Curt Richardson talks business and booze: How to build a powerhouse brand and how he prefers his bourbon.
Curt Richardson is a beast in business. He has grown his start-up company, Otterbox, into a billion-dollar brand that has become a household name—Otterbox is the leading product to protect precious tech with durable smartphone cases. Richardson has also struck big with the acquisition of Lifeproof, another recognizable consumer electronics company, and has designed a handful of impressively resilient products including stainless steel tumblers, hard coolers and dry bags, all under the Otterbox name.
A creator is not limited only to the design or invention of a product. A creator also designs businesses and systems so those products can come to life outside of the incubator. And Richardson credits his success in business to putting the right people in the right places behind effective systems. After all, the people drive the company, especially when working in an established culture that supports those individuals to rise to their very best.
“It is about developing leadership and letting people be who they are. That is what I thrive on.” His bottom line is that culture needs to be created by the leader of a brand, and once that becomes defined, it must be equally defended. Richardson has made it his impassioned priority to leave the executives and CEO’s in charge of his business’s daily operations with the power and confidence to run the show independently.
Tried and true values that Curt Richardson builds every business on:
“It comes down to really building systems and processes that are repeatable. It is just as creative to build a well-run business as it is to develop an interesting product or spirit,” Richardson tells us. He encourages business owners to give the customer an improved experience each time a new product or service is sold, an approach he is taking with his distillery, Old Elk, located near the Rocky Mountains in Fort Collins, Colorado where he has called home since the 1970’s.
“I love the process of making spirits. Some of it has to do with machinery, as I am a tool and die maker, as well as an injection mold maker. So, the minute I walked into a distillery, I knew I wanted to get involved in the manufacturing process.” His background at Otterbox and Lifeproof have been a testament to his attention to precision in design and production quality. “It isn’t just about making something, it is about making something of quality, that tastes good, and that is what we have built Old Elk on,” Richardson says.
Old Elk’s Master Distiller, Greg Metze (formerly employed at Seagram’s Distillery for 38 years and a well-known bourbon connoisseur in the community) brought his experience to Old Elk with distinguished vigor. Alongside their Head Distiller, Kate Douglas, whose passion for whiskey led her to Old Elk after graduating from Colorado State University, they have developed a trademarked Slow Cut proofing process. This allows the bourbon to develop over a longer period than most. Pair that with four times the usual amount of malted barley, and you get a smooth and well-blended spirit that aficionados will take acute notice of.
Their leading lady, a blended straight bourbon whiskey, is a smooth talker who leaves a maple and chocolate flavor on the palate. After winning Gold at the 2018 San Francisco World Spirits Competition, the bourbon has secured a spot on liquor store shelves and in bars across the United States. Richardson aims to have Old Elk in all 50 states in the next 12 months and will debut an Old Elk wheated whiskey. There is much more to come from Old Elk since they began operations in 2013, including continued expansion of their libations and a new distillery on the horizon that will be based in Fort Collins’ iconic Old Town.
Ever since inception, Richardson and his team have been swept away by the generosity and support from the spirits community. The industry is a far cry from the competitive and often cut-throat world of electronics where technology moves at frenetic speeds, Richardson admits. Perhaps it is the years-long distillation process it takes to develop a full-bodied bourbon that encourages patience and repose amongst fellow distillers and their brands. Douglas and Richardson both commented on the kindness shown from local brands who have opened their doors—and their barrels—for collaborations and feedback. It seems to have given Richardson a positive affirmation about his choice to pour himself into the spirits space.
It seems to have given Richardson a positive affirmation about his choice to pour himself into the spirits space.
Photo by Allie Hooson
Otterbox and Old Elk were both created as singular brands that would stand independently from another (most consumers are not aware they are founded by the same man), and Richardson prefers it that way. His philosophy was to design a house of brands versus a branded house, which allows each spirit to stand on its own with its own name and branding. With the innovation and strategic input from Old Elk’s CEO, Luis Gonzalez (formerly at Otterbox for seven years in the sales and marketing department), the brand is burgeoning its way to notoriety without falling on the laurels of the founder’s past successes.
In addition to the bourbon, the distillery has joined the gin craze and developed an herbaceous and approachable spirit of their own named Dry Town, named after the 73-year-long prohibition era in Fort Collins. With 10 botanicals including juniper and Colorado-grown sage, Richardson, not a usual gin-drinker, has been pleasantly surprised by their rendition of the centuries-old Dutch drink. The company’s seductive bourbon cream, Nooku is a dessert beverage that has hit big at festivals and spirits events. The peppermint Nooku is an especially decadent drink with a creamy kick, and something we may be serving at every holiday party in our future.
If you find yourself in the sunshine-speckled landscape of northern Colorado, we recommend stopping by The Reserve, Old Elk’s newly debuted tasting room with a nod to contemporary drinking culture. Located in Fort Collins’ bustling downtown where fashion and coffee shops convene along the main drag, it is a welcoming space of exposed wood and hints of rustic charm where tasty bites and burgers are served. A place that brings friends together over flights of whiskey, where both business banter and humor are welcome, and you can quiz the bartender on all thing’s mixology. With a sophisticated and equally playful cocktail menu, you can experience the best of Old Elk, in real life.