First and First: Nantucket Nectars Co-Founder Joins First Beverage Group

Despite the common names, there hasn’t been any relationship between the employer and its newest employee until now; but in a move that adds a seasoned beverage company CEO to a growing beverage consulting and financing group, owater CEO Tom First has joined First Beverage Group as a co-managing director.

First, who is best known for starting – and eventually selling — new age beverage company Nantucket Nectars with friend Tom Scott after the pair graduated from Brown University, last year completed a deal to partner his latest beverage venture, owater, with Polar Beverages.  First, who currently sits on the boards of beverage companies Sweet Leaf Tea and Code Blue, will work with the Los Angeles-based First Beverage Group from an office in his hometown of Concord, Mass. – right underneath the former owater offices.

“I’m excited to do something different,” First said. “Throughout all of my years at owater, I’ve been involved in so many food and beverage businesses, locally here and nationally, and what I most enjoy is the challenge of building the brands so much from the ground up. It’s the most intoxicating part of the whole business, seeing something come to life and go into the market.”

Longtime First associate Chris Kinch, the VP of Sales at owater, will become the president of owater. First will remain as the brand’s Chairman of the Board and be involved in major decisions, he said. Since acquiring an undisclosed stake in owater, Polar, already the brand’s largest distributor, has taken over much of the production for the company while allowing the owater team to focus on sales and marketing. First started owater in 2004, weathering a weak economy and a functional water category that was left in disarray following the sale of glaceau, to find stability with the bottler last year. It’s an experience First said will help him in his new role.

“It’s been a ride, an up-and-down ride through a lot of different things in the industy,” First said of his experience as a CEO. “Whether you have a huge success, as we did with Nantucket Nectars… or a very moderate success during a difficult course of events, as we have had with owater, you learn an immense amount. Sometimes the more difficult experience allows you to learn a lot more — when you have such a successful exit, it sometimes hides a lot of the mistakes or challenges of a business.”

Many of the challenges that early entrepreneurial brands face — access to distribution and production facilities, funding and finding good advice — are the kinds of issues that First Beverage Group will seek to solve via infusions of cash or consulting services. Founded by beverage investor and former distributor Bill Anderson, First Beverage was originally focused on real estate transactions. But the company has been much more active on the brand side of the business for the past two years, adding former Jones Soda CEO Joth Ricci and, more recently, talent like First and former Starbucks executive Josh Groff and investing in companies like Activate Drinks and Thomas Kemper Soda.

“Tom First is the consummate beverage entrepreneur who knows how to grow great brands from the ground up,” said Anderson, First Beverage’s Chairman & CEO, in a press release. “Tom’s passion for the industry and knowledge of authentic brand development and distribution strategy will provide an unparalleled pipeline of ideas and innovation to our clients. I could not be more pleased to have him as a partner.”

That pipeline is something that First pointed to as part of his mission with the new investment group, he said, adding that he already has informal and formal ties to food and beverage companies on both the local and national level. He said much of the good that his new organization can provide may come with helping entrepreneurs avoid the kinds of mistakes with their brands early on that can hamstring them as they try to grow.

“One of the things you want to do is avoid making the big mistakes early on that put you in a position of having to fix things, rather than build your brand in a certain way,” he said. “I’ve spent my whole career working with entrepreneurs and brand builders, I’ve sat on boards and invested in them, and I feel like it’s going to be exciting to do it in a formal role.”