When Chris Walsh and Glenn Bernabeo decided to buy the failing Lambertville-based River Horse Brewing Co. in 2007, they weren’t exactly brew masters.
The pair had previously made their livings in the finance world, selling their Philadelphia-area investment banking firm the year prior.
At the time, all they knew was that they wanted to buy a business, preferably something in consumer product manufacturing and a company that wasn’t already “fat and inefficient,” as Walsh puts it.
“It wasn’t like a midlife crisis purchase where we said, ‘Let’s buy a brewery,’ ” Walsh said.
They did their due diligence, considering everything from asphalt companies to fastener businesses. But neither really did it for them.
“We wanted a product that at least we understood,” Walsh said.
So River Horse came onto the table and the pair bit. Neither had any background in brewing, but Walsh contends that didn’t stop them from developing a great-tasting, buyer-friendly product.
“We’re not beer experts; neither of us had really ever brewed anything,” Walsh said. “But we just approach everything from the consumer point of view. Literally everything — from the taste, the style, the packaging and pricing.”
At first, the beer wasn’t the problem for Walsh and Bernabeo. The financials were. The brewery was a little more than a decade old at the time, but as Walsh puts it, “60 days from closing its doors.”
They had built their careers on assisting companies in “turnaround situations.” Now it was their turn to give it a shot, and they thought the groundwork for success was there.
“We were looking at this business and saying, ‘Look at the industry, this is in-place capacity,’ ” Walsh said. “All we need to do is clean it, put some money into it and give it some love.”
A little more than six years later, the company has shed the cramped 10,000-square-foot Lambertville rental space it began with and moved into its own, customized 25,000-square-foot facility in Ewing that offers even more room to grow.
“Failure is not an option and you hammer away at it,” Walsh looks back. “It’s taken years.”
And some help from the state.
Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno made a recent stop at the brewery, calling River Horse a small business success story spurred by the Red Tape Review Commission, which was designed to improve the state’s business climate by cutting unnecessary regulations and bureaucracy.
“It’s fun to see the work of the Red Tape Commission come to fruition, to actually result in new jobs and new industries and growth in New Jersey,” Guadagno said, noting how brewing laws from before prohibition were stifling growth.
In Lambertville, River Horse maxed out at 9,500 barrels of beer per year. In Ewing, they’re already producing around 12,500 barrels annually with infrastructure in place to handle up to 75,000 per year.
A large part of Walsh and Bernabeo’s business model revolves around honing in on their target market and owning it.
When they bought River Horse, the beer could be found coast to coast but Walsh says that forced the company to be “an inch deep and a mile wide.” They quickly scaled back distribution to just the mid-Atlantic, from Virginia to Massachusetts.
More focus also has been placed on ruling New Jersey’s beer market, which Walsh points to as somewhat ideal and a big reason why they decided to stay in-state.
“You look at the bookends (and) you’ve got the largest city in the country and the best beer-drinking city in the country … plus 8.5 million people in between,” Walsh said.
Walsh wants to make River Horse synonymous with New Jersey.
“We want to be at every bachelor party, every barbecue, every bar mitzvah, every christening,” Walsh laughs. “Whatever has beer, we want to be there and we’ll show up if we’re invited.”
BIZ IN BRIEF
NAME: River Horse Brewing Company
OWNERS: Chris Walsh and Glenn Bernabeo
REVENUE: Not disclosed