By Danny Monahan, SBA Vermont Public Information Officer
Twelve years ago a fledgling brewery in Burlington, Vt. consisted only of a lone brewmaster crafting an unfiltered ale for a few select bars in the area. Today, Switchback Brewery Co. is one the most heralded breweries in Vermont selling its beer throughout the Northeast to restaurants, resorts and stores.
The brewery’s owners, Bill Cherry and Jeff Neiblum, are awarded the Vermont Small Business Person of the Year, for growing their brewery, expanding the brand and increasing sales.
Cherry and Neiblum, who have been friends since college, always talked about opening a brewery. After all, Cherry had experience working for both a microbrewery and large American brewing company, and Neiblum had experience running his own company.
In 2000, the job that brought Cherry to Vermont ceased production, so he began developing a business plan. By 2002 Switchback was up and running.
“What started as a mostly empty 5,000 sq. ft. facility has expanded to a 20,000 sq. ft. space, still at the original location in Burlington,” said Cherry. “The brewery used a series of SBA guaranteed loans to expand the facility steadily over the years.”
The series of loans are part of the SBA’s 7(a) and 504 loan programs. A 7(a) loan is the most basic and most commonly used type of SBA loan. The financing can be used for variety of general business purposes, such as working capital, machinery, equipment, furniture and fixtures. A 504 loan is an economic development program that supports an existing small business’ growth through expansion and job creation. A 504 loan provides long-term, fixed-rate financing for purchasing and renovating land, buildings and equipment.
As part of the brewery’s expansion and to meet the public’s demand, Switchback began bottling its ale in 2012. Previously it was only available in kegs which were sold to bars and restaurants.
“The launch was a huge success,” said Cherry. “We released it on bottle in conjunction with our 10th anniversary. We sold 100,000 bottles in the first five days.”
As for job creation, the brewery has steadily added employees the last decade. In 2002, Cherry was the sole worker performing all the labor. He was buying the ingredients, brewing the ale, selling it to his customers and cleaning the kegs. Today, it employs 18 people, including a plant engineer, marketing specialist, accountant, retail manager, financial manager and brewers.
“In addition to increasing employees, we have increased employee benefits as well,” said Cherry. “Switchback offers an exceptional health care program, retirement savings matches and profit sharing.”
Each year since 1967, the SBA has awarded Vermont Small Business Person of the Year. Switchback joins the ranks of other notable recipients, including Pete’s Greens, Vermont Teddy Bear and Ben and Jerry’s.
"I'm excited to accept this award for Switchback,” said Cherry. “Switchback would not be in this position if it wasn’t for Jeff convincing me to start a brewery, great employees brewing a Vermont ale and the SBA backing loans, so the brewery could expand.”
Cherry and Neiblum will be recognized during the 2014 Vermont Small Business Awards Ceremony cohosted with Vermont Business Magazine from 4 to 7 p.m. June 17 at the Shelburne Museum Pizzagalli Center for Art and Education located in Shelburne, Vt.
“The SBA has had a long relationship with Switchback,” said Darcy Carter, SBA Vermont District Office Director. “It has obtained several SBA loans throughout the years to expand the brewery and hire more employees. Bill and Jeff are very deserving of this award and we’re excited to present it to them.”
Cherry and Neiblum are confident about their brewery’s future. They believe that sticking to the approach of not oversaturating the market with Switchback leads to slow but lasting growth.