Looking at iconic brewery New Belgium on its 30th anniversary

Again in 1991, the world of beer appeared fairly a bit totally different. A six-pack would have put you again about $5.56, and the prospect that that six-pack was from a craft brewery was small; there have been simply 322 craft breweries throughout the U.S., which all collectively produced lower than 220,000 barrels of beer that yr. New Belgium Brewing, now a well known identify, was simply getting off the bottom.

Thirty years later, there are actually practically 9,000 craft breweries within the nation, which collectively produce greater than 20 million barrels of beer annually, and New Belgium has discovered itself among the many high of that lengthy checklist. Its Voodoo Ranger IPA is the highest IPA model within the nation, and the corporate says its on monitor to hit 1 million barrels of beer bought in 2021. New Belgium often garners media consideration for its spectacular enterprise practices: being named to varied lists of the best places to work; pulling a bad-tasting-beer PR stunt (Torched Earth beer, anybody?) to carry consciousness to local weather change and the way it threatens even the beer business; and being talked about as a key player of not solely Colorado’s beer business but in addition craft beer at giant.

[Photo: courtesy New Belgium]

The corporate’s construction additionally has taken totally different kinds over these years. In 2000, it arrange an ESOP—worker inventory possession plan, which means the employees personal the corporate. It was the primary craft brewery to take action, and it turned a shining instance of how worker possession can work and the way corporations will be extra equitable. Although there are greater than 6,000 ESOPs within the U.S. immediately, Loren Rodgers, government director of the Nationwide Heart for Worker Possession, advised Quick Firm in 2019 that when folks ask concerning the enterprise construction, he factors them to New Belgium. “They’ve hardwired worker possession into what they do,” he mentioned. “They’re pioneering a distinct company mannequin that’s higher, extra democratic, extra simply.”

However then New Belgium modified once more. In 2019, it was acquired by Lion Little World Drinks, an Australian subsidiary of the Japanese beverage conglomerate Kirin Holdings, ending its employee-ownership period. It was a transfer that sparked a way of loss for employee-ownership advocates who questioned if the model may preserve its values because it grew, and if worker possession is even worth fighting for with out system-wide modifications to our total economic system. In 2021 there was yet one more shift, when Lion introduced it could purchase Bell’s Brewery, bringing collectively Bell’s and New Belgium to make what they are saying is now America’s largest craft brewery.


Within the firm’s 30th anniversary yr, trying again by way of the annals of New Belgium’s historical past affords classes in how enterprise choices play out, the affect of worker possession, and the way an organization can maintain onto its preliminary mission and ethos by way of all its rising pains and nice progress.

“Considerably suspicious of the revenue motive and commerce”

Kim Jordan admits she was a bit of naive when she cofounded New Belgium Brewing together with her then-husband, Jeff Lebesch, in 1991. She had been a social employee earlier than coming into the craft beer world (and he an electrical engineer after which avid residence brewer), and if beginning a brewery didn’t work out, she says now, she figured they might all the time return to their day jobs. “I didn’t actually know what I may or couldn’t do,” she says, “and I feel that’s an enormous profit, since you’re not working off a ‘nicely, folks all the time do it this manner’ playbook.”

Kim Jordan bottling in 1991. [Photo: courtesy New Belgium]

Her social employee background offered a distinct sort of perspective to working a enterprise, she provides—together with the truth that she was raised in a “pretty liberal household,” one which was “considerably suspicious of the revenue motive and commerce and all of these issues.” Earlier than they made any beer, the founders made a set of 4 key rules to information each firm determination: create world-class beers; promote the tradition of beer; be accountable environmental stewards; and have enjoyable. These have developed simply barely however stayed in step with their intent, now studying as: make world-class beers for everybody; do proper by folks; encourage social and environmental change; and have “a hell of lots” of enjoyable (particularly). These are a part of what the corporate refers to as its “human-powered enterprise practices,” a philosophy that places the well-being of its staff at the middle of all the things New Belgium does.

It’s these rules that guided New Belgium towards its much-touted advantages, like giving each worker a motorbike once they begin, a free journey to Belgium (“the nation that impressed all of it”) after 5 years, free healthcare premiums and entry to an onsite medical clinic, and paid sabbaticals at staff’ 10- and 20-year anniversaries. They’re what guided New Belgium towards turning into a certified-B company, making its Fats Tire beer the nation’s first licensed carbon-neutral beer, and turning into the primary craft brewery to attain an ideal rating on the Human Rights Marketing campaign’s Corporate Equality Index.

They have been additionally the forces behind New Belgium turning into worker owned. When the corporate turned an ESOP in 2000, Jordan remarked on its doubtlessly monumental impact: “There are few occasions in life the place you get to make selections that can have multigenerational affect—that is a type of occasions,” she mentioned in a statement then. A type of employee-ownership, an ESOP remains to be totally different from a worker-owned cooperative, by which every employee has one equal share of the corporate. Within the ESOP monetary mannequin, a belief acquires some or all of an organization’s inventory (New Belgium turned 100% ESOP-owned in 2013). Workers are beneficiaries of that belief, and because the firm generates revenue, their shares develop in worth. When workers go away, they receives a commission out the worth of their shares.

