Draft Animal

When Bret Williams joined Woodchuck Hard Cider Co. in 1996 as its first salesman, the company’s signature beverage was bottled using a 1940s soda filler

gm_bev_lead_DSC1995Green Mountain Beverage Co. in Middlebury began life in 1991 as Woodchuck Hard Cider in Proctorville. In 1998, H.P. Bulmer of England bought it, renaming the company Bulmers America. Bret Williams, the company’s sales manager, bought it from his employer in 2003, giving himself an instant promotion to president and CEO.

In 2003, Bret Williams made a decision to, in his words, “go all in.” That’s how he describes his decision to buy the Middlebury cidery he would name Green Mountain Beverage Co.

Williams had been with the company since 1996, when he was hired by Joe Cerniglia, the owner of J.C. Winery and the original producer of Woodchuck Cider. He had met Cerniglia in 1995 on a trip to Vermont from Baltimore, where Williams was working as a sales manager for E&J Gallo Winery. “He was selling some Woodchuck down in Maryland; that’s how I knew the product. A light bulb went off and we started to talk about the category and about cider.”

Cerniglia’s company, which had been making what was essentially apple wine since 1991, did not have a sales team, says Williams. “They were just producing product in a two-car garage down in Proctorsville. I visited the facility and fell in love with the idea of being able to move back home.”

“Home” is not too much of a stretch. Although Williams grew up in Westminster, Mass., he spent every summer and every weekend, he says, “growing up in Vermont, skiing at Magic Mountain and racing competitively all over the state. My parents were schoolteachers — they taught for a combined 72 years. They started off with a little ski shack in Windham. Now they live right here on Magic Mountain in Londonderry.”

Williams went to work for E&J Gallo not long after graduating from the University of Rhode Island in 1992 with a degree in consumer affairs. “I had no idea what I wanted to do,” he says.

He worked for a while as a lift attendant at Mount Wachusett in Princeton, Mass., but it wasn’t long before he landed a job selling a portfolio of wine for Gallo in Portsmouth, N.H. “Gallo was the largest winery in America at the time,” he says, adding, “They’re now one of my competitors.”

After a year and a half, he was promoted and sent to New York City to run a sales division. Two years later, he was sent to Baltimore, “and that’s when it came full circle,” he recalls.

His first day on the job in Proctorsville, Williams stepped into the building and saw what he calls an “entrepreneurial setup.” The company used a 1940s soda filler to fill the bottles of Woodchuck, but it was only a 10-ounce filler and each of the bottles held 12 ounces. One of the employees would stand with a Gatorade squeeze bottle and top off the bottles of cider by hand. “It was very exciting,” he says.

That first day, he headed down to the gas station to buy a map and get out to meet some of the company’s customers. “We were producing and selling it out of a gift shop right there and in a few country stores, and were getting some momentum outside of Vermont.”

Trying to persuade supermarket buyers and distributors to carry hard cider was challenging. “I spent a lot of time trying to tell people what was in the bottle. I heard the word ‘No’ a lot at the beginning. It kind of makes you bulletproof. The best sales thing then — and today — was just to open a bottle and let people try it.”

As the weeks progressed, sales expanded outside of Vermont and shipping became an issue, especially for the large kegs headed to a distributor in Michigan, who was selling the product to bars. Williams chuckles as he recalls the story of how those kegs were shipped.

“One day, a UPS driver showed up and delivered a package. One of the employees measured the box and said, ‘This box is the size of one of our kegs. I wonder if the driver would deliver a keg and bring it back to us’ — instead of having our own fleet of trucks,” Williams explains.

“So we tried that. The kegs went out to the distributor, the cider was sold in the bars on draft, and six months later, they returned our empty keg from Michigan. In about a year, the UPS division down in Proctorsville had to buy a new truck to take our kegs back. Eventually, UPS said they couldn’t return the kegs any more. I don’t think it hit their radar screen until they had to buy bigger trucks to accommodate our kegs.”

The year Williams started was the year that Cerniglia sold half of the company to Stroh Brewery Co., “then the fourth-largest brewer in the United States,” Williams says. “That was a huge win for us, because we then had funds to get some equipment that worked. We got a lot of the Stroh leftover equipment from facilities that were closing.”

The relationship lasted two years. By 1998, Stroh’s fortunes were declining and H.P. Bulmer of England, the largest global cider producer, bought Woodchuck Hard Cider — both Stroh’s interest and Cerniglia’s — and formed Bulmers America.

