What's the best lesson other entrepreneurs can learn from Rhonda Kallman and her career? "Talent comes in all kinds of packages," says James Koch, her co-founding partner at the Boston Beer Co., maker of Sam Adams. Kallman started at age 19 as Koch's secretary at a management consulting firm, a company that had nothing to do with beer. She had an associate's degree and mostly bar and restaurant jobs on her resume. That would include the bartending job she went to when she left Koch's office in the evenings.
Perfect. "Jim knew about brewing and wanted to start a company," Kallman says. "I knew about bars and just kept doing my homework." Kallman started as account manager in 1985 and a year later was named founding partner and VP of sales. Sales increased by 30% to 60% each year in the company's first decade. They slowed down, and not by too much, only after Boston Beer went public in 1995. Kallman's title changed to executive vice president at that point, but her role remained the same: building Boston Beer's sales force and brand-marketing efforts. Sam Adams was the first national microbrewery to find a place in coolers and ballparks across America.
By 1999 Kallman felt Boston Beer had fully matured, and she stepped away to spend time with her family and consider her options. She wasn't sure what her next business move would be, or if there would be one. But, just as she was settling into a Caribbean vacation with her family, Joseph Owades, the inventor of America's first low-calorie beer, Miller Lite, reached her. He wanted the Pioneering Woman in the Beer Business--that's what it said on the award given to Kallman by the Association of Brewers--to build a new brand with him. One day later, she said that if he could reinvent light beer, she would consider getting back in the game.
During the next 18 months, Owades developed a new formula, and by April 2001, he and Kallman incorporated the New Century Brewing Co. They rolled out their first brand, Edison Light (named after Thomas), on September 10, 2001. Despite the timing, the beer has succeeded so far in the only markets where it is currently sold: Boston and Atlanta. Kallman is back at the beginning (the company comprises just four people, a close-knit group of women), and she's happy. "How does a company carve out an independent position that the big guys can't do?" she asks rhetorically. "That's really my challenge. That's what keeps me motivated."--Lora Kolodny
Lora Kolodny is a staff reporter.