Cider maker grows into Rt. 7 building

MIDDLEBURY — With expectations to triple production over the next several years, Green Mountain Beverage CEO Bret Williams confirmed Tuesday that the hard cider company plans later this year to move from Pond Lane into much larger headquarters — the Connor Homes building on Route 7 in Middlebury.
Connor Homes will move into the Vermont Tubbs complex in Brandon within the next several weeks.
The sale of the Connor Homes building to GMB is set to be completed by late February. The transition of both companies into their new headquarters will follow in the next few weeks and months.
Williams said renovation at the new facility could take most of the coming year, while Connor Homes owner Michael Connor said the 142,000-square-foot facility in Brandon offers a quicker transition with plenty of space for current needs, plus lots of room to expand.
Connor founded the business 17 years ago with a handful of employees and moved into its current building in 2007, when Standard Register moved out, and grew to about 130 employees before the recession hit in 2008. He currently has 44 employees, but expects to expand into the Vermont Tubbs site once the housing economy turns around.
“We have tremendous growth potential,” Connor said this week. “Depending on how soon the housing market gets back to normal, we’ll be in good shape.”
GMB’s move into the 118,000-square-foot Connor Homes building will double the existing space the company currently has at its Pond Lane site in Middlebury’s industrial park, plus provide plenty of room and flexibility to grow on what is a level 20-acre lot.
“This new building solves all three of our current problems with our facility — warehouse space, office space, and the flexibility to grow,” Williams said. “Our ultimate goal here is to make this site into a world-class facility … and this purchase gives us the flexibility to do that.”
Williams said he and his management team had spent the past three years considering how and where to expand their facility.
Their goals were to add a second production line, storage capacity, large outside juice tanks, and a visitor center in which the public could learn about hard cider production, the history of the industry and its Vermont heritage, plus see as much of the production process as feasible.
“My vision is to have a very active visitors center and to host events on the site at some point when we’re ready,” Williams said. “It will not be possible to roll up or down Route 7 without knowing where the home of Woodchuck Cider is — right in Middlebury. Up until now, many of our fans have had a hard time finding us.”
After searching for possible sites within a 25-mile radius of Middlebury, including approaching Connor Homes earlier last year, Williams said GMB had finally decided to stay at its existing site and perform extensive renovations on its leased building.
Plans were drawn up, three 25,000-gallon stainless steel storage juice tanks had been erected outside the building this past November, and jackhammers were ripping up part of the floor in the current space when Williams said he and Michael Connor, owner of Connor Homes, agreed on a deal and inked a sales agreement within the past couple of weeks.
It’s a sudden change that comes with disruption in current plans, but Williams readily admitted, “It’ll be short-term pain for long-term gains.”
The short-term pain is no small matter. Williams said they were proceeding full-steam ahead with renovations at the existing plant, including plans to build a 7,200 square-foot-addition this spring, and have brought those plans to an abrupt halt.
They now intend to extensively retrofit the Connor Homes facility with two full lines of bottling and one line for keg production. The company currently has one production line. That one line, Williams said, will continue operating in the existing plant while a new line, plus the keg line are put into operation in the new facility.
Once those new lines are operational, the existing line will be shut down and quickly moved into the new facility, then put back into operation to keep up with what Williams said is growing demand. He said the current plans should satisfy expansion needs for the next few years, but added that “whatever I say today won’t be true in six months, it’s changing that fast.”
The company has seen “unprecedented growth” the past three years, he said, posting a record 30 percent increase in the company’s popular Woodchuck Hard Cider line in 2010 alone.
In terms of employee growth, a year ago the company had 58 employees and now employs 70. “We’re going down the path to 100,” he said, though he couldn’t predict the timetable.
But one thing is for certain: for the foreseeable future, the plant will stay in Middlebury.
“There’s lots to be said for staying in town,” Williams said. “Every job is kept and the town has been very good to us over the years … Middlebury’s our home. We’re just going to be at a different address.”
Williams noted that most of the company’s employees have deep roots in this area of the state, adding that many have worked with the company since he took it over in 2003, when it almost ceased operations. He said part of his motivation in taking the risk to put together a small group of investors was to preserve local jobs, and praised his current staff’s loyalty and work ethic.
“It’s the people here who are driving the company’s growth,” he said, noting the business started in Proctorsville in 1991, and adding, “It’s been a slow build. The category is just starting to evolve … We joke that we’re a 20-year, overnight success story.”
Part of the reason for that success, Williams says, is that they’ve taken a small company approach, which he describes as a focus on excellent quality and customer service.
“We are doing something that has never been done before … building a cider brand and category from scratch and taking it nationwide.”
 GMB currently controls about 62 percent of the nation’s hard cider market. That market totals about 4.4 million cases, which remains a tiny fraction of the 2.8 billion cases of beer produced nationwide — a comparison that Williams says demonstrates how much potential there is to grow.
The company’s future, he said, “has never looked better. The sky’s the limit, there are endless possibilities.”

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