Friday, January 28, 2011

Week #4 - Audra Marotta

The Craft Beer business is one that definitely rewards hard work and by those standards Audra Marotta is a well decorated medal winner. Offering her vast knowledge of finance and infrastructure she has helped both new and established craft breweries to build a strong and sustainable base beneath themselves. Audra's unique niche in the brewing industry is her deep understanding and love of beer itself, which allows her to apply an informed perspective of financial guidance to the everyday applications and needs of a growing brewery. Her efforts do not stop with craft brewers, as her Violent Orchid consulting firm is aimed towards all forms of small creative businesses. 2011 has been pretty good to Audra so far: A new gig with a great brewery, a panel at the upcoming Craft Brewers Conference in California, a recent step into a Director's role at Weaver Street Market...see what I mean about hard work being rewarded?

Ladies and Gents, Audra Marotta....

You bring an interesting perspective and talent to craft beer, one that is vital, but very behind the scenes. At what point for you did the world of numbers meet up with the world of craft beer?

I prefer building a financial and operational infrastructure behind the scenes to allow a company to grow sustainably over the long term. Though I've been working in the world of numbers over the past decade and a half while enjoying alcoholic beverages most of my life (I'm Eastern European, so I was allowed), the two didn't officially collide until I was hired by Dogfish Head Craft Brewery as their Controller. Once I started working at Dogfish, one of the first things I did was start building a network of accounting and finance professionals within the craft beer world. This is such a unique niche within the food/beverages industry, and every brewery operates differently. I knew I'd learn the most from those who had been immersed in it for much longer than I had. When optimizing systems or developing new processes, you need to spend a lot of time listening and learning before acting. Previous experiences may not always prove relevant when dealing with craft beer. Let's just say I spent more time reading, asking questions, conversing, and then asking more questions than I had for any other industry up to that point.

How important is it for a brewery to have a good comprehension of the numbers side of things in a time where so many breweries are still able to grow, expand, and open new markets and STILL not be able to satisfy demand?

With all this explosive growth the craft beer sector is experiencing, now (more than ever) is a crucial time to gain a solid understanding of trends, mix, margins, profitability, and ratios, as well as to establish a longer-term (at least 2-year) financial and capex investment plan. It saddens me when a brewery/brewpub is allowing sales to grow by 50% or more year-over-year without their knowing what a brand of beer costs to produce or how much of their liquidity is tied up in slow-moving inventory. When a brewery is growing, it needs to have a solid grasp of cash flow management in order to ensure resources are being spent optimally. Each dollar tied up in inventory sitting in the warehouse is a dollar that could have been spent paying off a loan or invested in a new fermenting tank. It doesn't matter how much revenue is coming in the door if you end up running out of cash.

If a brewery doesn't have the time, it should bring in contracted help to design and develop a financially-focused information systems framework (or optimize the one currently used) to provide the brewery the guidance it would need to maintain a sustainable growth rate and make appropriate investments in the equipment needed at the right time in order to support that growth rate while maintaining healthy cash flow.

Lack of time is not an excuse for poor information systems. I know the bank will liken that to 'the dog ate my homework'. Line of credit increase: denied. Not good times.

From what I gather your work with Violent Orchid is not solely directed at craft breweries, but do you take on breweries as clients? Could you explain what services Violent Orchid offers to potential clients?

It's funny you ask this *laughs*, as 100% of my current revenue is coming from craft breweries! Violent Orchid is a consultancy focused on empowering the creative community with the management tools, education, exposure, and voice to succeed. We offer accounting (including accounting information systems), finance, marketing, and operations guidance, anything from process audits and building costing templates to benchmarking performance, developing business plans, and implementing financial management software solutions. Our focus lies with craft breweries, not-for-profits, startups/small businesses, and artists, but as I just mentioned, all our paying clients happen to be craft breweries right I feel right at home! Our goal is to provide an entity C-level direction without the financial burden of C-level salary. As I was one of the few from the University of North Carolina who signed the, I believed this was my path to creating value responsibly. You can get more information about us by checking out all my contact deets at the bottom.

How did you get involved with the NC Brewer's Guild and what type of work are you doing with them?

When the North Carolina Brewer's Guild started up in 2009, I believe I was the first (then) out-of-state enthusiast member who signed up. Though I was working for Dogfish Head, I still felt very tied to the North Carolina beer scene. When I moved back home to North Carolina from Delaware, I contacted the Managing Director of the guild to see if they needed any help. He connected me with the Treasurer, and the rest is history.

I created a custom-tailored chart of accounts, set up the financial system infrastructure, and mapped all the items to the appropriate lines on the informational (tax) return to provide the Board the information they would need to measure performance and meet organizational objectives. I then trained the Executive Director and Treasurer on the system and its use. Though I'm recognized as the guild's Financial Advisor, I'm also spearheading the guild's educational programming initiatives. Our first educational event brought six of North Carolina's highly respected brewers together on a panel to discuss recipe development. Our next event will be in Asheville in February. In fact, I'm busy planning it as we speak!

Whenever I'm home and working up North it seems like I invariably end up talking about beer culture in North Carolina. The state really lends itself to a strong craft beer community because you can get almost anywhere in a short amount of time, so visiting all of these different breweries or pubs or great bottle shops is kind of a breeze. As a community, how have the people of North Carolina embraced the craft beer culture that continues to grow there?

