From Wool To Whiskey: An Encore Career

By on November 15, 2017

Clyde May's

This doesn’t look like your typical encore career.

James Ammeen moved to Verona 52 years ago, far enough back to know that Verona’s high school mascot once was depicted with a jug of moonshine in his hand. But that’s not what qualified him to lead the national expansion of a craft whiskey that started as as a home brew. Fifty-five years of running some of the country’s most well-known companies did.

Ammeen is now the chairman of Conecuh Ridge Distillery, maker of Clyde May’s Whiskey, the official state spirit of Alabama. At an age when many people are content to take leisurely vacations, Ammeen has an encore career that has had him traveling backroads at a punishing pace, looking for just the right spot for the Clyde May’s new distillery and “experience center”, while relishing its status as the fastest growing bourbon brand in the U.S.

It is a challenge that he almost didn’t take.

For more than five decades, Ammeen’s world revolved around fabric and fashion. After graduating Columbia Business School in 1962, he joined Burlington Industries, rising through the ranks to be executive vice president. When he left Burlington in 1985 it was the world’s largest textile company. He went on to lead deals and turnarounds in the textile industry, and in 1991 formed Neema, which sold men’s suits to Nordstrom, Bloomingdale’s, Dillard’s, Brooks Brothers and Joseph A. Banks for 20 years. He also owned the iconic Halston brand for a time, before selling it to movie maker Harvey Weinstein.

In 2013, Ammeen got a phone call from an old college friend looking to tap his turnaround expertise to help a bourbon maker raise capital. (Whiskey made in the U.S. is generally called bourbon.) “He told me the name, and I said ‘I’ve never heard of it, I’m not interested,” Ammeen recalls. “I said I don’t know that industry so it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.” But several months later, Ammeen picked up his Fortune magazine to discover that Japanese liquor giant Suntory was spending $16 billion to buy the company behind Jim Beam bourbon. “It was a huge deal at a huge price,” Ammeen says. “The whole article talked about the rebirth of brown spirits. I became a little bit fascinated.” (Whiskey, bourbon, and drinks like cognac are “brown” spirits; vodka and tequila are referred to as “white”.)

So when the friend called again, Ammeen took the call and the meeting–and made an offer to buy the bourbon maker, with a group of investors drawn in part from Verona and Montclair. He was attracted by the market potential and the story behind the brand. Clyde May was a World War II veteran with a bronze star and a purple heart who had eight children to feed. When he couldn’t feed them through farming, he built a moonshine still in his basement.

Clyde May's

The real Clyde May, Army hero and moonshiner.

“Clyde May was a unique character,” says Ammeen. “He created a legitimate product illegitimately. He did it outside the law. He was a war hero.” He also was ratted out to authorities by fellow moonshiners and sentenced to 18 months in an Alabama penitentiary. “Clyde May served eight and went right back to moonshining,” Ammeen says. “People didn’t wanted him in jail, they wanted what he was doing.”

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Ammeen’s due diligence on his investment didn’t stop at old stories. During the 2014 Super Bowl, Ammeen, who is not a whiskey drinker, set up tasting events. “I had to find out whether the product was any good,” he says. “The story will get you in the door but it won’t keep you there.” The final score was Seahawks 43, Broncos 8, negative comments on Clyde May’s Whiskey: zero.

Since then, Ammeen has been working to grow the brand. Conecuh Ridge hired the former managing director of Campari America to be CEO of Clyde May’s. In September, after raising another substantial round of capital, the company announced that it would build an artisan distillery and tasting center in Troy, Ala., complete with a replica of the original still that Clyde May used in the 1940s. The company also hired May’s grandson to be a the brand’s “ambassador”. Its regional management teams have grown the brand from distribution in only five states to all 50. “The business is 10 times the size it was three years ago,” Ammeen says. “We’re doing extremely well in New Jersey.”

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The whole undertaking has drawn attention well beyond bourbon aficionados. “The dean of Columbia Business School contacted me recently, and asked whether I would consider doing some lecturing on family businesses,” Ammeen says. “Clyde May’s could be a terrific business school case study.”

James Ammeen

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