George O’Connor sells beer. He also drinks it.
“I like beer,” he says. “It’s my favorite beverage besides water.”
His Little Rock-based company, O’Connor Distributing, represents the products of more than 60 brewers, some with well-known names, including Miller, Coors and Heineken, as well as lesser-known labels, like Dogfish Head, Magic Hat and Great Raft.
“Dogfish Head is probably close to ‘more obscure,’” O’Connor says. “They make great beer, but they have a small following.”
He’s also a member of the board of the Arkansas Arts Center Foundation, which has been raising money for the reconstruction of the Arts Center in Little Rock’s MacArthur Park, on track to a 2022 completion and reopening.
“It’s a wow,” O’Connor says. “It’s just going to be a wow.”
Chicago-based architecture firm Studio Gang, in designing the new museum, has planned for two entrances. The one in the north courtyard incorporates the original 1937 facade of the Museum of Fine Arts.
“They’ve taken the 1930s facade — very WPA-ish, it’s gorgeous — and where it was in the old museum, you didn’t really see it. It was there but it wasn’t,” O’Connor says. It served as a gateway between one gallery and another.
“The Studio Gang has done a great job of making that the forefront of the whole thing.”
How long has O’Connor been involved with the Arts Center? “Euphemistically, I’d tell you since Moby-Dick was a minnow.
“I went through as many times on the Arkansas Arts Center board as you can do it, and then they kick you off,” he says. He served from 1992-2000; the following year, in 2001, he joined the Foundation board, where he sits on the major gifts committee.
Dedication to the arts is a long-standing thing in his family.
“My grandmother was in the arts,” he says. “Our family helped turn the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston [into] a world-renowned organization.”
Even before he moved to Little Rock in 1991, “we supported the Arts Center. I went to Tabriz [the biennial fundraiser] when I lived in Camden. The Artmobile is a really important thing for kids in Ogemaw [in Ouachita County], in Smackover, in Possum Grape.
“Art is a man’s expression of the day, how he feels, what his moments are. You go all the way back to the drawings in the caves in France that are tens of thousands of years old; I was able to see those a couple of years ago. Some guy climbed down in a cave, it’s darker than a tomb, and drew them.
“Art can be relaxing, it can be stimulating, it can drive you to think. It can remind you of a moment. “
He insists, however, he’s not any kind of artist himself. “I couldn’t draw a stick figure if I had to.”
As a beer distributor, he can also support the arts in kind. “If you’ve been to a reception, any reception, at the Arts Center in the last 15 years, you’re drinking my beer. They just call me up and tell me how many people, and they come pick it up.”
Claiborne Deming, former president and CEO and current chairman of Murphy Oil, who also sits on the Foundation board, says he had just moved to El Dorado in 1979, about the time O’Connor moved to Camden, and a mutual friend got them together. They hit it off at once.
“He’s just an optimistic, upbeat person,” Deming says. “His motor runs really high. And he’s smart as hell. You don’t see that combination very often. I enjoy people like that.”
He, too, is looking forward to the new Arts Center.
“It’s going to be a great breakthrough,” he says. “It’ll be a whole new experience for patrons.”
O’Connor’s son Ryan, 38, represents the third generation in the family beer business.
“My father was in the business; I wasn’t in his business, but he was in mine,” O’Connor says. “So we are a third-generation beer company now.”
He sort of backed into it.
“It’s kind of crazy,” he says. “I moved to Arkansas [from Texas] to be the No. 2 guy down in the industrial park my family owns in Camden, so I spent the ’80s beating plowshares into swords.” He supervised two short-line railroads, a water and sewer company and 6 million square feet of public warehouse storage space, “housing items as diverse as nitroglycerin and baby diapers.”
He moved to Little Rock in 1991, in large part to get better remedial education for his daughter, Kelly, who has Down syndrome. “And that’s how we found Access.” The Little Rock-based nonprofit serves individuals with special needs, age 6 weeks through adulthood, via evaluation, therapy, full-time education, vocational training and activities.
Meanwhile, “I was doing some consulting work and looking for opportunities, and a friend walked in and said, ‘There’s a small beer distributorship in Newport and we can get it really cheap because it’s on the edge of bankruptcy’ — well, except it couldn’t be in bankruptcy [because of] the contract with the supplier,” O’Connor says.
His father was a partner in a Coors distributorship in Texas; he asked his father’s partner for an opinion. “He sent Tony Snow, his operations guy. Tony came up and looked around, and as we were driving back from Newport, he said, ‘George, that guy can sell beer, but he can’t count. You can count, but you don’t know how to sell beer. Get him to teach you how to sell beer, but don’t teach him how to count.’”
At the time, White River Beverage Co. distributed Miller and Coors in three northeastern Arkansas counties; it has since expanded to cover 10 counties. “We sold about 200,000 cases [a year]. Now we sell a lot more than that,” O’Connor says.
And, “slowly, by acquisitions, we acquired more territory. In ‘94, we bought Hot Springs [Three Lakes Distributing], and that was a major coup for me.” And he subsequently acquired distributorships in West Memphis and Pine Bluff.
Karie Hobby, food and beverage operations manager at Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort in Hot Springs, says she’s been working with O’Connor for eight years.
“He has just, been an incredible partner,” she says. “He has come up with so many great ideas that we’ve been able to implement.
“He’s the kind of guy who, if he’s out at a conference and sees an new idea, he thinks, ‘That would work at Oaklawn.’ He constantly thinks about partnerships and is working to improve the businesses around him. Not everybody is like that.
“He believes that if we are successful, he is successful.”
“He’s just a treat of a guy,” says Craig Purser, president and CEO of the National Beer Wholesalers Association since 2005. “He’s both a smart business person and very involved in the community. He and Lynn are lovely, wonderful people.
