Sun King’s Bob Whitt
Writer / Kara Kavensky
Photographer / Brian Brosmer
A more circuitous and unpredictable path could not have been had by Sun King President Bob Whitt with regards to his career, nor a more enjoyable one.
“The job I am in and the job I just left are both dream jobs,” says Bob. “I am fortunate enough to experience two in one lifespan.”
Prior to Sun King, Bob served 11 years as the Executive Director of White River State Park, having been appointed by then-Governor Mitch Daniels and reappointed by Mike Pence. The 250-acre downtown Indianapolis park includes the Indianapolis Zoo, White River Gardens, Eiteljorg Museum, Indiana State Museum, IMAX Theater, NCAA National Headquarters, The Lawn music venue, Victory Field (home of the Indianapolis Indians), Military Park and many other green spaces.
“I was essentially the landlord, and was well prepared without knowing it in advance, as I understand event and property management,” shares Bob, who had worked for years as a commercial real estate developer and broker with Duke Realty, other firms and on his own.
Bob’s previous work experience included Senator Lugar’s presidential campaign in 1995 and1996, where he worked with his wife, Ellen, a lawyer who spent 25 years in politics and public service at the state and federal level. She is now Executive Director for The Exchange at Marian University. During the campaign, Bob planned many rallies, fundraisers and additional events in the key primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire.
He started his career in business with some of the best sales and management training available at Xerox Corporation. He earned his MBA at University of Maryland while working for Xerox in Washington, D.C. The combination of his later commercial real estate development and brokerage experience, his personal obsession with food, wine, craft beer and the “locally grown and made” movement, his significant event experience and community/political involvement made him the ideal candidate for what the Sun King team needed, regardless of his lack of actual craft brewery experience.
As part of the company’s initial push to help the community and create brand awareness, Sun King began popping up at local events in 2009. Bob noticed they seemed to be appearing all over the place. Sun King was located in downtown Indianapolis, so Bob dropped by and introduced himself. Walking into Sun King Brewery today looks dramatically different than it did at that time. The growth of Sun King has been exponential. The company exceeded its five-year production and sales goals within its first 18 months in business, creating a push for the state to raise the limit for allowable craft brewery production.
“Originally, there were only a few tanks in that section,” says Bob, waving his hand towards the corner of the building. “I would occasionally come in, hang out, drink a beer, and get to know founders and brewers Clay Robinson and Dave Colt, plus partners Andy Fagg, Steve Koers, and Clay’s father, Omar.”
As the relationship grew, Bob discovered they shared similar business philosophies regarding how a business should run responsibly, commitment to the community, and respect and treatment of employees. When Sun King first approached Bob about replacing Omar, who was retiring as president, it came as a shock.
“As Bob was considering making this major change, the thing that seemed to be holding him back was just how much he loved his work at White River State Park,” shares Ellen. “Even so, the opportunity at Sun King was the chance of a lifetime to join another team of extraordinarily talented and committed individuals and to add value to an already amazing organization with strong ties to the community. My vote was to go for it.”
Since joining the Sun King team in late April, 2016, Bob has worked every job in the brewery, starting in the tasting room. He’s traveled with the sales staff, worked the canning line, and has witnessed firsthand how all the moving parts work in sync. He described it as “Undercover Boss” without the disguise. Dave walked Bob through the brewing process by brewing a batch of Bitchin’ Camaro with him at the Sun King Tap Room & Small Batch Brewery in Fishers.
“Our downtown Indy brewery is somewhat automated, but in Fishers one measures everything. It’s very hands on,” says Bob. “I’ve also been out with the draft technicians cleaning the draft lines in restaurants, a key to quality with kegged beer, which often resides a significant distance from the taps.”
“A lot of people were curious why Sun King chose to bring on a new president with no experience in the world of brewing. But as a company that is transitioning from scrappy start-up into a mature business there is a whole different set of skills that are necessary for success,” Clay says. “Bob’s background and connections throughout the community, combined with his passion for all things local and his desire to help make Indiana a great place to live, work, and play, made him a great fit for Sun King.”
Since inception, the commitment to a quality product is evident in the thoughtful consideration of each product Sun King produces. For example, it took Dave and Clay two years of research and a significant financial investment to make Sunlight Cream Ale and Wee Mac Scottish Ale shelf stable at room temperature for grocery stores. For care in distribution, most beers would just be thrilled to have third-party sales and distribution. While Sun King does have distribution throughout the state of Indiana, they self-distribute within Marion County and regularly clean the lines from keg to tap, ensuring the highest quality beer reaches their customers.
Sun King maintains a strong presence at numerous events. In 2016 they participated onsite or donated to more than 700 events. To date, Sun King has more than 350 community partner organizations and a
full team focused exclusively upon community development.
Sun King’s goal is to become Indiana’s beer, with plans to extend outreach through festivals and events in the bordering cities of Louisville, Cincinnati and Chicago. The intention is not to sell beer out of state, but to create the demand for those residents in Kentucky, Ohio, and Illinois to cross the state line to buy Sun King.
Bob refers to Dave and Clay as the visionary driving forces behind the company, its innovative concoctions, and the expansion into spirits.
“One of the ideas presented in their original business plan was to expand into distilling,” shares Bob. “With the rapid growth, other elements took precedence so now we are able to move forward with liquor.”
The distillery will be built from the ground up in the Midtown District of Carmel with a prime location on the Monon Trail between Main Street and the Palladium. Construction is set to begin during the first quarter of 2017 with hopes of opening before the end of the year.
“I worked closely with Bob as Sun King developed its plans for building something unique along our Monon Trail,” says Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard. “I am consistently impressed with his vision and ideals for how he sees Sun King growing in the future. We’re pleased he chose Carmel for this new direction and we are happy to be sharing in his success.”
Indiana’s beer may also soon be Indiana’s spirits.
For more information, please visit sunkingbrewing.com.