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A great idea takes flight

An unsuccessful search for a great glass of wine at an airport inspired a new way of thinking for Doug Tomlinson.

Deloitte Life"One of the joys of wine tasting is discovering something new," says Doug Tomlinson, Deloitte Consulting alumnus, founder and CEO of Vino Volo, a wine lounge, restaurant, and boutique shop operating in airports across the United States and Canada. "Every bottle in the cellar has a great and different story to tell." And as Tomlinson's journey proves, the wines aren't the only ones with an interesting story.

Prior to joining Deloitte Consulting's Strategy & Operations practice in 1994, Tomlinson had been with the engineering and electronics giant Hitachi working in international operations out of their Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Barcelona offices. His early client work at Deloitte dealt primarily with business processes, but as his interests led him to engagements with more of a focus on business strategy, he decided to go back to school to enhance his skills and qualifications as a valued advisor. After leaving Deloitte to complete his MBA at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School in fall 1997, Tomlinson rejoined the firm as a manager in 1999.

Instrumental in helping to launch Deloitte's Business Model Innovation practice, Tomlinson contributed to the firm's eminence by coauthoring "Bottom Feeding for Blockbuster Businesses," the cover story of the Harvard Business Review in March 2003. "That article, and much of the work I did with Deloitte, centered on a discussion of different business models in existing markets," he says. "Over time I came up with many of my own ideas. Being risk averse, I'd typically spend anywhere from five minutes to five days thinking about a business idea before killing it. Vino Volo was the first one I couldn't talk myself out of."

Sophisticated, innovative, and fun

The idea behind Vino Volo—or "Wine Flight" in Italian—came to Tomlinson at the conclusion of a successful client engagement. As his team gathered for the final time in the airport, he suggested that they celebrate their achievement over a glass of wine. "As a wine lover, I was disappointed to find out that there wasn't any wine at the airport worth celebrating with," he says, "so we all had a beer instead."

After months of thinking through the issue and assembling a business model, it was clear to Tomlinson that there was an unmet need within the airport consumer market. "The idea was to create a wine-tasting lounge environment that was sophisticated, yet fun," he says. "I wanted Vino Volo to be a friendly place for air travelers and wine lovers to try world-class wines in a pleasant setting."

In September 2005, having left Deloitte in 2004, Tomlinson built a team that launched the first Vino Volo in Washington, D.C.'s Dulles International Airport. Fast forward to today and the company now has 27 locations in 18 airports across North America, one city location in Bethesda, MD, and plans to keep growing.

A collegial culture

While Tomlinson is now a Deloitte alumnus, he maintains strong ties to many of his former colleagues and to the values he experienced at Deloitte. For example, our focus on talent development is one of the many key elements from Deloitte's culture he injected into his young company. "I embraced the notion of owning the development of people as part of the job description," he says. "People development is a core value and core responsibility for everyone at Vino Volo. It's an invaluable investment and a page we took directly from Deloitte's playbook."

While Vino Volo has enjoyed steady growth, Tomlinson acknowledges he's still learning and he is quick to credit his Deloitte experience for helping get his new enterprise off the ground. "When you're in an early stage of building a new enterprise, everything is new," he says. "There aren't any processes, organizational constructs, or strategies so you have to lay all of those pieces out just as you would for a consulting client. Having done that before makes it much easier."

But even more important to Tomlinson are his former Deloitte colleagues – his colleagues for life – with whom he remains friends and maintains mentor relationships. For example, he credits Mumtaz Ahmed, Deloitte Consulting principal and chief strategy officer, for teaching him to be uncompromising in his expectations and leading people to achieve more than they believe they can; and Chief Talent Officer Jennifer Steinmann for demonstrating the importance of displaying calm leadership, listening to your people, and being available to them.

Staying connected

It's this closeness to the friends and colleagues Tomlinson met at Deloitte that keeps him engaged as an alumnus. "It's about seeing friends succeeding and fostering meaningful friendships that last," he says. "Deloitte has a cohesive culture of helping people grow and I don't think that changes if you leave the firm. The alumni program is a fantastic platform for staying connected, but it's not the driver—the people are."

An example of that occurred last November when Deloitte's Wharton Recruiting Eminence Team joined Wharton's Wine Club and Entrepreneurship Club in inviting Tomlinson to host a wine tasting event. About 30 students attended the Philadelphia event, as Tomlinson provided tasting notes and an interactive presentation on the story behind Vino Volo. During the discussion, he mentioned the ways in which his Deloitte experience helped prepare him for his pursuit of the idea.

"It was a situation where my connection to Wharton and Deloitte overlapped and it was a great chance to share our story—over some great wine," he says. "And it was fun to be in front of people who are in different stages of their professional journey."

As for his journey with Vino Volo, Tomlinson is proud of what he and his colleagues have accomplished for weary air travelers who seek a fine glass of wine. "We're creating a meaningful brand," he says. "It's rewarding to know that our guests seek us out and will build their travel plans around a few extra minutes at Vino Volo."

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