A success story powered by family

A success story powered by family


Decades before he launched Green Biologics, Thomas Grote understood family business. Tom’s father, Jim, founded Donatos Pizza in 1963. Tom was born in 1964.

Decades before he launched Green Biologics, Thomas Grote understood family business. Tom’s father, Jim, founded Donatos Pizza in 1963. Tom was born in 1964.

“We joke that I was probably conceived in the kitchen of the restaurant,” Tom said with a laugh.

Like his father before him, Tom Grote grew up in a family business. Tom’s family lived behind the original Donatos at 1000 Thurman Ave. Tom was the eldest of four children, all of whom worked at the pizza shop.

“I’d stand up on a chair and make pizzas when I was 5,” Tom said. “I very much remember my father’s meetings with (Senior Vice President) Fred Hadley at Huntington, and now it’s (Senior Vice President) Bill Remias (representing the bank). But Huntington was there in the beginning for us, giving us some of our very first loans, particularly with our real estate portfolio.

“Huntington was there through our initial expansion,” Tom added, “and then when we hit that recession Huntington was very much there for us. It was a relationship nurtured over the course of 30 years.”

Tom got his finance degree at Miami University of Ohio and was deeply affected by a strategic planning course he’d taken. When he returned to Columbus after graduation, he applied what he’d learned to a strategic plan for the family business, which had grown to include seven pizza shops along with the Grote Co., a food processing business. He and the company aimed to become what Tom termed “No. 1 in Columbus.”1 They succeeded.

With that goal conquered, Donatos started franchising the pizza business. Tom became chief operating officer; his sister Jane became chief people officer, overseeing human resources. Katie, his other sister, ran catering; his brother Kyle also worked in the business.

“We worked very well together, but it wasn’t easy,” Tom said, describing family business dealings. “One of the advantages of a family business is that you get to yell at each other and you don’t get fired. It was actually really good for the business because it created a lot of healthy discussion around strategy.”

After McDonald’s Corp. purchased Donatos in 1999 for an undisclosed price, Tom was sent to Philadelphia to open that market.

“(But I) got an itch,” he said. “I realized I would really like to do something else.”

He got his master of business administration from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and left Donatos.

“(That) was very traumatic,” he said. “I was the oldest child, I was the heir apparent, frankly. But all the big corporation stuff wasn’t working for me.”

Though Tom assisted in the 2003 repurchase of Donatos from McDonald’s, at Wharton, Tom became fascinated with clean tech. Just as Jim Grote worked with his father to buy Donatos, taking a loan, Tom Grote worked with his father to buy butylfuel™, a Columbus-based biorefining and industrial biotechnology company, in 2007.

Like ethanol, butanol was originally intended as a replacement fuel for transportation. But butanol had wider capability, serving as a replacement for petroleum-based chemicals in paint, plastics, cosmetics and food ingredients.

In 2012, butylfuel merged with Green Biologics of Abingdon, England. The deal’s financial terms weren’t disclosed. Tom became the merged company’s chief financial officer. When the merger was announced, Green Biologics understood the potential of butanol as a drop-in biofuel, as well as a “blend” fuel that could be mixed with biodiesel, ethanol and isobutanol, or as an upgraded jet fuel for the $50 billion aviation market.

Green Biologics has a pilot plant right next to the Donatos’ Columbus headquarters. After raising $100 million, Green Biologics purchased a commercial-grade ethanol plant in Little Falls, Minnesota. The plant is converting for butanol production and slated to reopen in 2016. As a global company producing and selling for a global market, Green Biologics’ second commercial plant might be anywhere in the world.

Despite Green Biologics’ global scope, Tom said, the company maintains strong ties with its Ohio-headquartered lender.

“With Green Biologics, our family uses Huntington’s private banking services, and they’re my go-to place for everything I need,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of different (limited liability corporations), a lot of different investment vehicles, all kinds of bank accounts, and it gets kind of complex. With butylfuel we went right with Huntington . . . and then when we raised the big pot of cash to build the plant, all of those funds were kept at the Huntington. For Green Biologics to use Huntington here in the U.S., the relationships were there and the service was definitely there. We didn’t even consider going anywhere else.”

Away from his businesses, Tom has become a force for the LGBT community. He founded Equality Ohio, a nonprofit education and advocacy group. He led the first board, raised initial funding, hired staff and devised the first strategic plan.

“(Donatos was) one of the first businesses in Columbus to have a policy prohibiting discrimination against gays and lesbians.” Tom said. “We were one of the first to have domestic partner benefits for gay partners, too.”

Tom speaks fondly of his father’s, and Huntington’s, support of LGBT issues.

“I have spent 20 years doing advocacy around LGBT issues and I have watched Huntington grow to be quite progressive on this issue, to the point where the CEO actually marches in the gay Pride Parade every year,” he said. “The last two years, Huntington has had the largest contingent of anybody, over 300 people, in those damn lime green T-shirts! I can’t even begin to tell you how impressed I’ve been by that and how much that means to me. . . . And I can’t tell you how much it must mean to the LGBT employees and people who just care about equality issues who work at the bank.”

Tom and his partner, Rick Neal, joined their young daughter, Amoret, in serving as grand marshals for Ohio’s Pride Parade in 2010. Amoret and her sister, Sophia, already have Huntington savings accounts in their own names.

“I had a savings account when I was little,” Tom said, “and I want my daughters to have that as early as possible, understand compound interest … and earn and save just like I did, just like my dad taught me when I was little. We do a garage sale every year, and they’re out there helping and whatever money we make goes into their savings accounts. They’re starting on the Huntington early!”

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Tom Grote and his daughter Amoret online banking with Huntington c. 2009. Photo Credit: Grote family


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At the 2015 Evening of Light, an event benefiting the human services nonprofit Alvis House, Alvis House honored the Grote family as Family of the Year. Photo Credit: Grote family