Linus Hall doesn’t run a business with hundreds of employees. His company has fewer than 20 full-time workers on the payroll. He is not aiming for explosive growth or national reach for his products, preferring to maintain local dominance with, at most, a closely-managed regional expansion strategy. He doesn’t report to a board of directors or spend time answering to a group of investors. His only partner in the business is his wife, Lila. (As Sales Manager Neil McCormick explains the situation: “All of our investors get in the same bed every night.”) Hall does not work in the sorts of industries that usually dominate top CEO lists such as health care, entertainment, sports management or nonprofits. Linus Hall brews beer, specifically at Yazoo Brewing Co.

Still, Hall is the deserving recipient of the Post’s 2019 CEO of the Year award thanks to his impeccable sense of business timing, real estate savvy, willingness to put in hard work and sweat equity to grow his business and for his role in establishing Nashville and Tennessee as a leader in the craft beer industry. During his almost 20 years as a professional brewer, Hall has built a company that is admired and appreciated as a bell cow of Nashville beer.

Hall started in brewing out of necessity while still a mechanical engineering student at the University of Virginia. “I couldn’t afford to buy as much beer as I wanted to drink,” he recalls. “So I bought a homebrew kit I saw in the back of Rolling Stone so that I could have something to bring to parties.”

After graduation, a job as a process engineer at tire giant Bridgestone brought him to Nashville from his home in Vicksburg, Mississippi. He immediately joined a local homebrewers club and, after developing some of his own recipes that received acclaim from his fellow brewers, began dreaming of opening his own brewery. (As it turns out, other members of the Music City Brewers group from nearly two decades ago also would end up as owners or head brewers at other future area breweries such as Czann’s, Little Harpeth and Boscos.)

Smart enough to know what he didn’t know yet, Hall enrolled in the MBA program at the Owen Graduate School of Management at Vanderbilt University, where he submitted a business plan for a production brewery as his final project.

“Mine was the only plan for a brick-and-mortar business,” Hall remembers. “My fellow students asked me ‘How do you sell beer on the internet?’”

Hall’s initial plan was to brew two or three of his own core beers and bring in more revenue by contract brewing private brands for restaurants. But Yazoo’s own brands took off so quickly that that plan was history after just four contract brews.

“My initial plan was to hit 3,000 barrels of sales after year five,” Hall says. “But we passed 5,000 in the third year.”

Before he could turn his grand plans into reality, Hall had to find a place to brew. He discovered Barry Walker, the owner/entrepreneur of Marathon Village who was just beginning to develop commercial spaces in the former Marathon Motor Works factory near downtown.

“I got the full-on Barry treatment,” Hall chuckles. “He walked me through the part of the building that was primarily occupied by artists and makeshift studios, and it looked pretty good to me. Then we kept walking to the end of the building where he wanted me to go. It’s hard to describe how rough Marathon was. There was no roof on half the building, the chimney had collapsed and there were pigeons everywhere.”

Still, Hall agreed to take the space and set to work with Lila to do most of the renovations himself — “It’s amazing what you can accomplish as long as you can get the permits!” The work included having to replace missing windows with authentic versions of the originals to meet zoning requirements — and then returning to the site the next morning to find them busted out overnight.

“Lila was so angry that she wanted to stay there all the next night to get them,” Hall says.

Lila was then and still is an integral part of the business. After the couple decided to name the brewery after the Yazoo River that flows through Linus’ hometown, she came up with the brewery’s Y-shaped logo depicting a sun setting on a Mississippi cotton field. The look has become an icon in the industry and Lila still does almost all of the label designs.

“She took that on herself,” Hall says. “She jumped out of bed in the middle of the night and scribbled it on a pad. She’s our creative muse. She keeps everyone grounded and asks why if someone isn’t smiling. She is also quick to remind me that this was all my idea!”

 

Branching out, staying true

The Halls spent more than a year refurbishing the Marathon space to hold a small, 10-barrel brewhouse and build out a tiny taproom. Hall says his timing was fortunate in that lots of small breweries had recently gone out of business, letting him buy good used equipment at nice discounts.

Yazoo Brewing opened its doors to the public in October of 2003 with a staff of three: Linus, a seven-and-a-half-months pregnant Lila and their first brewer, Zach Henry. The taproom actually hadn’t been a part of Hall’s original plan, who had imagined his venture being strictly a production brewery or a brewpub.

“We didn’t think we could halfway do it with a taproom,” he says. “I didn’t want to be seen as competition for who I considered our primary customers, the restaurants and bars that would be pouring our beers.”

