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Uplifting Spirits

For most in this region, the war in Ukraine is something to read about or see on the nightly news. For Paul Kozub, founder and president of V-One Vodka, who operates a distillery in Poland just a few hours from the border with Ukraine, the war hits much closer to home — figuratively, if not literally. He made a trip to Poland and then the border in March, and he’ll be going back in July, bringing cash for refugees and other types of support.

Paul Kozub says he’d like to forget some of the things he saw and heard while on his trip to Poland and its border with Ukraine in March, just days after the fighting began there. After all, he was seeing people in extreme distress — women and children, mostly, who were leaving their home country, sometimes with just on their clothes on their back, not knowing if they would ever be returning.

But these words and images, and there are many of them, are burned into his memory, he said, and they make him even more committed to doing what he can to help refugees who have made their way to Poland, where Kozub, founder and owner of V-One Vodka, owns a distillery.

“What I saw and what I experienced was mind-blowing, especially in 2022,” he recalled, adding that he wound up making three trips to the border in March, with each visit lasting seven or eight hours. “We saw the buses on the highway filled with women and children — martial law was declared in Ukraine, so no men under the age of 60 were allowed to leave the country. So you just saw women and children leaving, fleeing in buses on the highway — bus after bus after bus full of people.

“On the border, there were tents set up for food and a kind of transition spot,” he went on. “But you’d see women 70-or 80-years-old crossing with bags, and young women with strollers and children just walking over the border.”

Kozub told BusinessWest that he felt compelled to travel to Poland in March. He wanted to visit the distillery, located in the town of Lublin, something he’s done every few months over the past several years, although far less frequently since 2020 due to COVID, but also to support refugees if he could.

He left with several thousand dollars in cash, most of it in $100 bills, that he distributed to several different individuals and families knowing that the way exchange rates were moving, U.S. currency would buy much more than the Polish dollar. He made a few trips to the border, which is about a 90-minute drive from the distillery, and in doing helped bring the war to this country through a few interviews with a Boston television station that picked up his story and talked with him from his hotel room and at the border.

“I never thought I’d be a war correspondent, but there I was talking about what I saw and what I experienced,” he said. “To me there’s no more clear example of good versus evil, a country that’s invaded for no clear reason.”

Today, Kozub is planning a return visit to Poland and his distillery with his family — his wife and four children. He’s not sure if he will make it to the border, but does plan to visit some refugee centers and try to reconnect with several of the people he met three months ago.

He plans to visit the Help the Ukranian Children Foundation in Zyrzyn, Poland, which he is supporting through a special label for his vodka, one with the blue and yellow of the Ukranian flag; $2 from the sale of each bottle going to support refugees.

Paul Kozub displays one of the new-edition bottles bearing the color of the Ukranian flag

Paul Kozub displays one of the new-edition bottles bearing the color of the Ukranian flag. He is donating $2 from each bottle to help refugees.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with Kozub about how the war in Ukraine — and the plight of those who have fled that country for Poland — have become personal for him, and how he continues to find ways to not only support those individuals and families, but also shed needed light on their situation.

 

Proof Positive

As noted earlier, Kozub has many indelible memories from his March visit, one that brought the war in Ukraine and its profound impact on its people, home in ways that can’t be appreciated by simply tuning into CNN.

He used the word ‘surreal’ more than a few times to describe what he saw, especially during those visits to the border.
“Poland was normal for the most part — there were a lot of Ukrainain flags,” he recalled, “But as we were driving toward the border, and as we got to within 10 miles of the border, there was nobody … no cars going in our direction; instead, we saw all the buses going in the other direction.

“What I saw and what I experienced was mind-blowing, especially in 2022.”

“That was the first time we got a little anxious,” he went on. “Once we got to the border, we befriended a few Polish police men and women who started telling us the stories they were hearing.”

One memory stands out for him. It involves giving a ride to a young girl and her parents to the city in Poland where he was staying.

“We didn’t notice until they got out that they had nothing,” he recalled. “No bags, no nothing, just the clothes on their backs. The way the man was dressed — he had a nice watch, nice clothes on, nice shoes — you could see that they just left so quickly they didn’t have time to pack a bag. Seeing stuff that like really hit home.

Kozub said he left for Poland with the expectation that he would bring a few thousand dollars to the border, maybe visit once and try to help people as they were coming into Poland during the first days of the war. But those expectations were altered by what he encountered, and also by contributions sent to him in advance of his trip, including $4,000 from his commercial lender, PeoplesBank — the most that can be sent via VENMO.

Paul Kozub, seen here with police officers at the border

Paul Kozub, seen here with police officers at the border, will be returning to Poland next month.

“That contribution really helped — while I was there, I was able to buy so much more,” he recalled, noting that he was able to buy a washer and dryer for an apartment building now housing 80 women and children, and also bring more needed food and water to the border.

