Ray Berry said he recently delivered what amounted to the commencement address for the most recent accelerator class at SPARK EforAll Holyoke.
When asked for a synopsis of that speech, Berry, founder and general manager of Springfield-based White Lion Brewing Co., said he talked to the fledgling business owners about the roller-coaster ride that is entrepreneurship — the ups and downs, successes, failures, and inevitable pivots.
“They’re traveling the same journey I traveled,” he said of his time working with Valley Venture Mentors and taking part in its accelerator program. “I talked about what worked and what didn’t work, what I would do if I had the opportunity to change something, and how, at the end the day, you win some along the way and you lose some, and that just makes your company stronger and the team around you stronger; you ride that wave of experience.”
He was speaking, of course, from experience — lots of wave riding, in fact, as he’s taken White Lion from a part-time pursuit, a concept he launched while working for the United Way of Pioneer Valley, to a full-time passion.
“At the end the day, you win some along the way and you lose some, and that just makes your company stronger and the team around you stronger; you ride that wave of experience.”
Indeed, he told BusinessWest that the casual observer might not be aware of those turns, dips, challenging times, and pivots, but there have been many of each on this ride, which started in 2011.
“A lot of people see what’s on the surface, but they rarely get a glimpse of what’s going on behind the scenes,” he explained. “The late nights, a lot of conversation, a lot of strategy … and during that process, there are some wins, and there are some losses. In our business, it’s about sales, and through that journey, you gain accounts, and you lose some accounts.”
For White Lion, the journey has come to an intriguing place — one where the venture is taking dramatic steps to expand its footprint geographically, while also increasing its presence in the region and playing an ever-larger role in the ongoing renaissance in Springfield.
These efforts take several forms, especially the ongoing plans to create a brewery and taproom in Tower Square, specifically at the long-vacant site of the former Spaghetti Freddy’s restaurant.
Berry and other partners recently appeared before the Armory Quadrangle Civic Assoc. to talk about their plans and what they might mean for the city and Tower Square, and in a few weeks they’ll do the same before the City Council, which must grant a special permit for the project to move forward.
Meanwhile, the company has moved forward with plans for a beer garden in Tower Square Park, the small park across Main Street from the office/retail complex. Actually, Berry likes to call this “an outdoor beer, music, food, and family venue,” a phrase that certainly captures what it’s all about.
Indeed, there’s White Lion on tap, but there’s also music — the Standing Bear Band and the Buddy McEarns Band were among the first acts booked — as well as rotating food trucks and other food providers, and activities for the entire family.
The venture is a logical extension of the White Lion Wednesdays pop-up beer gardens that drew a popular response, said Ashley Clark, a cash-management officer at Berkshire Bank, part of the White Lion team for several years, and now a managing partner. And it is an important step forward as the company works to build its brand while also being part of the efforts to bring more vibrancy to Springfield and its central business district.
“The White Lion Wednesdays were created so that everyone could leave work, stop, have a beer, hang out for a little bit, and be on their way,” said Clark. “Now, with the beer garden stationary in one place, the event is created not just for people leaving work, but also for families.”
Combined, these ambitious steps add up to a critical moment in the company’s brief history and represent an intriguing new chapter in the story.
“We’re at a pivotal stage of growth — we have strong programming, we have strong community engagement, we’re in the midst of building a brewery, and we’re clearly growing by way of volume and the amount of sales that are hitting the market,” Berry said, adding that, once the downtown brewery opens, the company will add another six to 12 employees, taking growth to another, much higher plane.
For this issue’s focus on entrepreneurship, BusinessWest talked with Berry and Clark about White Lion and the latest strategic initiatives in its business plan — but also about those basic tenets of business that Berry passed on in his recent address — especially the part about riding that wave of experience.
Lager Than Life
Returning to that address at the SPARK EforAll event, Berry said he spent a good deal of time talking about pivoting, how natural it is, and how important it is.
“I talked about how people in business often get stuck in their lane — we don’t want to venture out, for whatever reason,” he explained. “So I was very strong in touching on fear of failure, the risk quotient, the need to pivot, the need to listen … but how also, at the end of the day, you’re responsible for the decisions you make, and you have to live by them.
“To change course is a natural part of a growing business,” he went on. “And sometimes, those forces are financial, demand, supply, government regulation, and more, so you always have to be aware of all of those fronts.”
Listening, pivoting, and moving out of the lane pretty much sum up what is approaching a decade of business for White Lion, a brand that now boasts several different labels and has made the White Lion imagery part of the landscape in Springfield — and beyond.
But none of it has been easy, said Berry, who cited his plans — first envisioned several years ago — for building a brewery downtown as a solid example.
