Serial Entrepreneur Finds Fun, Profit In Brewing Beer
By STAN SIMPSON
January 07, 2013
You'd think a guy who runs his own brewery would be one of those people hooked on beer from the time it was legal to drink — and who spent most of his days cooking up homemade ale from his basement.
Not Curt Cameron. The self-styled "serial entrepreneur" certainly enjoys a brewski and the occasional glass of wine, but what he likes more than anything else is a good business opportunity.
When the opportunity arose to take over the Thomas Hooker Brewing Co. six years ago, Cameron thought he could put together a team that could raise the profile (and profits) on one of Connecticut's homegrown brands. He had previously owned and operated two liquor stores in Torrington and New Hartford — and flipped them for a nice profit in 2005. Prior to that, he sold and designed software in the Silicon Valley from 1994 to 2002. He even owned and operated his own landscaping business.
After he sold the liquor stores, a lawyer-friend asked Cameron what he knew and thought about the "craft'' brewery business, previously known as micro brewing. There was a craft brewery called Hooker in Hartford that the lawyer thought Cameron might have interest in — even though it was not up for sale.
"We had become pretty familiar with the craft beer world and all of the things that were starting to take off there,'' said Cameron, 48, sitting behind a large table at his Tobey Road plant in Bloomfield. "But we didn't see any dominant player in Connecticut. My real draw to this was number one, the opportunity. Plus, I'd never built a brand before.''
The timing was right to pursue the purchase of Hooker in 2006. Unbeknownst to Cameron, the owners were indeed interested in selling. A year later, Cameron moved the operations from the back of the old Trout Brook Brew Pub restaurant in Hartford to a former warehouse in Bloomfield. The company's operation today encompasses 18,000 square feet, including the recent takeover of a 6,000-square-foot building about 50 yards away.
With a projected $2 million in sales in 2012, Hooker's business will be up about 40 percent from the previous year. Cameron already has designs for a new 50,000-square-foot headquarters, complete with a visitors' center, restaurant, outdoor beer garden and production facility. He would like to relocate to Hartford. After all, the company is named in honor of Rev. Thomas Hooker, a founder of Connecticut's capital city, who died in 1657.
Though Cameron has a deep regard for Hooker's history, he can't resist a little double entendre — mischief when it comes to selling Hooker merchandise like T-shirts and mugs. On one T-shirt, for example, the front says "No Wife? No Girlfriend? No date?" And on the back of the shirt, it reads: "Better Grab a Hooker!"
The wordplay reveals the playful side of this energetic man who has a knack for numbers. "We try not to get too sophomoric with the humor,'' he said sheepishly. "And we try not to cross that line too much, especially with the mainstream marketing of the beer. We don't want to be a gimmick brand. We want to be a quality brand.''
During the holidays, Cameron says, about 50 percent of the online business comes from people with the last name of Hooker. His product includes porter, amber, stout, a new chocolate truffle brew made with Munson chocolate (which this amateur taste tester can attest is quite good); and a Saison-style of beer, aged in wine barrels for a smoother taste. Cameron also operates a hops farm on property he owns in New Hartford. He uses that commodity to produce beer, made from hops, water, malts and yeast.
The craft brewing niche, which makes up about six percent of the $100 billion beer industry, is growing. One percentage point in market share gain equates to $1 billion. Cameron's background in sales, ownership and management come in handy as he relishes this chapter of his professional life.
He admits, though, that he almost tapped out after the first few years in the beer business. Distribution was a problem. Then, about four years ago, Ross Hollander of Hartford Distributors Inc. bought the rights to distribute Hooker from another distributor. Since that time, the Hooker business has increased exponentially, spiking from about $200,000 in annual sales to $2 million — and growing. When Cameron took over in 2006, the company was using only four floor-to-ceiling brew tanks; now it has 17. The business is quickly outgrowing its space.
"That was the turning point of our company," Cameron says now of HDI. "They saw a value in our brand and said we're going to portion it out to the Budweiser distributors in the state of Connecticut.''
Hooker is also on the shelves (through other distributors) in Massachusetts and New York.
The company produces about 12,000 barrels of beer a year, which equals about 170,000 cases. In contrast, Bud Light alone produces 30 million barrels a year.
The Tobey Road site serves as brewery, gift shop and warehouse. Twice a month there are Friday beer tasting events and fundraisers, which can draw 300 people or more.
Through Hooker, Cameron, supports dozens of local charities. He is a board member of the Village of Family and Children. He credits his employees — 14 fulltime, 12 part-time and 10 developmentally challenged workers from Oak Hill — with keeping things focused but fun.
"I've been pretty lucky,'' Cameron said. My whole thing is that the secret of life is enjoying the passing of time. If you have a job that you hate, then get the hell out of it. You'll figure out something else."
If that was a toast, someone out there is thinking: "I'll drink to that … ."
Stan Simpson is host of "The Stan Simpson Show'' (www.ctnow.com/stan and Saturdays, 6:30 a.m., on FoxCT) and senior executive adviser at the Hartford Journalism & Media Academy. His 'Faces of business' column appears monthly. Know someone who'd make a good subject for 'Faces of business'? Contact Simpson at Faces@firstname.lastname@example.org.