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Ken Wyatt: Libation leader

CEO 44 North Vodka Ken Wyatt. Photo by Pete Grady.

CEO 44 North Vodka Ken Wyatt. Photo by Pete Grady.

Once you know Ken Wyatt’s life story, it’s not all that surprising to find out one of his favorite books is “Meditations” by the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius.

“He was a man who spent (years) on the frontiers of the Roman Empire and expanding the empire through warfare,” Wyatt says. “He put his thoughts into this book, about living and life and what it takes to do things. He was very much a doer.”

Ken Wyatt is also very much a doer.

It’s in his bloodlines.

“My dad is an extremely hard-working person, and I’ve spent a lot of my life just trying to emulate his work ethic,” Wyatt says. “He grew up on a farm in Virginia, and then got to college through ROTC, served in Korea, and then after Korea he just felt like he needed to work two jobs, and there were a lot of things I benefited from because of that. … And, to this day, I always kind of hold him up as an example: Am I working hard enough?”

‘A neighborhood kid’

Wyatt grew up in White Plains, N.Y., with two brothers (both of whom have retired from careers in law enforcement).

“I’d describe myself as a neighborhood kid,” Wyatt says. “You hung out with other guys in the neighborhood.”

Wyatt played sports, but didn’t aspire to be a pro athlete.

“I wanted to be an astronaut, and I was just fascinated by all the stuff in the space program,” he says. “I was big into science and continued that interest through college.”

Wyatt attended Williams College in Massachusetts, where he began to form a philosophy that shaped his career.

“Unlike a lot of my friends, who were in college and were looking into banking and insurance sales and obscure things, I was always interested in real products that came from a place,” Wyatt said. “I think that came from my parents and their farming heritage, having spent time on family farms as a kid and seeing things grown in the ground, whether it was corn or tobacco. So, I was always interested in working with real stuff, as opposed to something abstract.”

Wyatt graduated with degrees in chemistry and economics.

Becoming a businessman

True to his nature, Wyatt has always worked with real products.

“My first job in the industry was working for Pepsi,” he says. “So I started in the soda business and worked there for a number of years.”

After a few years with Pepsi he moved on to the alcoholic beverage industry, first serving as a marketing director for four years at Remy Martin, USA, then serving in the same role for a couple of years at Moet Hennessy and almost five years at Anheuser-Busch/In Bev.

“After working for a number of years at large beverage companies, I felt like I could go out and do it on my own,” Wyatt says. “Luckily, my partner (Ron Zier), who had also worked for years at some large beverage companies, felt very similarly.”

The two looked at the popular upscale vodkas on the market and thought they saw a niche. There was Grey Goose (produced in France), Stolichnaya (Russia), and Ketel One (Netherlands), but really nothing American-made that was competing with these brands.

“We set out to kind of outdo the foreign competition and demonstrate that we could make as quality of a product here in the U.S.,” Wyatt says. “Obviously, when you start looking around the country Idaho is the natural place to do that, because you have all the raw materials and ingredients: water, everything here is in abundance. You have corn, you have wheat, you have potatoes, you have huckleberries, you have cherries, you have fruit, you have grapes.”

And so, the neighborhood kid from White Plains, N.Y., had a new home: Idaho. And that is where he launched his new product, 44° North Vodka.

‘Another vodka?’

“I think the biggest issue we’ve had in establishing the company is just not having people look at us and say, ‘another vodka?’” Wyatt says. “So, the biggest challenge was differentiating the brand from all the other products out there on the marketplace and getting people to recognize what made our product special. A lot of that was our marketing approach and a lot of tenacity, which is probably how I overcome most things in life.”

Dylan Amundson can attest to that. Amundson is the brand and business development manager at Drake Cooper, the advertising agency that helps market 44° North Vodka.

“I don’t think I’ve worked with anybody in my tenure who is more passionate about his product,” Amundson says.

And that enthusiasm is contagious.

“He’s just a hard-working guy,” Amundson says, “the kind of guy you’d go to great lengths for.”

Amundson says he’s seen Wyatt promote not only his vodka, but the whole state of Idaho.

“He’s the ambassador for all things Idaho,” Amundson says. “He’s always traveling, and he takes Idaho with him wherever he goes.”

Because of all that traveling, 44° North is now distributed in 45 states. Last year, the company produced 425,000 bottles of vodka, and it has to grown at a 15 percent clip for the past several years.

The company, which was named for the best latitude to grow potatoes in the northern hemisphere, now produces five different varieties of vodka.

  • Idaho Potato Vodka
  • Mountain Huckleberry Vodka
  • Rainier Cherry Vodka
  • Sunnyslope Nectarine Vodka
  • Magic Valley Wheat Vodka

Wyatt has helped build a little empire of his own, and he’s done it on his own terms.

“You just get up every day and just go to work,” he says. “I tell people every day it’s all about the work and nothing else matters. There’s a lot of fluff, but it’s all in the work and the results.”

A new state of mind

Listening to the 53-year-old Wyatt speak, it’s readily apparent that he’s come to love his adopted state. And while he holds on to some of his East Coast roots – he’s still an avid New York Jets fan – he’s become an Idahoan through and through.

That’s a big reason he was so honored to hear that he had been named a CEO of Influence.

“Man, it’s really special, because Idaho is very special to me,” Wyatt says. “I’ve lived in other parts of the country and I’ve had other awards and honors. But this is the most significant, and I’m just glad and pleased that it’s Idaho because it’s so central to the story of our business and the investments we make here in the state and the support we’ve received in the state.

“The friendships that I’ve developed here I know will be lifelong. There’s just this love affair I have with this place, which has been tremendous to me. I’m glad to be recognized, but I’m just going to have to do more to present Idaho to the rest of the country, which we do every day. We’re very proud to do that. … It’s just a tremendous honor. It’s one of those emotional things.”

As he travels and promotes his product, he stresses to his clients that 44° North Vodka is an Idaho product. He talks about Idaho’s agricultural communities that create the ingredients in his vodka. He tells clients the boxes the vodka is shipped in are manufactured in Idaho. He talks about his relationship with Drake Cooper.

“We’re promoters of what goes on here in the state,” Wyatt says. “It’s a business, but it’s also a bit of a crusade. We’re in an industry with a lot of major competitors around the world, multibillion dollar companies, and we’ve carved out a nice little foothold. And we’re going to build on that.

“I hope we make people proud here … because we really appreciate the support that we get from the state of Idaho. It’s been an enormous honor to have that support and it’s something we take very seriously.”

Family ties

Wyatt is proud of the vodka he produces, but he’s even more proud of the two children he helped raise.

His son, James, attends Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, and his daughter, Caroline, is going to school at his alma mater, Williams College.

“In life, the thing I’m most proud of are my kids,” Wyatt says. “They’re great young adults. They think for themselves, which sometimes is difficult. They’re smart and they have great senses of humor, which I think they probably got from me, because I can be a jokester. But they’re also very nice people. So whenever I have time with them I always come away feeling very good about that.”

Looking ahead

What does the future hold for Wyatt? That remains to be seen. He has hinted about producing more brands with an Idaho theme.

“Stay tuned,” he says.

In the meantime, he’ll try to squeeze as much out of his life as he can.

“The biggest challenge in life is just having the time to do all the things you want to do, right?” Wyatt says. “To me, that’s the biggest challenge.”

So, he’ll read. He’ll ski. He might even consider teaching.

Just don’t expect Wyatt to slow down.

It’s not in his nature, after all.

“I don’t really see myself as someone who is ever going to retire.”

 

 

About Chris Langrill