Three Veterans Brew Up a Business

Three military veterans left the U.S. Army to start a craft brewery. They learned microbiology, lived in an RV and searched for start-up money until PNC Bank and Uncle Sam helped to make their dream business come true.

SOUTHERN PINES, N.C. – Nestled amid the Longleaf pines in this golfers’ paradise, three former Green Berets cooked up a plan to start a brewery.

Today the thriving brewery is a success, but at times it looked like the dream would stay just that – a dream. In 2014, the three soldiers made a pact to leave the U.S. Army and set up the Southern Pines Brewing Co. in this village that once served as a health resort for weary travelers.

The three grew up in various parts of the country and met while serving at nearby Fort Bragg before tours of duty in Afghanistan and Pakistan in Special Forces:

  • John Brumer of Houston, served from 2006-14, including six years in Special Forces
  • Jason Ginos of Coffeen, Ill., served from 2004-14, seven years in Special Forces
  • Micah Niebauer of Superior, Wisc., served from 2003-14, three years in Special Forces

The veterans worked well together in the military, serving on an Operational Detachment Alpha team in Fort Bragg's 3rd Special Forces Group. They agree the discipline, strategic thinking and follow-through learned in the military translated nicely into entrepreneurship. The men were confident they could run a brewery. Plus, they liked beer.

“We knew we could work well under pressure, and we each had our own specialty that would work in a business," Niebauer said.

Veterans with PNC banker
(From left) PNC Bank's Patrick Barry with veterans turned entrepreneurs Jason Ginos,
John Brumer and Micah Niebauer – owners of Southern Pines Brewing Co.

Learning Microbiology, Living in an RV

Days and nights of research ensued. First, they learned more about the chemistry and microbiology of brewing beer, taking courses through a technology institute in Chicago and a laboratory in San Diego, where they lived in an RV in the parking lot.

Confident in their preparation, they called on banks for a business loan – and always brought beer samples to the meetings. Even though they had some savings, Ginos said the debt-to-income ratio was a sticking point.

Enter PNC Bank Business Banker Patrick Barry, who appreciates a financial challenge – and, he jokes, a cold brew on occasion. After listening to their plans and reviewing the business strategy, he contacted the U.S. Small Business Administration. “I was thrilled I was getting a look at their business proposal,” he said.

Preferred Lender to the Rescue

PNC is a member of the SBA’s Preferred Lender Program as well as a long-time supporter of veterans.

In recent years, the bank has expanded its efforts to recruit and retain veterans and forge relationships with groups like the Student Veterans of America and MBA Veterans. In 2014, the U.S. Department of Defense awarded PNC with the Secretary of Defense Employer Support Freedom Award.

With the Preferred Lender Program, SBA delegates the final credit decision to carefully selected lenders like PNC based on their track record. This makes the process easier and more efficient for customers, said Greg Simmons, one of PNC’s SBA sales managers.

Simmons and Erica Parker, a PNC specialist in SBA loans, said it was the vets’ detailed business plan and disciplined military background that cinched the deal.

“Their business plan was one of the best I’ve ever seen,” said Parker, who is based in Durham.

The projections were phenomenal, very well thought out. We also have a strong mission to do more for veterans, so we were willing to step out a bit for them.

machinery in brewery
Southern Pines Brewing employs over 20 people and has expanded into adjacent space for more equipment

Formulate a Business Plan

Barry said there are lessons to be learned from the vets’ persistence and execution, including:

Research: Make sure your business plan is well researched and documented, he said, adding that it made the difference. The vets scrutinized demographic trends and plotted them out, for example, to determine the potential customer base well into the future.

Cash Flow: Keep a close eye on cash flow and prepare for the unexpected, Barry said. Know when you need to buy equipment. When the backseat in Ginos’ car broke from carrying kegs they knew it was time to buy a van. 

Passion: Pay attention to details and manage stress. Do something you are passionate about. All three were avid home brewers before opening Southern Pines. But most of all, have a plan.

Making the Business Flow

The three veterans did it all – from brewing, marketing, selling and distributing. None had ever tended bar, but found themselves in the taproom discussing beer flights and nuances of pale ales versus stouts.

Gradually, the business took hold and the beer flowed. Niebauer is the CEO, Brumer runs operations and Ginos take care of the finances. Fueled by gratitude for the community’s support, the vets gave talks at local meetings and offered used grain to local farmers for free. Giving back is part of their mission.

Today, Southern Pines employs over 20 people. The owners want to expand into the adjacent 3,000 square feet space to make way for more fermenters and other equipment. Duck Hook – that’s golf lingo for a ball that makes a hard curve – remains their signature beer.

"I’ve got to hand it to them,” Barry said. “They had all their ducks in a row.”

Learn more about small business loans from PNC

Erica Parker
PNC's Erica Parker was impressed with the veterans' business plan 

Veterans Serve U.S. Economy

According to the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), veteran-owned businesses are flourishing:

  • Over 2,300 veteran-owned small businesses in U.S.
  • $1 trillion in sales
  • More than $766 million in SBA funding