“It’s been a journey, and we’ve really come full circle,” he told BusinessWest. “From day one, we wanted the brewery to be part of the downtown fabric; we wanted to be in the heart of what was being called a renaissance, a resurgence in downtown Springfield.”
While many breweries are located in more rural areas, in old mills along rivers and streams, Berry said some have set up shop in the central business district and been part of downtown revitalization efforts.
He noted Brooklyn Brewery — a venture that has played an important role in the meteoric rise of that New York borough in recent years — as an example he’s in many ways trying to emulate.
“They took it upon themselves to invest in a highly dilapidated area in Brooklyn,” he said. “And since that investment, that entire area has been redeveloped, and it’s become a destination.
“White Lion is anchored in the heart of a metropolitan area,” he went on, adding that he was determined to build a brewery somewhere downtown.
But the search became more complex than he could have anticipated.
“I think that, in the beginning, I might have been a little naïve, feeling right from the onset that there would be a lot of opportunity, and space, for a brewery, and that was just not the case,” he said, adding that it soon became clear that the company was going to have to fit, or “mold,” itself into a suitable location downtown.
He looked at a number of options, including the old Rain nightclub building in Stearns Square, a property in Market Place that was eventually deemed more expensive to rehab than new construction, and 1350 Main St., also known as One Financial Plaza, before the focus shifted to Tower Square.
Actually, it was the new ownership of that landmark property that approached him.
“They wanted us to be part of their plans to make Tower Square a destination of its own,” he said. “We were intrigued and felt very comfortable in those discussions.”
One of the new owners of Tower Square, Vid Mitta, has also become an equity partner in White Lion, said Berry, adding that the ownership team has expanded in recent months and now includes several managing partners, including Clark and brewer Mike Yates.
What’s on Tap?
It was this expanded team that appeared before the Armory Quadrangle Civic Assoc. last week, and is slated to make its case to the City Council later this month (they certainly believe they have a strong one).
If all goes as planned — and the brewing equipment has already been moved in — roughly 98% of production will take place in downtown Springfield, said Berry, adding that the remaining 2% — the bottles supplied to MGM Springfield (the rest are cans) — will be contracted out.
And while pressing on with the plans for the brewery, the owners are taking bold steps to build the brand and expand its footprint.
The beer garden is one of these steps, said Clark, adding that a permanent location for the beer garden and an expansion from Wednesdays to Wednesday through Saturday was a logical progression, and one that made this a family event.
“We’ve created an environment where, if you’re a mother and father with two young kids, everyone can come down on Saturday afternoon or Friday night and listen to some music and play games, and all have a good time,” she said, adding that the garden is open from 4 to 9 p.m.
Meanwhile, outside the city, the brand, which self-distributes, has now extended its reach across the state to Cape Cod and continues to look for new growth opportunities, said Berry, adding that it now has more than 750 accounts — and counting.
“We’ve been able to grow in Central and Eastern Mass. through hard work and forging relationships,” said Berry, who credits another fairly recent addition to the team, Blair Landry, a veteran of the craft-beer industry who had already forged a number of relationships on the distribution side within the industry with another label, and has been re-engaging with the White Lion brand. “Locally, it’s a much cleaner and clearer conversation because we’re local. Through the relationships that all of us have, we’ve been able to onboard a number of accounts that have enabled us to grow considerably over the past two years.”
He said the decision to self-distribute, while somewhat unusual, is a pivot— again, one of many — that has benefited the company in a number of ways.
“Early on, we relied too heavily on distribution partners,” he explained. “Those distribution partners can open doors, but they’re also managing another 100 to 150 brands, and that led us to make a pivot; we felt we could have a stronger level of engagement by doing it on our own, and we’ve been able to demonstrate that by opening up many more accounts and strengthening our outlook going forward.”
He acknowledged there is a tremendous amount of competition within the craft-beer industry, and new brands enter the market seemingly every week. But he said this competition provides both challenges and opportunities, with the latter coming to those willing to put in the work and make their brand stand out in a crowded marketplace.
“Craft is about local; craft is about conversation and fostering relationships,” he explained. “If you can engage and foster relationships and have good beer and be true to your word, you’re going to be able to open some doors, and we’ve done that.”
Berry told BusinessWest that, if all goes smoothly — and what he told the accelerator graduates at commencement is that things certainly don’t always go smoothly — the first can of White Lion will be rolling off the line at the facility in Tower Square late this summer.
It will be an important moment for the company given the stage in its development and the location of the brewery — the heart of downtown Springfield.
But, in reality, it’s just the latest in a number of big moments, with many more likely to come as the team at White Lion continues to ride that wave of experience and continue its remarkable journey.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]