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Given a platform to explain Tru Colors’ downfall, George Taylor attacks the media

Tru Colors' brewing facility on Greenfield Street in Wilmington's south side.
Benjamin Schachtman
Tru Colors' brewing facility on Greenfield Street in Wilmington's south side closed in September of this year.

The Greater Wilmington Business Journal booked George Taylor Jr. for its Power Breakfast series, eager to offer a rare chance for attendees — and the public — to hear directly the Tru Colors CEO’s account of the brewery’s closure and the end of its at-times controversial social mission. In an unmoderated appearance that provided no opportunity for questions, Taylor blamed news reporting for his company’s failure and called on business and community leaders to ‘be skeptical of the media.’

Business reporting is a tough nut to crack — there’s no public records law, no open meeting requirements, and there’s not the same civic obligation for leaders in the business world to answer to the press the way there is for government officials.

So it was something of a coup for Greater Wilmington Business Journal publisher Rob Kaiser to convince George Taylor to appear for a Ted-Talk-style presentation at this month’s Power Breakfast, featuring “Wilmington’s Most Intriguing People of 2022.”

“You don't often have a business person, you know, soon after their business fails, who agrees to speak in front of 500 people about what went wrong, especially a business that has as much community interest as this did,” Kaiser said.

It was also a “nice bookend,” Kaiser added, since Taylor gave one of the first public talks about his plans for Tru Colors on the Power Breakfast stage five years ago, where he laid out his plans to disrupt gang violence in the Wilmington area while providing meaningful employment for those who, in part because of their gang affiliation, would be unemployable elsewhere.

Since that announcement, there has been plenty of public interest, and media scrutiny, of Taylor’s particular approach. While not the first company to employ gang members, Taylor was innovative — and controversial — in two ways: first, by focusing on the hire of active gang members as opposed to using his company as a ‘rehabilitation’ or ‘re-entry’ program, like Homeboy Industries, a ground-breaking Los Angeles-based non-profit; and second, by firmly committing to a for-profit model, as opposed to other anti-violence programs, like Cure Violence Global.

That public interest also included serious private investment. Brewing giant Molson Coors invested an undisclosed amountto become a minority shareholder, PNC Bank invested over $9 million, and VentureSouth — an angel investor group — invested $500,000.

Kaiser is the Wilmington Market Director of VentureSouth, and the Greater Wilmington Business Journal (GWBJ) is a partner with the investment company, operating as a contractor for VentureSouth’s local chapter to organize members, plan meetings, and host events. All of GWBJ’s reporting on VentureSouth has included disclosure notices of this relationship. Similar notices were not included in GWBJ’s reporting on Tru Colors; Kaiser said this was because he had played no personal role in arranging and had not personally invested in VentureSouth’s support of Tru Colors.

Interest in Tru Colors has remained, even after the brewery shuttered. And while Power Breakfast events are routinely popular, Taylor’s appearance was clearly a powerful draw.

The format — no moderator, no questions — is not new. Most Power Breakfast speakers in the past have delivered their remarks this way, although Taylor was by far the most pugilistic speaker of the morning, delving into the business difficulties Tru Colors had faced, but also laying blame on the media, specifically WECT and The New Yorker for their coverage.

Some of the presentation was similar to what Taylor had laid out in a letter published by the GWBJ as an opinion piece in early September, when Tru Colors closed. But on several points, Taylor elaborated further for the live audience — including his multiple attempts to keep the company afloat and why he thinks media coverage ultimately sank it.

“Tru Colors was working,” Taylor claimed

Taylor reiterated a claim that there had been a 43% decrease in ‘street violence.’ In his letter to GWBJ, that was for “communities in which [Tru Colors] focused,” though on stage Taylor claimed this was city-wide. Taylor cited the Wilmington Police Department (WPD) — which appears to be a reference to an early February report, which noted that officers responded to 43% fewer violent crimes at Wilmington Housing Authority properties in 2021 compared to the previous year.

The 43% appears to be the highlight of the report, which does note other decreases: “Homicides have gone down by 28.6%, robberies decreased by more than 24%, aggravated assaults are down 20%, and we have seen a decrease in violent crimes by more than 16%,” according to the report. Gunfire, as tracked by the city’s ShotSpotter system, saw less than a 4% decrease — although the system is notoriously prone to false positives, and is not an exact measure of gun violence.

Taylor did not mention WPD Chief Donny Williams’s analysis of these decreases, which was included in that February report. Williams, without naming Tru Colors, did thank community organizations, but also noted it was a collective effort.

