Born to go into the beer business
Shane Lohman didn't exactly dream of opening a beer distributor as a child, but he always knew he wanted to run his own business.
"I grew up around it, and knew I wanted to have my own company," said Mr. Lohman, 25, whose parents run a catering company based in El Segundo, Calif. "They were a huge help to me, with how to handle the day-to-day things. I still get advice from them on a daily basis."
He started Lohman's Beer in western Pennsylvania three years ago, serving three wholesale customers. His business has 25 customers today, which include dive bars and fine restaurants. In addition to handling wholesale orders, Lohman's has a retail store.
The company has grown from one employee to five, and has increased sales year over year: The first month in business, November 2011, the company did about $21,000 in sales; last November, sales came in between $140,000 and $150,000, Mr. Lohman said.
The top things he learned from his parents were in regard to growth: "If growth comes, don't deny it because you think you can't handle it," he said.
"They told me, 'You take the account and figure out a way to handle it. We had a big order about a year ago and, instead of turning it down because of the volume, we bought a new truck.'"
That truck cost $40,000 and he's still making payments, but it turned out to be a sound investment.
"It was the first wake-up call that we needed it, and it's allowed us to handle a lot of bigger orders," he said.
Running a beer distributor in Pennsylvania is unlike running other kinds of small businesses, Mr. Lohman discovered, due in large part to the rules and regulations of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board.
He made a few rookie mistakes starting out.
"It can be constricting, the minutiae of things you have to know," he said. "You have to do research before you can advertise, because you can't send out coupons and things like that – things that another small business starting out would do to get the word out."
When he started, he sent out direct mail ads to the neighborhood.
"I didn't know that the PLCB has a rule that you can't direct mail people," he said. "It's little things like that, that make it challenging.
"But it doesn't make it impossible."
Mr. Lohman knew that being an entrepreneur would be hard work, but he underestimated how exhausting that first year would be.
"It was much harder than I thought," he said. "It's like getting punched in the gut continuously, every day. For six months, I didn't have a single day off because we are open on holidays."
If he were to offer advice to others starting a business, he would recommend a really detailed business plan.
"Everything has to be really mapped out before you get started," he said. "Once you start, you don't have time to figure things out, and it's much harder when you're learning things on the fly."
In order to support other local businesses, Lohman's features a new local craft beer on its website weekly. Mr. Lohman said he has been impressed with how the local craft beer brewers have used social media as a tool to grow the community. He has adapted some of those techniques for his company: running specials via Twitter and Instagram accounts, and sending out weekly email newsletter to customers.
The local craft beer scene has become so sophisticated, he said, that "it's become almost to where it's like wine or food. It's not just about having a beer; it's more like a gourmet food item."
Likewise, he has tried to make sure his staff is well versed in all the beers Lohman's carries, so his workers can assist customers with more refined palates by recommending beers based on preference or past purchases.
He'll have to consult the PLCB guidelines on how many beer distributors can be licensed in a given area, but he is looking to expand into other locations.
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