What do Ayn Rand, Warren Buffett, the Titanic, rock bands, a hedge fund and Michigan craft beer have in common?
All are intertwined with the splendidly erratic career of a Grand Rapids bar owner.
At age 43, with the man presumably only midway through life's journey, more plot twists undoubtedly lie ahead -- but let us begin with the present day, then flash back through the zigs and zags from Michigan to Boston, L.A. and Chicago before returning to his hometown.
He is on the verge of announcing that his newest project, the Grand Rapids Brewing Co., will be Michigan's first all-organic brewery when it opens in August.
He and his wife are already key players in the downtown Grand Rapids bar and restaurant scene, by virtue of opening the HopCat beer bar in 2008, followed two years later by Stella's Lounge and the adjacent Viceroy speakeasy-style joint a block away.
Their Barfly Ventures holding company also bought McFadden's Irish Saloon, and he is landlord and financier to the Pyramid Scheme bar and indie rock venue nearby.
Via HopCat's Facebook page, he led a crusade that vaulted Grand Rapids to the top of a National Beer Examiner poll last week as co-winner of the 2012 BeerCity USA title, tied with Asheville, N.C.
HopCat, which brews craft beers along with selling about 40 others on tap from around the globe, will make good tonight on a promise that if Grand Rapids won the BeerCity poll, patrons could buy $1.50 pints of Michigan craft beer for one night.
All of his bar and restaurant ventures, including revival of the Grand Rapids Brewing name that dates to 1893, are in historic downtown buildings.
In search of purpose
None of this, including the return to his hometown in 2007, was ever part of a plan.
He was born in Kalamazoo and raised in Grand Rapids, where his parents divorced when he was 15. He attended college for a while, enjoyed the campus life but not the classes -- and dropped out of Michigan State University.
He taught himself to play piano well enough to get into Berklee College of Music in Boston, but didn't stick with that, either, and migrated to Los Angeles, where he played keyboards and guitar with some rock bands.
He also discovered that he was better at the business side of the band than he was as a musician.
Armed with newfound passion and focus, he re-enrolled at MSU and aced his business courses en route to a degree in accounting.
A wild ride
He landed a job with GE Capital in Chicago and then moved to Morningstar, where he authored the investment firm's newsletter and became chief equities strategist before leaving in 2005 to start his own hedge fund, Sellers Capital.
Oh, and during his Chicago stint, he earned a master's in business administration at Northwestern University.
He raised $12 million from investors and by 2008 was managing a $300-million portfolio -- but then got whacked by the big financial crisis and stock market plunge.
He and his wife had already resettled in Grand Rapids, where they found they could have a 5,000-square-foot house for the same price as an apartment one-third the size in Chicago.
Late in 2008, he decided to sell all of his funds' stocks and return the money to investors -- except one stock, Premier Exhibitions, which holds salvage rights to the Titanic.
Premier operates touring exhibitions, including "Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition," on display at the Henry Ford through Sept. 30, during the 100th anniversary year of the Titanic's sinking. Its stock has been selling between $2 and $3 a share since early April, and has a total market value of about $128 million.
How to find your niche
Although his HopCat bar and brewery is profitable now, he said it was not conceived as a vehicle to make money.
He made some decidedly un-commercial moves there.
HopCat banned smoking in the bar from its opening in 2008, two years before Michigan's smoking ban took effect. And refuses to sell national mega-brands Budweiser, Miller or Coors, even in bottles.
He said craft beer lovers are a different breed -- they like to smell the brew and swirl it, and increasingly, they come from far away to visit Founders, the biggest and best-known of Grand Rapids' craft-beer makers, and the region's growing cluster of smaller brewers and beer bars.
He said the fact that he's now making money, despite being called crazy for the no-smoking and no-Bud stances, just proves the old adage about working at something you love.
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