Kevin O’Connor Speaks On a Brewing Entrepreneurship
Kevin O’Connor founded O’Connor Brewing in 2009 with the help of his wife and family. On April 14, he spoke to the ODU community at the Strome Entrepreneurial Center about how he became involved in brewing and starting his business.
O’Connor, a Norfolk native, knew early on his calling was drinking good beer.
“I’m not Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg,” O’Connor said. “What interests me is craft beer.”
While attending Radford University in the ’90s, O’Connor used a fake ID to get craft beer, hard to find at the time, at the Vintage Cellar in Blacksburg, Virginia. The owner of the store, Kenny, eventually realized this, but stopped carding him because of his taste for beer.
After a while, Kenny asked O’Connor if he was interested in brewing his own beer. O’Connor was intrigued and bought a homebrew kit. He started brewing beer on his hot plate almost daily. Kenny wanted to start a brewery, which O’Connor thought was a bad idea due to the lack of a craft beer market in Southwest Virginia at the time.
After dropping out of Radford and returning to Norfolk, O’Connor started working his way through classes at Tidewater Community College and then Old Dominion University for a business degree, while working at bars and brewing at home. He then had the somewhat unorthodox idea of volunteering at a local brewery to learn about industrial scale brewing.
The brewery went out of business soon after, and O’Connor started working for a credit card processing company. His main clients were restaurants and bars, incidentally building a future network of places to market O’Connor Beer. O’Connor then started working for a corporate distributor in Richmond, refining his sales ability.
“No matter what you do, you’re always selling something, yourself, your ideas,” O’Connor said. “Make sure your passion is there.”
During this time, O’Connor realized he hated working for corporations. His dream was to open his own brewery, despite being told by his entrepreneurial family that this was a bad idea.
“At the time, people in the area were drinking Bud Light and Coor’s,” O’Connor said. “Big beer and imports were king.”
He pulled brewery start-up funds together from family and friends just before his family’s wealth vanished overnight with the 2008 stock market crash. After gathering all available resources, he bought used brewery tanks and equipment and leased a building for the brewery. O’Connor worked 18-hour days after opening the brewery and wired most of the building himself.
The first batch of O’Connor Beer was brewed on St. Patrick’s Day in 2009, despite equipment which barely worked and faulty wiring in a major pump. O’Connor later helped to lobby a bill through the Virginia Senate to allow breweries to have tasting rooms, a landmark bill for the industry.
“Don’t ever worry about failure,” O’Connor said. “Everyday is a struggle. There are fires to put out all the time.”