Every time I think about how our community has embraced the craft beer culture here, I can't help but smile. Being involved in the North Carolina beer scene, whether as an enthusiast, an employee, or a blogger carries a badge of pride that is hard to define. I'm amazed by how many people choose to volunteer at each of our breweries, and each who does carries this spark in their eye as they chatter on about the beers brewed. It seems almost every night of the week finds a scheduled beer dinner, sampling, or gathering throughout a rotating circle of establishments. The pairing of local beer with local music has defined certain regions of our state as the go-tos for Thursday and Friday evening entertainment. Interest and participation in beer education, homebrewing and homebrew clubs has risen. North Carolina Brewer's Guild enthusiast memberships keep growing steadily. It's very hard NOT to get excited about the promise and passion our state carries for well-crafted local brew.

Where's your favorite place in North Carolina to sit down for a beer?

This isn't a fair question. This is like choosing a favorite pair of heels or a favorite Russian Imperial Stout. It can't be done. I love Federal in Durham, The Wooden Nickel in Hillsborough, Rec Billiards in Winston-Salem, and Thirsty Monk in Asheville. Mother Earth Brewing's tap room in Kinston is uber groovy, and Pisgah Brewing's space in Black Mountain is so relaxed. Big Boss Brewing's tavern in Raleigh is like family to me, while I feel Catawba Valley's taproom is synonymous with community. And don't even get me started on how awesomesauce Bruisin' Ales is in Asheville. The day slips by oh-so-easily there when immersed in conversation while being surrounded by one of the most fantasmo bottle selections in the state. You can't make me choose one. It's not fair. If it's in North Carolina, and there's craft beer served, it's likely a favorite place of mine.

Between Fullsteam and Mystery Brewing Co, how exciting is it to be living smack dab in the middle of some serious brewing innovation right now?

Imagine you're a four year-old who gets a pony on Christmas morning. And in its mouth the pony is holding passes for Disney World. And Lion-O from Thundercats is on the pony's back. Lion-O is holding a hot fudge sundae in one hand and a Red Ryder BB gun in the other. And did I mention the pony is floating on a magic carpet?

It's that exciting.

I am kind of a freak about Weaver Street Market. I love it. It reminds me of a frequent lunch and grocery stop up the road from me at home, so it is really comforting to have a place like that to go to when I'm on the road. How did you get involved with Weaver Street and what are you doing for them?

Our food shopping options were very limited when we moved to Hillsborough in 2006. Thankfully, the Weaver Street Market co-op opened its food preparation center and its third store in Hillsborough shortly after. I signed up as a consumer-owner right after it opened its doors. Drawn to its mission, providing a vibrant, sustainable commercial center for the community of owners and potential owners that is cooperative; local; ecological; primary; fair; inclusive; interactive; empowering; educational; and is reliant on community support, I chose to run for its Board of Directors during the summer. There were three of us running for one consumer-owner spot, and I was so honored to be the one elected! I will start my service in January 2011.

We are directly accountable to the consumer owners for the activities and accomplishments of the store. Specifically, it is my job to interact with the owners to understand their values and vision for the store; to develop, monitor, and revise policies that guide the store to achieving outcomes consistent with the owners' values and vision; and to ensure that management achieves the goals set by the entire board.

You recently (like, really recently) joined Mother Earth Brewery as their Chief Financial Officer, had you been working with them previously or did the opportunity come up independent of your previous work with breweries?

I had worked with them for a short spell as a Violent Orchid consultant back in December. We kept communication lines open over a period of six weeks after that. Stephen and Trent asked me to come out in January to explore a possible peace, love, and beer connection. Next thing I knew we were all looking in the same direction and the path for me to take was obvious. Everything just felt right and I could genuinely relate to every person who was a part of Mother Earth already. I gave every co-worker a huge hug my first day. I count my lucky stars every day that such an exciting opportunity arose. Sometimes things just come together.

Do you have a favorite Mother Earth beer?

My favorite Mother Earth beer is currently Old Neighborhood. Josh outdid himself with this porter! But with the canning line coming aboard this spring, there are two new brands we'll be brewing that I can't wait to try already! To be continued, I guess?

Travel-wise, where have you not been that you really want to go on a beer trip?

Within the US borders, I haven't been lucky enough to spend any time in Oregon yet. I'd love to fly into Portland, rent a car, and take a 10-12 day driving vacation throughout the state visiting breweries/brewpubs while getting lost in the state's beauty. My favorite vacations have been those without an itinerary. When you love meeting new people as much as I do, you just can't plan, nor impose a time limit on an inspirational conversation.

Outside the US, I haven't been to Belgium since I was a little girl. I would love to return as an adult to explore the countryside, abbeys, chocolatiers, and breweries, staying at small inns and on farms rather than in hotels. I have several Dutch friends who live in area, so it would be a great opportunity to catch up and visit with them as well.

I'm very excited to hear that you will be presenting at Craft Brewer's Conference in 2011. What can people expect if they come to your seminars?

You wouldn't believe how excited I was when I received the call from the Brewer's Association accepting my proposal! Expect a water balloon fight, some Napoleon Dynamite-style dancing, Peeps, and purple-striped leg warmers....wait, that was something else....

My presentation will be focused on cost accounting for brewpubs and information systems for breweries. I plan to survey the crowd beforehand to ensure we tackle some of the most pressing and confusing issues we in the craft beer world are experiencing, then work that in with a general accounting tutorial focused on the brewing process. It will be a hoot n' holler for the numbers junkies, and I'm stoked to be presenting a topic that is a strength of mine.

Let's continue the conversation!

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