Hickenlooper turned to beer after losing geologist job
July 5 is a day John Hickenlooper will never forget.
In 1986, it was the day the oil and gas geologist got laid off from his job, jeopardizing the only career he had known. The same day six years later, his wife, Helen Thorpe, gave birth to his son, Teddy.
“Isn’t that weird?” Hickenlooper said. “What are the chances?”
Though seeing his son born obviously was a good day for the Democrat, losing his job so many years ago eventually turned out to be a good thing, too.
If that hadn’t happened, Hickenlooper might never have started a brew-pub in Denver, parlayed that into a successful enterprise that included several restaurants, married his wife at age 49, started his first run for elective office in early 2002, and now run for Colorado governor.
The 58-year-old, who’s in his second term as Denver mayor, started life just outside Philadelphia with his mother and three siblings. His father died of intestinal cancer when he was about the same age his son is now, but not before giving him some sage advice.
“I was the skinny kid with really thick glasses, so my dad told me when I was little that if I couldn’t talk my way out of a fight, I deserved to get whipped,” Hickenlooper said. “Only fools got into fights. You should be able to negotiate your way out of anything.”
The son of an engineer and the great-grandson of a Civil War veteran who built bridges for the Union Army, Hickenlooper floundered at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., while working on an undergraduate degree in English. At the time, he thought of becoming a writer, even though he said no one liked his writing.
To make matters worse, he later was diagnosed with dyslexia, which explained why he was such a slow reader.
“If you have a form of dyslexia, you can be attention deficit at the same time, which is a cruel irony of life,” Hickenlooper said. “I was almost always behind in classes. I think I got one A minus in high school, and one A in college. I was never a very good student.”
But in his final semester, Hickenlooper took a course in land-use planning and fell in love with the topic. As a result, he stayed in school and earned a master’s degree in geology, which led him to Colorado working for Buckhorn Petroleum in 1981.
“On the first week I was here, they sent me out on a field trip to the West Slope, to Durango,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe someone was paying me money ... paying me for something I would have done for free.”
Five years later, he and 150 co-workers were laid off.
Because he couldn’t find another job as a geologist, Hickenlooper turned to another passion: making beer.
Though common now, at the time there were only about 35 brew-pubs in the country. He searched for a location in the rundown warehouse district of downtown Denver partly because the city’s zoning laws relegated breweries to such areas, but also because he could get space there for $1 a square foot.
A few years later, Denver got its own professional baseball team and built a stadium two blocks away. Suddenly, he was part owner in the largest brew-pub in the nation.
“When we opened, we were the 50th brewery in the United States,” he said. “Now there are over 1,600. The craft breweries provide only about 5 percent of the beer in the United States, but over 50 percent of all the brewery jobs. It’s a huge job generator.”
Over the next few years, he and his partners would expand that business, Wynkoop Brewery, partly by cross-promoting with other area restaurants to get people in the door.
But years of dealing with government as an entrepreneur persuaded him to go into public life himself, thinking a business attitude might help it work better. His idea was to help get people to trust government again, something he feels he was successful at as mayor.
“I believe we could have smaller government that’s more effective, that government can be a catalyst to bring people together,” Hickenlooper said. “This notion of working together and building things together is immensely powerful. That’s the appropriate role of government. Not to solve everyone’s problems, but to play a role.”