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‘Last call’ for Vermont Hard Cider CEO Bret Williams

MIDDLEBURY — Bret Williams has dutifully “tended bar” at the helm of the Vermont Hard Cider Co. (VHC) for more than a decade.
Now, after taking the company from the brink of bankruptcy to its current status as the second-largest hard cider producer in the world, Williams is ready for his “last call.”
Williams, 44, confirmed on Wednesday that he will step down this week as chief executive officer of VHC in order to spend more time with his family. The Middlebury company announced that Dan Rowell, its current chief financial officer and chief operations officer, will serve as the interim chief executive during a search for a full-time replacement that Williams said could take up to a year.
“Dan has been the number-two guy, is very hard working and has high integrity,” Williams said in an interview last week at the company’s administrative headquarters on Exchange Street, a virtual stone’s throw away from VHC’s new, 100,000-square-foot cidery taking shape between the Bridge School and Maple Landmark.
Williams will indeed be a tough act to follow.
He joined the company in 1996 when it was operating out of a two-car garage in Proctorsville. Each bottle of its now well-known Woodchuck hard cider clanked down a rudimentary, 1940s-era production line and had to be topped off by hand with a turkey baster. Every label was applied by hand and every keg was hand-filled.
The early days were a challenge, Williams acknowledged.
“We were losing so much money every month,” he recalled of the difficulties in making payroll. “(The company) was on the verge of bankruptcy and we were trying to keep the lights on.”
But Williams took a gamble and bought what was a wobbly enterprise in 2003.
He hit the jackpot — thanks to hard work and his confidence in a product that has resonated with consumers nationwide. The company now has more than 170 workers in the United States, 110 of whom are based within VHC’s two facilities in Middlebury. Vermont Hard Cider Co. continues to rent 62,000 square feet in what was its original Middlebury headquarters at 153 Pond Lane. The new, $30 million state-of-the-art facility on Exchange Street will include more than 80,000 square feet of warehouse space, administrative offices and a visitors’ center that will provide opportunities for people to get a first-hand glimpse of the cider making process and to purchase various VHC products.
“It’s a world-class facility; it will be the nicest cidery in the world, by far,” Williams said. Company officials expect to cut the tape on the new structure sometime this May.
“The equipment is in place, and we are on schedule,” he said.
Williams will undoubtedly be at that tape cutting and will remain connected with VHC as a member of its board of directors. But he has decided to withdraw from the administrative grind and the significant travel that comes with it. He lives in Rhode Island and has logged many miles back and forth to Middlebury.
“I’ve completely lost track of the nights I’ve spent at the Middlebury Inn,” he said, with a smile. “I think it’s been at least three years of nights during the past 10 years.”
He explained he’d now like to spend more time closer to home and his three children, ages 6, 9 and 11. He has missed several of their milestones while serving as a quasi parent of VHC. His youngest son recently lost his first tooth. The importance of family became even more apparent when, the day after Thanksgiving, a chimney fire destroyed the Williams’ home. Thankfully, everyone got out safely.
“That got me thinking about some things,” Williams said.
He had already altered his association with VHC in 2012, when he sold the company to Dublin, Ireland-based C&C Group for $305 million. Williams agreed to stay on as CEO during the key transition to its new facility. He is pleased to see VHC stay in Middlebury.
“The town of Middlebury has always been very supportive,” Williams said of his commitment to the town. “We looked at locations all over the country, and all roads led to Middlebury. It made sense to stay here.”
While Williams will be spending a lot more time in Rhode Island, he will still make occasional trips to Vermont — for VHC board meetings and to ski. He stressed he is not retiring and expects to return to the business world at some point in the future. In the meantime, he will carry fond memories of his years at the helm of VHC.
“I learned a lot and had a lot of fun along the way,” Williams said. “I was living the dream, for most of it.”
He feels confident the company is in good hands and that the brand — and the hard cider market in general — will continue to grow by leaps and bounds. He noted the U.S. hard cider category is currently less than 1 percent of the total domestic beer market. That percentage is much higher in European markets, according to Williams.
“The U.S. will be the largest cider market in the world,” Williams said. “It’s not a matter of ‘if’; it’s ‘when.’”
Vermont Hard Cider issued a statement regarding Williams’ departure.
“Bret, who started with the company in 1996, took a chance on VHC in 2003 when he purchased it,” the statement reads. “He has worked hard over the last decade to grow the company into a position of strength and leadership. He has also brought many new jobs to Vermont and across the United States. For this we give him our most heartfelt thanks and wish him well as he writes his next chapter.”
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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