Faces of Family Business: The Watterson Family
A Lowcountry dynasty
The Watterson family has built over 20 of the Lowcountry’s most iconic brands, including Burnt Church Distillery. But they aren’t stopping there.
By Hannah Massen
A craft whiskey distillery made from a reclaimed church. A luxury lifestyle boutique specializing in home décor, furnishings and design services. A beer brewery, a non-alcoholic spirits brand, and a mobile food trailer. Asking what do these businesses have in common almost sounds like a trick question until you get to know the family of entrepreneurs behind them.
Self-proclaimed serial entrepreneur Billy Watterson is the CEO of Watterson Brands, a collection of 18 – and counting – distinct businesses, including Bluffton’s iconic Burnt Church Distillery, which serves drinks and local history.
Originally from Ada, Ohio, Watterson graduated from the University of Findlay with a bachelor’s degree in environmental and hazardous materials management. He spent five years working for Sears, Roebuck and Co. at its world headquarters in Illinois but knew he had a “higher calling.” So Watterson did what anyone facing a major career dilemma would do: he and his brother, Sean, went on a guys’ trip out West for some rugged adventure and soul searching.
One morning, camped in the Black Hills of South Dakota, Watterson posed a question to Sean, who had been his right-hand businessman in all his ventures thus far: “What do you want to do with your life?” After spending most of the day discussing different products they loved, the Watterson brothers landed on whiskey – and so their new passion was born. The brothers relocated to the Lowcountry in 2017 after selecting Bluffton as the future location for the Burnt Church Distillery, which opened four years later in March 2021 – bringing several other family members with them.
Five of the current and upcoming Watterson Brands businesses are run by family members. Sean is at the helm of Burnt Church Distillery as director of innovation, and Watterson’s son, Ben, owns Benjamin’s Mobile Food Truck, which is known for its indulgent snacks and sandwiches. Watterson’s sister-in-law, Liz Stiving-Nichols, owns Bespoke Abode, the Martha’s Vineyard-based interior design firm and luxury home boutique that is opening its second location in Old Town Bluffton. Watterson’s nephew, Michael Williams, runs Red Fox Organics, which uses sustainable farming techniques to grow organic produce, and Watterson’s new daughter-in-law, Cassidy Watterson, is the safety and HR coordinator at Watterson Brands.
Watterson credits much of Watterson Brands’ success to his partnership with his wife, Brenda, whose business acumen rivals his own. The couple serves not only as advisors to each other but to the entrepreneurs they work with as well.
“After helping to establish any brand, my goal is to be there in an advisory capacity but to also create some connectivity between them, especially within the entertainment venues,” Watterson said. “People want to know where you can have a consistently great but diverse experience, and although Burnt Church Distillery is different than what you will find at The Bank, etc. – it’s the same detail-oriented, purpose-driven and intentional environment.”
Purpose-driven and intentional describe the Wattersons’ philanthropic ventures as well. While researching the history of Burnt Church’s location in 2017, Watterson noticed the disparity and existence of inequity in the Lowcountry’s Gullah community. Along with a group of multi-racial business and community leaders, including Town Council member Bridgette Frazier and the Bluffton MLK Observance Committee, Watterson formed BlacQuity, a nonprofit with the mission to elevate, empower and promote local Black-owned businesses. The initiative quickly grew into Black Equity University (BEU), a comprehensive training program designed to equip Black business owners with tools, access to networks and resources to scale their businesses in pursuit of achieving generational knowledge and wealth. Currently there are 17 Black-owned businesses benefiting from the BEU program.
Watterson and his wife, Brenda, also created the Watterson Family Foundation to elevate and support the causes near and dear to them. Under the foundation, the Lowcountry Legacy Fund will be used exclusively in the Black community for infrastructure, educational opportunities and equity in the economy. And like all Watterson Brands companies, Burnt Church Distillery has committed to serving the community through monthly giveback opportunities in addition to charitable collaborations with Watterson Brands’ portfolio of venues and the ongoing initiative, Watterson Means Good™, and the Lowcountry Legacy Fund. Through Help4Hope, Watterson Means Good™ distributed $186,550 to restaurants to reimburse them for serving 14,924 free meals to those affected by the pandemic in 2020.
Nearly 20 brands and four nonprofits are a lot to manage, which is why the family members are grateful to have each other to lean on.
“The best part of being in our family-owned and supported business is that ideas and innovation are always appreciated,” Sean said. “Our company culture is very community-focused, and that translates into the familial bond between colleagues as well.”
The Watterson Brands team is looking forward to the upcoming openings of Ma Daisy’s (Bluffton), which will include the first Bluffton Gullah Cultural Heritage Center, The Bank (Hilton Head Island), which will feature new restaurants like Bank Burgers and Taco Bill’s, in addition to an expanded Side Hustle Brewing Company. That’s as far as the Wattersons’ plans go at the moment. Although even the youngest Watterson family members have expressed interest in opening their own businesses someday, no formal succession plan for Watterson Brands has been outlined.
“Originally I came to Hilton Head vaguely thinking about retiring, but instead I built a distillery, invested in more than 10 local businesses, started a few nonprofits and sit on several boards in the area, including my alma matter, Findlay University,” Watterson said as he shrugged, “Maybe retiring just isn’t for me.”
Billy Watterson’s three tips for aspiring business owners.
1. Always advocate for support systems and collaboration
2. Surround yourself with talented individuals who have a strong mission and vision
3. Purpose above profit