Ned LaFortune, Wachusett Brewing Company
By Shelly Schweizer
Ned LaFortune is one of the fortunate few who has managed to turn a passion for drinking and brewing good beer into a career. He’s President and a co-founder of the Wachusett Brewing Company.
Cheap beer fueled the college adventures of LaFortune and two WPI buddies, Peter Quinn and Kevin Buckler. When their careers as engineers and biologists afforded them with the ability to buy the good stuff, things got serious.
“We started drinking better beer, imports, whatever craft beers we could get our hands on,” La Fortune said. “We started to understand what made this [kind of] beer different.”
As the trio incorporated tours of small breweries into their hiking, biking and ski trips across New England, they became fascinated by the brewing process. LaFortune and Buckler began to home brew and eventually pooled their equipment, engineering skills and brewing know-how to build a small scale commercial system. The turning point was a visit to the Ipswich Brewing Company.
“They had also built their own system for making beer. When I saw their system, I knew that we could do it. It wasn’t going to be that big of a jump,” LaFortune said.
Ned, Peter and Kevin opened their brewery in LaFortune’s hometown of Westminster in 1993.
Initially, the three partners worked every aspect of the business. Now, each manages a specific area. As President, LaFortune handles product distribution, managerial, business and legal issues. As those areas of expertise are a far cry from his training as a civil engineer, LaFortune muses that he’s had to become a “real” businessman. It’s often stressful but he says he truly enjoys the challenge.
LaFortune still has a serious appreciation of beer, taking an active role in “account support” ~ drinking beer, hobnobbing with customers, attending events, and of course keeping up with the competition.
“It’s nothing like college but a couple of nights a week, we get out there,” he smiled.
According to LaFortune, the highly competitive craft beer market already has established brands, so he advises that anyone interested in starting a brewery would need very deep pockets. Many breweries have failed or are in poor fiscal health. In the early days, LaFortune and his partners worked upwards of 80 hours a week. It took 10 years for the company to become financially stable.
The Wachusett Brewing Company currently has 450 draft accounts in bars and restaurants, representing a total of 700 draft lines, and supplies beer to 1,000 package stores statewide. LaFortune is proud, not just of those numbers, but of what they represent.
“They’re what we consider retained, secure accounts. They want to carry our beer,” he said. “It’s a serious statement. There are tons of breweries in New England that would love to have our lines.”
LaFortune says the best part of his job isn’t the beer ~ it’s working with two of his best friends. There are lots of laughs but they’re serious about the business. He has no regrets or reservations about mixing business with friendship.
“If you need partners and you see similar people with a similar work ethic you think you can trust, go into business with them. I trust these guys to the highest level that could be.”
For Ned LaFortune, it’s all about his buds, the brews and the business.
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