Big Storm Brewing’s Founder, Mike Bishop:

Lessons In Rapid Expansion & Relationship Building

Big Storm Brewing’s Founder, Mike Bishop:

Lessons In Rapid Expansion & Relationship Building

“I think it’s very tempting nowadays to just shotgun blast and try to get your product everywhere. The biggest thing is just to slowly and solidly build.”

When Mike Bishop decided to start Big Storm Brewing Co. in 2012 the craft beer world was on the cusp of explosive growth. Within a few years, Big Storm “gobbled up” the entire state of Florida in distribution, securing them statewide glory and a healthy share of growing pains. Around the same time, Big Storm began opening up taprooms across the state and started partnership conversations with a professional sports franchise. Now 7 years in, a dozen sales reps deep, four taprooms strong, and one partnership with an NHL team secured, Big Storm is going back to the basics. In this interview, Mike Bishop, the founder of Big Storm, shares his thoughts on why building strong relationships through your sales team is the best strategy in the hyper-competitive market. You’ll also take away valuable lessons on hiring key accounts managers, managing taprooms, and securing corporate sponsorships from a team that’s learned everything the hard way.

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The Interview:

Trey: I want to begin by talking about how you started the company. Am I correct that you started Big Storm in 2012?

Mike: I did. Correct.

What were you doing before and what inspired you to start this brand?

It all starts at USF. I was a finance major at USF way back when before there were a lot of craft breweries in the state. At that time, when I was there, I used to tour the Yuengling facility a lot. I just really fell in love with the manufacturing of beer. It kind of opened my eyes and I started getting into some different crafts. At that time, the only thing we really had locally was Stone or Dogfish Head or those big national brands. I graduated from USF and went my finance route for a while and just stayed plugged in to what was going on. I could kind of feel the tide turning, if you will, as far as craft beer. So, I kept putting my resume out there to different local breweries. At the time there was only like four in Tampa Bay. Haha.

I was fortunate that Dunedin Brewery actually reached out to me and asked if I wanted to come volunteer. You want to talk about a different day and age, back then just volunteering at a brewery was a huge deal. So I did that for about three years on and off. I reworked my schedule so I could go there one or two days a week and work long days. I really learned commercially, I wasn’t even a home brewer at that point. I did that for a few years and was kind of wondering what I wanted to do with finance and if that was the direction for me. Then, I had a friend of mine say, “hey, why don’t we start a brewery?” And, there you go. That’s what happened.

So you started in 2012 and you are producing 12,000 barrels annually now, correct?

Yeah, we’re a little shy of that. I’d say we’re probably more around 10,000. We obviously want to get to that 12,000 mark this year and I think we got a lot of great things in place to really push sales. We have our Fat Point brand that’s doing well and growing. We just expanded distribution for that. So, I think we’ll get there, but we’re probably more around 10,000 now.

Mike Bishop (right) with the founder of Big Storm’s parent company, Seaboard Craft Holdings. Taken from News-Press.com

Can you tell me about the first two or three years? What was the strategy? Was it a taproom model, was it a distribution model, were you only using outside reps?

So the first year, we were the first brewery in Pasco county that ever opened. It was pretty cool and challenging in a sense because we didn’t have county laws or codes for breweries. I remember we had to go in and have a meeting with the county government and explain what we were doing. They said, “oh, we don’t even have anything in our books to do this.” So, it was a little weird. But we wanted to be distribution. We did know that. We also knew that the taproom was going to be a vital piece of it to help us pay the bills. So we started at a 2,500 square foot warehouse with a few hundred square feet of taproom space in the front and the rest was warehouse and production.

But we were really small. We started with a three barrel system, a couple of 10 barrel fermenters, and a 10 barrel brite tank. We took about a dozen accounts or so locally that we serviced with distribution and we did what we call the hub and spoke model where we build a little base around us and continue to expand from there. From day one, we were a brewery that always felt like we needed someone out there in the field. So, we’ve always had sales reps. I think because we were a little ahead of the curve at the time, that’s probably why we have the biggest field sales team in the state. We’re currently at about a dozen sales team members across the state of Florida.

“We did what we call the hub and spoke model where we build a little base around us and continue to expand from there. From day one, we were a brewery that always felt like we needed someone out there in the field.”

So going back to the first couple of years, after about a year I brought in some new partners. My founding partner wanted to go in a different direction and it was all amicable. I was very lucky, actually. I brought in my new partners who I knew very well. My high school football coach, who was always kind of a business mentor of mine, and his son who was always like a brother to me. We broke ground on the Pinellas facility as well as moving the Pasco facility. So really the first two, three years, like any other business, was just aggressive expansion and growth with growing pains and learning.

So in those first few years of expanding your distribution, were you mostly going after certain types of accounts? On, off, chain?

