PART 1: Lewiston’s mega-millionaire opens up about vodka, risk, moving to Southport and stirring up the locals

Editor’s note: Last week, three years after he sold White Rock Distilleries, Lewiston native Paul Coulombe agreed to an interview that offered us unexpected access to his Boothbay-area home, properties, history and plans.

Ten years ago, in 2005, Paul Coulombe stood on the warehouse factory floor of White Rock Distilleries in Lewiston and asked his workers to trust him.

No small thing.

He didn’t know them; they didn’t know him. He was that boss who was traveling all the time.

Coulombe had just taken out an $85 million loan to buy the rest of his family out of the company. The same week, he fired the entire management team and named his loyal assistant president because, he said, there was no one else left to name.

“I told all the people, I said, ‘You know, I’m willing to risk it all,'” said Coulombe, 62. “‘I’ve got my neck on the line. I have zero net worth, so I’m taking all the risk here, but I believe in it. I believe in you and I believe in me. And so you’ve got to come for the ride with me, unless you don’t want to.’ Everybody stuck it out. They were excited but were nervous, though, and I was, too. We were all nervous.”


A couple of deft moves and investments later, the company’s Three Olives Vodka line took off.

Then came Pinnacle Whipped Vodka, rocketing to the top-selling flavored vodka in the world, 90 days after release — without a dime spent in advertising.

Seven years after he took control of White Rock, Coulombe sold the Lewiston company his father had bought for $100,000 in 1970. The total take from two separate sales: more than $1 billion.

“I didn’t imagine that in my wildest imagination,” he said.

Those workers who’d all stayed for the ride took home a bonus worth one to two years’ salary.

Today, Coulombe spends half the year in Florida. His home the other half of the year is an hour away from Lewiston in Southport, in a $30 million seaside mansion he built on Pratt’s Island, near Boothbay. The kitchen is wall-to-wall windows. There are 37 discreetly hung TVs and so much marble it took 15 men four years to install it.


His current project: a roughly $74 million renovation and redevelopment of a local golf course that he reluctantly bought from bankruptcy for $1.4 million in 2012. Coulombe has purchased and moved entire residential streets, and he’s looking to other parts of town, buying more property for future development.

He’s clearly still a fan of the bold move — and in many ways, he’s now asking the people here to trust him.

No small thing.

When he first offered to save Southport’s ramshackle 1777 Town Hall and wharf, townspeople turned him down. Repeatedly. As he describes it, they would rather have risked seeing it collapse then have Coulombe help.

“I thought, ‘Wow, that just seems like such a mistake to me,’ and I was new; I had just moved into town, so I didn’t have any kind of standing and I was from away, I was from Lewiston,” he said. “If you’re not from Southport, you’re from away. That’s just the way it is.”

Coulombe was skewered last month in Boston Magazine (“Does Boothbay have a vodka problem?”) in an article that called his Pinnacle Whipped Vodka “all but undrinkable,” described him as “from rich-jerk central casting” and set people in Southport, Boothbay and Boothbay Harbor as either against him or suck-ups.


He insists the story is rife with errors and that his relationship with the towns isn’t so contentious.

“Everyone has seen the article; bad news travels quickly, apparently,” Coulombe said. “It’s just not true.”

Bet Finocchiaro, the owner of Bet’s Fish Fry in Boothbay, cast in the Boston story as “the biggest thorn in his side,” agreed with Coulombe. The story was a “witch hunt,” she said.

“I think they were trying to cause trouble for Paul, and I don’t know why, from Boston,” she said. “I know they misquoted me, and if they did me, they must have him.”

Most backbiting, she said, isn’t coming from locals. “It’s the rich worried that somebody else might be richer. He’s spending his money in our town and they don’t have the money to spend in our town, so they’re going after him. That’s just my opinion, but I’ve seen it before in my lifetime.”

Far from being the biggest thorn is his side, Finocchiaro is actually a fan. She’s on board with his long-term plans to boost economic development and grow tourism. Her 23-year-old fish and chips stand is feet from his golf course; more tourists mean more business.


Construction workers at the country club who come down now each day for lunch have told her how Coulombe replaced the outhouses that once dotted the course with air conditioned, granite- and marble-lined flushing bungalows.

“You can quote me on that, ‘what a great place to pee,'” Finocchiaro said.

