Gary and Greg. Father and son. Investor and entrepreneur. You know the story. Greg convinced his dad to buy into Iron Horse Brewery with him. But did you know the two have worked together in business since Greg was a young child? It’s true. We promise this isn’t some marketing bull$*^# to sell more beer. It’s a true story. With some added commentary. Ok, it’s a mostly true story.
If you’ve met Gary Parker, chances are you already know he owned NAPA stores for a long time before buying into a brewery with his son.
Gary was in the NAPA business for about 30 years, and at one point owned seven of them. He opened his first NAPA store in Silverdale in October 1975. Having Greg work at the NAPA stores with him was a necessity because Greg needed parental guidance and Gary was often working on the weekend. Both Gary and Greg credit Greg’s work ethic to those early days working at the store.
Gary recalls one day at the Silverdale NAPA store when he assigned a bored (roughly) 8-year-old Greg to sweep the parking lot.
“After a bit I look out there and he’s just lollygagging along and I said, ‘Come on, speed it up.’ And he said, ‘Well, Dad, I’m getting paid by the hour.’”
“After that we always contracted the jobs,” Gary said. “I was amazed how smart he was at 8 years old.”
Greg lived the motto “work smart”. When he was tasked with hauling firewood at home as a child he always loaded the wheelbarrow to make one trip. He proudly recalled never making two.
As Greg grew so did his responsibilities at the store. He swept, loaded trucks, counted inventory, worked behind the counter, did delivery driving, became a salesperson, and even managed a store for a while. He did everything at NAPA except for accounting. Note, he later did accounting for Iron Horse for a while, but we eventually contracted it out, and then hired Nerd Paul to take it on full time.
Then Greg entered adulthood. Little is known about his awkward teenage years or if they even existed because we have not found photographic proof of them, but alas here we are. A full-grown Greg running a regional brewery that produced 26,000 barrels in 2018 with his father by his side. How did Greg and Gary get here?
Flash back many years ago to the day Greg went to his dad and said he didn’t care for the parts business, and he was planning to move to Bozeman, MT to go back to college.
Since Greg had no interest in the NAPA business, Gary sold it in 2005.
Meanwhile, upon arriving in Bozeman accompanied by a pregnant Natalia, Greg found he couldn’t afford the out-of-state tuition so he started working at the food co-op in the deli until he could obtain in-state tuition. There he befriended the guy at the meat counter who was always homebrewing. Eventually Greg wore him down, and he allowed Greg to homebrew with him.
“It took a long time for him to finally invite me, but I kept pestering him,” Greg said. “It escalated quickly from there. I started homebrewing and it was just awesome.”
The first beer Greg ever brewed was a Sierra Nevada pale ale clone along with some other clones, but then he realized it didn’t make sense to brew beers you could buy, so he created the beer that became the recipe for Iron Horse’s High Five Hefe.
Greg was trying to get into a program to obtain a Bachelor of Science degree in Land resource and environmental science with a focus on land rehabilitation. After learning how little the field paid, Greg thought about selling beer instead.
“Gary had sold all the NAPA stores and was pretty much retired,” Greg said. “I knew he had some cash available. I took advantage of a personal relationship.”
Greg initially wanted to start a brewery in Montana because they were living there, but it was daunting to start from scratch with no commercial brewing experience. Instead, he hopped on ProBrewer.com to see if what other breweries in the region existed and if any were for sale. While browsing, he noticed Iron Horse Brewery in Central Washington.
Gary and Greg visited Iron Horse Brewery in 2006 for Memorial Day weekend and asked owner Jim Quilter about the business, and he said he loved it and had no interest in selling. A couple of months later, Greg hopped online to see what IHB was up to and it was for sale. Greg called Jim Quilter up and got the conversation started. They agreed to partner with Jim so he could keep making the beer and they could sell and market it.
Greg convinced an again pregnant Natalia (who already had a young child) to move again. He says he probably unintentionally preyed on her caring nature.
“You get some bullheaded person like me and a caring person like Natalia, and sometimes you have dynamics that go one way,” he said.
Ross Chalstrom, current VP of sales, agrees that Greg has always had an entrepreneurial spirit. The two met in Ross’ first period math class (possibly advanced algebra) in 10th grade at Central Kitsap High School in Silverdale, Washington.
“The best part of my first impression was that he was wearing a hat with bleach blonde hair sticking out of all sides,” Ross said. “He took his hat off and revealed that he had shaved the entire top part of his head to look like a middle aged balding dude.”
“He was always a hard worker and after leaving college (we were roommates his last quarter) he worked with his dad at NAPA and was always trying to improve their processes,” Ross said. “Then, after he married Natalia they moved to Portland and opened up a coffee shop.”