“The reduction in crime is due in large part to the collaboration between our officers who are working daily to make sure that our residents are protected and various other organizations who provide critical resources. We appreciate our other criminal justice partner agencies, non-profit organizations, faith-based communities, and the citizens of Wilmington for working beside us to decrease crime within our city. There is not one single entity that can take all of the credit for reducing crime, it takes all of us to make Wilmington a safer place to live,” Williams wrote in a statement at the time.

In an interview with WHQR in late November of 2021, Taylor acknowledged the difficulty of proving a negative – that is, proving Tru Colors was responsible for shootings that didn’t happen. Taylor pointed to his organization’s ability to reduce gang retaliation when there was violence.

Waiting for the locusts

Taylor touched, if only briefly, on the double homicide at the home of his son, George Taylor III, who served as a top Tru Colors executive at the time. Taylor’s son was largely unscathed but Koredreese "Kory" Tyson — a high-ranking gang member and longtime Tru Colors employee — and Bri-yanna Williams were both fatally shot. Another woman was badly injured. While several alleged gang members are facing prosecution for the shooting, the investigation remains active.

Taylor also went into more detail than he had previously about the financial maneuvering necessary to keep Tru Colors — as a for-profit start-up — moving forward. He faced a dramatic set of hurdles, including a fight for access to aluminum cans to get his beer to market as demand skyrocketed because bars around the world had closed due to the pandemic, which had also derailed the supply chain. There were also quality issues with the beer itself and the destruction of Taylor’s ‘back up’ brewery in New Orleans by Hurricane Ida — a parade of misfortune that prompted Taylor to tell the Power Breakfast crowd, in language similar to his November WHQR interview, that he was “waiting for the locusts.”

Ever resourceful, Taylor said his team discovered they were eligible for a New Market Tax Credit, a federal program that provides tax credits for private investments in ‘distressed communities’ — in this case, $4.2 million, according to Taylor.

But, in Taylor’s telling of the story, negative media coverage tanked Tru Colors’ chances at getting the tax credit — as well as his final Hail Mary hope for saving the company.

‘Bordering on slander’

While Taylor told the crowd, “there's not a blame game or anything like this. Don't take it this way. I'm just telling you what happened,” he clearly assigned responsibility to the media, specifically WECT; he accused the outlet of publishing “a lot of articles and headlines that were very aggressive and in my opinion, very negatively biased, and frankly, at times bordering on slander.”

Taylor said the board member of another entity involved with the tax credit bailed after reading WECT coverage in the wake of the fatal shooting at his son’s house.

The articles, “insinuated that, me, that I was responsible for the death of certain people, and that my son's cellphone had been seized a month after that incident by the authorities and a bunch of other things,” Taylor said.

According to Taylor, the board member believed it was “too risky for to get involved” and “that they weren't going to go up against the big media.”

Taylor said he called WECT to protest, but was rebuffed.

“I called the WECT GM one time and said, ‘hey, man, you had this article here. This is clearly not true. It's indicating a number of things that are really not helping our cause. It's not true. Would you take it down,' and his response was, ‘everyone's entitled to an opinion,’ and he wouldn't take it down. And I agree everyone's entitled to an opinion, I don't agree that opinions that are known to be false should be amplified by the media,” Taylor said.

George Taylor describes his interaction with WECT and calls for community and business leaders to "be skeptical of the media."

Taylor singled out as false a WECT report, based on a search warrant in the double-murder investigation stemming from the shooting at his son’s house, that reported his son’s phone had been seized by deputies.

“None of which is true, by the way, none of which is true, and they know it,” Taylor said.

But it was true.

WWAY reportedmuch of the same story as WECT, with the added detail that it was an Apple iPhone XS seized from George Taylor III. WHQR independently reviewed Superior Court documents that detailed information investigators had located on George Taylor III’s phone. And the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office confirmed to WHQR that the search warrant was issued — and the phone seized.

WECT confirmed that Taylor had spoken to its GM and newsroom management, and that the story in question concerned an interview with the family of Bri-yanna Williams — who blamed Taylor for her death in an article released several days after the shooting. News Director Brad Myers said WECT stood behind all of its reporting.

While not mentioned by Taylor, the article concerning the seizure of his son’s phone also noted public criticism of Taylor’s business model — specifically the employment of active gang members — by District Attorney Ben David (New Hanover County Sheriff Ed McMahon would also voice similar concerns, first in an exclusive with WECT’s Fran Weller, and later to WHQR). It also noted Taylor’s refusal to speak to WECT from that point on.

