To say that Orion Howard is a busy man would be an understatement.
The oncologist based in Northampton is the co-founder and owner of Bright Ideas Brewing at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams. But, the Williamstown resident also is an investor in several other Steeple City enterprises, including A-OK Berkshire Barbeque, the HiLo North Adams music venue, a podcast studio, a construction firm, a new restaurant scheduled for Greylock Works and "another thing I can't discuss quite yet."
How did the Williams College graduate who grew up in Northern California, Oregon and Maryland get involved in so many ventures? How does he find time for all of them? What does he think of North Adams' growth potential? And why did he return to the community where he went to college? We asked him. This is what he told us:
Q: How did you get involved in so many businesses?
A: I guess the short answer is, I guess I don't say "no" very often. I've said "no" to a couple of things in the Berkshires, but for the most part, when people approach me with an idea that I like, I kind of just have an infectious desire to be involved in things.
Q: What's your philosophy as an investor?
A: I've never really looked at it for a profit. If I find the idea helpful to a friend or colleague or find the idea helpful to the city of North Adams or the Northern Berkshires and it's going to not lose me money and it's going to help somebody, whether that somebody be a friend or just the city, I tend to say "yes." And maybe through doing that enough times people tend to approach me with things.
Q: How much of each business do you own?
A: The brewery, I'm 100 percent the owner. The barbecue restaurant, once I recoup my investment, I'm 15 percent (A-OK Berkshire Barbeque is located at Bright Ideas Brewing but is a separate business). ... I'm a one-third owner of the music venue. ... My role with the businesses is kind of an advisory role. ...
Yes, my bandwidth is super limited. Yes, I'm super busy and, yes, I don't sleep. But, I'm in a place where if I moved to California, I'd have to find someone to run the day-to-day of the brewery, but everything else could exist over the phone. So, I think I've set this up so I can do all of this and it won't fall apart.
Q: How does a doctor become an investor?
A: I'm a full-time oncologist (Howard, the former medical director of Southwestern Vermont Medical Center's cancer center, currently serves as a medical oncologist and hematologist at the Massachusetts General Cancer Center at Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton). I had always promised myself I would wind down in medicine. I didn't want to burn out when I got older ... it's a pretty emotionally intense specialty. ...
The best way for me to do that was to acknowledge that that happens and say to myself, "I'm going to wind down when I'm 50" and I'm going to come up with some alternative things to occupy me. ... So, that was kind of happening in my life. I hit 48 and I said, "Wow, I may need some distractions to plan my wind-down at 50." ... The whole thing started because I was friends with Joe and Jennifer Thompson (who head Mass MoCA and Hancock Shaker Village, respectively).
Q: What part did the Thompsons play in this?
A: Joe and I were actually over in a brewery in eastern New York, in Stephentown. ... He (the brewery owner) had this incredible local following from Stephentown, but then he was on the route up to the ski areas in Vermont, or to the second-home owners in Vermont or in the Berkshires. So, all these BMWs and Porsches with skis on top were coming in there because they saw the brewery sign.
We watched how well the locals and the New York tourists interacted over beer, and Joe said to me, "This is what we need at Mass MoCA, because we have this problem with North Adams and Mass MoCA not feeling like they are related to each other." There's animosity about Sprague [Electric] leaving and all this stuff, and this environment, on the campus of MoCA, might pull in the North Adams locals to interact with our museum visitors and maybe break the ice a little bit. If it can break the ice in Stephentown, N.Y., it can break the ice in North Adams.
Q: So, that's how the idea for the brewery came about?
A: Maybe this is legend now more than what he really said, but my memory is, Joe said we just need to figure out how to find somebody stupid enough to do this. And then I kind of raised my hand. ...
I'd been working on ideas for MoCA to bridge this North Adams gap. Joe thought a brewery was perfect, and I sort of volunteered. ... So, we just went hog wild, full bore into this thing. That led to me developing a bunch of connections to people in North Adams. ... Aaron and Alexandra Oster, who own the barbecue restaurant with me. They were my bartenders.
Q: Why have you invested so much in North Adams?
A: Because the energy there right now is incredible. There's so many towns and cities like North Adams that are trying to do a post-manufacturing resurgence. And they can't do it all, right?. ... Those of us who were involved in both Mass MoCA and social impact investing could feel this in North Adams, where we couldn't feel it in other places.
Q: Will North Adams continue to grow, or is the growth leveling off?
A: I think it's going to get bigger. It's not going to return to the Sprague days, where 3,000 people were employed here. But, I think it's going to surge to a point where the arts economy can thrive and it's going to pull in a variety of other businesses.
Think Hudson, N.Y. I would love North Adams to look like a Hudson, or a Beacon, N.Y. They're anchored by arts communities and they're vibrant communities now. Or Northamptonish. ... That kind of settling in the 20,000 to 30,000 population [range] city that thrives on both local [business] and the tourist economy.
Q: You went to Williams, so, there must have been something about the Berkshires that you liked to make you want to come back here.
A: The obvious answer is natural beauty, but I've lived in some crazy, beautiful places. ... Oregon and Northern California are crazy beautiful. ... I'm a Williams alum (class of 1988) and one of my fantasies was to move back here when I retired. I just did it long before I retired. ... This place is full of Williams College graduates who have returned. It's just so weird.