Where did you grow up? What was your first job?
I was born in Bethesda, Maryland; my dad was a naval officer stationed in Washington, DC. After my dad moved from the service, I spent my formative years just "south of the border" in Woodstock, Illinois. My first jobs were working on our family farm and for neighboring farmers - bailing hay and cleaning barns, as well as mowing lawns and exterior painting. I would also work the holidays at a local farm market selling Christmas trees. In high school, together with a friend, we started a DJ business called Lightning DJs that played local school dances. We did quite well and were always in high demand.
Where did you work after college?
After my undergrad from University of Georgia in landscape architecture, I caught a ride with a friend to California and worked on a finish carpentry crew that travelled the entirety of the West Coast building Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie stores. Through an interesting set of circumstances, I ended up getting offered a position with the National Outdoor Leadership School in the Coyhaique, Chile branch, so I moved to South America for a year. From there I moved to Lander, Wyoming, where I bought a laundromat, worked on log homes, tried my hand at commercial fishing in Alaska, worked on an economic development consulting project in Sri Lanka, and taught kayaking, backpacking and rock climbing in Sweden and Norway. I eventually ended up in Boulder, Colorado, working as a landscape architect. It was in Boulder that I decided I wanted to get an international MBA.
What led to your decision to attend and receive your MBA from the IESE Business School, University of Navarra, in Spain?
I knew I wanted to live abroad for some time, as I had worked in Southern Chile, Sweden, Norway and Sri Lanka following my undergrad, but I knew getting visas to stay for extended periods is often difficult. By being a student, I could live in the country with no issues, so I applied to three of the top five international programs and was accepted to two of them. I chose Spain over Switzerland because it was a longer program (hence, I could stay abroad longer).
What made you decide to become an entrepreneur?
After my MBA at IESE in Barcelona, Spain, I was hired as the executive director of a non-profit in Barcelona, but after six months, they couldn't get my visa renewed, and my wife was pregnant with our first child. We quickly moved to Madison to get a job with insurance and have the baby. Our plan to be here for six months and then move back has become a 12-year tenure here in Wisconsin.
I don't know if I ever really decided to become an entrepreneur or I just always liked doing my own thing and earning my own money. I had multiple businesses in high school and college, and upon returning to the States, I knew it was only a matter of time until I found the opportunity to be my own boss.
What was the inspiration behind the launch of Death's Door Spirits in 2005? Where did the name come from?
I was asked by my boss at the time, Brian Vandewalle, to help develop a sustainable eco-tourism plan for his property, The Washington Hotel, on Washington Island. We both had the vision that the hotel could be a catalyst for sustainable economic growth for the Island, and agriculture was at the center of the efforts. We started with bread and baked goods made from wheat and flax grown on the Island, but we quickly realized that we needed to create higher value-added products. Working with Capital Brewery, we helped develop Island Wheat, and I pursued it further to creating a line of distilled spirits.
Our name, "Death's Door," comes from the passage of water that separates Washington Island from the Wisconsin mainland. It's a catchy name with an ominous overtone, but we aren't (totally) morbid people.
What led to the opening of your state-of-the-art distillery in Middleton in 2012? Tell me a little about your operation.
Until 2012, I would work with other regional distilleries to have them contract manufacture our spirits. By 2011, we realized that we truly wanted to control our destiny and be able to make, and control the making, of our spirits all under one roof. Working with the Small Business Administration, Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation and the Middleton Area Development Corporation, we were able to open our dream facility and have the necessary production control and excess capacity to grow our brand and operations.
Our facility is a true "grain to glass" operation that allows us to process our product in a controlled, consistent environment unlike any other facility our size. Industry and non-industry visitors alike are impressed with the forethought and system thinking that we utilized in developing our space to make exceptional products.
Death's Door Spirits is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. What are you most proud of? How has the company evolved over the years?
The two things I am probably most proud of is our continued connection to our farmers on Washington Island and our commitment to constantly improve our brand to achieve our ideals. While we have had our struggles with the farming on the Island, we remain committed to finding solutions for working with farmers throughout the region to grow and produce truly exceptional products.
What is the favorite part of your job? Least favorite?
The favorite part of my job is sharing the passion of our products with the rest of the world. We have been fortunate to grow from a "one guy with a station wagon" company to the No. 5 selling gin brand in the United States over $20, and one of the most globally recognized craft spirits brands. While I like sharing the pride and passion of our products, the glamor of travel - up to three weeks a month and moving through multiple cities and time zones - at times becomes difficult.
What do you like to do for fun?
I am a coach for my son's hockey team, so I enjoy having an hour three to five times a week where my focus is not on my business but on a group of fun and active kids. My daughter and I try to spend time in the kitchen cooking on the weekends as we both enjoy the culinary arts. I also am an avid runner and have competed in several ultra-marathons, and try to get out to mountain bike as much as I can in the summer and fall.