From hockey star to accident victim to CEO|
By Stephanie Armour, USA TODAY
Larry "Buzzy" Twombly remembers feeling angry, angry enough to want to get up and punch the driver of the Trans Am who'd just barreled through the stop sign at 70 miles an hour. Twombly had flown off his motorcycle and crashed through the windshield of the car that hit him, but he didn't feel pain. Just anger.
For a minute on that chilly, fall day in November 1984, he stood on his own. The Harvard freshman and athlete who'd already had been drafted by the National Hockey League was physically strong, and adrenaline gave him an extra rush. He tried to take a step and looked down.
That's when he realized his foot wasn't really there. All that was holding it to his left leg were a few red veins and a tendon. His entire ankle, as well as his future as a professional hockey player, had been destroyed in that late afternoon motorcycle accident.
The life-changing experience that left Twombly in a semi-conscious state for nearly two months was also the start of a new entrepreneurial career direction. A stratospheric hockey contract was no longer a possibility. But to Twombly's way of thinking, it meant a whole new world of opportunity in business was possible. Just over 10 years later, he is the CEO of Hat Trick Beverage (HKBV), a publicly traded company in Encinitas, Calif., that is set to do about $5 million in sales this year.
The company makes three distinctive beverage products and is poised to start acquiring other products to bring to market. It is also looking to expand across the USA and open up small distributorships.
"My accident experience benefits everything I'm doing now," says Twombly, a frank-talking, 39-year-old raised in Manchester, N.H. "I don't think I've been in a bad mood for a whole day since. It was a weight lifted off my shoulders. I realized I don't have to be that hockey player anymore. I could choose my own destiny."
New products find markets
Hat Trick has found success by introducing new products rather than trying to mimic what's already in the marketplace. It makes Vitality, a fruit-flavored vitamin drink that, unlike many others, is sugar-free, and is available in flavors such as cranberry-pomegranate and green apple. There is also Snap Z, an energy drink offered at restaurants and bars. And Dos Lagos, a line of water-based drinks popular with the Hispanic community.
The drink, known as aguas frescas, was a beverage that Twombly discovered during a weekend trip to Mexico. There, he saw people ladling the sweet-tasting beverage out of large barrels. When he realized the aguas frescas weren't sold in a bottled variety in the USA, he launched his own. Now they are sold in more than 1,250 independent convenience stores and markets in San Diego, Los Angeles and Arizona. Sales are expected to top $2.2 million this year.
A future as a beverage maker and entrepreneur was not something Twombly really considered as a boy growing up in New Hampshire, the son of a truck driver father and a mother who worked part time as a diner waitress. Sports were always a part of his life. In the winter, the swampy, mosquito-infested pond in his backyard would freeze over, and Twombly and his neighborhood friends would lace on skates and play hockey.
With two older sisters and a younger brother, Twombly was the first to go to college. He went to Harvard on a scholarship, but he felt somewhat out of place. His background didn't seem to mesh. For a short time, he had a roommate. The first thing his roommate asked him was, "What does your father do for a living?"
"Probably works for your dad," Twombly replied.
Defying the odds
But Twombly thrived on the ice, playing for the Harvard Crimson. Already drafted to play for the Boston Bruins, Twombly majored in international business but expected to play hockey. Instead, he spent months recovering from the accident.
He defied the odds. Despite the injury, which shattered his tibia and fibula in 12 places, Twombly went on to play as a center in the minors: the Maine Mariners, the Providence Bruins and the San Diego Gulls.
His recovery was slow. He had to rebuild his strength; he'd withered from 195 to 110 pounds while in the hospital. Doctors created a new ankle out of plastic, Kevlar and titanium — basically, making it bulletproof.
While playing for the Gulls, he met his wife, Jill, who is chief financial officer for a computer company.
It was in San Diego that his business acumen developed. With summers off, he took various jobs, including sales manager for a potato chip distributor. He left that job in 1995, becoming self-employed and developing his first beverage product, an iced-coffee drink. He developed and researched the product on his own, spending $20,000 of his wife's and his money.
He sold the product to a venture-capital group in exchange for stock. The stock was restricted (he couldn't sell it for a specific amount of time), so by the time he could sell it, he says, the stock was worthless.
He then began working as a consultant, helping others launch products, and developed a strong networking relationship with area distributors. Then he started his own company, Hat Trick, a hockey term that refers to the rare occasion when one player scores three goals in a game.
"He has charisma, a phenomenal grasp of the industry as a whole. He understands the customer, product and competition," says Chris Flanagan, a soft-drink distributor who has partnered with Twombly. "He's excellent at seeing the big picture."
As a CEO and entrepreneur, he also believes that his years devoted to hockey influence the way he approaches leadership. Every day, he says, is an essential game.
"When I'm growing up, in hockey, if you don't produce, you're cut. I got that from hockey," Twombly says. "You have to get up and treat every day as though it's the most important practice, the most important day, of your life."
Twombly is a father to Alexandra, 10, and Brady, 8, and keeps a busy schedule. As a CEO, he believes firmly in not setting unrealistic company goals. He also strives to remain accessible, even taking personal calls from his shareholders. The company went public in December.
"I have my phone number on everything and take their calls," he says, answering questions such as what the company's plans are and if the company is growing. Twombly knows that, because of his accident, he is no quitter.
"After the accident, there were so many times I should have quit, but once I start something, I don't quit," he says. "The way I approach things is in a simple, pragmatic way. You have to walk before you can run. I don't set unrealistic goals for myself, or for the company."