The Owen-Owned Alumni Entrepreneur Spotlight series launched this October with a panel on alumni entrepreneurs in the alcoholic beverage industry. This new initiative to highlight and feature Owen entrepreneurs across all of our platforms offers a unique opportunity to explore what it takes to build a brand or launch a product. We are excited to get to know more of the entrepreneurs in our alumni community and to connect through this discovery and storytelling.
The inaugural panel, moderated by Carlos Diaz, MBA’03, Director National Retail Sales – Club, Mass and Emerging at Barcardi, featured alumni entrepreneurs Michael Collins, MBA’00, co-owner of Pennington Distilling and principal at the law firm Manier & Herod; Dave Ficeli, MBA’99, co-founder and managing partner of CeLLar D Wines in Napa Valley, California; Hank Ingram, MBA’16, CEO of Brown Water Spirits, which creates O.H. Ingram River Aged Whiskey; and Paige Parker, current MBA student in the Class of 2022 and owner of Happenstance Whiskey. As Dean Eric Johnson noted in his introduction, “This panel is something we’ve been thinking and scheming about for a long time because Owen has a really strong, long tradition of folks who end up in the alcoholic beverage industry—in every part of the business, and for quite a long arc of our history.”
The four panelists covered a lot of ground, giving thoughtful and honest answers about challenges, successes and their hope for the future, both for their industry and their own businesses. Topics ranged from business models, approaches to branding, marketing and consumer experience, sponsorships, celebrity spokespeople and authenticity.
The panelists acknowledged that their industry is a dynamic and enduring one, especially because of how integrated it is in business and culture. “The alcohol industry is really diverse. I love that it touches so many other sectors from sports and music entertainment to hospitality to supply chain and operations to international expansion. There are so many different avenues you can take in this business,” Parker said. Ficeli added to this with a story about how his professional trajectory was altered by a week at a case competition in legendary wine country Sonoma County, California. “We were using all the tools in that competition that we had been taught at Owen and I felt like the product was exciting, it brought people together. It touched on so many functional pieces of the industry in general, everything from marketing, sales, compliance, agriculture, operations, supply and demand, exchange rates—you name it. I felt like there would never be a boring day.”
The challenge is telling our story—telling why we’re different, what we’re doing that we believe in unique and why that should resonate with the consumer. –Hank Ingram (MBA’16), CEO of Brown Water Spirits
Ingram was in the unique position of having launched his company in October 2020, “so we didn’t know anything other than the pandemic…which was a challenge and an opportunity,” he said. “The challenge is telling our story—telling why we’re different, what we’re doing that we believe in unique and why that should resonate with the consumer.” He credited his strong early momentum in part on his interest in and reliance on research and data, and ultimately, “a lot of listening.”
Collins attributed some of the interest in this market, particularly among Owen alumni, to the regulatory changes about a decade ago. “In 2009 they changed the laws in Tennessee—before 2009 there were only three counties in Tennessee where you could have a distillery and now it is a burgeoning industry.”
Each participant underscored the need for entrepreneurs to be nimble and creative. For Collins, this recently meant being at the forefront of the pandemic-induced need for hand sanitizer and his ability to quickly shift his production processes. With agriculture at the heart of his business, Ficeli is particularly focused on how climate change will impact the vineyard. “We’ve got to be looking twenty, fifty years ahead and the collaborative piece of that is huge,” he says. One of his solutions has been to work closely with local community leaders. “It’s been gratifying to see people come together to try to solve big problems.”
While a lot of education is necessary, especially as you launch, Parker articulated the key to success in their industry. “To build a sustainable brand over time, as everyone siting here knows,” she said, “this market is a lot—and this industry is a lot—about relationships.”
If you are interested in being part of future events, having your business’ story featured or being listed in our new online directory of Owen-Owned businesses on our alumni website, email the Owen Alumni Engagement Team at firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject OWEN-OWNED to learn more.