My Story: From A Brewing Legacy to A Babson MBA

by on March 15th, 2012

Catherine Portner is studying for a Babson MBA to help her lead a brewery business.

The year was 1853 when Robert Portner emigrated from Germany and settled in New York City. At 16 years of age, he began obtaining first-hand business experience, working his way up the economic ladder from a grocery clerk to a bookkeeper in a Brooklyn factory. As time went on, Portner relocated to Alexandria, Virginia, to open a grocery store of his own.

The grocery business was good, yet it did not take long for him to realize there was a more lucrative market on tap: beer. Although his business success pre-dates the first graduate business program—disallowing him the opportunity to complete an MBA degree—Portner proceeded to build the largest brewery in the South, The Robert Portner Brewing Company.

With the passage of Prohibition, Portner’s rein as king of the Southern beer industry came to an end. Now, almost a century later, his great-great granddaughter, Catherine Portner, seeks to follow in his footsteps. Catherine is a 2012 MBA candidate at Babson College, reigniting her family’s legacy by opening a brewery restaurant of her own.

My Story

Even though I never met my great-great grandfather, his legacy is alive in our family and his success well-documented. As a grocery store owner in Alexandria, Virginia, he provided provisions to the Union troops during the Civil War. Beer and other alcoholic beverages were profitable and in great demand by the soldiers and local citizens since lack of transport, restrictions, and guards at the Potomac River crossings made these commodities hard to come by.

Robert Portner paid close attention to what his customers wanted and seized the opportunity to open his first brewery. It was not long before he left the grocery business and focused all of his energy on expanding the brewery operations, creating outposts that stretched from Virginia to Florida.

Like a true entrepreneur, he was also an innovator. The beer needed to stay cold, so my great-great grandfather invented a way to keep it at the right temperature during shipping and transport. He devised a unique system of refrigerated rail cars which became an early prototype for air conditioning, something unheard-of at the time.

Robert Portner

Honoring the Legacy

My great-great grandfather’s business was based entirely on the production and sale of beer. Together with two of my siblings, I hope to duplicate his success, but with a modern twist: a brewery restaurant set to open by early 2014. At Portner Brewhouse, we will brew original recipes from The Robert Portner Brewing Company with a few small adjustments for today’s palette. In addition to the old favorites, we will brew five other beers including house seasonal recipes and recipes from our Craft Beer Test Kitchen TM (CBTK).

The CBTK provides brewers at all stages the opportunity to rapid-prototype beer recipes in a live test market. The recipes will be brewed and served at Portner Brewhouse, then our staff will collect feedback and sales data from the brewpub patrons and provide the data back to the brewer. Just as Robert Portner was able to achieve the “American Dream,” we hope that we can assist others in the industry with similar aspirations.

The restaurant’s food and décor will contain a mix of American and German influences plus Robert Portner Brewing Company artifacts such as bottles, cork screws, and advertisements that ran in local newspapers.

The Business of Family

I am the eldest of five children. With my youngest sister as my business partner and one of our brothers serving on our advisory board, I have found that partnering with family members adds another dynamic to pursuing an entrepreneurial venture. We grew up together and we have known each other our entire lives. Yet here we are, working to resurrect the old family business as a brand new one.

There are both positive and challenging aspects that come as a result of our family ties. Even though it was not always the case, my siblings and I are very close. As we have grown older, we have grown closer and rely on one another for love and support. Notwithstanding, we also know how to push each other’s buttons.

Regardless, we all share the same history and heritage thus our success in this venture means more to us than it would for someone outside the family. Being the fourth generation after our great-great grandfather, we are moving further and further from that history. While it will not be lost, it will continue to be diluted and we do not want to see that happen.

Because of this, we took the time to talk to my father and a number of his siblings before diving into this project. Not necessarily to ask permission, but to let them know in a very courteous way that this was something we felt compelled to pursue.

Predestined to Become an Entrepreneur

I received a B.S. in biology from Boston College with the original intention to pursue veterinary medicine. Thankfully, I was able to see the end of this road before it started, and made a course correction which led me to Washington, D.C. There, I used an entirely different skill set as an event and conference manager for a variety of clients.

While working in D.C., I always knew I wanted to start a business at some point in my lifetime. As Robert Portner was not the only family entrepreneur (my parents, aunt, grandfather and great-uncle have all been excellent entrepreneurs and role models) one could say entrepreneurship is in my blood.

The Babson Experience                 

Knowing that I wanted to sit at the helm of our family business, I sought to increase my likelihood of success through additional education, so I pursued an MBA. I am very thankful I came back to get my graduate degree and that I decided to get it at Babson.

I came in with a very narrow view of what I wanted to accomplish; I knew that I wanted to add traditional quantitative skills to my personal toolkit. However, once I got here, my eyes were widened to some unknown unknowns (things that I did not know, I did not know).

Since coming to Babson, I have gained nothing except positive experiences. When you are around so many extraordinary people, it spurs you to become extraordinary yourself.

The one thing that stands out to me most is that you truly cannot say Babson without saying entrepreneurship. In my experiences at the school, I have found this to be one hundred percent true; it is not just baseless marketing. Entrepreneurship is integrated in so many different things and in so many different ways that I feel surrounded by entrepreneurs of all kinds.

In the program, I have a graduate assistant fellowship where I have been fortunate enough to have Dr. Candida Brush as my advisor. Professor Brush is the head of the entrepreneurship division and as my advisor she has been absolutely tremendous. Anytime I have given thought to anything so far as my entrepreneurial venture is concerned, or looked for a contact in a particular area, she has always had five answers and multiple contacts for me.

In this same manner, I have also found Babson students to be incredibly tenacious and the entire Babson community very supportive of my efforts to re-launch my family business.

Advice for Aspiring Entrepreneurs

My first piece of advice for other entrepreneurs is that I think it is very important to trust your gut. If something does not pass the smell test, there is probably a very good reason for it. Therefore, do not waste your time pursuing something that is not on the up and up. Along these same lines, it is important for aspiring entrepreneurs to remember that nothing is guaranteed in life.

I learned this lesson recently when my brother, sister and I entered into a nationwide entrepreneurship contest. “The Last Plan Standing 100K” was a business plan competition sponsored by a marketing firm in Kansas City, Missouri. With a $100,000 at stake, we dedicated an abundance of time and energy to the competition. Each round required a lot of effort from the participants including tasks such as the production of a YouTube video to explain our business concept and the submission of an executive summary.

Our hard work paid off. We made the first cut and were included in the first round of 20 semi-finalists. From there we advanced to the top 10. When we made it to the final three, we flew to Kansas City to present our plan to a panel of judges, consisting of executives from the firm and local business owners.

Three weeks after our presentation in Kansas City, we got the call that we had won the competition and the 100K grand prize which was really $100,000 in marketing services from the firm to help promote Portner Brewhouse.

It was early May when we were announced as “The Last Plan Standing.”Afterward, several attempts to follow up with the company went unanswered. Eventually, we learned that the firm was not doing well despite 30 years in business. Finally in August, we received an email informing us that the company was closing and we would not be receiving the reward that we had earned.

While this did not detract from the fact that we’d won the competition, it was a disappointment. The lesson learned is that nothing is really guaranteed. The minute you expect something to happen is pretty much when it does not. So, in the case of entrepreneurs especially, do not take things for granted and always have a “plan B” in place at minimum.

On a lighter note, my second piece of advice would be to use the “E” word more often. Especially in the case of businesswomen, never be afraid to call yourself an entrepreneur!

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My Story: From the Israeli Army to London Business School
My Story: From a Dot-Com Bust to Stanford

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