‘Go get ’em’

Coulombe was born at St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center. (He and three siblings made a $1.3 million donation there in 2008 — the single largest in the hospital’s history — that named the new emergency room after their mom, Cecile.) Growing up, his father, Roland, worked as the head of the Bates Mill’s Hill Division until 1966 when he took a chance on a job in Venezuela.

The family lived in South America for four years, moving back when Coulombe was a junior in high school.

“Venezuela might have been Mars because that was how remote it was,” he said. “That might have been helpful in at least opening my eyes to something else.”


His mom, though, a Lewiston native, was done with the adventure. She wanted her kids to grow up here.

“(My father) was unemployed and looking for a job,” Coulombe said. “He wanted to buy a business so he bought White Rock. He knew nothing at all, zero (about bottling), but it was in Lewiston, that was the primary reason. Because my mother had some influence on him, apparently; mothers can do that.”

The little bottling plant made low-end Gold Crown vodka, whiskey, gin and a brand of dessert wines for sale around Maine.

“It was just he, my mother and a part-time retired lady, so it was a really small enterprise, to say the least,” Coulombe said. “That was the whole company.”

By the time Coulombe graduated from the University of Maine in 1975, his father had bought a rival bottler in Lewiston for $1 million, Lawrence & Co., whose sales turf included New England and Ohio. Coulombe took a straight-commission sales job with White Rock and headed out to Ohio to grow the brands in neighboring states.

“I wanted to be independent; I was kind of the black sheep of the family,” Coulombe said. “For me it was perfect. I worked for myself, paid my own expenses. Don’t really have to answer to anyone.”


He hit the road. His brother Dennis helped run the day-to-day. White Rock bought more competitors and grew and grew.

“My brother was really good at what he did, being an inside guy running the operations, building new buildings, growing the business,” Coulombe said. “I was trying to grow sales and revenue, so we made a good team.”

He laughs now, he said, when people congratulate him on his overnight success.

“I worked 80 or 100 hours a week; I wasn’t home for 20 years,” Coulombe said. “I traveled every day. I went to every city in America, every town in America, almost every restaurant and bar in America; I saw every little nook and cranny everywhere. And globally. It didn’t happen sitting behind a desk in Lewiston, Maine. They don’t come to you; you have to go get them.”

Success, sales

After his father retired, Coulombe became White Rock’s CEO in 1995. Ten years later, family members sold their shares to Coulombe.


“I thought that we could become much bigger than we were, but I was the only one in the family who had that vision. Or willing to take that risk,” he said. “I wanted to invest every dollar we ever made back in the business, that was just my philosophy. I didn’t want to drive fancy cars or have fancy homes, I wanted to make the business as big as it could be. I could see it, and they didn’t agree. Everybody has a right to their own philosophy.”

So everyone else was out, after he paid millions for their shares. He was in. Workers buckled up.

The first major success on his own: the sweet taste of cherry and grape vodka.

White Rock had already launched Three Olives Vodka, its first flavored line, before Coulombe bought out his family in 2005, but sales hadn’t yet taken off. The raw vodka for the brand was imported from England. He flavored and bottled it in Lewiston, in bottles hand-painted in France. After Cleveland bartenders began experimenting with it in funky cherry and grape “bombs” (shots of the grape or cherry vodka with Red Bull) in 2004, it became the No. 1 selling vodka in Ohio, according to Coulombe. Word got out. Sales picked up. Eventually, Three Olives sold like crazy.

“English vodka hadn’t been imported by anyone,” Coulombe said. “The guy who created Grey Goose and I were best friends and I saw what he was doing. He didn’t really go down the flavor route, I was trying to do something a little different.”

Though he didn’t disclose the price at the time, Coulombe sold the brand in 2007 for $400 million to Proximo Spirits.


“I was in a lot of debt buying out the family,” he said. “I was in hock up to my eyeballs. I ended up selling to give me some relief. I made the same speech: ‘You’ve believed in me once, you’ve got to believe in me again. And I’m selling it to make us a financially stronger company.'”

But the relief was temporary. Three Olives made up half of the company’s sales. Coulombe described White Rock as “losing money and bleeding badly.” He had to make that up, fast.

Then the recession hit.

That turned out, for White Rock, to be a very good thing.

“People were still drinking, but they were drinking at home in ’08 and ’09,” he said.

Consumers noticed that Pinnacle, which had debuted in 2003, its raw vodka imported from France and, again, flavored and bottled in Lewiston, had a lower price and higher import cache. “They wanted something they could put on their counter and not be embarrassed. It was just the right product at the right time.”


