Photo by Megan Leigh Barnard

The Interview: Greg Lehman

We all know the story. Watershed Distillery was born in 2010 when two friends decided to pursue a common dream of ditching the cozy corporate gig, and striking out on their own.  The craft distilling industry was pretty new, so Greg Lehman and Dave Rigo were afforded a bit of a learning curve. Of course, it doesn’t seem they needed it. Now, less than seven years later, Watershed has grown exponentially. In addition to cranking out oceans more gin and vodka, they have expanded their product portfolio. With 2016 coming to an end, Watershed has commandeered even more space on Chesapeake Avenue to make room for a bar, a kitchen, and an event space. It’s an ambitious undertaking, in an unconventional location,  but Greg believes that smart phone technology can lead people to your door even if you’re off the beaten track. Plus, this is Grandview, not Timbuktu.

Greg, it turns out, is an interesting fellow—he’s a serial risk taker. From hopping the pond to play professional volleyball in Europe, to plunging into the swine industry with little more than a pep talk from a friend, and, of course, scrapping a promising career path as a father of two young children to hawk hooch. It is obvious that beneath a laid-back exterior, this guy is driven, so we decided to sit down with Greg and see if we could figure out what makes him go.

So, before you started Watershed you were in a completely unrelated field: the swine industry, right?

Yeah, I started off with a small company, Prima Tech, and helped them develop their international markets.

Did you have any experience with the swine industry growing up?

No. It’s all about who you know, right? Ohio State has a really good volleyball program, and I played. When I finished [college], I was offered a contract to play professionally in Europe. While I was in Switzerland, I was visited by a family friend who had been in the pig industry for a long time, so he told me about an opportunity with a small company that needed help in Europe. He knew I was retiring from volleyball—I mean, it was fun, but after two years it was time; I had to get a real job and grow up. So I set up an interview. It really helped that I could speak German really well, and Spanish pretty well.  Plus, I knew my way around Europe.

So, I spent three years running around the world, visiting farms, building the business, and learning more about the industry.  We were selling delivery systems, so I worked not only with farmers, but also pharmaceutical companies, and eventually one called me and said they wanted me to set pig farms in Ohio, which was great because I was ready to move back to Ohio.

Volleyball? It seems like you should be taller.

[laughs] Yeah, I was the shortest player on the team, both here and in Switzerland.

Did you speak German before you went to Europe?

No. Literally, before we went, I had a CD I listened to in the car because I knew nothing. I studied Spanish for four years in high school, and two years at Ohio State, and then picked a German speaking country to go live in. I immediately signed up for a German class when I got off the plane.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Central Ohio—Big Walnut High School. I’m from Galena, and I moved all the way to Ohio State for college. It’s funny, I joke about going all the way to Ohio State. I was 30 minutes from home, but I didn’t go home at all. Except in the summer, because I didn’t have a place to stay, but it was like a different world.

How long were you in Europe? What was that like?

Two years. I had a two year contract with a team in Zurich. My contract got bought out, or I guess I was traded to a team in the mountains in my second year.  My wife and I got married in between my first and second year, so she came out.

Where we lived that second year was ridiculous; it was the third floor above a bakery. The Swiss Alps were out our back window, we had bakery smells every morning because they’d be up and cooking.  The president of the volleyball fan club owned a bar across the street, so I was always getting free beer. It was great. People ask me why we left, but we just got kind of bored. My wife couldn’t get a work visa, and it’s not like volleyball was paying that much. We had enough to get by, but that was it.

Recently, you did another interview where you mentioned you were hoping that by 2020 you could step away from the operations, and pursue some other interests. How’s that coming together?

[Greg has been interrupted four times with various business issues at this point.]

We still talk about that [laughs]. We’ve got a great team…

[We’re interrupted again, and Greg explains, while signing invoices, that they’re training people to watch over different aspects of the business to free him and his partner up to develop new markets for the business.]

That’s the dream, isn’t it? Own a business and not have to do anything? Most of the time, I think, when you ask small business owners about the idea of setting your own hours it seems like a great idea, but ultimately what happens is you work all the time.  That’s what we do.

It’s hard for small business owners to trust other people with their babies.

That’s what we’re trying to do. We feel like we can do that with the team that we have, but it doesn’t mean it’s easy. We’ve really grown since we started. Now I scratch my head at the end of the day and say, “I wasn’t that productive; I was in meetings all day” but the team was productive. I have to look at it differently.

I think that’s why we always talk about it—that’s our active goal. If we keep talking about what we want to do, it reminds us to make those changes.

You talked about having the freedom to pursue other opportunities. Didn’t you get involved in a pork operation?

Yeah. I met these guys while I was in the industry and they’re great. They came to me with this idea that we’re going to grow pork that tastes amazing. Right now, with commercial pork—nothing wrong with pork, bacon’s great—but it’s not grown to taste the best it can. So, they came to me and said, if we grew amazing pork, would chefs want it?  It costs more, it’s a bit slower to grow, but would they want it? And I was like, I think so. I’d take some.

I told them I was way too busy with Watershed; I wanted to keep talking to them, but they kept telling me I need to be a part of it. So I finally said, I’d be a part of it, but I’m not going to do anything. I’ll just be a part of it. Well, fast forward to today and I’m just as active as those guys.

Saddleberk is the company. Kroger sells it in their Marketplace stores. We had to educate them on how it works. They’re used to calling up and placing an order, then calling back in five minutes and doubling it. They placed an order through us and said they wanted 20 pigs a week. So we ordered the sows and they had the piglets, and we invited Kroger out to see. We showed them the piglets and told them that this was their first order and it was four months away. So we go inside and they say that want to double the order. We had to explain to them that this was it. You saw what we have. There aren’t any more pigs. That’s when it clicked for them. They’re so used to dealing with these big producers; it took a second to realize that this is a small company.

Anyway, I spend about 60 hours a week at Watershed, and then some of my nights and weekends with Saddleberk.

So what’s on the horizon with Watershed; how do you continue to grow?

Now that we can serve liquor on site, we can create an experience for people. Before, we could only give people quarter ounce straight pour samples. We couldn’t even use ice. Now, somebody can take the tour and we can serve them a cocktail. It’s a brand experience when you walk in the door, and it gives people a reason to come back. Before, people would do the tour and they wouldn’t come back because it wasn’t a great experience—the restaurant fits into that. They can take the tour, sit down, enjoy a drink, and have a great bite to eat.

Is there a friendly competition with Middle West?

We don’t come in and ask ourselves what they’re up to, but I think you have to pay attention to what other craft distillers are doing. Not just here, but nationwide. When we started, there were 100 craft distilleries in the U.S.—now, it’s over a thousand. If you don’t do that, and you’re just a gin, or just a vodka, it’s hard to stay relevant. What we see in the industry is: we have a liquor license, let’s have fun with it. That’s what we’re doing.

So is this the family business then?

Dave (co-founder) took this great picture of our kids. We each have two, ranging from 4 to 10—it’s hanging over in our event area. He likes to call it the future of Watershed. I’m not so sure about that. We’ll have to see.