Small Business Success Story: Meriwether Cider
Each member of the Leadbetter family brings a unique skill set to the operation of this Boise cidery, which has thrived under their zest for adventure and risk-taking nature.
The Leadbetter family hasn’t shied away from adventure in life.
Dad Gig has been a smokejumper and Denali guide, mom Ann has been an Alaskan timber surveyor, firefighter and English professor. Daughter Molly and Kate have both been wildland firefighters (helirappler and hotshot, respectively) and they both love running in the foothills with their dogs.
That zest for taking on challenging — and slightly risky — endeavors could be why they’ve enjoyed success on their entrepreneurial journey as owners of Boise’s Meriwether Cider Co.
We spoke with Ann about how this close-knit family avoids stepping on each other’s toes, how they foster a customer-centric culture and how they juggle the demands of being a manufacturer, a retailer and a wholesaler.
What has been a challenge of starting a family-owned small business?
None of us were businesspeople. We went into it with no experience and no knowledge.
We had to figure out how not to step on each other’s toes. We learned as we went along that we needed to have more clearly defined roles and responsibilities.
We each had to decide what we wanted to do, and then set some boundaries. We try to let everybody “own” their area. It’s a real trust thing.
What are some of the opportunities associated with a family-owned small business?
We can split things up four ways. There’s a lot of hands in everything that needs to be done. We weren’t overwhelmed, and didn’t have to hire people, so we could keep expenses down.
We have the ability to bounce things off of each other. Our daughters had a lot of perspective that was really beneficial to framing things. They were already pretty well embedded in the community and knew a lot of the purveyors. They’re charming and they draw people to them, so we had a leg up.
You can complain about your job when it’s your family that you couldn’t if you were an employee. You know they’re going to cover your back because they’re family. You can depend on them in a whole different way than you can depend on people you pay.
What is the biggest challenge as a small business owner?
Training and retaining employees. Creating an atmosphere where your employees have buy-in and creating a company culture that they want to buy into. There is constant maintenance of that relationship.
All of our employees read a book by Danny Meyers called “Setting the Table” which is about what he calls “enlightened hospitality,” which basically says, if you keep your employees happy then they keep your customers happy. It’s a learning process and constantly challenging, but we have wonderful employees.
Another challenge is being a manufacturer and a retailer and a wholesaler. Because what you manufacture you sell in different formats through different channels. We’re constantly trying to gauge what’s profitable and what’s less profitable and where we should put our focus for growth.
Business has been good for us because we have a niche, but at some point, you’ve got to look at your numbers and have data that clarifies how to proceed.
What was the biggest blind spot on your journey to small business owner?
Thinking of a name is hugely hard. Don’t assume that your name isn’t already taken. We did a whole Kickstarter campaign and party and merch with our name that turned out to not be our name.
Everything takes longer than you think it’s going to take. It took us nine months to get our alcohol permit. We were paying rent without being able to open.
Name one thing that prepared you for being a small business owner.
My husband was a home brewer for 30 years, so he had a lot of experience. He hadn’t done cider necessarily, but he knew about sanitation and knew all the pitfalls when someone tries to make a fermented beverage. He was able to create something that tasted pretty good right off the bat.
One of our daughters is very much tech savvy and she does our marketing and our social media — she’s a whiz at that kind of thing.
Our other daughter is completely the opposite but is super creative. All her ideas are money makers.
My job is to do anything that no one else will do, such as applying for our equipment loans, applying for permits, paying taxes and doing our banking. Those are all things that I do because I can. It just takes plugging away.
What’s your best tip for aspiring entrepreneurs?
Talk to other entrepreneurs. Talk to other people in your industry. Ask how they did it. Use the internet.
You can’t look at things from a great distance and not get discouraged. You have an oppressive amount of details to take care of, but all you can do is a little every day and plug away as systematically as you can.
What role has Zions Bank played in your journey?
When we were looking to bring our bottling operations in-house, we used an equipment loan from Zions Bank to fund the expansion.
By purchasing our own bottling line, we were able to transition to a smaller bottle in line with industry standards. And now we’re going to own the equipment outright for roughly the same annual cost as outsourcing the work.
Our bankers Shaun Kelley and Steve Tramleasure were helpful, and they knew what they were doing. It’s unpleasant to do financials — there are hoops to jump through and documents to dig out and provide. But it was as smooth as it could have been.
Looking to follow in Ann’s footsteps and start a business? Zions Bank offers online tools including business templates, columns, videos and financial calculators. Our Business Resource Centers in Salt Lake City and Boise provide counseling and training for entrepreneurs.
Nicola McIntosh is social media manager for Zions Bank.