Brad Cornelius is part of something special, and he knows it.
Sun King has developed a brand and a culture that most other companies can only dream about.
KB: Brad, thanks for meeting me.
BC: My pleasure.
KB: So, tell me about growing up.
BC: I’m an only child; grew up in Lawrenceburg, IN. My Mom was a teacher and then a stay home Mom.
She also was a pretty good athlete – played college basketball at Indiana State. My Dad got a degree in
agriculture from Ohio State and was a farmer for many years. He also worked at Heinz and eventually
finished his career at Kroger.
I liked school and was a good student. I enjoyed math and history and did well in both, but I didn’t think that
either were good career options for me. I considered both business and engineering in high school…and
was accepted at Purdue for engineering and IU for business. Well, I decided on business. But, I then
wrestled with IU vs. Purdue for business, because Purdue has a pretty good business school as well. So at
the last minute, I applied to Purdue’s business school and got accepted. That’s where I ended up going.
KB: So in retrospect, did you make the right choice?
BC: Yes. It was great, and I did well. I was one of five people in the Purdue B-school that graduated with
KB: Did you always know you wanted to start in public accounting?
BC: When I started to look for jobs, I felt the best place to begin was public accounting. However, I didn’t
see it as a long-term thing. My Dad traveled with Heinz for long periods of time. I wanted to start a family
and I told myself I just didn’t want to do that.
KB: So how was pubic accounting?
BC: I ended up choosing BKD, and it was a good experience. Most of my clients were within driving
distance. At about the two-year mark, an opportunity came up at Reilly Industries (now Vertellus) working
for Steve Biette. Although I got to do a lot of different things over five years there, there wasn’t upward
mobility. Three people were above me who weren’t going anywhere. I tried to create some opportunities
for myself there… took on special projects… went for my MBA at Butler, but I was kinda stuck.
KB: Is this when Sun King entered the picture?
BC: Yes. Sun King was the right place and right time. The Vertellus guys were craft beer fans, as was I.
One day I heard them talking about Sun King. Intrigued, I sent an email to them and got a reply from the
owner, Omar Robinson. He said they didn’t need someone full time, but he was interested. He asked me,
“Would you come help us with our books?” I thought it would be a good chance to learn, assess the
business and get to know the people. Over the first few months, I began to sense that there was a lot of
opportunity for this company. Soon they came to me and wanted to bring me on full time.
KB: What do you like about your role?
BC: I have lots of flexibility. I have freedom to be creative and solve business problems. It works well with
my family life. I spend a lot of time volunteering. For example, coaching is something that I enjoy. I have a
nine, a seven and a four-year-old.
KB: So your side hustle paid off.
BC: I put myself in the right position and took a calculated risk. We are now six times as large as when I
started. First, we focused in Indianapolis; now we’re all over Indiana. We’re opening a distillery in Carmel.
A few years ago we opened a second location in Fishers. It’s been quite a ride. Working there has
influenced my outlook on life. It’s helped me get out of my shell and get involved. I’m very grateful for that.
KB: Growing 6X… what’s that ride been like?
BC: I was the 17th full-time employee. Lots of us worked cross-functionally in the beginning. We all just
did what needed to be done. Craft brewing is pretty capital intensive. Managing cash flow was a
challenge. If you grow too fast, you can take on too much debt. Then there’s seasonality – too much
capacity in the winter; can’t make enough in the summer. Do we open another tasting room? Another
location? We are constantly balancing the excitement of rapid growth with the discipline of growing in a
KB: How do you view leadership?
BC: I like to trust people and give them space to be creative. If they can’t do that, then I hired the wrong
person. You can freestyle on your own. I like to check things from the background. I tell people: “There’s
thousands of dollars hidden in the brewery. Go find them.” Walk the brewery. Talk to the sales people. Talk
to the brewers. Find out why they do things the way they do. Create a project. I want people to pursue
projects that will grow the company and grow them as professionals. We set some goals related to the
projects and then assess how it went. We’re all on the same team and we’re all trying to win.
KB: What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned?
BC: I used to take things that I had worked hard on and thought deeply about and expect others to
immediately “get it’ when I presented it them. The frustrations I experienced from that made me realize
that I had to get much better at conveying information. I may indeed have the right answer, but I didn’t get
there instantly, and others won’t either. You have to put yourself in a position to be able to take advantage of opportunities. I’m conservative by
nature; I don’t take a lot of risks. But I went to MBA school at night when I saw that my options were limited
at Vertellus. This was my way to create future opportunities for myself. Then when one arose at Sun King I
took a calculated risk. If I hadn’t volunteered to do the books, I would have never ended up at Sun King. I
might still be crunching numbers at Vertellus. My life would be drastically different, and I would be a
different person. Being part of Sun King has made me a better person and a better citizen of Indianapolis.
KB: From my perspective, the product and the company have a cult-like following.
BC: We are passionate about our people and our product. Most of our hires are fans of the product. I took
a pay cut to come here because I believed in the product they were making and I saw the potential of the
business. We have developed The Sun King way of cultivating our own talent. It’s a
build-through-the-draft kind of philosophy. Everyone who works here either starts or spends time in the
tasting room to fill openings that come up. The tasting room allows us to get to know people and assess
their personality and work ethic. And, our people know that the tasting room is not a dead-end job. It’s a
platform. As a result, we’ve been able to become a lot more selective over the years.
KB: Does anyone ever leave?
BC: We’ve cultivated people who have gone on to do cool things. That’s equally important. Our former
Head of Production wanted to own his own restaurant and he bought a place downtown. Some go on to
start or co-found their own businesses. And when they do, they carry the Sun King values with them. Even
on the way out, we stay friends and are happy for them.
KB: Ok, let’s transition to some fun stuff. What’s your favorite movie?
BC: Dumb and Dumber. Anytime it’s on I have to watch.
KB: What’s your favorite quote?
BC: The Golden Rule: Do unto others…
KB: How do you define excellence?
BC: Being able to look at yourself in the mirror and say you gave it everything. Everyone has their own
standard of excellence. Just know that you left it all on the field that day.
KB: Brad, this is awesome, thank you.
BC: This was fun.