Ross was later hired to work at Iron Horse Brewery with Gary and Greg.
“It’s been great. They are so different, but both have very good business sense,” he said. “They’ve always complimented each other well. Also, they have integrity which means a lot.”
The Early Days
The brewery’s challenges in the early days were innumerable. Having no commercial brewing experience led to plenty of setbacks for the Parkers.
Jim had few processes in place and the recipes weren’t very detailed, Greg said. Other problems included compliance issues like tracking beer for tax purposes, access to resources and the lack of cash.
“We were losing money when we got into it, and continued to do so for a while,” Greg said. “How do you make the most with the least? The answer was work all the time. Work the festivals, work the sales route, work production.”
Prior to investing, Gary was not a craft beer drinker. He might have had a Moose Drool once before but only because he has no idea what moose drool tasted like and was interested. Gary stayed out of the administrative side of the business, and opted to sell beer in the Kitsap Peninsula market and work festivals. Providing calm wisdom was also Gary’s role.
Greg recalls a time when an employee crashed the van, making it undrivable, while still needing to get the last keg of Loco Red to an account.
“I called Gary thinking, ‘Oh my god, what the hell are we going to do? This is a such an unknown and a disaster.’ I told him what happened and he said, ‘So you rent a van and you finish delivering in a van.’ So we did it and moved on.”
Buying out the brewery
The partnership with Quilter was a great idea until it wasn’t. Greg admits he probably wasn’t the easiest 20-something-year-old to work with as he hadn’t learned conflict resolution skills at that point.
The Parkers had entered into the partnership with Jim without any way out. There was no agreement to say what would happen if the partnership didn’t work out, so when Jim wanted out they had to find a way to make it work. It was around March 2007 when Jim said he was done.
“Jim came to me and said just buy me out, your son and I will never get along. I said ok, which I think was good,” Gary said.
Not every father agrees to fork over $200,000+ to their child, but Gary did. Did he have too much faith in Greg? Or just enough?
“Number one, I knew he had good work values,” Gary said. “Number two he was smart, and he learned a lot from his mother about business sense and I figured it was a very interesting business, a very fast growing business.”
The Parkers completed the purchase in July 2007, and were then the sole owners and operators of Iron Horse Brewery, left to figure out how to make it all work.
Learning on the job
There were other learning moments along the way.
One that stands out involves the wort chiller and the heat exchanger. It’d take an hour and 45 minutes to go from boiling to chilled and it should’ve only taken 40 minutes. They figured the wort chiller must be too small so they settled on buying a bigger heat exchanger even though money was tight and it cost $7,000, about 6 months of Greg’s salary at the time.
When they got the new one in it finished up at an hour and 30 minutes instead of an hour 45 and Greg wanted to cry. They pressed on with troubleshooting, and found out that the system was hooked up backwards and so was the first one that Jim had installed.
“I don’t know what the lesson was,” Greg said. “Don’t take anything for granted? Don’t assume just because someone else should know what they’re doing doesn’t mean they did. For $500 we could’ve had the other one hooked up the right way and solved the problem.”
Not knowing what should be done wasn’t always a bad thing. Part of the fun of owning the business was in not having things prescribed. For example, Iron Horse was doing seasonals brews before they were super popular. Distributors hated seasonals, but customers loved them, so you decide what was better.
“We fucked up a lot of things along the process but made some great discoveries along the way,” Greg said.
His advice when shit happens: “Just keep going for it. Don’t give up. Even if you want to cry. Don’t. Just keep looking for the solution.”
Greg said his familiarity of business practices and jargon from his days at NAPA helped him figure things out.
“You’ve got service and price and product and quality,” he said. “If Iron Horse supports their customer the customer supports Iron Horse. We’re selling a customer-focused operation.”
These days the brewery has a total of 48 employees so you may not see Greg or Gary working events, save for a few favorites. Gary spends his time helping improve [ the pub ] with various projects. Greg works to make sure the brewery has enough money to stay in operation, works on company culture, and serves as the brewery’s pilot program coordinator.
If you ever attend an Iron Horse Brewery party and you stay until the end, which you should because they’re rad, look around for Greg. He’s frequently there, ready to help with the dirty work. Even now, when he’s the owner of a regional company that just shipped beer to Japan, he’s the first one to grab a mop and start cleaning up the pub at the end of a good party.
“When you’re also in a business with your dad, even if you can talk yourself out of the guilt of maybe not working as hard as you could’ve you’ve got that nagging feeling because your dad is here,” Greg said. “I feel like I have an obligation of showing up.”