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Colorful Businesses, Colorful CEOs

Meet a few of Alabama’s most colorful chief executives, passionate people who work hard doing what they love best.

A day at the office is just a day at the beach for John McInnis III, shown here at the iconic Flora-Bama where he’s CEO.

A day at the office is just a day at the beach for John McInnis III, shown here at the iconic Flora-Bama where he’s CEO.

Photo by Matthew Coughlin

Life's a Beach

For John McInnis III, the best part of going to work is, well, going to work. He’s the chief executive officer of the Flora-Bama Lounge & Package, the raucous, rollicking roadhouse that straddles the Alabama/Florida line and has become famous over its 40-odd years of existence for Bushwhackers, bikini contests and the annual Mullet Festival, of which the highlight is a contest to see how far a dead mullet can be flung on the beach. “How do you not love working at the Flora-Bama?” he asks.

Nice work if you can get it.

McInnis bought into the Flora-Bama as the majority owner three years ago, when he was looking for a way to get more involved in his community of Orange Beach. It was a win-win situation for Flora-Bama founder Joe Gilchrist, who was experiencing some personal financial difficulties, and his co-owner, Pat McClellan. A longtime friend of Gilchrist’s, McInnis was ready to stay home after three three years of Hurricane Katrina cleanup in Louisiana.

During the years that the Flora-Bama was becoming legend, McInnis’s family was making a name for itself in the construction business his grandfather founded. The McInnis Co. builds roads and bridges and does marine construction and other infrastructure projects. Two of its best-known jobs include the Foley Beach Express and the Mobile Bay Ferry.

“Joe and I share the common belief that if you put a dollar into the community, you get 10 dollars back,” McInnis says. “I was humbled and shocked when they asked me to help carry the Flora-Bama into the future.”

Since he joined the business as CEO, the main bar has been rebuilt the way it was before Hurricane Ivan, only now on stilts and a little wider with additional restrooms. “2012 has been the busiest year the Flora-Bama ever had,” McInnis boasts.

Not just an investor, McInnis works every day and many nights, overseeing the operations that include some 200 employees. “I get to run a beach bar. It’s the most fun thing I’ve ever done,” he says. “I meet great people every day from all over the world. I love country music, which we play 365 days a year. It’s kind of hard to beat cheeseburgers, cold beer and raw oysters at the beach.”

McInnis sees himself as a laid-back boss whose secret to success is being surrounded by good people. “I know I don’t have all the answers, and I’m not always right. I rely on input from several people before I make any decision,” he says. In addition to Gilchrist, president, and McClellan, marketing director, another partner is Cameron Price, chief operating officer.

On a personal level, McInnis is inspired by his father and grandfather, who instilled honesty, integrity and faith in God in him. “I can see right and wrong very clearly,” he says.

At just 34 years old, McInnis says he’s already led “an amazing life” that has included skydiving, scuba diving and Baja 1000 racing. “In the words of Joe Gilchrist, life is meant to be enjoyed. I love people, and I want to enjoy life because life is too short.”

Keeping it Real

Through her Freshfully website, Jen Barnett has taken the simple concept of local food—buying produce, meats and cheeses from the nearest source possible—and marketed it in a high-tech way. “It’s crazy,” she laughs. “Half my job is playing Farmville, and the other is working with actual farms.”

Freshfully, which she started last year in her native Birmingham with her business partner, Sam Brasseale, was at first a website devoted to showing consumers where the farmers were. “Both of us were interested in local food, but we couldn’t find it. We thought, ‘We live in Alabama! We see cows!’” Barnett and Brasseale won a competition that gave them some startup cash, office space and web programming time.

But soon, people started asking Freshfully to distribute goods. “We needed a physical space,” Barnett explains—so the savvy pair entered another contest and won retail space, which they opened May 1 in the up-and-coming Avondale area.

Today, the “small and rustic” Freshfully market is open seven days a week, offering fresh, local produce, meats, eggs, cheeses and pantry items. Among Barnett’s personal favorites are Primeburger, made from grass-fed Angus cows raised in Ransburne (the whole cow is ground, which makes the meat “so good,” she says) and bags of lady peas that are already shelled.

During the first week of September, the website moved into 10 other Southeastern cities including Atlanta, Savannah, Macon, Charleston, Memphis, Chattanooga, Knoxville, Nashville, Pensacola and Jackson, in response to the numbers of people who were interested in finding local produce.