The decision to actually serve his beers at the brewery turned out to be pivotal for the success of the young company. Crowds gathered every weekend to take short tours of the facility and taste through the Halls’ offering of beers.

“It turned into a hit. Without the extra cash flow from that, we might not have made it,” Hall says. “Instead, we were able to turn around and buy equipment out of the cash flow pretty quickly, and we discovered that the taproom was the best marketing we could do.”

Yazoo opened with four core beers to local acclaim and garnered a Gold Medal at the 2004 Great American Beer Festival for their Hefeweizen. Initially self-distributing in Davidson County, Hall established a relationship with Lipman Brothers to begin to grow his distribution and expand his packaging business after purchasing a small used bottling line in 2005.

Hall’s success with Yazoo emboldened other aspiring brewery owners to chase their dreams, including one former colleague from the Music City Brewers. Carl Meier is the co-owner of The Black Abbey Brewing Co., a popular brewery that opened in 2013. Even though Hall had a decade head start at Yazoo, Meier always knew that his was a model to replicate.

“I first met Linus at a Music City Brewers club meeting. One of the most challenging things about having a homebrew club meeting at Boscos was how loud it was in there,” Meier says. “Couple that with Linus’ soft-spoken delivery and I’m sure I didn’t hear one word he said all meeting. But I remember everyone talking about how this engineer from Bridgestone was going to open a brewery and how cool that would be.”

Once Meier finally opened his own brewery, he still depended on Hall for counsel and industry leadership. He lauds Hall for staying involved with others in the beer community.

“He’s always available for questions and always thoughtful in his responses,” he says. “He’s humble and down-to-earth, a genuine friend and a very smart business person.”

Hall has also had a tremendous influence on Bailey Spaulding of Jackalope Brewing Co., the first woman-owned brewery in Tennessee. Spaulding calls him a “pioneer, mentor and trusted friend” who helped her get Jackalope from a plan to reality.

“We asked him to have lunch at the Pie Wagon. I had always heard he was a really nice guy but didn’t know what to expect, since in other lines of business we’d be seen as his new competition,” Spaulding says. “He set us at ease, answered any questions we had and was generally encouraging to a couple of kids who clearly had no idea what we were doing.”

It didn’t take long for Yazoo to outgrow its initial home in Marathon Village. By 2010, Hall was searching for a new location for a larger brewery. He settled on a property on the back side of The Gulch that was once home to the infamous Tennessee Social Club, a gathering spot for the “swinger” set and then home to an air conditioning supplies company. Buying the building and nearly 0.9 acres at 910 Division St. and moving the business from its birthplace was a difficult call but Hall knew he needed the space to grow his business.

“I learned so much from the original Marathon brewery,” he recalls. “For example, we had set it up that when it was time to dump our used grain, it was in the farthest corner from the door, so we had to shut everything down and completely clear the floor to haul it all the way through the brewery. So we didn’t make the same mistakes when we laid out the new brewery. We made brand new mistakes.”

It was worth it, though: The extra room on Division allowed Hall to buy a new 40-barrel brewing system, making Yazoo the second-largest brewery in the state at the time. The addition of huge 200-barrel fermenting tanks expanded his potential output of the brewery to 28,000 barrels a year, the equivalent of more than a million and a half cases of hoppy, malty goodness. On the retail side, the larger taproom turned into a gathering space for local craft beer fans and tours became a significant part of Yazoo’s incremental income. Hall says his team will run 10 tours on a Saturday and a few every weeknight.

Hall also returned to a part of his original business plan for another source of revenue that helped finance his expansion. He partnered with Lipman to contract brew its Hap & Harry’s beer, an homage to the historic relationship between Harry Lipman and Hap Motlow of Jack Daniel’s distillery and the fact that Lipman was the first distributor of Jack Daniel’s after the end of Prohibition. Hap & Harry’s helped fill up the extra capacity of Yazoo’s new brewery as Hall ramped up the demand for his own brands. (Yazoo has since turned over the contract brewing to Turtle Anarchy, another local company.)

Yazoo also revitalized the historic Gerst brand, the Nashville brewery that was the largest in the Southeast for much of the first half of the 20th century. Local businessmen Jerry and Jim Chandler approached Hall to brew their version of the old recipe after facilities in Indiana and Pennsylvania were no longer able to accommodate their needs. It is still a top seller for Yazoo.

