Above: Apis Mercantile founders John Berdux and Liam Becker.
Tucked into a nondescript string of warehouses on James Island is a burgeoning enterprise founded by two College of Charleston alumni and operated by several more. Liam Becker ’16 and John Berdux ’14 – the founders and proprietors of Apis Mercantile – are steadily making inroads with their business, which includes a line of health supplements and body care and specialty food products made from beehive ingredients and hemp extract.
Despite being a relatively young company – Apis Mercantile was established in 2017 – this business supplies products to over 300 stores across the U.S. And recently, Becker and Berdux have begun to provide raw honey to restaurants and specialty food makers throughout the Carolina Lowcountry.
“We started out as a hemp products company,” explains Berdux, who majored in anthropology and political science. “Our friend Matt Rowe ’14 started a hemp farm in Colorado, so we partnered with him for the hemp extract. But I’ve always had a passion for beekeeping, so it was only natural that we expanded from selling honey infused with hemp extract to selling raw honey as well.”
Becker and Berdux both trace their business interests back to the time when they lived together during college in a house on St. Philip Street.
“We all had different hobbies in college,” explains Becker, whose major was business administration. “Matt would always be growing something in the backyard – grapes, peppers, all kinds of vegetables. And John had his beehives back there, while I had a small surfboard repair business tucked away in the corner. It was a really creative household and we all supported one another.”
Shortly after they graduated from the College, this trio connected over the winter holidays and decided to work together. Rowe was already farming in Colorado, so Berdux and Becker decided they’d form a company to sell products made with hemp extract.
“We were actually the first company to approach the South Carolina Department of Agriculture about producing and selling hemp food products in the Palmetto State,” says Berdux. “Before we got the state to agree to regulate our industry, we had to do our infusions in Colorado and then ship the products back here to be processed for sale.”
Since those early days, Apis Mercantile has grown considerably. Berdux and Becker now employ three other CofC graduates: Robert Bernatavitz ’19, Rachel Tavolacci ’20 and Eliot Doub ’16. They also occasionally rely on Josh Schmidt ’14 to serve unofficially as the company’s chief financial officer.
Five days a week and sometimes six, the 1,500-square-foot space that the company occupies is as busy as a proverbial beehive. There’s usually someone operating the automated labeling machine while someone else is filling glass bottles with honey and another person is packaging products for shipping. Near the front door, Becker along with Berdux’s wife, Isabel, work the phones, talking with clients and arranging new orders.
Getting to this level of success hasn’t been without its hurdles. Both partners say they had to learn new skills and lean heavily on a network of advisors that includes several professors at the College.
“Chris Starr ’83 (who taught computer science and entrepreneurship until recently) was a huge source of guidance for us,” Becker recalls. “Dr. David Wyman, who runs the ImpactX program, was also helpful. And we’ve gotten a lot of advice from Glenn Starkmann (the College’s entrepreneur in residence).”
All of that counsel came in handy as the duo navigated the challenges of growing a business during a global pandemic.
“I would say that Liam and I have become creative problem solvers,” Berdux explains, “and we’re not afraid to ask for help, but yeah, the past year was tough. A lot of our sales channels closed as businesses slowed or shuttered. So, we had to develop different revenue streams, and part of that was introducing raw honey to our product line.”
For both Becker and Berdux, being in business means much more than simply turning a profit. Their company has always been managed with sustainability in mind. On one level, that means packaging products in recyclable glass jars and compostable paper tubes. On another it means working directly with beekeepers so that those farmers realize a better profit margin without middle men involved. It also means modeling Apis Mercantile as a good community partner.
“We’ve always been community oriented,” Berdux says. “We work with and support several local nonprofits. To support organizations such as Surfers Healing, Warrior Surf Foundation and the Green Heart Project is important because these organizations do vital work and make a tangible difference enriching the lives of people who wouldn’t otherwise have that.”
In the near future, Berdux and Becker plan to expand their facility to accommodate a growing demand for Apis Mercantile’s products. Their plans also include taking on more employees.
“If we can hire more graduates from the College,” Becker says, “that’s what we’ll do. After all, we know the caliber of people coming out of there – it’s where we got our start.”