“We’re super-excited,” Barnett said the week before the launch. On the website, consumers can buy “fruit and veggie boxes” or meat shares. “We find local food lovers and get them to the site so they have a one-stop shopping experience,” she explains. Barnett and Brasseale, the company’s chief technology officer, list the items on the Freshfully website, take 14 percent of the retail price, and process the orders.

After graduating from Auburn, Barnett spent years working in advertising agencies and interactive firms. She describes her family as “merchant people,” many of who own small businesses. While she always knew she had great ideas, she needed to know more about the financial and operational sides of running a business, she says—so she earned an MBA from Emory University in Atlanta.

While studying economics, Barnett, who says she has struggled with weight issues all her life, developed a theory that where people couldn’t get fresh foods, they substituted cheaper junk foods and gained weight. Though she realizes many factors affect the economics of obesity, she became interested in local food—and the seed for Freshfully was planted.

Working so closely with local farmers has given Barnett great insight into the amount of work it takes to bring food from the farm to the table. It’s made her much pickier, she says, about what she eats. “I try not to be too snobby, but it’s an occupational hazard,” she says.

In addition to eating well, another perk of her job is getting to know the farmers who grow our food. “They work so hard, it makes me want to work harder. We want to make these foods accessible, not just to foodies.”

Freshfully’s slogan is “happy people selling local food.” “And that’s pretty apt,” Barnett says of the business’s two full-time employees, herself and Brasseale. “We’re happy, goofy people helping people push a button and get vegetables.”

A Back Forty brew on the porch of the Back Forty brewery hits the spot for CEO Jason Wilson.

Photo by Eric Wright

Good Cheer

Jason Wilson isn’t afraid to fail—and he doesn’t want his employees to fear failure, either. “I always say, ‘Fail fast, fail cheap,’” says the president and founder of Back Forty Beer Co. in Gadsden. “Failure is absolutely necessary on the path to success. We embrace failures. People here aren’t afraid to fail.”

Wilson’s philosophy has served him well. Less than nine months after the first bottles rolled off the assembly line at Back Forty’s plant, the microbrewery tripled its production capacity in the months of July and August.

Wilson first had the idea to start a microbrewery in 2001, when he was a student at Auburn and his brother Brad was living in the ski-resort town of Crested Butte, Colo., where microbreweries were flourishing. Wilson remembers saying, “This is awesome!” as he drank a beer at one brewpub, only to be shocked when an employee stuck his head out from behind a tank and said, “Thank you!” He was immediately impressed by the sense of community.

Wilson’s interest “turned into a passion,” he says, as he started visiting local brewpubs and microbreweries on his travels. He stopped counting at 150, and still goes to “dozens” each year. “It’s a very close-knit industry,” he says. “It’s almost expected that you’ll stop by and introduce yourself.”

Wilson always planned to open a business, but earned a logistics and supply chain degree and went to work for Georgia-Pacific. While living in Montgomery, he got to know brewmaster Jamie Ray “the old-fashioned way, sitting on a barstool,” at Montgomery Brewpub. He moved to Atlanta and, while still working for corporate America, he started perfecting his business plan, which included hiring Ray out of semi-retirement.

Naked Pig is a headliner for Back Forty Beer Co., which also produces Truck Stop honey brown ale, Freckle Belly India pale ale, Kudzu porter, and a private-label beer, Michael’s Genuine Homebrew, for Miami chef Michael Schwartz. 

Photo by Eric Wright

Back Forty Beer got its start being brewed after hours at Lazy Magnolia Brewing Co. in Kiln, Miss. For the first year-and-a-half, Wilson lived and worked in Atlanta as his beer was produced in Mississippi and shipped back to wholesalers in Alabama. Finally, he acquired an SBA loan in December of 2010 and spent all of 2011 renovating a 26,000-square-foot historic building in Gadsden to house the brewery. The first batch was brewed in Gadsden on January 1 of this year.

After starting with just seven, Wilson recently hired Back Forty’s 22nd employee, all working to keep Back Forty’s rank as the number-one-selling craft beer among Budweiser wholesalers in Alabama, Mississippi and Florida. And one more sign of success—Back Forty is on tap to brew for three Alabama startups.

“It makes 13- to 15-hour days not so bad when you’re doing what you love,” he says. The best part of his job is seeing what he calls the “grain-to-glass cycle” — “To start with pieces and see the finished product roll out the door every day is pretty rewarding.”

Michelle Matthews is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Mobile.

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