“What motivated them to purchase the company,” says Williams with a laugh, “is they brought some of their ciders from England and conducted tasting panels across the country, sampling products of theirs and others from around the world. Woodchuck won those over and over again.”

Unfortunately, Bulmer had a vision of cider’s being a massive category in the States because it’s huge in Europe — holding 12 percent of the beer category in Ireland and 8 percent in England. “They had aspirations — wanted to do in five years what has taken 150 years in England,” says Williams. “They stepped up, purchased a lot of new equipment, overhead, a lot of employees, spent a lot of money on the infrastructure. In 2000, we moved to the Middlebury facility. They were ready to grow this thing really quickly. And those plans didn’t work.”

By 2003, the company was in deep trouble — “a failing business on the verge of bankruptcy,” says Williams. He decided to make an offer. “Looking back, at the time I did not have aspirations of building a big business. I was motivated by the love of the product and motivated to save people’s jobs. These were friends of mine; if the deal hadn’t gone through, it would have collapsed and people would have lost their jobs.”

He plunged in, “It was quite a time,” he says. “I was in my early 30s, expecting my first child” — he had married Lisa Garzilli, his college sweetheart, in 2000 — “and I put everything I had in there: mortgage, savings, 401(k), pulled change out of the ashtray.”

There was no venture funding. “I put together a small handful of investors — no family, just a couple of college buddies — so personally and professionally, it was very risky. Actually, completely insane,” he says, adding, “Our business plan —strategy — at the beginning was very simple: Don’t go broke. I thought that if we could do that a few years, we would be onto something.”

“Something” is that, since 2003, sales have more than doubled. In 2007, says Williams, “we were growing so quickly we had to put in a whole new bottling line. We have a new filler that handles 600 bottles a minute — state-of-the-art.” The company bottles roughly 11,000 cases a day and keeps about 20 days’ worth on hand. “We need to have a fast turnaround for distributors because we’re a small customer,” Williams explains. The company’s cider is now sold in 49 states. Hawaii is the exception, because of freight issues.

“We have been faced with a decision to move the business or expand, and we’re going to go forward with the expansion.” The decision was made after Middlebury’s select board offered concessions on fees.

“There are two hurdles right now: We don’t have space for fermentation, so we just ordered three 25,000-gallon outdoor fermentation tanks to keep up with demand; the other thing is space for our people. We have about 65 employees — that should reach 70 by the end of the year — and 62,000 square feet, and we’re using portable offices.”

He has plans for an addition of 5,000 square feet. The expansion will also include a visitors’ center at the front of the facility, with the intent to make the facility more tour-friendly.

Through it all, the recipe for the original cider has not changed, and it continues to win awards around the globe. Cidermaker Greg Failing, who has been with the company since day one, sees that the recipe is secure.

“Woodchuck is an authentic brand. It’s not designed in a lab — it comes from apples,” says Williams. Although Vermont does not have enough apples to provide for the company’s needs for the last two years, Green Mountain Beverage has worked with Champlain Orchards in Shoreham, which also sources apples from five other Vermont orchards.

“We invested in a 6,000-gallon tanker for them,” says Bill Suhr, the owner of Champlain Orchards. “We press our apples and other, primarily Addison County apples and deliver fresh cider to Green Mountain.

“It’s great to work with Bret,” Suhr continues. “And it’s good business practice to be purchasing local fruit for what is a Vermont product. It’s a long time coming, but he’s making a significant change in the buying habits of the company and taking action on his initiative, not just a token purchase.”

Various styles such as Granny Smith, Amber, Pear, Raspberry, 802, and limited-release seasonal ciders are produced. Coming this fall is a pumpkin cider, which Williams describes as “the world’s first — it has a hunter’s-vest-orange label.”

Away from work, Williams enjoys skiing and plays a little golf. He and Lisa have three children: Brody, 7; Bella, 5; and Luke, 2. Williams coaches Brody’s Little League team, “when I have time.”

There’s a bit of family at work, too. “My favorite employee is my mom, Marlene Williams,” he says with a grin. She does a lot of sales work, travel arrangements, mailings and anything else that needs doing.

Asked what his most difficult time has been, Williams admits that it was right after he bought the company. “The company was losing money, there was the culture shock of new ownership again, and we didn’t really have the funds to drive the brand. It was the hardest, but also the best,” he adds, “because we learned the most.”

He pauses for a moment, and then says, “Actually, I think the best might be now: looking to expand, looking to the future — how far we’ve come and how far we have to go.” •