Obit: Despite Ale's Success, Brewery Loses Out
The business: Craft-beer brewery
Closed: April 2000
Causes of death: Tepid marketing; untimely expansion
When it came to beer, Stephen Mason was a visionary. Having apprenticed himself to a brewery in England for six months in 1983, Mason returned home to Vermont eager to make and sell a great beer. There he hooked up with Alan Davis, a local entrepreneur who believed in the business potential of Mason's idea. In 1986 they cofounded Catamount Brewery, one of the first microbreweries in New England. Catamount was "an inspiration," says Lawrence Miller, who founded Otter Creek Brewing, also in Vermont, five years later. "Those of us who came later were able to learn from Catamount," Miller says, noting his competitor's success in building a high-quality, popular brand.
The ultimate lesson of Catamount, however, turned out to be a cautionary tale about the risks of investing heavily in a plant and its equipment without a comparable push to promote the product. "I think Mason felt that if he could keep making an excellent product, people would come," says Jack Shea, owner of Capitol Distributors Inc., based in Concord, N.H., one of Catamount's original distributors. But, Shea adds, "when you're developing a brand, you need street presence. You need a sales force talking up the product. Catamount was late in the game to do that."
For a while Mason's hoppy ale did seem to sell itself. Enveloped in romance and mystique, craft beers came into their own between 1987 and 1995. American brewing enthusiasts responded by starting hundreds of small companies. To launch a company like Catamount cost about $500,000, money that Mason and Davis raised mostly from friends, family, and local investors.
In the company's early years, Davis recalls, Catamount's sales-and-marketing operation consisted of "me in a car going around to accounts." But by the mid-1990s that was not enough. "Supermarkets were stocked with so many different brands," Miller says, "that you had to make the customer want to find yours."
Meanwhile, Mason says, Catamount expanded its production rapidly, going from 3,500 barrels in 1987 to 12,000 in 1993, when annual revenues reached about $3 million. Davis says that he tried to persuade Mason and Catamount's board to put more money into promotional efforts, such as hiring more salespeople and providing stores with point-of-sale materials. In 1993, Davis claims, he left the company out of frustration.
"The feeling from the board was production, production, production," confirms Philip Gentile, who had stepped in to fill the role of sales-and-marketing chief. "I'm certainly not going to shirk responsibility," says Mason, "but the board of directors was a crucial body in deemphasizing marketing as the company grew in the 1990s." And it was largely the board's decision, he insists, to build a $5-million state-of-the-art brewing facility in Windsor, Vt., financed mostly by a loan from a local bank. But when the facility was completed, in 1997, the market for craft beer was flattening out. And Catamount was unable to shake off the huge debt it had assumed.
"They built a beautiful facility, a real Cadillac," says Paul Ralston, a marketing expert who had been a consultant to Catamount in 1998 and became acting CEO when Mason left the company, last year. However, Catamount never actually made enough of a profit to justify its expansion.
In April of this year, Catamount was delinquent in loan payments, and its assets were surrendered to its largest creditor, Chittenden Bank. In June, Boston-based Harpoon Brewery bought the brewing facility from the bank for a fire-sale price of $1 million and announced it would sell a line of beer under the Catamount label. "People around here are still asking for Catamount," notes Shea. "That's Steve's legacy."
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