AFTER GRADUATING from Brown University in Rhode Island eight years ago, buddies Tom First and Tom Scott chased a simple, mildly quixotic dream: to land jobs that would allow them to live on Massachusetts' beautiful Nantucket Island. Goal in mind, they moved to the island, founded Nantucket Allserve and, with the slogan "Ain't nothing those boys won't do," took any gig that came along—selling ice and muffins, pumping sewage, washing boats, shampooing dogs. Life seemed great until the summer crowd left, taking most of the work with them. "We were trying to find something year round because there was nothing stable about what we were doing," says Scott. Failure might mean returning to the mainland, putting on neckties and—shudder!—getting real jobs. And then, out of left field, came the solution: peaches.

Today Scott and First, both 31, are copresidents of Nantucket Nectars, a fruit juice purveyor whose leapfrogging revenues—expected to top $50 million this year—have made it one of Inc. magazine's 20 fastest growing private companies in America. "If I were on the outside looking in, I would say, 'These guys were an overnight success,' " says Scott. "Being on the inside, it's been a long, long time. We almost went out of business a thousand times."

Their entrepreneurial epic started when First, remembering a peach-based juice concoction he fell in love with while traveling in Spain, began trying to duplicate it in a blender. The pair began selling the drinks off a skiff to cruising boats anchored in Nantucket harbor. That worked, so they pooled their savings—$17,000—and hired a bottler to produce 1,400 cases. "I thought we were going to be giving it away for Christmas for the next 20 years," says First. But those drinks sold out quickly, and in 1992 the "juice guys," as they call themselves, began looking for investors who could help make their company grow.

Enter Michael Egan, then chairman of Alamo Rent-A-Car, who spent summers on his yacht in Nantucket. Egan, who eventually invested $500,000 and now owns half of the company, was impressed with the Toms' bulldog zeal, dressed-down approach, and the juice. "It's like the difference between having Häagen-Dazs and A&P ice cream," says Egan.

Still, all was not smooth sailing. The Toms learned painful lessons when they ventured into distribution—such as what it meant to own equipment and have employees. "Trucks were crashing, bottles were breaking," says Scott. "And someone would always be on the phone suing us for replacement of their fence post." One year workers pilfered more than $100,000 worth of stock from a warehouse. In 1994 the company grossed $6 million—and lost $2 million. "We were panic stricken," says First. "I remember calling Tommy on the phone and almost crying." The Toms made important changes—including letting other people handle distribution—and the next year made a small but indisputable profit. "It was very hard to dissuade them from their mistakes," says Egan. "But I've never been involved with two such fast learners in my life."

Not that they've gone completely corporate. Although they moved their office to Cambridge from Nantucket—alas, they now visit the island only on weekends and vacations—both Toms wear jeans to work, bring their dogs and taste all new flavors themselves. Labels still carry distinctive homey touches: pictures of Tom and Tom, plus a skinny-dipping male friend, and trivia about the company and the Toms' personal lives. One commercial described First, who has been married for three years to the former Kristan Cardoza, 30, a landscape architecture student, as "the stable juice guy," and Scott, whose breakup with a girlfriend was duly noted, as "the unstable juice guy." This has not stopped women from sending him fan letters.

What hath wealth wrought? Some stability, say the Toms, but not complacency. Scott owns a condo on the Boston waterfront and another on Nantucket; First splurged on a 26-year-old, 37-foot sloop—moored, of course, in Nantucket harbor. "We're both paranoid people," Scott says. "Neither of us goes home and says, 'All right, now we're where we want to be.' That doesn't exist." For sentimental reasons, they still own, and keep an eye on, Nantucket Allserve. "Working on the boat was the most exciting thing in the world," says Scott. "We moved around so fast and shared so much. You couldn't stop us."

NICK CHARLES
TOM DUFFY in Cambridge

  • Contributors:
  • Tom Duffy.