In Praise Of Self-funded, Paced, Intentional Growth
Pamela Brulotte , Icicle Brewing Company and München Haus
September 21, 2021
When my husband, Oliver, and I launched our Evergreen® business, Icicle Brewing, we were well aware of the risk involved in a capital-intensive business. Oliver is fifth generation in a farming family in the Yakima Valley in Washington state, and he had been raised through repeated, necessary cycles of bank loans and equipment expenses and the continual underlying stress of unpredictable events that shape life and finances on a farm.
But he also understood the long-term view and growth mindset that is essential for farming and for Evergreen business. He had observed the expansion and evolution of his family’s farm from hops to include apples and cherries, had raised his own cattle in college, and he always had an entrepreneurial vision to build something of his own.
When Oliver and I married after college and moved to the family farm, I was immersed in those same cycles. After several years on the farm, we made the decision to branch out on our own, investing in land and developing a vineyard—another capital-intensive enterprise.
In fact, it was our investment in the vineyard, which we funded ourselves, that left us cash poor and led us to take the first small step toward what would become München Haus and Icicle Brewing. With three young children at the time and the vineyard still in early stages of growth, we needed cash to pay our bills. We decided to open a small kettle-corn stand on one of two investment properties we had purchased in Leavenworth, Washington, a Bavarian-themed resort town in the Cascade mountains. While Oliver continued to work the vineyard, we brought our kids to Leavenworth each weekend, where I popped and sold kettle corn to generate a bit of income.
While the stand, München Haus, became popular, it wasn’t generating enough revenue to justify commuting indefinitely. In the spring of 2002 we made the decision to sell the vineyard and move our family to Leavenworth, using the profit from the sale of the vineyard to fund an expansion of München Haus to include a sausage grill and craft-focused beer garden .
As we put down roots and steadily grew our small business as we generated the profit to do so—literally one piece of equipment and one incremental improvement at a time—our Purpose became clear. We wanted our business to provide benefit for the community, to create a place for people to gather and connect, and to create jobs.
Those goals were the motivation behind each significant stage of our growth. In 2009, we secured a bank loan—a two-year-long endeavor in the wake of the Great Recession—to build a brewery and taproom on our second lot in Leavenworth. We had traveled in Germany with our family and had seen the role of breweries as community hubs in small towns, and we wanted to expand on our existing presence to offer that to our community. We knew that, in addition to investing in the facility and equipment to brew beer, we would need to hire a master brewer to bring that dream to life, which we did. With those early self-funded capital expenses, Icicle Brewing was born.
As visitors and locals came to love our beer and spread the word, increased demand led us to sign on with a distributor, which shrunk our margins but broadened our reach, and ultimately led us to outgrow our original facility. In 2017, we were bursting at the seams in our downtown brewery, and we made the decision to purchase a new property and expand again. We built a production facility and purchased a packaging system, which were our biggest capital investments to date. We funded that expansion through financing that included taking a mortgage out on our family home, which we recognized was a very personal risk but felt was a calculated step, justified by demand.
With an eye on innovation and customer experience, we purchased an experimental brewhouse and remodeled our taproom at the downtown location at the same time. That investment in production, packaging, and innovation proved invaluable through the COVID-19 pandemic. When retail shut down, we were able to shift our focus to packaging, marketing, and distribution efforts, as well as developing new experimental beers.
In 2021, we’re celebrating the ten-year anniversary of Icicle Brewing and the 20-year anniversary of München Haus, which provides an opportunity to reflect on our Paced Growth over time. Each stage of our growth has required that we evaluate and reaffirm our commitment to growing a private business through our own profits. Our journey has been a constant balancing act between funding improvements and capital expenses to keep us growing and relevant while also maintaining profitability, which has allowed us to take care of our people and protect our business. Throughout, we have been steadied by our desire to grow within our means and base that growth on increasing demand.
We’ve taken a series of financial risks to respond to the demand, but we’ve always understood that taking those calculated steps to grow leads to long-term sustainability. Our paced, intentional growth has meant we didn’t need to take on outside investment, and though we’ve been approached by interested buyers, we’ve never seriously considered selling. We love what we do and we want to continue to grow the business with our team.
As we expanded, we have also evolved the organizational structure by building a leadership team and a board of directors and to engage in a more formalized growth strategy and planning process. We know these governance structures and planning processes will further improve our company’s long-term prospects to the benefit of our people and to the communities we serve.
Through that planning process, we made a decision in 2018 to gift a portion of our ownership to key employees to strengthen and incentivize our management team. Oliver and I also transitioned out of daily operational roles to assume advisory positions in the company—Oliver is Chair of the Board and I lead culture and employee professional development efforts. That change allows us to continue to steward the business while empowering our team to innovate and to lead our long-term success. We see endless possibilities for the company and the team, and we look forward to seeing where and how the business will continue to grow.