Michael McCreary lost his job in 2008, just as the recession was starting. He was unemployed for about nine months when a possible solution came to him.
Beth Bolton didn’t like what the corporate retail world was becoming, so she left her job in 2006, only to find herself priced out of the job market. With her children’s support, she made a major business decision that changed her life.
Both McCreary and Bolton are two of a new breed of Connecticut entrepreneurs who view hard economic times as an opportunity to follow a passion and control their own destiny. There are no official statistics on this emerging group, but its numbers are clearly on the rise.
Their stories and struggles offer important survival lessons for any would-be Connecticut entrepreneur.
Happy to be rejected
McCreary, 54, became part of this trend when he left the workforce in 2008.
“I lost my job due to a corporate restructuring in 2008 when the company I worked for decided only to retain its core team,” he said. “So, I decided there was no use crying in a beer, but instead selling it.”
He decided to put his background in biochemistry and degree in business management to use by brewing beer.
During the eight or nine months he was unemployed, McCreary applied to various companies and recalls getting excited at receiving a rejection letter. “That was a great deal for me back in the 2008 recession when nobody cared to respond.”
He says he thinks the recession was — and still is — worse for people in their 50s. They are at the peak of their career productivity and yet, for a number of reasons, there is less chance of finding new work.
“The younger generation is complaining because they are being hired at lower wages. But companies are no longer hiring people my age because we are either too expensive or too old.”
Finding a niche
Well aware of the dangerous economic climate, McCreary nevertheless was determined to set up an English-style ale brewery and brew craft beer based on classic recipes from the UK.
His “taste buds changed,” he said, when he was younger traveling in Europe. “I wanted to bring that balance between malt and hops to the American palate, so I went to train in England.”
During months of training, he familiarized himself with all aspects of brewing and worked at breweries in northern England for hands-on experience. “I realized that low-alcohol and malt-flavored English beers are better than the stronger and bitter ones out here that are so popular.”
In his opinion, the British make the best beer. “After all, they’ve been doing it longer than us.”
On his return, McCreary obtained his brewing license and launched Cavalry Brewing in Oxford, not very far from his current hometown in Woodbury.
Before his stint in the corporate world, McCreary served five years of active duty in the Army and 18 in the reserves and so, he named his first bottling line after four of his close friends in the military: Dog Soldier Golden Ale, Hatch Plug Ale (a nickname he gave to a lieutenant), Big Wally (his commander in Iraq) and Nomad Stout, (a friend who led a team in Baghdad).
“I wanted to tell a story about my military experiences in Iraq and the friends I made during the service,” he said.
McCreary’s new life meant trading a daily life among people in both the service and the corporate world for one largely spent alone or with a friend — a veteran who helps him with bottling and distribution. His brewery is a 3,400-square-foot warehouse in an industrial area in Oxford where his large stereo system blares loud music all day, and his dog, a Border Terrier named Mash, keeps him company.
McCreary wanted to get into craft-brewing, he said, because the industry was relatively recession-resistant. “I studied the market and found that the industry has actually grown on an average of 12 percent per year.”
“You see, even in a bad economy people want to feel good so they drink beer. The bars are always packed because the younger generation loves beer.”
McCreary received a bank loan for his business relatively quickly, he said. After he used his savings to make a 60 percent down payment, the bank did not hesitate to lend the remaining 40 percent, he said.
Two and a half years into it, McCreary said he distributes his beer to more than 300 clients, including bars and package stores in Fairfield, Litchfield and New Haven counties; and continues to grow his client base. “I feel I’m out-growing my space,” he said.
“Everybody loves to hear that it’s a local beer and they are willing to try simply because of that reason and end up liking it,” he said of his beer. “And I like to believe I have succeeded in twisting that love for hops Americans have with something more English.”
Because of his passion for what he does, he said, he does not mind giving 60 to 70 hours of his week to his business. “When you start up a business, you have to remain committed. If you’re not willing to put in the extra time that’s needed, there’s not much chance that you’d succeed.”
Partly, he believes, the secret to his success lies with his experience in the Army which taught him time management and discipline. “Military people work the task, not the time. We work till the job is done.”
A sweet business
Beth Bolton, owner of ‘A Little Something Bakery‘ in West Hartford, intended to revive a little of America’s past through her business idea to ride out the recession and its aftermath.
“I thought starting a sweet business during those tough times was a good idea, but I also wanted people to walk through the door and be reminded of a smell that took you back to your grandma’s kitchen or your mom’s as she made chocolate chip cookies when you came back from school. I wanted them to think of a prosperous time.”
After working for a major retailer for 25 years, Bolton switched her career because the retailer was bought out, and she did not want to work for the new company. “That is when the recession hit and I did not know where to go. Companies refused to hire me because they said they could not afford me.”
Bolton returned to an earlier passion and put the pastry and baking skills she learned at the Connecticut Culinary School to good use. “I was 40 back then when I learned how to bake. I knew I wanted to make this a business at some point in life, but was always afraid to do so,” said Bolton, who is now 52.
“I had always pushed both my children to chase their dreams and reach for the stars so when I became jobless, my children supported me and said it was time for me to chase my dreams.”
It took her a few months’ experience at a bakery in Simsbury before she felt it was time to go into business for herself.
As it is for most small entrepreneurs, access to capital was a big hurdle, especially during the recession. Bolton opened the bakery not very far off from her residence in West Hartford by investing all her savings — $60,000. “I used the money to buy some second-hand kitchen equipment. I could not afford brand new back then.”
She initially started with help from her family members — whom she calls “angel hands” — to help her run the bakery. About a month and a half later, she was able to hire her first part-time employee, who is now her kitchen manager, she added with pride.
A Little Something Bakery is sandwiched between a grocery store and a pizza place at a busy intersection on Park Road. And although it has done well since the day it opened two days before Valentine’s Day in 2009, it was not until 2011 that Bolton needed more money to keep the business running.
“The October snowstorm and power outage nearly put me out of business. All my refrigerated bakery goods and the frozen stuff we had stocked up were spoiled, and I did not realize that my insurance did not cover spoiled goods in the case of power outage.”
Around the same time, her husband lost his job.
Shaken by these developments, Bolton contacted the Chamber of Commerce and Small Business Administration to obtain some working capital; and got a financial boost of $50,000. “But it wasn’t easy.”
She observes that there is not enough guidance for small businessmen and women.
Going through the process of obtaining a loan is difficult, she said. There are often no practical guidelines for making a business plan necessary to obtain funding from a lender.
“There is also no advocate out there to help you with pre-insurance plans to help small businesses survive. We often learn the hard away when we suffer a huge loss.”
Bolton survived the rough period and says she is proud to have recovered so quickly — proof of which are the endless orders for custom-made cakes that she receives every day. Profits are up 15 percent. “Because of the demand, I am sometimes forced to turn down requests.”
She is also able to give back.
Right now, her 10-person staff is busy raising funds for the annual Park Road Parade in West Hartford in October. “I feel I am here for another reason…to help raise funds for people in need and the community in general. I have always remained passionate about helping people.”
Her advice for potential entrepreneurs?
You do not need to have a craft or skill to do business. “All that is needed is an idea. The rest you can learn on the job.”