"So, does anybody want to taste some bourbon?"
The yeses were unanimous, coming from a cofounder of a software start-up, an entrepreneurship coach, and a photographer/videographer, among a dozen others gathered on a Friday night last month in Center City for a sip of unusual business leadership training.
Pouring was Michael Kutner, a 55-year-old father of three from Bensalem whose resumé overflows with experience at premium-label corporations, including General Electric and Johnson & Johnson.
Lofty landings for a kid from Easton, hometown to crayon-maker Crayola and boxer Larry Holmes.
Then again, Kutner was reading the Wall Street Journal "cover to cover" by the time he was 11, his age when his father died. Robert Kutner had inspired his son's interest in business as the owner of an accounting firm.
"I got to see him really going from just being a busy guy to really cultivating relationships and growing his business and hiring people," said Kutner, who graduated from Pennsylvania State University, with majors in finance and philosophy.
At GE, Kutner was a senior manager in operations and quality; at J&J, a director in operations and product development. They were different cultures requiring the same thing from leaders, he said: "Being clear in your direction and being able to mobilize people to execute."
Which brings us to the shots of Maker's Mark and Jim Beam served in a conference room at the MakeOffices coworking space just after 6 p.m. on Aug. 24. It was not a happy hour but a free sampling of Kutner's new career teaching business stewardship and team-building through bourbon. His one-man (for now) company, Distilled Leadership, launched in March, was inspired the same way so many come to develop an appreciation for the amber-colored whiskey made primarily from corn: a trip to Kentucky, the bourbon capital of the world.
It was 2013. Kutner was "doing very well professionally, very well personally," but "my edges were getting rounded off and I just realized that's a risk of living a comfortable life. … I decided that's not the way I wanted to be. Edginess is an attractive way to live your life."
So he drove to Kentucky.
Not only did Kutner fall in love with bourbon, he was taken by "leaders that made this industry endure" through restrictive whiskey regulations in the late 1800s, the outlawing of liquor during Prohibition in the 1920s, and, more recently, the surging popularity of wine, and craft beer, vodka, tequila, and rum.
"I think anybody who runs a business or has a business would totally be jealous of the trajectory of what has happened in the bourbon industry," Kutner told his audience, who were welcomed last month with a bourbon-based mint julep. According to a 2017 report by the Urban Studies Institute at the University of Louisville for the Kentucky Distillers' Association, there were 52 distilleries in Kentucky as of August 2016, triple the total in 2009, with an annual payroll of nearly $800 million and barrel inventory of 6.7 million, the latter a level last reached in the 1970s.
The more he learned about the inventiveness and persistence in the 1950s of Bill Samuels and his wife, Margie (the first woman to be inducted into the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame), to create a more drinkable version of bourbon, and the "independent thinker" Frederick Booker Noe III, Jim Beam's great-grandson, who drove flavor innovation in bourbons, the more Kutner believed that others in business could benefit.
To the amusement of the class, he knocked leadership training, saying it "has been around for a long time and hasn't really worked."
Group interaction and personal insights gleaned from leadership development workshops "are great," Kutner said, but data have revealed "incredibly low" incidences of people actually applying what they've learned.
"What I took away from my bourbon trip and meeting a lot of professionals in the distilling business is I realized there's got to be a better way. So the better way became Distilled Leadership," said Kutner, who passed courses this year in the theory and science of bourbon and whiskey and is now a certified bourbon steward and whiskey ambassador.
Currently offering half-day and full-day sessions — $4,995 and $6,995, respectively, for up to 12 participants each — Kutner's company has conducted eight this year for 101 participants, will match that in the next three months, and already has requests for early 2019, when Kutner hopes to add two-day workshop trips to Kentucky, he said.
Not surprised about the appeal is Ed Ruggero of Academy Leadership, a West Point graduate and career Army officer who uses the pivotal Civil War Battle of Gettysburg to teach corporate leadership.
"I think it's cool. It's fairly unique. It's interesting. It smells good," Ruggero said. "If you happen to like bourbon, even better."
But he wonders whether it has what Ruggero considers essential to really connect with an audience.
"It helps to have an emotional angle," he said. With bourbon, "I don't see how that would work."
With his Gettysburg-inspired lessons, "even if you're not a history buff, you can understand these are stories about individuals under terrific duress on a battlefield," Ruggero said.
Distilled Leadership fills a fundamental gap in current corporate training, Kutner said, by placing participants in challenging scenarios they are likely to encounter on the job, complete with time pressures and other stressors.
For example, you're out to dinner with your best sales professional, celebrating a new customer, and get a text from your vice president of sales saying a valued member of the team has just quit, citing the selfish and overbearing behavior of your dinner companion as the primary reason. It is the second sales assistant to quit in three months, killing the collaborative culture you've worked hard to foster. What do you do? A second scenario is built around implications of your decision, all of which feed workshop discussion.
The bourbon serves two purposes: to inspire through the personal stories of its entrepreneurs, and to relax participants. "It makes the learning process a little bit better," Kutner said, though emphasizing drinking is not required to appreciate the lessons the industry has to offer.
Several who attended the one-hour preview last month praised the relaxed atmosphere.
"A lot of times when I'm doing some sort of training or leadership coaching, I'm trying really hard to be perfect, which is the wrong thing," said Kenyatta James, 27, CEO of JamesGrant Design, a photography/videography company in Philadelphia.
James also said hearing about bourbon-makers' long wait — at least two years but often a lot longer — to see if the result is a sales-worthy batch was a "really valuable" perspective for someone like him, who thinks taking two to three months to close a deal is "a really long time."