“Lots of businessmen are eager to tell you what’s going on in their world; he wants to know what’s going on in your world. That’s a breath of fresh air.”
O’Connor has continued to remain involved in all the communities where he does business, including the Jackson County town of Newport, where Connie Waters owns George’s Wine, Beer, Spirits. She and O’Connor have been doing business since he bought the Coors/Miller distributorship in 1993. The “George” in the name belongs to George Rasch, who founded the store in 1972.
“He inherited me, and I inherited him,” she says.
“Jackson is a very small county, and he has been extremely generous to the community,” including sponsoring Newport’s Downtown Monster Nights entertainment series, the Depot Days Music Series and local golf tournaments. “He has a very generous spirit.”
BORDER TO BORDER
Altogether, O’Connor’s sudsy domain now stretches from the state’s borders with Missouri to Louisiana, covering 25 of Arkansas 35 “wet” counties. Private clubs in both wet and dry counties must buy their alcoholic beverages at retail.
State laws regarding alcohol sales were primarily written after Prohibition, he says, “and they’re old, but they’re adaptive and useful. They do protect consumers. They give the consumer the right to get what they need. And they protect the consumer that doesn’t want it.
“There are people who don’t want alcohol in their communities. One of the things you have to come to grips with if you want to be in this business: You have to constantly remind yourself that what you’re selling, people have problems with. There are people who shouldn’t use it. You need to be considerate of that — it’s not toothpaste.
“If you sell this product, you have a great responsibility to the company you represent, and to society.”
His territory surrounds Little Rock but doesn’t include it.
“Charles Morgan had it; he sold it to Glazer [Glazer’s Distributors of Arkansas], maybe 10-12 years ago,” O’Connor recalls. “I had a pile of money on the table. Glazer had a pile of money that they put on the table that was significantly bigger than my pile of money.
“My original business plan was to buy the spokes and get the hub. [Now,] I just have the spokes and no hub.”
In 2012, O’Connor also co-founded a company called Arkansas Craft.
“Five young men and myself,” he says. “They’re the ones who brought all of the craft beers [into] this state. Except Founders. Those beers didn’t exist in this state until Arkansas Craft.
“We had a great run and they did a lot for the beer business. We later sold it to Glazer; we never could get the volume. Craft beer is great, but it just doesn’t have the volume. And we weren’t as sophisticated as we needed to be. So it was the right thing to do for everybody.”
He’s keeping his options open for further expansion: “It’s sort like a rancher,” he says. “A rancher always wants to get the ranch next to him. I’m not done expanding if the opportunity comes.”
WYOMING TO TEXAS
O’Connor can talk with authority about ranching because “that’s where we started,” on a ranch in Wyoming.
He earned college degrees in animal science and agricultural economics at Cornell (class of 1976) and a masters degree in range management from the University of Wyoming (class of 1981). His sister introduced him to Lynn Alphson from Grand Forks, N.D. They married in 1979.
“And a dairy farmer came in one day and offered us way more money than the place was worth. We never thought he would do it, but he did,” O’Connor says.
“So I moved down to Texas and ranched there, and then the opportunity to come to work in Camden was available.
“A lot of people think of Camden as small town, [but] this was the first house that we ever lived in since we were married that had city water, city sewer, cable TV and trash pickup.
“We loved Camden. Camden was a great city to us. Our daughter was in a program called ‘Intensive Stimulation’ for three years; we had a hundred volunteers through our house on a weekly basis, people from my church, Lynn’s church — it was harder than hell, but to feel the love of that community was something.”
O’Connor says his company is so far weathering the covid-19 crisis — beer sales are up 20% during the pandemic, he says — but it has put him in a bind; it has reduced his inventory down from a month to just a week to 10 days. Restaurants being closed has created further issues, including a truckload of kegs that went bad and had to be destroyed.
On top of that, he says, “Mexico quit making beer.” Brewery shut-downs as the result of covid-19 lockdowns has meant he can’t get fresh supplies of major Mexican brands, including Dos Equis, Corona and Modelo.
“Beer isn’t essential in Mexico, but here, Homeland Security says beer is essential, so we’ve worked every day,” he says. He has been able to keep his office staff on-site, and certain vital warehouse functions, including loading, unloading and driving, simply can’t be done from home.
O’Connor is pretty confident that as he considers retirement — “I’m getting close to 70,” he says — that his business will be in good hands: “That guy next door” — meaning Ryan — “he’s doing a helluva good job.”
He and his wife have bought a house in the Bahamas, where he plans to spend some of his time; he can indulge one of his hobbies, scuba-diving, there, while others he can indulge here: “I hunt and fish. Arkansas is a great place to do both.”
BIRTH DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH: March 12, 1951; Baltimore, Md.
FAVORITE COLOR: Bahamian water blue
I ABSOLUTELY WILL NOT EAT: Brussels sprouts and liver
THE MENU FOR MY LAST MEAL: A good steak’s hard to beat.
BEER WITH MY LAST MEAL: A cold one.
I’M MOST COMFORTABLE WITH PEOPLE WHO: Are not self-absorbed.
GUESTS AT MY FANTASY DINNER PARTY: Tony Snow, who taught me everything I know about the beer business. Boyd Straight, who taught me everything I know about ranching. Charles Murphy, Frank White and my father.
IF I’VE LEARNED ONE THING IN LIFE, IT’S: If God gives you the opportunity, do it.
PEOPLE WHO KNEW ME IN HIGH SCHOOL THOUGHT I WAS: A goofball.
I WANT MY CHILDREN TO REMEMBER: That I always love them.
THE BEST ADVICE I EVER RECEIVED: When in doubt, pray — and always listen for the answer.
ONE WORD TO SUM ME UP: Lazy
Print Headline: George Rufus O’Connor