During his senior year of college, Sean Sullivan was faced with a choice between two paths. Approaching a job fair at Bowdoin, there were two signs in front of him. One read “J.P. Morgan,” and the other read “L.L. Bean.” At that moment, he made a choice based on his desire for a quality work/life balance and went through the door to the L.L. Bean meeting. Now, he’s Executive Director of the Maine Brewers Guild and says he’ll never leave Maine.
L.L. Bean hired Sullivan to work as a product assistant for the design development team, which may seem unorthodox given his degree in Art History. However, Sullivan had experience in product design and development from a groundbreaking thesis he wrote during a semester abroad. That thesis on using sustainable materials for the production of surfboards garnered attention from some of the most prominent names in the surfing industry. Sullivan was even invited to speak on the topic at a major conference in Australia.
This experience as a college student prepared him for the research and analysis necessary for the job at L.L. Bean. Early in his career, Sullivan showed the creativity and motivation that would serve him well as he moved into the entrepreneurial world.
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We got a chance to interview Sean while he was touring Mast Landing Brewing Company with President Ian Dorsey.
While Sullivan enjoyed L.L. Bean, he knew that he wanted to pursue a career that was more entrepreneurial. He took an opportunity to join a technology startup that used geofencing to help local businesses with their marketing efforts. While the startup ultimately failed, Sullivan learned from the experience, and it set him on a path to work with future startups including Buoy Local.
Buoy Local partners with local businesses to offer universal gift cards. It was launched with a mission to support Maine’s small businesses. He and his business partner, Kai Smith, were able to grow Buoy Local through old-fashioned networking, pounding the pavement, knocking on doors, and having face-to-face conversations with local business owners.
Buoy Local grew to the point where the two couldn’t take it any further, so they decided to look for a buyer. Their priority was to find someone who would keep it a locally-focused program. Bangor Savings Bank fit that bill and Buoy Local is now in their hands. The brand continues to grow and is currently expanding to serve Bangor-area businesses.
Sullivan’s commitment to local businesses stems from his appreciation of Maine’s sense of community. “Maine’s lack of pretension is unique…there is an enormous amount of available resources to help folks who want to do cool things that help other people,” he observes.
Sullivan has also found that it’s not hard to get people to talk to you if you have an idea. “I’ve always been entrepreneurial, and I’ve found that if you have an idea and reach out to someone no matter how senior, they will pick up the phone, grab a cup of coffee with you, and have a conversation. That just doesn’t exist in places like DC, New York City, and Boston.”
During his time at Buoy Local, Sullivan was also working part-time at Maine Brewer’s Guild. Eventually, the position of Executive Director opened up, and Sullivan knew he was the right person for the job even after he was laughed at for showing up in a suit and tie. He boldly said outright that he was the best person for the job at his interview, inviting the panel to let him explain any concerns they might have. The tactic worked, and Sullivan is now thriving in the role.
He has his sights set high for the Guild and for brewing in Maine overall.
“I have two goals for Maine’s brewing industry: First, we’re going to make Maine the number one destination in the country for craft beer. And I mean number one – not California, not Colorado – Maine should stand alone…Second, we are going to make craft beer a model for Maine’s next economy,” says Sullivan.
How does he foresee achieving those goals? First, he believes the industry can build on Maine’s already existing tourism strengths. And second, he believes craft beer can help build local economies by creating an ecosystem of support. Breweries should be able to source locally like buying their glassware and accessing the best lawyers available in Maine. And breweries should be places for community gathering. All of this combined will not only help Maine’s beer industry grow but the entire economy of local businesses. “Doing so is crucial for the state’s future,” he asserts.
“People don’t come to Maine to shop at Wal-Mart and eat at Chili’s. They come to Maine to sit on a dock and eat a lobster roll and drink a local beer. They come to Maine to go to a local coffee roaster and talk to a barista. It’s critical we prioritize our economic development efforts towards those that reinforce the uniqueness of Maine.”
While he is looking towards the future in his current role, Sullivan has already made his mark in the brewing industry. Under his leadership, the Maine Brewers Guild oversaw the implementation of a quality control lab at the University of Southern Maine that brewers can use to ensure they are brewing the highest quality beer. The Brewers Guild also hosts conferences that allow Maine brewers to share their expertise and learn from brewers outside the state.
While Sullivan is clearly talented, driven, and smart, he admits he could not have accomplished all that he has without support. First and foremost, he credits his wife Amy for supporting him throughout his ventures. As far as the world of brewing goes, he credits Heather Sanborn of Rising Tide Brewing for providing him with guidance and straightforward advice.
Sullivan’s commitment to the state of Maine lead him to grow and sell a successful business, Buoy Local that supported other Maine businesses. His commitment to Maine also drives him to be an effective and enthusiastic leader for the Maine Brewers’ Guild. While doing all of that, he has organized and run Portland’s successful GreenDrinks networking event. Sullivan remains motivated to support and encourage growth in Maine’s small business community and shows no signs of stopping any time soon. That’s why Sean Sullivan is an Emerging Icon.