He recalled one instance where he tried to help a woman with four young children.

“All these people didn’t want to accept money from me at first,” he recalled. “But I said ‘you have to — that’s why I traveled all this way.’

“That was back when there were tens of thousands of people coming over every day — that’s when most of the need was going on,” he recalled, adding that the sights from those days remain with him even though the scene has changed, as have the needs of the refugees that have made their way to Poland.

While what he saw was disturbing on many levels, so too was what he heard from some of those he encountered, he said, noting that he has come to understand the Polish language, which is very similar to what is spoken in Ukraine.

“As we were driving toward the border, and as we got to within 10 miles of the border, there was nobody … no cars going in our direction; instead, we saw all the buses going in the other direction.”

“We could understand most of what they were saying,” he noted. “We would see the cars of people driving into Poland, and they would have pieces of paper in the window with ‘ditya,’ which is ‘child’ in Russian written on them. We were hearing stories that the Russians were shooting at them; they were bombing these lines of cars as they were leaving.

“The stories of atrocities that we’re now hearing every day … I was hearing them in the beginning,” he went on. “It is so unbelievable that this is going on today; it’s very heartbreaking, and you just don’t want to believe that it’s true.”

While there are still some people leaving Ukraine for Poland, much of the activity is now moving in the other direction, with many returning to the country they fled. Still there are millions still in Poland forging a new life for themselves there, a challenge made simpler by the Polish government’s decision to change its law and allow people from the Ukraine (which is not part of the European Union) to come into that country and work and start businesses.

“In some of the major cities, like Warsaw and Krakow, they’ve seen a 30% to 40% increase in population,” said Kozub, adding that refugees are finding housing in the homes of Polish residents, in churches, camps, and other sites.

Paul Kozub says his trip to the border in March was surreal

Paul Kozub says his trip to the border in March was surreal in many respects and included work as a “war correspondent.”

As for his planned July trip back to Poland, Kozub said he plans to reconnect with some of the individuals and families he met at the start of this conflict, including a young man who renovated a 20-unit apartment building in Zyrzyn that is now home to 80 women and children.

“We’re continuing to raise money for them, so I’ll bring some money for that charity,” he said, adding that he also plans to visit — and bring some money to — an orphanage located near the distillery, one that he has been supporting for several years now, which is now housing orphans from Ukraine.

To further assist refugees, and, specifically, Ukranian Children Foundation, Kozub has created a special label for his original V-One vodka, a project that was fast-tracked, with the label being finalized in just a few months, rather than the full year that it normally takes.

It was undertaken as Kozub was introducing another new flavor — Double Espresso — to his growing portfolio, one that is ever-changing and expanding to keep pace in the ultra-competitive vodka market.

The March trip to the distillery was undertaken to finalize the recipe for that new flavor, he said, adding that the overall process has been slowed by supply-chain issues and huge increases in shipping costs and other expenses — challenges that are making it much more difficult to do business in this industry.

Despite these challenges, Kozub wanted to introduce his new label, a project that was conceived just before his March visit, with the expectation that there would be long-term needs among the refugees.

“It takes about a year to get things done, between the approvals and the printing time, and other issues, but we were able to get it done in three weeks,” he said, adding that the son of one of his employees at the distillery drove 10 hours each way to pick up the labels, which were affixed to 3,000 bottles overnight, in time to get on a container ship.

The special edition bottles should arrive by mid-summer, he said, and he expects them to be sold out by August.

 

His Best Shot

Like most everyone taking in what’s happening in Ukraine — from a few feet from the border or 4,500 miles away — Kozub has no idea when this conflict will end or how it will end.

What he does know is that there are many people still in need. They are an ocean and then a continent away from V-One’s headquarters in Hadley, but only 100 miles or so from where his vodka is made.

Since setting up shop in Poland, he has been active in that ‘community’ and a source of support for orphans and others in need. The landscape there has changed dramatically over the past three months, and Kozub has responded accordingly. As he said, it’s personal for him.

 

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Daily News

HADLEY Valley Vodka Inc. has announced the launch of its special edition Ukrainian flag colored labels. Two dollars for every bottle sold will be donated to the Help the Ukrainian Children Foundation. 

Only 500 cases have been produced, according to owner and founder Paul Kozub. 

“We have been successfully producing our 100% spelt based vodka in Eastern Poland for 17 years; our distillery is located less than two hours from the Poland-Ukraine boarder and we feel compelled to support Ukraine in this unjust war,” said Kozub. “I traveled to the Ukraine-Poland boarder in early March and saw, first-hand, women & children fleeing war and I heard many horror stories.  

“We feel it is our duty to support the Ukrainian refugees in Poland. So many Polish citizens have opened their homes, accepting more than 3 million refugees,” he went on. “Help The Ukrainian Children foundation in Zyrzyn Poland is doing such great work supporting these refugees and we are proud to work with them.” 

