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Atkinson alums leverage sustainability for competitive advantage, sector-wide change

by Shelly Strom,

Colin Schilling

Schilling Cider started using aluminum cans before aluminum cans were cool for craft alcohol. “In 2013, people far preferred cider and other alcoholic beverages in bottles,” said Colin Schilling, BA’10, MBA’12.

“No cider makers used cans. From a business standpoint, it seemed like an odd decision,” said Schilling, CEO of Schilling Cider. In 2012, he co-founded the company with Mark Kornei, BA’11, MBA’12, who is CFO at the Seattle-based cider-maker.

Mark Kornei, Colin Schilling, Ian Townson
Mark Kornei BA’11, MBA’12, Colin Schilling BA’10, MBA’12 and Ian Townson MBA’12 at their graduation from Atkinson Graduate School of Management

Following a cool-factor, however, never factored into plans the duo had when they launched their business. Fresh out of Willamette’s Atkinson Graduate School of Management, Schilling and Kornei were interested in being change agents for social and environmental good in the beverage industry.

And because of the sustainability-grounded education they received in obtaining their MBAs from Atkinson, the co-founders were well equipped to achieve their goal.

“In 2012, we started talking about starting a business, in February of 2013 we received our license for cider and the following April we sold our first can,” Schilling said.

Schilling credits his education from the Atkinson MBA program with directly driving his ability to found, grow and continue to lead his company. “Learning from a book is fine but that only gets you so far. Atkinson really took everything to the experiential side,” he said.

Nine years since founding the company, Schilling, Kornei and a third classmate from Atkinson, Ian Townson, MBA’12, who is Schilling’s COO, have notched impressive accomplishments. The 75-person company, with tasting rooms in Seattle and Portland and a distribution reach around the country, is growing at a rate of 60 percent.

Colin Schilling, however, isn’t resting. In fact, he’s still focused on aluminum cans and ensuring they remain a reusable resource. 

“We are trying to educate other beverage producers and consumers about the toxicity and unsustainability of labeling cans with plastic sleeves and stickers. Printed cans are infinitely recyclable, and cans with stickers are not recyclable,” Schilling said.

Social and environmental innovation as foundational principles require diligent and relentless attention to detail in order to drive any organization.

“The Schilling case shows that adopting an ethic built around sustainability and using it as a strategic compass is good for both the business and the environment,” said Elliot Maltz, emeritus professor of marketing at Atkinson. 

“Properly implemented the strategy can create a long term competitive advantage and motivate others in the industry to adopt more sustainable practices,” Maltz said.

About Willamette University’s Atkinson Graduate School of Management

Based in Salem, Oregon, we are the premier private university in the Pacific Northwest — the only university in the country that appears on both the US News Best National Liberal Arts Colleges list and the Forbes and Businessweek best business schools lists. With unique proximity to our state's capitol, we are a national leader in civic engagement, delivering an “Only at Willamette” education.

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