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Gut check Featured

9:45am EDT July 22, 2002
Gavin Smith and Jeff Craze know they’re not big fish in the regional microbrewing pond. They don’t have 10 years of brewpub experience behind them, nor do they possess the deep pockets necessary to buy smaller breweries and establish national and regional distribution channels.

But what Smith, CEO, and Craze, president of Western Reserve Brewing Co. do have is good old-fashioned marketing sense, an understanding of the value of hard work and a realization that even if your business has a good product, it’s worth tinkering with.

In their first three years of business, the pair has been busy, garnering local and national awards for Western Reserve’s brewing excellence. From the outside looking in, they must be doing something right.

So what can your business learn from a couple of home brewers turned pro? A lot more than you think.

Do your homework, build a plan, but trust your gut

It’s no secret that you’re unlikely to succeed in business without a solid plan. Nor can you produce a quality product without devoting countless hours to research and development. But beyond that, every good business begins with a gut feeling that something will work.

Smith and Craze spent two years developing their business plan before Western Reserve brewed its first barrel in 1997. They traveled to other breweries, including local ones, to gauge how things were done in the microbrewing industry. Now, with a bit of experience under their belts, they are in the midst of devising a new three-to-five-year plan, which Craze says encompasses a proposed expansion.

Western Reserve was the duo’s first commercial venture — both came from other industries — but they followed the old business school motto: When you’ve run the numbers enough times, trust your intuition.

“We had a couple gut checks along the way,” Smith admits. “When we built our manufacturing plant, it wasn’t easy. We had to lean on our passion for beer and passion for Cleveland in order to get through the challenges we didn’t expect.”

But trusting their guts extends deeper into the organization, allowing Smith, Craze and brewmaster Jeff Ogden to venture into the great unknown. Explains Steve Louzos, marketing and public relations manager, “One of our favorite sayings is that you learn something new every day ... if you’re not careful.”

Don’t be afraid to tinker with a good product

Western Reserve’s beers have received national awards, but Smith and Craze aren’t willing to rest on early success. That’s why Ogden constantly tries new concoctions that require the special touch of someone who is a healthy combination of alchemist, artist and mathematician.

“It’s critical to be consistent and use exact calculations,” Ogden explains. “Making sure batches taste the same requires spending that extra half hour or hour doing the math. But you have to look at what you’re doing, smell it, taste it and make it that way as well. If you go strictly by the numbers, you lose the creativity of the process.”

This tinkering has helped create Western Reserve’s seasonal beers, including the logo-fancy Bockzilla, which touts a beer-guzzling cartoon Godzilla on the label. Like any good company, Smith says, you have to stay on the cutting edge and continually adapt and develop new products.

Image is everything, so create a good experience

Public perception of your company normally translates into how well you really do. That’s why Western Reserve takes an active role in the community and puts its best spokespeople forward. Those two things, explains Louzos, are the drivers behind Western Reserve’s current marketing campaign, which features Smith and Craze as a couple of cartoon talking heads.

“They’re the best spokespeople for the company because of their passion for the product and belief of getting involved in the community,” he says.

And unlike larger businesses, where the CEO and president often leave the bulk of community relations to a team of well-seasoned professionals, Smith and Craze are apt to be found pressing the flesh with the public at events, letting people attach a face to a company name.

“We were at an event recently with a lot of country music fans,” says Smith, “and the people couldn’t get over how much we were just a couple of regular guys like them. They connected with us and our beer, and realized we were two enthusiasts who cared about the product.

“That’s what it’s all about for us — having a good time, making enough money to keep roofs over our heads and producing high quality beer.”

How to reach: Western Reserve Brewing Co., (216) 361-2888

Dustin Klein (dsklein@sbnnet.com) is editor of SBN.