The first couple of years we really didn’t know what we were doing with chains. I gotta assume that’s like any other brewery. So we just started with mom and pop businesses. The Brass Tap was actually one of our first accounts in Trinity. Places like G Peppers, which is close to you guys in Odessa, was one of our original accounts. So just things that are really small and around the brewery. It wasn’t really until a few years in before I really started getting a handle on even using VIP and getting that data to leverage in chain presentations. I think Dennis, our key accounts guy, signed on in 2016. Really when he came on is when it was like, “okay, now we have a legitimate chain business going on.” It was an evolution.

Can you tell me about the strategy that you learned working with those chain accounts?

Yeah, it’s a totally different way of selling. Especially when you separate on and off-premise. Off-premise, it’s all about communicating with buyers and connecting to distributors. Communication is the biggest key. Our key accounts guy Dennis, his sole job is pretty much meeting with the buyer, getting the programming done or whatever kind of commitments, and then just calling or emailing distributors. It’s making sure they know, “hey, we have Big Boca or Wave Maker going into a set here and I want to make sure that you know about it.” Then on-premise is sort of the same thing, but it’s also our key accounts guy James working with our field team and making sure any kind of promos are getting done and we’re meeting with the managers at the store level. It’s just an advanced selling technique that we grew into.

Big Storm beers, taken from Big Storm’s Instagram

If I was a brewery your size or maybe a little bit younger and I was looking to hire my first key accounts manager, what kind of person would I be looking for? What would make them a great key accounts manager?

They have to be great at communication. They have to be excellent at being organized and being a self starter. I can tell you from managing the sales team myself, you want that key accounts guy to be your guy that’s out there getting it done that you just check in with on a regular basis. You don’t want a guy that you’re having to coach all the time. So experience is a big deal. Dennis comes from years of beer experience with Pabst and he ran the Miller Coors distributorship before JJ Taylor. You want a guy that really knows his stuff when it comes to beer, but especially knows his stuff when it comes to the beer business. You know, UPC’s, PTR’s, QD’s, all of that terminology that was Greek to me seven years ago that I’ve now learned since we’ve been getting into chains.

“You want a guy that really knows his stuff when it comes to beer, but especially knows his stuff when it comes to the beer business.”

How many distributors do you have now?

I think the last count was 17 if you include our distributor in Texas.

Can you tell me a little bit about how you went about choosing your distributors and building those relationships? That’s something that a lot of craft brands struggle with, picking the right person for them and finding someone who’s going to be consistent.

Yeah, it’s extremely challenging. The times have changed a lot. When we started, J. Paul Pepin rolled up in my driveway and came to drink beers with me and my original partner because he had heard we were starting a brewery. That doesn’t happen anymore. Now you’re calling up your distributor saying, “hey, can I be your hundredth brand that you support?” So it is challenging getting in front of distributors. What we’re doing right now is starting to look outside the state for other distributors. You have to have a real selling proposition and a real strategy to prove to these guys that you know what you’re doing with your brand and how you want to position it in the market. As far as picking people that are compatible with you, it’s tough. The distribution game is the same everywhere. Every distributor deals with the same challenges. I don’t have a great answer. It’s really tough. That’s the answer. But I will say, like I said to you before, you can’t sit there and analyze it too long. You gotta make a decision and you gotta go. Then you have to roll with the punches, learn from it, and adapt. Adaptability is going to be key with any distribution relationship.

“You have to have a real selling proposition and a real strategy to prove to these guys that you know what you’re doing with your brand and how you want to position it in the market.”

Got it. So why don’t we transition to the point about moving fast and breaking things. Can you tell me a little bit about your philosophy for using different reporting tools and how you can leverage them without letting yourself fall into that analysis paralysis you mentioned?

Yeah, this is going to sound a little bit like a commercial and I didn’t plan it this way, but I really do love Lilypad in the sense that it is very simple and efficient reporting. Like any program, you can make it really bossy and you can sit there and read through reports all the time. But really, my philosophy and our philosophy at Big Storm with sales is to get the information that’s absolutely necessary and then go out and build relationships. The relationships are key in the market. People are buying from our team because of our team. The human resource is the most important piece. But being able to have Lilypad as that CRM where you can get data in and get data out in quick reports is powerful – “I called on this many people, I got this many placements, and I got this closing rate” – it’s a quick boom, boom, boom. It’s your roadmap.

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It’s interesting that you guys are doubling down on having people in the streets and being more relationship focused because we’ve seen a trend with all of our clients where people are going more heavy on the data analyst side. Many people are scaling back there outbound sales teams and really focusing on analysis.

