Distilling the Lessons of a 100-Year-Old Family Business into a New Pursuit
Sam Agnew, Pursuit Distilling Company
February 25, 2020
I grew up working in our fifth-generation, Pacific Northwest-based family business. I spent my summers working on our legacy timberlands and for our beer and wine distributorship. During those early years, I recognized the importance of working hard and following your dreams.
After I graduated from college, I went to work for our beer and wine distribution business for a year before working for our investment company, managing our commercial real estate and timberlands portfolio. I have served in several additional roles for the family business, including board member for our investment company, family council chair, and, currently, as annual shareholder meeting chair. At the end of 2014, I made the decision to leave the family business. I was ready to venture out and create my own successes and failures and to build something myself. It was time.
In 2015, I partnered with my brother-in-law to start Pursuit Distilling Company. We are a 100 percent grain-to-glass distillery located in Enumclaw, Washington. We produce several brands of spirits, including Suspect flavored whiskey, vodka, gin, single malts, whiskey, and bourbon. We are currently distributed throughout Washington State and Oregon.
We’re a start-up company, and every day there’s a new mountain to climb, but our roots run deep. We are continually innovating and thinking creatively to differentiate our brand in this competitive marketplace. As we move ahead to leave our own legacy, our company reflects the lessons, values and long-term timeline I learned as a fourth-generation steward of a family business.
My great-grandfather was a pioneer in the timber industry. He was known to travel up and down the I-5 corridor visiting his current timber holdings and scouting out new timber tracks. He would pack sack lunches for the entire week on the road and would fill gas cans from his logging mill sites, storing the gas cans in the back of his car as he drove (safety priorities were clearly a bit different in those days). He was a frugal man and valued saving pennies where he could. His hard work, his pioneer spirit, and his work ethic have been the foundation of our family enterprise for almost 100 years.
That work ethic was ingrained early in our family, so I’ve never been afraid of hard work. That’s a good thing because there are no shortcuts in owning and operating a start-up company. I recently joked with someone that, in retrospect, the 50-60-hour work weeks I spent working for my family enterprise were a breeze compared to my current reality. Those days are gone. I work pretty much every day, and every day brings a new challenge. It’s a crazy ride, but I am excited and blessed to be on this road.
I currently manage marketing, sales, legal, distribution agreements, payroll, accounting, and, until recently, HR for Pursuit. I'm kind of the quarterback who just keeps the team moving down the field. Wearing a lot of hats has been a challenge, but growing up in the family business, I learned early the value of hard work. If there were a ditch-digging competition to see who could dig the most ditches in an hour or the entire day, I believe I would win. I just would never quit digging, and I would do it with a smile on my face.
Long-term Planning Horizons
We founded Pursuit Distilling with a 50-year business plan. I was 35 when we started the company, and I hope to be around at 85 knowing that my business will be, too. We’re in it for the long haul.
And it’s a good thing we are because distilling and aging spirits takes time and patience. Spirits have to sit in a barrel for at least four years to have any kind of credibility in the marketplace. That time in the barrel confers the Bottled-in-Bond designation, which can offer a rewarding payoff. For example, a 53-gallon New American Oak barrel of spirits costs us about $1k to produce. This cost includes the barrel, distillate inside the barrel, labor, glass, taxes, and a few other initial costs. After four years, that barrel—depending on quality and price point—is worth between $10k and $12k. So, patience is the key.
When you have a long-term investment horizon, you just know it will all work out. I always tell people, "Thank goodness I came from timber. Timber takes 50 years to mature and to get your return. If I can get a return back within 10 years that is a home run."
Though we’re a startup, we operate with a stewardship mentality. I tell our employees that everything we’re doing at Pursuit was made possible by my great-grandfather. His initial labor really provided our family the resources to allow me to go and do something that I love. It’s my responsibility to preserve that gift and carry it on to the next generation. I want my kids, who are young now, to have the opportunity to join this business—if they wish.
My ability to steward my own business relies on my connection to the key learnings of the family enterprise. I know the trove of wisdom that exists in our 100-years of business, and I capitalize on reaching out and connecting with my dad, my cousins, and my uncle for the good of my business, tapping them as resources to help navigate starting and owning the distillery.
These deep connections have been so rewarding as I forge my own path. My family members are my biggest cheerleaders. Their support is essential in the daily grind of startup life because there is no question that it’s easy to feel beaten down in the relentless pace of launching a new business. When a family member reaches out to me and is fired up because they’ve seen our product on a shelf somewhere, or because they have enjoyed a delicious cocktail from an establishment using our products, that brings a huge smile to my face.
Looking Back Encourages Me to Look Ahead
I know that all the lessons of the years I spent deeply involved in leading our family enterprise will continue to help shape my own business. It was a leap to step out on my own, but I did so from a very solid foundation.
My goal for Pursuit Distilling is lofty. I want Pursuit to be a world-class distillery, creating products that are shared around the world. It might sound crazy, but with a 50-year planning horizon, I’d like to think we can get there.
I also hope that Pursuit will continue to provide good jobs for people and making an impact in our communities for years to come. One thing I've always appreciated about coming from a family business is the honor that exists in taking care of families. We feel lucky to be able to provide our employees with a career and benefits, and we take that responsibility seriously. My hope is that in 50 years, I’ll be able to look out and see faces of people who have been with us for decades. That would be a dream.
I know it will take much more hard work to realize my hopes for our company, but that doesn’t scare me. I’m fueled by passion for this venture and by the deep sense of hospitality that really underlies this company. Sharing a great beverage, in my mind, is really about coming together, and I want everyone who enters our tasting rooms, drinks our products, or engages with us in any way, to feel that sense of hospitality that grounds us.
Sam Agnew is CEO and Owner of Pursuit Distilling Company.