Daily News

HADLEY — Valley Vodka Inc., maker of V-One Vodka, announced it will donate $1 for every bottle sold in the month of March, according to founder Paul Kozub.

Paul Kozub

Kozub will be visiting the V-One distillery located in Kamien, Poland on Sunday, March 6 and is bringing $5,000 directly to the border next week to support refugees. The distillery is located about two hours from the Ukraine border.

“My life was forever changed for the better when I made my first trip to Eastern Poland 17 years ago to start my craft-vodka business,” Kozub said. “In 2019, I purchased a distillery in Kamień, Poland. It is just a few hours from the Ukrainian border. I feel compelled to do something to help the people of Ukraine.”

V-One Vodka has been crafting small-batch vodka in Eastern Poland since 2005, and in 2019, it purchased its own distillery in Kamień, about two hours southeast of Warsaw.

Alumni Achievement Award

Founder, V-One Vodka

This Entrepreneur — and His Label — Have Come a Long Way in 15 Years

Paul Kozub, left

Paul Kozub, left, seen here with business partner and former Patriots star Ty Law, is growing V-One into a national brand.

When BusinessWest caught up with Paul Kozub recently, he had just wrapped up some promotional video work with Ty Law, former New England Patriots standout cornerback and member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame class of 2019.

Law is now a partner with Kozub in his venture, V-One Vodka, and the videos being shot were at the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. That’s because V-One has been named the official vodka of the Hall for this year — when most all activities, including the induction ceremony, have been postponed because of the pandemic — and next.

The juxtaposition of all this — official vodka of the Hall of Fame, Ty Law as spokesperson — help show just how far Kozub and his label have come since he became part of the very first 40 Under Forty class in 2007. Back then, he was struggling to get his brand off the ground and into bars, restaurants, and package stores in the 413. It wasn’t exactly a one-man show, but it was very close, with Kozub making most of the deliveries himself.

Today, he’s in four states — Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire — and he’s poised to enter four more, including Ohio. He had plans to be in roughly 30 by this fall, and signed on with a distributor to make that happen, but COVID-19 has put many of the plans … well, on ice.

“In Florida, Texas, and some of these other states, there are so many problems that it’s not a good time to launch a new brand,” he noted. “Are the bars and restaurants open? Are the bars closed? That’s typically half our business.”

But Kozub, who was named BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneur in 2016 and thus has a few pieces of hardware from the magazine on display somewhere, has certainly come a long way in the 15 years since he started this journey in his basement, using a few thousand dollars left to him by his uncle to create his own vodka.

“You have to have that perseverance; there are so many hurdles when you’re running a business — and in today’s present moment, there are even more. You have to love what you do and have the passion for it. If there’s a roadblock or wall, you have to figure out a way around it or through it.”

Indeed, he now has his own distillery in Poland; work continues to expand his footprint geographically; he’s spent $500,000 to create a new bottle — an important part of the puzzle in this industry; and he continues to defy the odds when it comes to making a vodka label stand out and be successful in an immensely crowded field.

“About 97% of new vodkas fail within the first three years,” said Kozub, who used that statistic to segue his way back to the pro football Hall of Fame and a discussion he had recently with its president, Dave Baker.

“We talked about the 33 million people who have played football, the 27,000 who have played in the NFL, and the 300 who are in the Hall of Fame. What did it take for those people? What qualities did they have to have to be one of those 300?” he asked rhetorically, drawing a parallel to those who get to the top of their field in any business, and especially his.

“You have to have that perseverance; there are so many hurdles when you’re running a business — and in today’s present moment, there are even more,” he said while answering his own question. “You have to love what you do and have the passion for it. If there’s a roadblock or wall, you have to figure out a way around it or through it. When it comes to vodka … yes, you have to have a great product, but you have to be willing to work very hard.”

Kozub’s been doing that since he first launched V-One in 2006, trading in life as a loan officer at a local bank for the life he’s always dreamed of — one as an entrepreneur.

It’s not an easy life, certainly, but it’s the one he certainly prefers.

“When you run a small business, it has to be your life,” he said in conclusion. “I don’t know many small-business owners who are playing a lot of golf or have a lot of time on their hands. For me, it’s all about my family and about my business.

“To be successful, you have to love it,” he went on. “Like I told Dave Baker … my worst day at V-One was better than my best day of being a banker. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. The challenges that come up — the financial challenges, the HR challenges, the legal challenges … all those things don’t end. And we’re still a very small brand; if we do get bigger and become a national brand, the challenge then becomes how do you stay successful — how do you stay on top?”

As Kozub said, the challenges — the roadblocks and the walls — keep coming. And he rather enjoys finding ways to get through them or around them.

—George O’Brien

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