Inside Track: Collazo finds his vision
Vowing to never accept mediocrity, former teacher sets brewery apart in saturated beer market.
Almost a decade ago, City Built Brewing co-founder Edwin Collazo vowed never to settle for mediocrity, and even in a city “saturated” by craft breweries, he’s managed to set his brewery apart from the competition.
Collazo went through a series of career transformations prior to becoming the co-owner of a brewery. He originally worked as a teacher for eight years, with the first five of them in alternative education. He taught for a night program at Northview Public Schools, as well as a day program at Discovery School.
“I was teaching everything. Wherever they needed help, that’s where I would help,” he said.
Former President George W. Bush passed the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, which held schools accountable for student performance. After the law was passed, Collazo was no longer marketable as a teacher in the alternative sphere because he didn’t have a core degree like math, science or English. He does have a degree in childhood development and a degree in education with a focus on health and physical education.
Collazo saw an opportunity to switch over to teaching in prisons, where having a core was not necessary to be able to teach. He taught inmates in GED studies for three years.
After teaching, he went to work for James Hardie Building Products as a sales representative which, he recounted, was his first hard lesson in business.
“Before you leave your state, cushy job, with great benefits, awesome medical and lots of days off paid, check the industry you’re going into,” Collazo said.
Economic shifts in home building turned out to be unfavorable for James Hardie, and after just eight months with the company, Collazo was unemployed. Michigan home starts shrank from 120,000 to less than 20,000. James Hardie sold building components for high-end homes, whereas most new homes in Michigan were low end in terms of costs, and even the higher-end homes that were built only served as ancillary projects for the company.
While Collazo searched for means to support his family while finding his next career path, his father-in-law at the time encouraged him to work with him at Northwestern Mutual.
“I kept telling him, ‘I don’t want to work for you,’ and he kept saying, ‘I’m not offering you a job, I’m offering you an opportunity,” Collazo said.
The opportunity came in the form of Collazo starting his own investment and insurance practice with Northwestern’s assistance. But after three years in, Collazo’s father-in-law passed away, and he and his wife divorced shortly after.
After these events, Collazo started to take a step back and seriously think about what he wanted to do with his life. Part of his coaching through Northwestern involved him writing a vision statement for his life.
“They kind of really wanted to layer it over my professional life, but that’s not the center of your life, or it shouldn’t be,” Collazo said. “So, I really took a broad (approach), like, what is my vision?”
In abbreviated form, Collazo wrote, “I am built to be more than mediocre … and there’s no reason why I shouldn’t excel. And settling for anything other than that would be a detriment, not just to me, but to my family and my opportunity to leave a legacy for my kids.”
He wrote his vision statement around the end of 2010, and by 2011, his practice started to take off, he said. After six months of applying the vision statement to his life, he had done well financially, but he was exhausted.
Collazo reasoned if he could do well in the investment world, he could apply his outlook to excel anywhere.
“I just wasn’t passionate about building financial plans for people,” Collazo said. “Also, I’m Puerto Rican, trying to be as vanilla as I can in West Michigan, so I could make as many sales as I can.”
Collazo eventually split his cases between himself and a partner named Dan Peterson, who was much more passionate about the work than he was. The more Collazo worked with Peterson, the more he realized he wasn’t cut out for the work and decided to be an entrepreneur.
“I really just wanted to buy a job,” Collazo said. “Where could I buy something where I could fit in, make it grow?”
His first foray into entrepreneurship involved a company in Wyoming called Workhorse Irons that manufactures tattoo machines and supplies. He was talked out of it by a venture capitalist named Mike DeVries, with whom he had connections. DeVries convinced him he didn’t want the deal because his goal of “buying a job” didn’t translate into any real ownership.
By the end of 2013, Collazo had connected with his neighbor and now business partner Dave Petroelje.
“Dave needed a partner who was a little more business-minded,” Collazo said. “Dave was a talented scientist — hence the fantastic beers — but he had more of the wizardry, and I have more of a skill set for communicating and connecting with people.”
The two agreed if Collazo could raise the capital, Petroelje would handle the brewing. By November 2013, Collazo started connecting with investors and was able to raise $250,000 in 30 days.
“That was for our original plan,” Collazo said. “Our original plan was kind of a hole-in-the-wall, two-barrel, no food — just really brass utility kind of approach.”
But Collazo started to dive deeper into what he wanted for the brewery. Prior to partnering with Petroelje, he “geeked-out” on craft beer, trading in beer across the country and eventually joining a group called Hop Heads, a California-based group of brewers, artists, business owners and writers in the craft beer industry.
“I just kind of paid attention, and the culture of it was really intriguing,” Collazo said. “To look back and see how we were putting our business together, there were some things in the original plan that needed to be changed.”
All in, Collazo and Petroelje were able to raise $1.6 million for City Built Brewing Company.
The Sixth Street Bridge on the company logo was decided long before it opened in the Monroe North district, just a block away from the bridge. Collazo originally was not in favor of it.
“When I got involved, I was like, ‘We ain’t having that. That’s not going to be our logo,’” Collazo said. “Then we found our location, I’m like, ‘There’s that bridge!’”
Collazo said he always admired the neighborhood, coming from where he used to live in Belknap Lookout. Petroelje also lives on the West Side and believed it was a good business opportunity.
“I think we both have a deep love for Grand Rapids, and we’re just outside of the city enough that I think that helps us,” Collazo said. “It’s definitely a crowded scene.”
Just east of the Grand River, City Built shares the same turf with The Mitten Brewing Co., Atwater, New Holland’s Knickerbocker, Jolly Pumpkin, Harmony Hall, Creston Brewery and Greyline Brewing.
City Built sets itself apart mainly by providing a Puerto Rican menu to accompany its brews, as well as a unique taproom.
“We paid a lot of attention to the aesthetics, from having a cushier floor to having high-back booths that have fabric on them to catch sound but also create some private spaces within the booths, giving a lot of space to our lounge area, so people have room to stand or sit.”
Collazo said the goal is to highlight his Puerto Rican culture with City Built while making an impact on the Grand Rapids community.
“I think it’s funny that people think our food is so different because it exists in Grand Rapids; it existed long before City Built, but it wasn’t mainstream,” Collazo said. “So, it’s been cool to make Puerto Rican food at least recognized on a mainstream level in a nice neighborhood with nice digs.”
City Built Brewing Company will celebrate its second anniversary in June.