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By Rob Laymon

Special to the Business Journal

Gene Muller's change of life occurred about 100 miles east of Fort Smith, Arkansas.

Maybe driving across Arkansas has this effect on a lot of people. Maybe people drive in Arkansas just to get thinking done. Muller, a life-long east coaster, only knew he wanted to get away from the east, even as he drove back toward it. He wanted to move to New Mexico, where endless hiking trails wandered in happy confusion over hills the color of cinnamon and sunset.

No more did he want the life of the freelance writer, the regular but low-paid employment in college publications departments. It was time for a change. So he pondered moving west, even as his battered old Toyota pickup moved further toward the rising sun. And all at once he turned to his long-time partner and fellow traveler Robin Tama and said, "Brew pub."

 Brew pub. Suddenly everything made sense. Back in 1993, brew pubs and microbreweries had already gone roaring through the west but had not yet touched the east. Back east if you spoke of beer with a nutty body and banana finish, people assumed you'd already drunk too much of it. So beer was ready to happen in the east. Opening a brew pub in the east, well, it would be like New Mexico for the mouth.

 As a home brewer, Muller knew how to make a pretty good beer. As a writer he knew how to talk about it. As a student of marketing he knew how to sell it. But as an essentially non-wealthy person he didn't know how to fund it. So he had to hunt out investors. This, to put it mildly, proved challenging.
"When investors hear you want to do a restaurant, they start to look worried," Muller said. "When you tell them you have never run a restaurant, they say, 'Back! Back!'"

The idea languished for some months before Muller got the idea to locate in South Jersey instead of Old City Philadelphia, as originally planned. A few months later he found a good location in Cherry Hill. Meanwhile, his vision had changed from brew pub to microbrewery. And thus Flying Fish Beer came into being--in concept if not yet in fact.

Muller he got designers, including the man who did much work on the Yuengling brewery in Pottsville, PA, to fit out the space for brewing. Also, he went to brewing school, the Siebel Institute in Chicago, one of the oldest in the country, founded right after the Civil War, which today teaches big brewers and small brewers alike. One of Muller's classmates was Brad Coors, of the Coors brewery in Colorado.
"The issues you face are the same whether you are small or big," Muller said. "Yeast is yeast and it ferments the same way, whether it's in a big vessel or a little one."

And Muller bought equipment. Lots and lots of equipment.

 "We were trying to do this, and at the worst possible time in the industry," Muller said. "Stainless steel prices were at a record high, our bottling (machine) came from Germany, and at that time the dollar was very low against the Mark. And the whole craft beer business had hit a wall.

"The cycle was repeated later with the dot-coms. There was crazy growth, with all kinds of people opening breweries. But the question no one ever asked was, 'Are you making any money?' People assumed others were making money, but the reality was that most of them weren't, and tried to compensate for this by getting bigger and bigger."

 Meanwhile, though, Muller struck upon a unique way to endear himself with investors and beer buyers. He established Flying Fish's presence on the web (www.flyingfish.com) then built a following by giving regular updates on the progress of the brewery.

 "The concept was This Old House meets the World Wide Web. Every week we'd say, 'Here's what happened today.' We tried to involve people. And it got us a following.

 "And so later I was able to put a package together and tell the bank, 'I've never been an entrepreneur, I've never been a brewer. But, hey, I'm selling a beer that doesn't exist.'"
 Now, with Flying Fish in bars and pubs throughout the east and in England, the beer's following continues to grow. Last year the company accounted $1,030,189 in revenue, up 58 percent from $650,040 in 1998. All of it stemmed from $1,030,189 in seed capital, much of that in the form of an SBA loan.

 Muller continues to answer all emails and keep in touch with his market, as this gives people a feeling of participation. It turns out that beer is the sort of product people like to participate in.

 The company has 10 full-time people, and expands payroll very slowly. It intends to concentrate on the beers it currently produces, with the occasional foray into special-occasion beers. Flying Fish produces Flying Fish Porter, Flying Fish Belgian Abbey Dubbel(cq), Flying Fish Brewing Company ESB(cq) Ale, Flying Fish Brewing Company Extra Pale Ale and Flying Fish Farmhouse Summer Ale.

After the first two years, Flying Fish began turning an operating profit, and last year a bottom-line profit. Currently the company is growing at 30 percent a year, which makes it one of the 25 fastest growing companies in South Jersey.

"So we have resisted the urge to grow as fast as we could," Muller said, "even though people say we could raise a lot of cash. We want to run pretty tight. When we add tanks, we want to know there is a market for that increased capacity.

"We engineered the building thinking of how big we could grow in it. We also bought the best equipment we could afford. We knew the first years would be tight. We had high debt payments. Now that we're in a groove it's paying off. Our equipment is working well, and we are not worried about replacing it."

"Our whole thing has been steady manageable growth as opposed to letting the market force our hand." Muller said. "We get calls from Michigan and California from people who want our beer. One the one had that's flattering. But on the other, we want the beer to stay fresh. We don't know if it will finally be drunk after sitting on a warehouse floor for a year."








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