Home Archived Articles Q&A With Grow & Fortify Founder & CEO Kevin Atticks

Q&A With Grow & Fortify Founder & CEO Kevin Atticks

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Marylanders who enjoy a mixed cocktail, sipping a glass of Chardonnay or tossing back a wet craft brew should know the name of Kevin Atticks. Atticks is the founder and CEO of Grow & Fortify, a new firm that supports value-added agricultural businesses and strengthens the organizations that support them.

His key clients are the Maryland Wineries Association (MWA), which he has led for 12 years; the Brewers Association of Maryland (BAM), a 19-year-old concern; and the newly-formed Maryland Distillers Guild (MDG).

Atticks is also the author of the Discovering Wineries series of books and holds board positions on the Maryland Tourism Coalition and WineAmerica; and he is past president of the Maryland Agriculture Resource Council.

He holds a master’s in environmental journalism from University of Colorado–Boulder and a doctorate in communications design from the University of Baltimore. Atticks also is an affiliate professor of communication at Loyola University Maryland, where he teaches book publishing and is the director of Apprentice House Press, the nation’s only campus-based, student-managed book publishing organization.

The craft brewing market is getting bigger and bigger. Just how big is it in Maryland and how much market share is it taking from traditional beer distributors?

There is an incredible demand for craft beer, and today’s laws even allow many of these small breweries to distribute product, if they have a Class 7 (for microbreweries) and Class 8 (farms) license. Maryland beer represents 5.8% of all beer sold in the state, according to the 2014 Comptroller of Maryland’s annual report.

As for the conglomerates, they know the market is changing, and they are making acquisitions in their efforts to accommodate every taste. Take the acquisition of Elysium, of Seattle, by Anheuser-Busch InBev, for example.

When did the farm-to-glass beer trend start? What kind of activity is it generating for the craft brewing sector, as well as for the state economy?

We are seeing a big interest in farm-based brewing, either on the farms or with locally-grown ingredients, which fits today’s public mindset. That’s been an important offshoot of the craft brewing trend, because farmers are seeing that they can grow specialized grain or hops, value-add the crop through the brewing process, and make more money per acre than ever before, thus helping to preserve their farms and their livelihoods.

The MWA is a well-established entity, but why was it important to start the BAM and the MDG — brandy, for instance, is basically distilled wine — instead of branding the three entities as one?

The MWA has been around since 1996 and the BAM is well-established, too. I did help the distillers form their organization this past February, because that part of the industry is poised to double in the next year, and it is facing a number of legislative challenges that it will be easier to address as a larger group,

The old model was to sell product to a wholesaler, like Kronheim or Reliable Churchill, which in turn sold the spirits to retailers. Today, the market is adjusting. People who are not regular visitors want to see, smell and taste the products up close — meeting the producer and making that personal connection — although the traditional model still works quite well, too.

What are the differences between the three organizations?

They are all producer organizations, and with the primary purpose of growing each industry, they all have unique challenges and opportunities. For instance, the MWA is concerned with increasing the vineyard acreage throughout the state, the BAM is addressing the changing production models in craft brewing; the members of the MDG are working under prohibition-era laws that allow them to produce, but not bottle (which they need a second license to accomplish) their product. Distilleries may only sell four bottles per person, per visit, in their tasting rooms at their private distilleries.

On the heels of the success of the craft brew market, there has recently been much talk of opening the Skipjack Distillery, in Annapolis, but there has been opposition. Is that legitimate, or are Maryland laws, once again, too restrictive to the business community?

The opposition is coming from a very small, but vocal, group. Letters to the editor have shown public support, as well. The laws in Maryland are set up to encourage the growth of small businesses, but communities have the ultimate say through the zoning process about what businesses they want as neighbors.

Then-Gov. Martin O’Malley signed legislation on May 10, 2011, to legalize direct shipment of wine in Maryland. What effect has the passage of that law had on the state’s market?

It’s has proven to be a huge new market for the wine industry, in general. The wineries have formed wine clubs, and we’ve seen new wineries established that focus almost entirely on creating wines for their wine clubs. And obviously, it opened Maryland to out-of-state wineries to ship in, providing much greater access to wines produced anywhere in the U.S.

Wine shops and liquor stores and wholesalers were originally opposed to the law because it went outside of the traditional three-tiered system in Maryland, which was created at the end of Prohibition to regulate the distribution of alcohol.

But we all know that if you want a bottle of wine with dinner tonight, you aren’t going to order it online or from an out-of-state winery. And statistics from the Maryland Comptroller’s Office have revealed no impact on traditional wine sales or alcohol tax revenue since the new law went into effect.

What is the success rate of businesses that sell alcohol in the state? They rarely seem to go out of business.

I don’t have a number on that, but I haven’t seen a winery or liquor store go out of business due to lack of market.

What effect does a so-called “superstore,” like Total Wine in Laurel’s Corridor Marketplace, have on the smaller “mom ’n pop” operations in areas where they do business?

I don’t have any numbers on that, either, but I’d say it’s been minimal. Stores like that are great supporters of local products and those from the region, as well. Small, independent stores are also good supporters of local products, but they often can’t offer the selection demanded by today’s market — leaving room for superstores and wine clubs.

Pennsylvania, Virginia and Washington, D.C., all allow beer and wine to be sold in grocery and convenience stores. Why has that not happened in Maryland?

Tradition. There are a handful of stores in the state that have legacy licenses. There have been bills proposed in the legislature to change the “no chains” law, but they have not been well received, partially because it would bring increased pressure to small businesses.

I can’t guess what’s going to happen, but the pressure to allow chain stores to hold licenses is increasing. There is a feeling in the market that it will eventually happen, so many local stores are evolving to create unique atmospheres and reach new markets, in an effort to retain customers and grow their base.

Gov. Larry Hogan and Department of Business and Economic Development (DBED) Secretary Michael Gill have talked about creating more jobs in Maryland since Hogan was elected. How can they help the wine, brewing and distilling industries contribute to that effort?

Our small businesses are part of the larger economic engine in Maryland, because they are a huge economic generator in the more rural areas of the state, where there may not be as many opportunities for jobs and general economic development.

DBED and the governor’s office have reached out to see what they can do to assist in our efforts. We have already discussed how they can assist in reducing the regulatory barriers to entry and growth.

What will be on the dossier for your clients in January when the next session starts?

We’re already figuring out what our goals will be. They will certainly include increasing market opportunities via sales and events.

What’s your biggest frustration these days with your job/s?

I’d say the biggest challenge — and this applies to all three industries — is building consensus around priorities of the organizations. There are many members with many great ideas when you oversee groups of 82 (MWA), 45 (BAM) and 18 (MDG), but these ideas must be converted into strategic efforts that take time, energy and resources.

What has been the high note of your career so far?

Being honored by the Maryland Grape Grower’s Association (2009) and the Atlantic Seaboard Wine Association’s Productivity Tray (2008) for achievements in the wine industry.

Lastly, on your Loyola side, how can you measure the success of Apprentice House Press? And what’s on the horizon in that part of your career?

Before I began working with the wineries, I was a professor. I’ve continued building my teaching and mentoring career through the building of Apprentice House Press, which teaches students the book publishing trade through experiential learning. Students review, accept or reject manuscripts submitted by authors across the country, then edit, design, publish and promote the finished books.

It’s exciting, and it’s growing. I love mentoring students through the process —only to learn a few years out that they’re editors at major presses in New York City. It’s incredibly rewarding for the students. That’s the best measure of success.