A cask act: 25-year-old cooper runs family business
PARK RAPIDS, Minn. - Russ Karasch doesn’t hesitate to say he’s the “luckiest guy on Earth” to have his 25-year-old daughter as his boss.
Heidi Karasch is the owner of Black Swan Cooperage, the Karasch family barrel-making business. She’s also one of the only female coopers, or barrel makers, in the United States. She learned the craft from her father, who’s been a cooper for 21 years.
“It fell into my lap a little bit. It was something I couldn’t pass up,” Heidi says. “I’ve been around it my whole life, and I never thought that I would ever have the opportunity to do something like this. It’s been a wild ride.”
The wild ride started with Russ and Heidi crafting barrels in a Quonset. The Karasch family originally owned Greif Barrel Co. in South St. Paul, and Heidi took over the business in 2009 after she graduated college. Russ and wife MaryAnn didn’t want to be business owners again and offered to teach Heidi everything they knew if she’d own the business.
Heidi has helped her parents with barrel making since she was about 10 years old.
“She’s certainly qualified that way. Nobody’s going to pull the wool over her eyes or try to sell her something that isn’t going to work,” Russ says.
Heidi’s two younger siblings also work at the cooperage.
“Heidi is the oldest, which always made her the leader of the pack of the three kids, so maybe that was the start of it,” Russ says. “Heidi’s seen my wife and me in business since she was a baby. That’s what she grew up knowing. I think she was a leader from early on, and I’m very proud of her.”
Small barrels in which whisky is aged are Black Swan’s specialty. The American white oak barrels are toasted to give spirits ample character, Heidi says. The toasting process makes the barrels smell sweet and carmel-y.
“It’s one of my favorite things about the shop, smelling the barrels,” Heidi says.
The young business owner knows the loud, dusty shop as well as any of the other workers. She can put a barrel together in a few minutes, sliding each stave, or narrow piece of wood, along the raising ring. It takes about an hour and a half to two hours to complete one barrel, from cutting the staves to finishing it with a hole for the spirits.
The demand for the barrels has been increasing as craft distilleries and breweries become more popular, Heidi says.
There are only 23 cooperages in the U.S, and Black Swan’s staff of about 16 crafts 50 barrels a day. Cooperages that supply barrels to companies like Jack Daniels, for instance, probably make 1,000 barrels a day, Heidi says.
She says her family’s been able to stay in business because the company strives to make a quality product. Russ is more succinct, saying, “If you’re going to do something, doggone it, do it right.”
Russ’s high standards earned him a reputation in the business that’s helped Heidi transition to business owner.
Chris Anderson, president and brew master of The Fargo Brewing Company, started working with Black Swan about two years ago. He describes Heidi as a “savvy” business owner.
“She knows what she’s doing – she’s providing people with a really high-quality product in a timely manner and providing great customer service,” Anderson says. “They do what they can to make sure customers are happy. That goes a long way to building repeat business, new business.”
Although Heidi works in a male-dominated industry, she says she hasn’t come across many “bad apples” who don’t respect her.
“I’ve been very lucky since my dad’s been part of the industry for so long. I got respect right away because he’s my dad, and now I’m earning it myself,” she says. “I’ve been pretty lucky because my dad is who he is. Everybody kind of knows where my information is coming from, and they trust that.”
Russ humbly says his daughter is successful because of her leadership style.
“She, I think, does an excellent job with leading, and it’s definitely not done with arrogance. She’s earned that position even though she’s only 25 years old,” he says.
Only 12 percent of business owners are between 25 and 34 years old, and women own less than one-third of all businesses nationwide, according to the Census Bureau.
Although Heidi never thought she’d own a business, the customer relationships she’s building and retaining prompt her to say she’d like to stay in the business “for a very long time.”
When she’s not working, Heidi travels – she recently returned from Ireland and Scotland, where she tried scotch for the first time – and spends time with her family.
“You’d think working together, we’d get sick of each other, but we get along pretty decent,” Heidi says.
Russ share’s his daughter’s sentiment, saying, “Life is good, being able to work with her and our whole family here. It’s a wonderful business to be in. I don’t know what else to say after that.”
Anna G. Larson, INFORUM