After losing out on the tax credit, Taylor said he ran down another plan to purchase a brewery in California to get Tru Color's beer flowing. But the plan required a short-term loan and, according to Taylor, WECT’s coverage again dissuaded an otherwise willing financer.

But the final nail in the coffin, according to Taylor, was Charles Bethea’s in-depth report inThe New Yorker, a nearly 9,000-word profile on Tru Colors that Bethea worked on for the better part of a year.

“Modern-day slaveowner”

Taylor told the Power Breakfast crowd that despite the many difficulties faced by Tru Colors, exacerbated by WECT’s coverage, he was able to put together yet another rescue package to keep the company going — but that it was undone by The New Yorker’s reporting.

“And then finally, so this was the earlier part of this year, finally we put together — which was kind of a Hail Mary, to be quite honest — we were able to raise some money that we thought would get us into next year, while we kind of figured it out. Because we were in a difficult spot at this time. We got commitments from investors and then I learned that New Yorker magazine was writing an article about Tru Colors and it was negative, and that they were painting me as sort of a modern-day slave owner. Insane, but, you know, whatever. We, of course, had to disclose that to our investors — I would never have taken their money without disclosing this potential real issue — and first one dropped out, and then another, and then they all did. And that's in the end, what caused us to close,” Taylor told the Power Breakfast crowd.

George Taylor discusses the impact of The New Yorker article on Tru Colors.

Asked about Taylor’s comments, Bethea told WHQR in an email, “it’s unfortunate to learn that George Taylor has been spending time making false statements about my article on TRU Colors, which was published in The New Yorker in September.”

Bethea disputed Taylor’s suggestion that the article was “sprung upon him at some late stage of reporting” as “provably untrue.”

“The reality — supported by messages between us, which I've shared with Ben Schachtman — is that Taylor welcomed my journalistic inquiries about TRU all the way back in October of 2021 when I first approached him about doing an interview for The New Yorker. We spoke for more than six hours altogether, in person and by phone, at the end of 2021 and in early 2022, and continued to email almost all the way up to publication. Taylor knew throughout that I was reporting on his company, but, for his own reasons, he appears to have kept that knowledge from some of his investors,” Bethea wrote.

Bethea also responded to Taylor’s "modern-day slaveowner" comment.

“I also find it odd that he'd use the term ‘modern day slaveowner’ to describe my article's portrayal of him, which is far more nuanced. I can only assume that he was upset that I briefly noted his ancestry, which, like that of many white southerners, includes ties to supporters of the confederacy,” Bethea wrote.

The line in question from The New Yorker article, referring to Taylor, reads, “He grew up in Richmond, Virginia, where his family has deep roots — his great-great-grandfather George William Bagby, a prominent secessionist, fled the city, when the South fell, on the same train as Jefferson Davis.”

Nowhere in the article does the phrase ‘slaveowner’ — or any variation of that — appear.

However, over the last year, at least five employees and former employees of Tru Colors, both white and Black, have spoken to WHQR and referred to the company using the phrase “the modern plantation,” in part because of the white ownership of a company composed largely of Black employees. In his November interview with WHQR, Taylor rejected that characterization. Asked if he had concerns about the optics of white management and ownership, Taylor said “our executive team is made up of myself, two white guys, and KO [Khalilah Olokunola], who is our Chief People Officer, who is Black.” In a follow-up he added that there were several Black employees in ‘director’ positions.

Taylor calls for skepticism of the media

About halfway through Taylor’s presentation, almost as an aside, he called on the influential and well-connected people attending the Power Breakfast to shun his media enemies.

“I think as community leaders and business leaders here, we need to be skeptical of the media. And we need to not support those who want to trade journalistic integrity and our community's wellbeing for clicks and dollars,” Taylor said.

Asked if he had concerns about Taylor’s comments, and the lack of opportunity to moderate them or interrogate his claims with follow-up questions, Kaiser said, “I don't clear anybody's speeches before they make them. You know, people are free to say what they think and then people are welcome to challenge what they said. I would not go to any of our speakers and say, ‘Hey, if this is your view of this, please don't say it on our stage.’ If that’s his view, in my mind, he can share it and people can agree or disagree.”

Ultimately, Kaiser said he thought Taylor’s appearance was worthwhile to get him “on the record,” but acknowledged, “surely, there's gonna be a lot of questions – still. I'm sure there'll be coverage.”

Editor's note: WHQR contacted George Taylor on Tuesday morning, asking if he wanted to provide any additional context to his comments. At press time, he had not responded.

Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature. He loves spending time with his wife and playing rock'n'roll very loudly. You can reach him at BSchachtman@whqr.org and find him on Twitter @Ben_Schachtman.