Raj Bhakta On Buying GMC: 'It's The Biggest Bet I've Ever Taken'
Raj Bhakta, the founder of Shoreham-based WhistlePig Whiskey, bought Green Mountain College’s sprawling campus last week with little in the way of explanation.
The 185-year-old liberal arts school had been the biggest employer in Poultney (population 3,300) and its closure in May, 2019 hit locals hard.
Bhakta bid $4.55 million dollars for the campus and its many buildings, plus 10% in sellers fees.
The sale won’t be finalized until next month, but if all goes as planned, Bhakta says he hopes to resurrect a new kind of school that will benefit students and the local community.
Outside Green Mountain College’s library on Tuesday it was hot, and the 44-year-old looked slightly rumpled in a t-shirt, with five o’clock shadow.
Standing in front of the stately brick buildings, tree-lined sidewalks and grassy courtyards he hopes to repurpose, the normally dapper entrepreneur admitted this new challenge will be daunting.
“I'm thrilled and I'm staggered, he said looking around. “I mean my God, it's a lot of work ahead of us. This is: 26 buildings, 155 acres, 500,000 square feet; it's a whole town in and of itself, with its own biomass plant!”
After a beat he added, “You know, it's not everybody who buys a college campus.”
Poultney has been buzzing with rumors about what his plans are for the property.
And Bhakta himself said he bought it with only a rough idea in mind for something education-based.
“It'll probably be a work college. You know, I've got a very, very strong track record of taking things that were going down the tube and making them roar back to life.”
Raj Bhakta grew up in Philadelphia and studied finance in college. His parents were successful and both immigrants. His father is from India and his mother is Irish and moved to the states from England.
In his late twenties, Bhakta earned brief TV fame as a bow-tied contestant on Donald Trump’s reality show “The Apprentice.”
In 2006, he ran for Congress in Pennsylvania. A Republican, he made headlines for hiring a mariachi band and riding an elephant into the Rio Grand River to call for a stronger border wall with Mexico.
He lost that election and took time off to chart a new course, spending time in India.
A friend suggested he make a fresh start in Vermont and in 2007, Bhakta bought a nearly 500-acre run-down dairy farm in Shoreham.
He figured he’d come up with a plan for what to do with it later – and he did.
With help from investors, Bhakta launched WhistlePig Whisky in 2010.
It was a huge success, but things turned sour between Bhakta and company board members.
Last year, Bhakta was bought out; "handsomely" is all he’ll say about the terms of the deal.
He’s put some of that money into a new venture, Bhakta Farms, which has locations in Florida, France and Vermont. Instead of rye whiskey, he’s now selling beef, Armagnac and in the future, Vermont-made brandy made from fruit grown on nearly 1,500 acres his company owns in Shoreham.
“I see the college and Bhakta Farms and everything that we produce being integrally related,” Bhakta said of his plans for the campus.
He admits those plans are still a work in progress, but with so many Vermont colleges closing, Bhakta said the first thing they’ll need to do is look at where the needs are in education and focus on those.
“We know that we have a need for trades in Vermont, that in America people really aren't being trained to do anything anymore,” he said.
“I mean, they're really graduating with boatloads of debt with absolutely useless degrees," he said getting louder. “It’s a moral outrage.”
But Bhakta said it can’t just be hands-on farm or trade craft that's taught. He said entrepreneurial skills are equally crucial.
“The challenge isn’t making a tomato or producing a pound of beef or even making, you know, a bottle of wine,” Bhakta explained. “The challenge is actually selling it profitably. And that's what I think I bring to the table that nobody else in higher education is really doing in this country. There are no real entrepreneurs from the business side that are connecting making it to selling it.”
Bhakta sees private companies – initially his own - providing the hands-on outlet for students while at the same time enabling what he hopes will be an apprentice-type tuition free curriculum.
“So the students of the college are part of the producing of the products that are growing from the farms, that we’re selling that they’re also learning how to sell. In turn, the brands, the companies that we're creating, the farms, let's say writ large, are paying for their school.”
“I want to see kids graduating debt free,” Bhakta added emphatically.
It maybe the only thing that he and Bernie Sanders agree on, he said looking chagrined. "We both believe it’s a sin to send kids out of college with debt."
As to what he plans to call this new school? Bhakta shrugged and said he has no plans to change the name. "I mean Green Mountain College is on the front of the building, why change that?"
"I see this as a potential springboard for something good." - Poultney Town and Village Manager Paul Donaldson
Poultney town and village manager Paul Donaldson said there’s been a whole range of emotions in town over the college’s closure and last week’s auction of the campus.
But he’s not concerned that many of the details of Bhakta’s plans still need to be worked out. “I think some people might be worried,” Donaldson said in his office Tuesday. “But I mean, someone who is willing to make that investment in Poultney, must see some value in Poultney, must see some value in the campus. So I see this as a potential springboard for something good.”
In Shoreham, where Bhakta has owned homes and property since 2007, reviews of the entrepreneur are mixed.
Leslie Goodrich said she appreciates that he’s bought and improved farms in town and created jobs. But she worries that the amount of money he spends gives him too much power. “It changes the culture of the town and the demographic of the town. And that feels, I don't know," Goodrich admitted slowly. “It does not feel good.”
Her husband Stephen Goodrich, who chairs the Shoreham select board disagrees and gets a kick out of Bhakta.” Flamboyant!” laughed Goodrich when asked to describe his neighbor.
“He does things in a big way. I mean, I was driving by one day and he was all decked out with a sword and in a hat – a hat not of this time. And he was riding a horse and having a photo shoot with all these people. And I just said, ‘yep, that's Raj,’” he said.
But while Goodrich said Bhakta likes to be at the center of attention, he said that attention has benefited Shoreham and he believes it will likely help Poultney as well.
“To me, everything that he's touched, he’s made it look better. And he's created jobs. And so those are kind of important things for somebody that kind of watches over a town and wants it to stay viable. And I believe he’ll have the intention to do the same in Poultney," Goodrich said.
Back on campus, Raj Bhakta said he hopes to launch a pilot program with between 30 and 50 students by next spring and ramp up to harness the entire campus within five years.
He said he’s eager to start and plans to create a think tank of experts in education and other fields to help.
“I’ve had tremendous success creating companies that sell spirits," he said with a shrug, "And to be honest, I can do it again probably several times before I die. But so what?”
Bhakta said a favorite uncle died unexpectedly in India this year. He said that loss, the COVID-19 pandemic and a mild health scare of his own have all made him more reflective and pushed him to think long and hard about the legacy he’ll leave his own four kids.
“I know that sounds all sort of, you know, mushy, but I really believe in this,” he said.
Which is not to say it won’t be a challenge he added, smiling. "This is definitely the biggest challenge and the biggest bet I've ever taken in my life. And I'm a kind of guy who loves a big challenge."
But creating something like this school, something he hopes will be for the public good feels different somehow and it makes him feel good.
Nothing wrong with a good brandy he added quickly, but he's ready for more "than just selling expensive, rare, exquisite booze to the well-heeled."
Correction 8:03 a.m. 08/28/2020 An earlier version of this story misstated Raj Bhakta's timeline for bringing students back to campus.
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