This is a monthly series in which the Attorney General will feature a Vermonter doing exemplary work in their community. Have someone you think should be featured? Email AGO.CAP@vermont.gov.
Through the “power of great beer” Matt Kehaya and Steve Gagner, our December Vermonters of the Month, are proving that “a company can create positive outcomes in our community and show other businesses that there is a tangible benefit to serving others before serving the bottom line.” When Matt and Steve founded their company 14th Star Brewing Co. in 2011, they knew that they wanted their beer to be “brewed with a mission” which is why these Vermont-natives and Army veterans founded the business on the principles of “improving our communities and inspiring others to put their neighbors first.”
The business plan for 14th Star was drawn up on the back of a notebook while Matt and Steve were deployed together in Afghanistan. When they returned home, they decided to take the leap from homebrewers to entrepreneurs with the mission of continuing to serve others. Since opening 14th Star in 2011, the St. Albans-based business has grown to 24 employees and distributes their beer in 5 states. In keeping with their mission, the business gives back to organizations like Purple Hearts Reunited, the Josh Pallotta Fund, Make-A-Wish Vermont, Vermont Adaptive Ski and Sports, and Martha’s Kitchen, while also hosting community events at their Taproom.
With 20(+) years of service, Matt (20 years) and Steve (23 years), attribute much of their success as business owners to skills they learned from the Army. Leadership, strategic planning, safety, mentorship and teamwork are all skills that they have applied directly to entrepreneurship. Now, Matt and Steve (along with partner Zac Fike) have made it their mission to share this knowledge with other veterans. Their latest venture, Danger Close, is a whiskey-distillery that teaches other veterans to draw on skills they learned through service to start their own businesses.
We visited Matt and Steve at 14th Star’s Brewery and Taproom in St. Albans to learn more about the inspiring work they’re doing.
Tell us a little about yourselves (What are your official titles? What have been your career paths? How did you get to where you are?)
(Matt): I’m from Burlington, Vermont and currently live in Swanton. I am married with two wonderful boys. I am a platoon sergeant in the Vermont Army National Guard’s Mountain Infantry Battalion and have served in the Army for 20 years. I have two deployments (Iraq and Afghanistan – both with Steve) and we founded 14th Star Brewing together in 2011. Steve and I met in late 2000 and we knew early on that we wanted to continue to find ways to work together. After our 2010 deployment to Afghanistan, Steve and I decided to put the brewery business plan we wrote overseas into action. We never envisioned the brewery to grow as big and as fast as we did, but we find that our military experiences have helped us grow the business.
(Steve): I am originally from Highgate, Vermont and live in St. Albans with my wife and two children. I am the executive officer for the Army’s Mountain Warfare School in Jericho, Vermont. I have served in the Army for almost 23 years. I think our time in the Army, and the Vermont Army National Guard in particular, has helped us as entrepreneurs. As full-time guardsmen, we assist the traditional guard leaders who work the “one weekend a month, two weeks a year” schedule in completing their goals and training objectives. Since we aren’t at the brewery full time, we use the very same tactics in leading the organization: We have a talented team of full-time staff and leaders at the brewery and simply provide them guidance and direction and let their natural talents shine.
What inspires your work with the Army, 14th Star Brewing, and in the community?
The desire to serve others and our community not only led us to joining the military, but to continue that service through our business. We believe that leaders should show others what right looks like and inspire them to “Follow Me.” We look for those very same characteristics in our employees and partners because we know that our efforts as a company can create positive outcomes in our community and show other businesses that there is a tangible benefit to serving others before serving the bottom line.
What sets 14th Star Brewing apart from other brewers? What’s its mission?
Well, we can start with amazing beer! But seriously, there is some fantastic beer being made throughout Vermont. We think the thing that sets us apart is that we have a reason for doing what we do—beer happens to be the product we create. This translates directly to our motto of “Brewed with a Mission.” This means that we work to improve the lives of our nation’s veterans and our local communities through the power of great beer.
You give to so many organizations, is there a cause or organization that you are most proud to support?
We are proud of all of our efforts in working with organizations dedicated to doing good and helping others. From the very beginning, we have been a supporter of Purple Hearts Reunited and their mission of return lost or stolen purple hearts and medals of valor to veterans and their families. We also have a very deep connection with the Josh Pallotta Fund, founded by Valeria Pallotta, the mother of a Soldier who deployed to Afghanistan in our Brigade and who took his own life after struggling with PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury. Outside of the veteran organizations, however, we are pursuing projects like Vermont’s first “The House That Beer Built.” Working with the Green Mountain Habitat for Humanity and gathering support from other Vermont Craft Brewers, we’re working to fund the building of a home for families in need – simply through the power of great beer. Helping these organizations certainly keeps us busy, but it is the kind of work that the brewery was founded on: Improving our communities and inspiring others to put their neighbors first.
What advice do you have for other businesses looking to impact their community?
It’s not as daunting as you think it is. The return on investment in terms of goodwill and community engagement you’ll receive from your efforts, no matter how big or small, is infectious and you’ll find that it eventually makes its way into your financials. The important part is not the size of your efforts or contributions, but the fact that you’re engaged. “Many hands make light work” and if every business were involved in the improvement of the community as a responsible corporate citizen, our little corner of the world would be a far better place!