I admit I’m a little unorthodox. I have to rewind a second. So what we were talking about with distributors, right? They have all these brands. I think Great Bay Distributors has like 60 different brands or something insane. So there’s a lot more breweries now that are two, three, or four plus years old and now they’re all getting a little more mature in their experience with knowing the lingo. I think a lot of them are continuing to put more weight on distributor decisions. So an example is, you go into Joe’s bar. They have 10 tabs and the brewery that wants to get in there may think, “oh, well Great Bay really makes decisions on each tab so I need to work closer with Great Bay to influence them.” To an extent, that’s correct. But I feel like in the marketplace right now, more than ever, there’s confusion with so many brands, with so many different bars opening and closing, and with chains expanding. Really just this past year we’ve seen Sprouts, Earth Fare, and Lucky’s pop up. They’re really starting to challenge the green monster out in Lakeland.

Big Storm tasting at a Lucky’s Market, taken from the Lilypad Social Wall.

I think that the key is going to be good old fashioned, grass roots, building relationships with the buyers through our sales team. That should prevail through all. I’m not sure the distributor has as much of a grasp as they make themselves out to have and that a lot of craft breweries think they have. I think it’s a lot of noise that should be squashed by just getting out there and building one CE at a time. I’m betting on the old fashion way, because when everything goes to hell in a hand-basket, because it probably will at some point – I’m not the expert on when the bubble will burst or if it will burst, but just look at history in any business and this happens in every industry – when things go down, I’m betting on having relationships with those bars. That’s where my head is at.

That makes a ton of sense to me. I don’t want to beat a dead horse here so let’s transition. I live in Tampa and I’ve seen the Big Storm bar at The Tampa Bay Lightning NHL arena. A partnership like that is pretty atypical and I bet there’s a lot of people in their own cities that would love to have a dedicated taproom in a big venue like that. Can you tell me a little bit about how that deal was closed and what you’ve learned from it?

That’s a good question. I’ll give you the quick history. We came up with the name Big Storm not thinking about the Lightning at all. We were exploring themes and we really liked the idea of “Big Storm” and what it meant for Tampa Bay and also beyond. After a couple years as we started getting more popular and craft beer started getting more popular, the Lightning actually reached out to us, their corporate sponsorship team, and suggested we get together and talk about it. We talked about that for 3 years. A lot of it comes down to dollars and cents. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that a lot of the stuff in there is corporate sponsorships. So we made a decision at that time, and we were fortunate to be well funded, to get involved and use the co-branding and get a location there.

Now looking back on the deal as we’re two or three years into it, there’s a lot of facets to it that a craft brewery needs to understand before they do something like that. We learned all this the hard way. One is activation. If you’re going to spend that much money in marketing and hope to get something out of it, you need to budget a lot more money on promotions and expanding that brand. Do a lot of things to support people knowing you are a partner with that major sports franchise. The other part of that too, like I hit on earlier, is picking a brand that you’re gonna launch. One kind of mistake, I guess we’ll say – we still sold beer but I don’t feel like we got the most out of it – was doing the Lightning 25 to celebrate their 25th anniversary. It went very well, it was very popular, and it was a good light lager and sold a lot in the arena. But major breweries use these platforms to promote their flagship brand and we didn’t really do that and I think that was somewhat of a mistake. But I mean, as far as overall learning from it, you really learn the sports business. You really get into the nitty gritty of distributor meetings. Some of the most uncomfortable and challenging meetings I’ve had with distributors were how it related to us selling beer at Amalie Arena. So there’s definitely a lot to be learned there.

“If you’re going to spend that much money in marketing and hope to get something out of it, you need to budget a lot more money on promotions and expanding that brand.”

How is it different?

Here’s what makes it different: you’re looking at a very high volume. Amalie Arena sells a lot of beer. So the more high volume, the more high stakes for distributors. They have their directives and their goals too. I don’t mean any negativity by it, every business should have their own independent goals. I get that. So when you come in you say, “okay, now we’re partners with the Lightning and they carry our beer.” Well, something’s got to go. Then it becomes a strategy of what beer is going to go replace that and how are you gonna keep all of our relationships in tact?

That makes a lot of sense. So you had to make some sacrifices on some of your other accounts?

Yeah, yeah.

Big Storm Lightning Twenty Five Lager, taken from Big Storm’s Instagram.

So I guess to conclude on this topic, is this kind of thing something you’d recommend to another brand of your size in a different state?

Hmm. How do I answer that? It is absolutely a financial commitment. I look back on it as a great learning experience. I would recommend that any craft brewery that wants to talk about sports sponsorships negotiate. Make sure that when you talk through points on partnering you maximize everything that you get. That’s legitimately my number one piece of advice. There’s a lot of advertising and fun stuff that you can do, but at the end of the day, it comes down to how you can handle it as a company. If you have a one person marketing team and they handle all your plans for everything, well, it’s going to be a challenge because some stuff you’re just not going to be able to take part in. Then all of a sudden you’re paying for a sponsorship that you’re not able to maximize on. That would be my piece of advice.