Pinnacle Whipped, one of what eventually became dozens of Pinnacle flavors, became a social media darling in 2010, selling 1 million cases in 90 days, according to Coulombe.

“It just went berserk,” he said. “Absolut Citron was the No. 1 flavored vodka in the world at the time. We blew by them. We sold more than all the other flavors combined. I spent millions of dollars in Lewiston on tanks and equipment and bottling lines. My distributors that I had (buy) truckloads were ordering backup truckloads within two weeks.”

Ironically enough, when his marketing team had initially pitched him on the whipped cream flavor, he’d said forget it and shut his office door. They already had 36 flavors. That was plenty.

The women walked back in and insisted they’d leave as soon as he took a sip.

“I was like, ‘Oh my god, that’s like the best thing I’ve ever tasted in my life. Let’s make a million cases tomorrow morning, let’s go full blast,'” he said. They did, and it did. “It went viral. I had been in business for 35 years at that time and I had never seen or witnessed anything by anyone, never mind alcohol, anything, that took off like that. I couldn’t believe it. That’s what proved how important a vehicle (social media) could be.”

He had a runaway success.


And a tough decision: Coulombe’s unofficial business partner, a man he’d brainstormed and strategized with for 37 years, unexpectedly told Coulombe he wanted to retire.

“His talk was, ‘Paul, we got lucky. I mean, we worked hard, but we got lucky, and I don’t know how lucky we can keep getting. And we’re right at our — excuse the pun — pinnacle. I see whipped cream (Pinnacle) slipping a little bit, because it has to. I’m tired of traveling; I’m tired of getting beat up,'” Coulombe recalled. “He said, ‘I think we can sell the business for a substantial amount. And why not get out while the getting’s good?’ I thought about it for a few months and I thought, ‘Yeah, I’m tired of it, too.'”

Coulombe said his only child — daughter Michelle, who worked in sales at White Rock — had already let him know years before that she didn’t have any interest in taking over the company. She wanted to leave and raise kids.

In 2011, he set about finding a buyer. Coulombe said he thought White Rock might sell for $50 million or $100 million. That would have been success.

Jim Beam bought the company for $605 million in a deal he personally negotiated with the board and CEO.

“That was really fun, nerve-wracking but fun. Really fun,” Coulombe said.


He gathered the 250 employees one last time in April 2012.

“I guess the toughest speech I ever had to make in my life was standing in front of everybody and telling them I had sold out,” he said. “I knew those people. I was kind of afraid of the reaction. I didn’t know if I’d get rotten tomatoes thrown at me.”

It went better than hoped, the blow softened by those bonuses.

“Women came up to me and hugged me. They were fantastic,” he said. “I was ready to call it quits and move on to something else; I didn’t think it’d be a country club. I had no idea of that.”

Tomorrow: Life in Boothbay — the mansion, the little $75 million country club project and the rub of being from away.

[email protected]


Cabana Boy’s secret (until now)

Back in 2001, Cabana Boy made waves.

The rum was written up in the Wall Street Journal as a crossover phenom: Designed by White Rock Distilleries to lure female buyers, it unexpectedly became a hit in the gay community with its beach-hunk graphics.

“It was one of my first brands that I actually spent money nationally advertising and got billboards statewide in Florida because I thought, ‘Florida is the No. 1 rum market in the United States.’ Still is today,” said former White Rock owner Paul Coulombe.

From the outside, everything looked hot.

Inside the Lewiston company, it was a different story.

“I actually never made money on Cabana Boy; I actually lost my shirt, if the truth be known,” Coulombe said.


The liquor industry has a 5 percent success rate with new brand launches, he said. White Rock hit 20 percent, better than average. But for Cabana Boy, sales never offset the millions spent in advertising and start-up. After a few years, he pulled the plug.


“I’m lucky I became CEO,” he said. “I was kind of stubborn being a French Canadian from Lewiston. I figured my reputation and my bum was on the line. Especially with the family. I was still being judged.”

Interesting postscript: Coulombe’s daughter’s boyfriend at the time was one of the Cabana Boy bottle models. They didn’t marry, but Coulombe has kept in touch. “He’s a wonderful guy.”

“So now you’ve got the real end of the story,” Coulombe said. “No one’s told that story before. I don’t think I’ve ever said that story before.”

[email protected]

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.