Brewing Success at Athletic
Milford-based Athletic Brewing is not your typical manufacturing company.
“Not a lot of manufacturers get love letters, right? We get love letters from customers,” says chief operating officer Jamie Lissette.
Since pouring its first beer in 2017, Athletic has seen remarkable growth.
The company posted 13,000% revenue growth over the last three years and featured on Inc. magazine’s list of fastest growing companies for the past two years.
But it’s not just the growth that’s remarkable. Much of Athletic is unique, right down to its products, all of which are non-alcoholic.
“Athletic’s mission is to help our customers with their health, their happiness, their fitness, and creating a better community,” Lissette told CBIA’s Chris DiPentima at the Oct. 11 Made in Connecticut: 2023 Manufacturing Summit.
“It’s a better-for-you product,” he said. “We’re fortunately not about, ‘hey, don’t drink.’ We’re about, ‘hey, don’t drink maybe Saturday afternoon.’”
Even Athletic’s origin story is a little different.
Co-founder Bill Shufelt was working on Wall Street in 2014 when he had the idea to create a non-alcoholic beer that still tasted great for people with active lifestyles.
But he needed someone to figure out how to brew it.
“Bill tells it that he put out an ad for innovation in non-alcoholic beer,” Lissette said.
“I think 200 people said, ‘Yeah, no thanks’ and didn’t even respond to his questions. And then John [Walker] was one of the only people that literally didn’t hang up on him.”
Shufelt and co-founder and head brewer John Walker are both from Connecticut, and the two eventually opened their first brewery in Stratford.
Making a Connection
Lissette joined the company in 2019 after selling a company that he started and owned for 17 years.
“I literally stumbled in there,” he said. “I was in financial markets. When I left, I had heard Athletic’s name I think four times in two weeks.”
“I was able to get a connection and walked in there and met Bill and John and from that day forward, just everything catapulted very quickly and we were able to create this company together.”
Since then, Athletic has grown from eight people to 250, raising $175 million, relocating to a new 150,000 sq. ft brewery in Milford, and opening a West Coast facility in San Diego.
“They came up with something that was flavorful, that was innovative, that was imaginative, that was affirmative,” Lissette said.
Making a Mark
Lissette said Athletic products currently represent 55% of the non-alcoholic beer market.
“Non-alcoholic beer is 1% of the beer market in this country, up from half a percent when we started four years ago,” he said.
“In places like Spain, it’s 15% of a larger beer market. So there’s a huge upside.
“There’s 160 IPAs at the store. One of them is Athletic. So that’s where that’s where we’ll win, and hopefully we pick up that market share.”
And while Lissette says the company—a certified B Corporation—is ahead of schedule when it comes to being profitable, it hasn’t been easy.
“There’s a lot of growing pains that come with any company, especially growing that fast,” he said.
“I think it’s probably easier to grow slowly, methodically. It takes a lot to become successful and keep something going.”
One of those growing pains is recruiting enough workers.
Lissette described a recent search for a warehouse operator—“what we considered a good benefits job, a good paying job”—taking almost three months.
“The worry is if three or four people leave,” he said. “It’s very simple to, to really get a constraint on your business that way.”
Lissette said transportation is an issue for recruiting and retaining workers.
For instance, Athletic’s move from Stratford to Milford represented a challenge for a number of employees.
“There’s not a bus service and not a train, there’s not a subway,” he said.
“It’s very difficult for somebody who was able to make it in Stratford, but can’t make it in Milford or can’t make it on time because it’s an hour commute.”
DiPentima noted that Connecticut received nearly $5 billion in federal funding for infrastructure and transportation improvements.
“We have the funds now,” he said. “And now it’s about making those investments.”
Developing the Workforce
Lissette said Athletic often leverages state resources to help develop its workforce pipeline.
He said it also offers career experiences to grow the workforce and highlight different manufacturing pathways.
Through those experiences, employees spend about two to three hours a day for three or four days a week learning new skills.
“Not everybody transitions, but a lot of people do transition when a position becomes available,” he said.
Lissette said company culture is a critical piece of the workforce.
“As everybody knows, it’s hard to keep talent, and it’s hard to do all the different things that we’ve struggled with,” he said.
“In manufacturing, we have these big brick buildings with small windows, right? Everybody has to know what goes on inside of it.
“When you’re recruiting and things like that, you want to show this as a fun environment.”
Lissette said it’s important that Athletic’s mission corresponds with its business so the community and employees can relate.
“It’s not only what we say internally, it’s what we show externally,” he said.
“If you do not have a true north, which is the mission, then it’s really hard to keep everybody sort of on that same mission.
“You know, we give $2 million a year for trail cleanup. So we’re putting our money where our heart is.”
That trail cleanup initiative, Two for the Trails, came from a family tradition of taking two brews to toast post-trail adventures.
Since 2018, Two for the Trails has helped dozens of organizations fund projects across the country.
“I think municipalities see that, and they recognize that and say, ‘OK, we need these people in here,’” Lissette said.
Lissette credited the support from local and state officials for Athletic’s success and growth in Connecticut.
He highlighted partnerships with Milford and state leaders when it was opening the new facility.
“To buy and purchase or lease these facilities is really hard,” he said. “But when you have the support of the government, whether it’s a municipality or the state, it really, really makes it easier.”
Lissette also talked about relationships with lawmakers and members of the Lamont administration.
“These people are all there to support us,” he said. “And we’re not the smallest state in the country, but it feels like I’m dealing with a municipality versus a state.
“I think that’s why we stayed here. It’s not why we came here, but it’s why we stayed here.”
“We hear that from a range of companies in Connecticut, that that one degree of separation, that relationships that we have, which is really a competitive advantage here,” added DiPentima.
Another key piece of Athletic’s rapid growth has to do with timing—including the COVID-19 pandemic.
“All of a sudden, all the bars and restaurants were closed and we were set,” Lissette said.
“Because we’re non-alcoholic, we can do direct-to-consumer. You can’t ship Budweiser, but you can ship non-alcoholic beer.”
He said that helped Athletic market online and accelerated its growth as a national brand.
Lissette also said the company used data and modeling look ahead, order equipment, and plan for employee growth.
“All these things were really thinking ahead,” he said. “If you have enough leverage and the right thing to lever it on, you can move the world.”
He also said controlling costs was critical.
“Leanness is inherent in manufacturing,” he said. “If you don’t have that mindset, you’re not going to survive.”
And even with that level of planning, Lissette said Athletic’s also had some luck along the way.
“We’ve been lucky, because we had the money,” he said. “Having the money at the time that we had, it was very fortunate. It allowed us to do stupid things, which afterward ended up being super smart.”
Part of that luck came during construction of the Milford facility.
“We had timed everything so that we’ll be open by that summer, which is our growing season,” Lissette said.
“So our supply chain was so risky, but we lucked out. That’s the simple answer is we really lucked out, we could have gone completely the other way.”
Growing in Connecticut
As Athletic looks to continue its growth, Lissette said there is a lot of optimism about its future in Connecticut.
He said the state has a big competitive advantage—water.
“The water that we get is so good that we don’t have to do anything to it,” he said.
“Having that competitive advantage of not worrying about water, that’s a big relief because it’s literally the largest component of our products.”
Lisette hopes the state can use that and other competitive advantages to bring more businesses and people to the state.
“I will say that Connecticut has a huge upside, if we continue to get people to move here,” he said. “That’s where we’ll win.”
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