I’ve got one more topic I want to touch on before I let you go and it’s taprooms. How many taprooms do you guys operate now?

We operate four taprooms now, including our Fat Point brand.

Can you tell me a little bit about how that expansion has gone, what you started with, and some best practices around running tap rooms?

We started in Pasco. We had a few hundred square feet of taproom space and quickly outgrew that. So, we expanded into the actual brewery, which was a pretty cool little set up. We still have that in our renovated Pasco Brewery where the taproom is inside the production area.

From an overall perspective, food is important for tap rooms. Coming from the time that I came from, we were all beer guys. At that time, nobody really cared about food. People were coming to try beers, they’d bring food in, or there’d be food trucks outside.  But nowadays people want food because they want that enhanced experience. So, we added food in our Pinellas facility, we have food in our Fat Point facility, and we’re adding food to Pasco and Cape Coral. So, I think food is a critical piece.

The Dad Bod Burger from Big Storm’s Clearwater taproom, taken from Big Storm’s Instagram.

Another critical piece is continuing to stay fun and creative. People, when they come to the taproom, they want creativity. They want to see new beers, they want to see new events. We even do food pairings now where we do a little event at the brewery and say, “hey, we’re going to do a beer and food pairing with our stouts.” We’ll do desserts or something. So, you just got to keep it fresh, keep it interesting, and remember that the spirit of craft beer is creativity and that’s what people really want.

“You just got to keep it fresh, keep it interesting, and remember that the spirit of craft beer is creativity and that’s what people really want.”

Do you have actual brewers at each taproom?

Yeah, we do have brewers at every location even though our main productions is in Pinellas, which handles distribution. We still brew in the other facilities for, like I said, creative and innovative beers. We’ll do anywhere between 80 and a 100 different types of beer every year. I think we’re actually going to do more this year. We’ve probably already had two dozen.

We have taproom management at every place, including an overseer of taproom management. There’s a little management hierarchy there. It’s important to have the right people, the right staff. They’re like salespeople and they’ve got to be able to know the brand and keep up with it. If you look at history back in the 80’s and 90’s, everybody was going to Applebee’s or whatever chain was their neighborhood bar. Well, taprooms are the neighborhood bar now. So, they want like a “Cheers” kind of atmosphere. They want to know the bartender. They want to know that Dani is going to be there on Thursday nights and I like Dani so I might go hang out with her, you know? 

Do you see yourself making your focus expanding distribution or do you want to keep opening taprooms? Do you like the neighborhood bar and restaurant management life?

I guess both. I don’t know this for certain so don’t quote me, but I think we have the most amount of taprooms in the state. We’d like to continue that. Taprooms I think are a critical piece of the business as distribution is more and more challenging every day. So it’s good to have our own premises where people come in and have beers that go right to our revenue stream. But, we also want to increase distribution as well. I am actively talking to distributors outside of the state. We still have a little footprint in north Florida that we’re trying to finish up. So, I guess we’ll put it this way, it’s both, and how we do it is my partners and I split it up. I am tasked with making sure that distribution expands, and they’re tasked with making sure that we expand our taprooms.

Big Storm’s Pinellas Taproom, taken from the Creative Loafing Tampa Bay.

I’ve got one last question for you and it’s kind of a broad sweeping one. So you’re the founder of a brewery and you have been for seven years now. Looking back, do you think that there was a critical lesson, or something that really hit you in the gut, that you would’ve liked to have avoided that you could pass a piece of advice on to a new founder of a brewery?

Yeah, I learned this back then and it still applies now. I think you have to control growth. You gotta be very calculated in the decisions you make. I think it’s very tempting nowadays to just shotgun blast and try to get your product everywhere. The biggest thing is just to slowly and solidly build. I want to say that we probably made one critical error early on where we just went out and gobbled up the whole state in distribution. We had a whole state footprint and we were already looking out of state before we really owned our backyard. So it cost us, when we were building our production facility, to pull back distribution a little bit. We had to tuck our tail between our legs to do that. So the biggest thing, especially if you’re chasing distribution, is to go slowly. Like I said, one CE and one account at a time. Own that and then go from there.

“I think it’s very tempting nowadays to just shotgun blast and try to get your product everywhere. The biggest thing is just to slowly and solidly build.”

Got it. Do you have anything you want to share about Big Storm before we go?

I think we got a great team right now. It took years of experience to build it and we’re just out there pounding the pavement and building relationships. We’re trying to show people as a mature brand, that yes, we have some of our core brands out there that have been in the market for a long time but we’re going to be doing a lot of new and exciting beers this year too. I think it’ll be a lot of fun and I think consumers will react really well to it.

Awesome. Well, I know I’m excited to try them. Thanks a lot for your time!

Alright, cool. Thanks, man!

This article is part of the Lilypad Craft Beer Sales Interview Series.

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