Another novel revenue source for an innovative Yazoo venture has been their “State of the Funk” citizenship club. The “funk” refers to Yazoo’s notable sour beer program, a series of products that must be fermented at a completely separate site from the main facility so that the exotic natural yeast strains do not infect the regular production process. These cult beers are released under the “Embrace the Funk” label and created by Brandon Jones, an award-winning expert in the field of sour beers.

“Brandon was still working a full-time job and brewing for us on the side. He wanted to come over with us, so we came up with the idea of selling memberships in a club for exclusive first access to our sour beers and other perks,” Hall says. “We were able to essentially prepay his salary so he could make the jump.”

Being flexible and finding these alternative revenue sources have been critical to Hall being able to grow his business without taking on outside investors.

“We were so scared of giving up control and having to appease investors,” he says. “The most expensive equity you give up is at the beginning. A lot of private equity firms have come knocking at our doors in the past three to four years, but we still own it all.”

Hall has also remained focused on serving his home markets in Tennessee instead of aspiring to grow much beyond the state. (“We’re in Mississippi so I can buy our beer in Kroger when I go home and my mom doesn’t have to bug me to bring some with me,” jokes Hall.) Other than a small presence in Charleston, South Carolina, Hall plans to concentrate on growing Yazoo’s local share.

“The window for becoming a national brand has probably closed for most craft breweries,” he says. “We were in Alabama for a while, but we decided we could spend that time doubling our Nashville market share where we were missing opportunities. If you’re not strong in your home market, you shouldn’t be shipping.”

 

The next new home

Yazoo’s steady growth early this decade again put strain on its facility, so Hall opted for another move. After helping open many locals’ eyes to the Marathon Village and Gulch neigh-borhoods and contributing mightily to their broader commercial successes, he found Yazoo’s next home in six acres along the Cumberland River in Madison. That allowed him last year to sell his property on Division to a Charlotte-based hotel developer for a reported $9.2 million.

In Madison, Yazoo’s destination brewery — expected to open some time this summer — will spread out across a campus with enough room for a separate facility for the Embrace the Funk program, outdoor recreation areas including a huge patio overlooking the 500 feet of river frontage and enough room to build a new brewery from the ground up. The site will allow for enough potential tank space to grow Yazoo’s capacity to 80,000 barrels a year — nearly triple that of The Gulch.

“This should be our home for a while,” promises Hall, who looked at Kix Brooks’ Arrington Vineyards for inspiration as an example of a place where people want to gather on weekends to enjoy a drink or two.

“I saw the site in Madison and thought, ‘Oh my God! This is it, ready to go. People will want to come to visit us!’”

Spaulding will miss her neighbors at Yazoo: “We’ve been neighbor breweries with Yazoo for almost eight years now, and I’m sure gonna miss them when they go (even though I know the new place is going to be amazing). We do a lot of the brewer equivalent of going next door for a cup of sugar – only instead it’s bags of grain and hops. Or the time we bought his chiller and he just drove it down the hill on the forklift. Though it doesn’t happen nearly enough, it’s a true joy getting to sit down and share stories over a pint.”

Some wondered why Hall would want to move his brewery out of the tourist-heavy Gulch neighborhood with its built-in traffic of tourists and pedal tavern-riding bachelorette parties looking for a place to drink some beer on a weekday afternoon or Saturday night. As with other projects in Yazoo’s past, Hall says it’s about staying true to the brewery’s roots. His focus on wholesale business means that easy access to interstates from the new facility will be even more beneficial to Yazoo.

“As an industry, if we keep trying to draw people away from their traditional ‘third spaces,’ we’ll be hurting our ultimate customers, the restaurants and bars that support us,” he says. “We’re only moving six miles north, actually closer to a lot of our base. People are excited that there will be a brewery in that area.”

Even though Yazoo’s actual payroll is relatively small as far as headcount, Hall recognizes that the company has a much wider reach. The brewery works closely with sales representatives at Lipman who touch so many of the region’s restaurants and bars. There are grocers and supermarkets selling six-packs to consumers. There are bartenders selling to their customers. As Hall puts it, “there are gatekeepers to be convinced at every single point.”

With Yazoo’s continued growth and new facility, Hall also is looking inward to figure out what his future roles should be. From the start, he needed to be involved in all parts of the business. He realizes now is a time when he needs to work on the business and train people to do many of his jobs.

“I still occasionally have to just come down from the office and look for something to weld on,” he says. “I love my job, and I have to make myself go home at 5:30 and eat dinner with the family. We have two kids that don’t seem to be interested in beer yet. Hopefully, by the time that Lila and I are ready for retirement, we’ll figure something out.”

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