderful environmental benefits. Wakefield’s price is great and it is shipped quickly. I like this company.”
Tony Marrero said a typical day running their small business means wearing a lot of hats.
“You’re prioritizing your day and understanding is it a marketing day, a finance day, a human resources day or a product development day?” he said.
Both men say they hope to continue to grow the business in honor of their father and keep it around for years to come.
“We are proud of who we are and where we came from,” Tony Marrero said.