Brewer’s Path Was Anything But Straight

Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, January 18, 2016

Ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall.

San Diego has become synonymous with craft beer. We have 115 breweries in the county.

Meet Mike Hinkley- who is the owner of one of them – the Green Flash Brewery. I love his story.

Hinkley grew up in Bensonhurst, N.Y. (He was sort of a “good fellow.”) His mother was 16 at his birth, and Mike tells me that it took three high schools for him to graduate – barely. “I was not the best student.” His parents got divorced, and he went off to join the Navy. He was a machinist mate.

(Note: You don’t know which life events are actually preparations for the future. That is why you need to embrace all of them.)

During his four years in the Navy, he “grew up” – but not all the way up. He still seemed to have a tendency to get into trouble. His next effort was as a bartender at Kansas City

Barbeque (“Top Gun Bar”) in downtown San Diego. I asked him if he had any training as a bartender. “No, I just told him I was a bartender.”

(Note: There is something to be said for self-confidence – and minor omissions of fact.)

He met his wife at the bar and then went off to City College to try to get a degree. He says, “I had to take prerequisites just to get admitted into the class to take the prerequisites.” But grades do not define the man and are not a prerequisite to success. He got straight A’s and transferred to UC Berkeley and took business and accounting classes – and ultimately became a CPA and went to work for Arthur

Andersen in international tax – and of course, hated it.

Lisa, his wife, went to work at Invitrogen and at that moment in time, it looked like the future picture of domestic bliss. But Hinkley hated accounting, so he quit

and “buys a failed bar” in Leucadia. He liked drinking beer in college, so of course, it was perfectly logical to buy a bar.

The next step was a steep one. He “invests” a few hundred thousand dollars in someone else’s scheme to build a brewery. I asked him about his due diligence prior to writing the check. His answer: “None.” In a month, the money and his partner were gone.

(Note: The value of doing real due diligence cannot be overestimated. Simply driving by the location does not cut it.)

So after some heated litigation and some more lawyer-lost monies, Hinkley finds that what he has won is a warehouse filled with some old pieces of brewing equipment. They could either try to sell the junk or they could try to assemble the stuff and build a brewery (machinist mate). So, in 2001 they decide to “go all in” again.

(Note: His wife continued to believe in him. Take note all entrepreneurs – before you do anything, find this wife.)

His motivation to build the brewery was that “I thought it would be cool if my neighbors could buy my beer.” Getting rich was not a glimmer in his eye. He was just going to brew up some quality beer. They used a contract brewer with their own recipe, and in November 2002, they sold their first keg. By 2003, they were selling 1,200 barrels per year. (It takes about 5,000 barrels per year to break even.)

2016 – Green Flash is now on a roll. It has one brewery in Mira Mesa and is building a new one in Virginia. Green Flash sells 100,000 barrels per year. I asked Hinkley what advice he would give to entrepreneurs. Here is what he said.

1. Focus on the core stuff. You don’t need an ERP (enterprise resource planning) system with four employees. Just make great beer or whatever you are making – but make it great.

2. Don’t drive bad ideas off the cliff – learn to let go before you crash and burn. (Knowing when to bail out is a strong theme in the entrepreneur game.)

3. Work at a brewery before you start one. Get experience first.

Green Flash has 250 employees today – and oh, yes, the name – he credits his wife who was sitting in the backyard and watching a sunset. The rest is history – and a history still to be written.

Rule No. 451

Due diligence is trying to discover that which is hidden.


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