How a Montana Microdistillery Pivoted to Make Hand Sanitizer for NYC

Business is anything but usual, but risk tolerance and a dose of disruption can keep your company afloat.

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The world of business in the age of COVID-19 is new for all of us, but it also carries some familiar refrains. As with every era, risk tolerance and disruption is the name of the game. Every line of work is being disrupted. 

I spoke this week to Troy Downing, a serial entrepreneur involved in multiple companies, including WildRye Distilling in Montana, which is currently producing hand sanitizer by the thousands of gallons for companies like AT&T, BNSF, USPS and the National Guard. Downing is also a political candidate, running for Montana State Auditor this fall.

Downing's experience mirrors that of many entrepreneurs I’m hearing from right now. Upheaval is everywhere. There is no comfort zone. Despondence abounds as April’s unemployment report hits 20.5 million. And yet, thousands of entrepreneurs are energized by the challenge to dig deeper and think more creatively than ever before. 

Related: Whiskey Producers Are Making Hand Sanitizer. Here's How They ...

There is no playbook 

In Montana, as in many U.S. states, restrictions are lifting to allow most businesses to re-open, with care. But the process is anything but simple. 

“There’s a drive-in movie theater near Billings that was given the okay to open up, but with the requirement that people stay in their cars,” Downing told me. “Then somebody complained to the County Health Department.” 

So, the permission was retracted, and the business had to shut back down. 

“There’s a lot of yoyo-ing. Bureaucrats running the show who aren’t thinking … just rushing, and that’s where problems happen,” Downing continued. “I would think it’s an order of magnitude safer being in your car in a drive-in theater than going into Costco.” 

As a state with a low population that spans a high geographic area, Montana has lost hundreds of millions of dollars from cancellation of elective surgeries and critical care, Downing says, making it a struggle to keep rural hospitals alive. What it would take to bail them out is unknown.

Related: How to Manage During A Crisis: Sort Everything Into "Now, Next, or ...

Roll up your sleeves and take a risk

Like many American businesses, WildRye had to close its doors — which included a popular tasting room — in mid-March. But one of the WildRye partners has a PhD in organic chemistry, and as he examined the World Health Organization’s recommended formula for hand sanitizer, he realized it was 80 percent ethyl alcohol, which is a core element the distillery produces. He made a small batch with intentions of giving it to employees and customers in need.

Then the shutdown began, and it became difficult for anyone in the U.S. to get hand sanitizer. 

Gallatin County, where WildRye is located, needed 50 bottles for its search and rescue team. So of course, WildRye obliged. Word got out and the orders poured in. The company felt an obligation to continue supporting frontline responders and citizens at risk, so they donated bottles to anyone in the community who asked. But ultimately, they knew they’d have to start charging to avoid going bankrupt. 

Then a sanitation company called and wanted two 55-gallon drums, followed by orders for 50 and 110 gallons. It turned out the company supported porta johns at construction sites. By law, if sites didn’t provide sanitizer, they would need to shut down, which would leave 800 construction employees without work. 

So the company doubled down on production to keep the sanitation company afloat. 

Then the City of New York called. 

“We’re a bourbon micro-distillery,” Downing said, “And now we’re getting orders for tens of thousands of gallons of sanitizer. How do we proceed?”  

It's all about risk tolerance and disruption

“It’s the familiar feeling of that ball in the pit of your stomach,” Downing says. “How far over my skis do I want to get, and how much is it going to hurt if this doesn’t succeed?” 

Very often, he notes, this is the kind of incentive that pushes entrepreneurs to the point where they simply have to make a plan work, which helps to propel their success against impossible odds. 

Navigating risk is one of the universal conditions of being an entrepreneur, Downing says, noting that more than half of the Fortune 500 and of the S&P companies began in a downturn. 

So far, the pivot has proven to be a risk worth taking so far. But how it plays out for WildRye’s future has yet to be seen. Downing is predicting many businesses will not re-open their doors. But he sees opportunities, too.  

“There is opportunity whenever you have a setback like this,” he concludes. “Hopefully, you keep at least a little bit of your powder dry and can take advantage. But regardless, you roll up your sleeves and you make things happen.” 

Related: The Pivot That Helped This Founder Get Into 10,000 Stores

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