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Inside Track: VanderKamp works to create his own future
New Holland Brewing Co.’s entrepreneurial president isn’t afraid to fail, which is why he succeeds.
“It’s probably the best thing that happened for me,” said VanderKamp, who ran in the August 2010 primary as a “liberty-minded Republican” in the 30th District.
“I’m glad I did it, but the experience I had with it as somebody who runs his own business and makes his own decisions — I’m not cut out for it (politics).”
Running his own business, New Holland Brewing Co. LLC, has proved to be a far different experience for VanderKamp, who, with a partner, decided to launch a microbrewery in a region in Michigan considered hyper-conservative when it came to quaffing beer in public — on Sundays, in particular. But that’s getting ahead of the story.
VanderKamp was living in Colorado in the mid-’90s when craft beer started gaining market share with consumers who wanted to have closer ties to those who are making the suds they’re consuming. Customers also were interested in drinking something besides the “same old, same old” found on retail shelves, he noted.
He attributes part of this trend to the farm-to-table movement many restaurants have embraced, a trend that also has benefited microbreweries, he said.
“You can see it … with restaurants, where consumers want to know where the food was sourced from,” said VanderKamp. “Is it sourced locally? If not, is it from a farm that has integrity? Is it corn-fed or grass-fed beef? People really want to know.
“I think we’re part of a post-industrial-revolution shift in the way consumers are making decisions on what they are purchasing, and craft beer is on the forefront of that,” he continued. “People want to get back in touch with those who are creating the products. It’s important to note, the work we do is important in putting people in touch with those who are making the products. That’s a long-winded way of saying, ‘Do you know who your craft brewer is, as opposed to do you know who made your Budweiser?’”
VanderKamp was 24 in 1996 when he and friend Jason Spaulding co-founded New Holland Brewing, putting $10,000 toward a shuttered factory in what was once one of Michigan’s driest regions.
That propensity for prohibiting the sale of beer and wine on Sundays changed when VanderKamp became one of 11 “Say Yes to Sunday” campaign leaders who gathered 42,000 signatures. In 2008, voters passed, by a wide margin, a ballot proposal that now permits the sale of beer and wine on Sundays in Ottawa County.
New Holland Brewery has emerged as the third-largest microbrewery in Michigan, annually selling between 23,000 and 24,000 barrels of beer in 31-gallon barrels. Its products are sold in 15 states and Washington, D.C., through a distribution network of 30 wholesalers. The company brews, cellars and packages its main brands for distribution at its production facility on the north side of Holland at 690 Commerce Court. Due to growth, it opened a new brewery in October 2006, replacing the original headquarters, and it also brews beer and distills spirits in its pub.
Last year, VanderKamp contracted with Boxed Water Is Better LLC, handling the manufacturing and operational aspects for the Grand Rapids-based company that sells water in sustainable packaging.
“I just feel it’s another great business opportunity that really speaks to the sustainability side of the movement, and it’s a step in the right direction, away from the bottles,” he said.
Another “great business opportunity” appears to be on the horizon.
VanderKamp said he is close to deciding on a location in Grand Rapids where, once finalized, he will open a restaurant “in the heart of the city.” No name for the restaurant/pub had been decided on as the Business Journal went to press.
“We’re narrowing down a location between two or three spots,” he said. “We’re looking to finalize it toward the end of the year. We’ve kicked around Grand Rapids for seven or eight years but didn’t feel we had the human capital to make that push. In the past 12 to 18 months, we feel like our team is ready to make that leap. For us, Grand Rapids is a major market where a lot of our fans reside, and we think it’s important for New Holland Brewery.”
VanderKamp figures his independent, entrepreneurial streak is due, in part, to what happened with his father’s employment.
“My father worked 30 years, actually almost 35 years, for a company and was let go from that company,” he said. “That had a huge impact on me when I was coming out of college, as I realized I needed to look out for myself and create my own future. I’m not really big on a huge corporation you have to cozy up to, to carry me forward.”
Unsurprisingly, this lesson pervades VanderKamp’s strong libertarian standpoint in business, his personal life and politics.
“I'm a big believer in personal liberty and individuals' freedoms, and I feel like those are two issues near and dear to my heart that are being eroded very quickly,” he said. “The libertarian standpoint is being heard more now, but I think we can use a lot more of it.”
He’s an unabashed, take-the-bull-by-the-horns kind of guy.
“I don't care who you are or how much money you have, you can't wake up and not have issues. It’s all about how you handle your issues. I attack every single challenge positively, knowing there’s a solution and knowing there’s a process to getting to that solution. There’s no one way to tackle every challenge. You have to allow the process to work.”
Libertarians received a huge bump in visibility and in their vision for the federal government when candidate Ron Paul ran against what sometimes felt like a free-for-all in the Republican primary. VanderKamp said he has met Paul three times, the high point being at a campaign rally for Paul in Hudsonville earlier this year.
“My greatest honor was to be one of the guys to introduce him before (U.S. Congressman) Justin Amash got to introduce Ron Paul,” said VanderKamp. “(Paul) is fiercely independent, a gentleman, a scholar and an astute student of economics, obviously, from the Austrian school of economics,” referring to economist Hans F. Sennholz, whose 1944 book “The Road to Serfdom” warned “of the danger of tyranny that inevitably results from government control of economic decision-making through central planning.”
Political affiliation aside, VanderKamp said he foresees the nation heading toward a fiscal Armageddon. “To me, the path we’re currently on is one with the economy leading us over a fiscal cliff, and one I doubt we’ll be able to turn the corner on,” he said.
“But I’m an optimist. Once we go over that cliff, we’ll be fine.”
Like Paul, VanderKamp laments President Richard Nixon’s cancelling the direct conversion of the U.S. dollar to gold in 1971, ending an existing monetary management known as the Bretton Woods system of international financial exchange.
“It really makes us poorer,” said VanderKamp. “It hurts those of us who are more at the bottom of the food chain because our dollar doesn't go as far. We still have the highest living standards, but they could be so much higher, and who knows where we would be if we had a strong dollar?”
Given what he perceives as the wrong direction the country is headed, would he consider another run for political office? Don’t hold your breath, he said.
“I never say never, but it’s about as close to a never as I can image,” said VanderKamp. “I often say I’m too honest. Things are so polarized right now. If you don't say the right things, you’re branded a radical.”