Chicago-based beer company puts veterans first

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When Veteran Beer Co. CEO Paul Jenkins first hatched the idea for his veterans-first company in July 2012, he approached it at the same pace as any business plan.

But after reading a report that came out later that year showing veterans were committing suicide at a rate of 22 per day, he vowed to get the Chicago-based company operational in just over a year.

“A lot of people said, ‘wait a second … you have no brewery, you have no recipes, you have no brewer, you have no licenses, you have no permits … but you say you’re going to market in 14 months,’” Jenkins told Illinois Business Daily with a laugh. “And I said, ‘you’re right, but we’ve got to get this done.’”

Jenkins, himself a medically discharged Navy veteran, met the goal and today the brewery employs 19 veterans. But in addition to those the company directly employs, he said it has also made a push to work only with distributors, suppliers and others that also employ veterans. This includes Bernick’s, a Minnesota-based distributor that hired one of the brewing company’s employees away.

“It was a high five all around, because it allowed me to hire another veteran,” he said.

Jenkins said Bernick’s owner has since told him he’s hired more than 40 veterans, including one who suffered a traumatic brain injury, due in no small part to that first hire from Veteran Beer. 

Though he said the company has had to make some “course corrections” since its accelerated opening date, it continues to expand.

Currently, Veteran Beer partners with breweries in St. Cloud, Minnesota; Steven’s Point, Wisconsin; and Detroit to bring regionally focused beers to market in those areas. The company leases the out-of-state breweries and sends its brewer to make the different beers. 

Locations in Michigan will officially begin selling Veteran Beer beginning on the 4th of July. Distributors in southeast Wisconsin, he said, just doubled their orders for the summertime.

But for a company whose goal is to help veterans avoid become one more statistic, even that success is not enough.

“The company’s got to be a national company to be successful,” Jenkins said of its mission to help veterans.

Jenkins said that Texas and the Northeast were the most likely targets for Veteran Beer as it looks to expand its reach. The company's award-winning beers and mission caught the attention of Signature Bank, which has extended a line of credit and a term debt plan to facilitate the latest expansion.

"We are proud to back a business devoted to such a meaningful cause and we look forward to their expansion into other regions," Signature Bank representatives wrote in a press release.

The 2012 report on veteran suicides was eye-opening for Jenkins, who said his own military experience was “lucky” in that he avoided an unexpected discharge because of troop drawdown. A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he said he had a job lined up when he was medically discharged in 1995 after 10 years of service.

Jenkins also said that while non-profits dedicated to providing veterans with different assistance are good, he said many veterans would prefer to simply get back to work.

“My transition was much easier than a lot of others have had it,” Jenkins said. “That’s what I’m trying to do is to build a company where people feel a better place to land.”

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), roughly 1 million soldiers left active duty between 2002 and 2009, with roughly 220,000 being diagnosed with a form of mental illness thereafter. More than half of those soldiers, the VA notes, never came in for screening.

“As a former military officer, I still carry with me a sense of obligation,” Jenkins said. “If I’m in a position to do something to help others who are coming behind, I feel that’s simply what I need to do.”

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