When she was first trying to go the ESOP route, Jordan had mentioned to firm consultants that she needed to “acknowledge that it takes all of us to construct fairness, and we should always all really feel the reward of that.” Jordan recollects one of many consultants responding: “Usually, what you do is you be sure you are incenting your management workforce, however, you understand, a forklift driver? You may get a brand new forklift driver any day, so that you don’t really want to incent them.” To Jordan, that was indicative of numerous enterprise’ mindsets, however it wasn’t in keeping with her’s. Considering of 1 forklift driver particularly, who nonetheless works for the corporate, she says, “I’d have by no means needed him to really feel like I may get a substitute for him any day.”


Kim Jordan, founder & government chair, and Steve Fechheimer, CEO. [Photo: courtesy New Belgium]

In follow, there was nonetheless a hierarchy inside the ESOP; Jordan was CEO till 2017, after which Steve Fechheimer turned CEO. However there wasn’t the identical distance between that place and on a regular basis workers as at most corporations. Workers may electronic mail Fechheimer their doubts or considerations a couple of new product, and a 10-employee collective would really run conferences. The pay hole was smaller, too, with the ratio of CEO-to-average-employee-pay lower than 10-to-1 in 2019, in comparison with 351-to-1 amongst most U.S. corporations. (Now, New Belgium says its CEO earns lower than 15 occasions the revenue of its median employee.)

Ending worker possession, creating generational affect

Regardless of these advantages, there have been nonetheless monetary challenges with the ESOP. New Belgium wanted money for the ESOP repurchase obligations and to pay future-selling shareholders; the corporate additionally needed to extend its advertising and marketing spending and proceed rising the model. Nonetheless, as an Australian subsidiary of a Japanese beverage conglomerate, Lion Little World Drinks sounded just like the antithesis of a Colorado-born-and-bred craft brewery, however to Jordan, it was a path to creating New Belgium the most effective craft brewery it may very well be.

The summer time previous to the sale, the New Belgium board met with Lion’s board for dinner in Jordan’s yard. “We spent numerous time speaking about that is who we’re . . . we’re having you in our houses, we wish to perceive what you consider our core values as a result of if we go ahead, that’s going to be actually necessary,” she says. The power of that dialog, she says, left each Lion and New Belgium board members “feeling prefer it was sort of magical.” However that magic nonetheless meant the top of the ESOP. When requested if that finish got here too quickly, Jordan is practical about how that change seems when contrasted together with her previous enthusiasm for the mannequin.

[Photo: courtesy New Belgium]

“My perspective has modified over time,” she says. An organization’s monetary scenario might by no means be set in stone. As Fechheimer put it to her just lately, “Steadiness sheets and capitalization methods have a shelf life.” The best way an organization handles its funds—like, say, by way of an ESOP—might not final endlessly, relying on what that firm has to take care of because it grows, and a board all the time has a fiscal accountability to contemplate such modifications. “I form of knew that with a bit of extra sophistication in 2019 [when New Belgium was acquired],” she says. “I’m undecided I used to be conscious of the way it was going to really feel to have so many alternative pursuits to need to financially attend to.”

[Photo: courtesy New Belgium]

On one hand, she had hoped forces would enable New Belgium to go on as an ESOP endlessly. On the opposite, the employees approved the sale, and even that temporary time in that construction netted New Belgium coworkers greater than $200 million in payouts from the take care of Lion. On the time of the acquisition, greater than 300 ESOP individuals every acquired at least $100,000 from the sale, and one other 450 acquired 5-figure payouts. “I feel that’s outstanding,” says Jordan. “I’m actually proud that lots of people have been in a position to tangibly really feel that. However I did need to undergo a little bit of grieving . . . the legacy appeared totally different than I had pictured it in my thoughts.”

Fechheimer provides that regardless that the ESOP might not have lasted for generations, the payouts are nonetheless prone to have generational affect, to be producing materials wealth. “This isn’t an immaterial quantity,” says Fechheimer. “That is coworkers speaking about with the ability to fund faculty training or with the ability to purchase a house. . . . And regardless that we don’t have that ESOP in place now, all the opposite practices we’ve had, we’ve maintained.”

Preserving values

What’s New Belgium’s legacy if not as a stellar instance of how worker possession can develop a profitable firm? The way it’s dealt with the pandemic could be one other worthwhile enterprise mannequin. Simply months after the November 2019 acquisition, COVID restrictions instantly shuttered the brewery’s tasting rooms; and with new, strict security protocols in place, solely the individuals who make and ship the product got here to work in individual. For all these whose jobs have been “paused,” the corporate discovered work in different areas, and to this point, New Belgium has not laid off a single worker due to the pandemic.

This goes again to these “human-powered enterprise practices.” Particularly amid supply-chain challenges and different COVID-related points, “you understand how important every coworker is to have the ability to do what we do with the enterprise,” Fechheimer says. “If the one individuals who confirmed up tomorrow have been my management workforce, we’d not be making or delivery any beer.”

[Photo: courtesy New Belgium]

Would issues have appeared totally different if the corporate had stayed worker owned? “When you’ve achieved the transaction, there’s 100 variables that change,” he says. “So how issues would have performed out . . . it’s arduous to know the reply.” What’s tangible, nonetheless, are the successes the corporate has seen just lately: the power to restructure jobs, keep away from layoffs, and even rent extra folks. (Since December 2020, New Belgium has employed about 100 extra staff, and is now a roughly 800-person firm.) It’s additionally elevated its minimal wage: In August, it went from $15 an hour to $18.50 (federal minimal wage is $7.25 an hour, the identical because it was in 2009). All amid a pandemic.

Fechheimer thinks these successes took place, partly, due to the monetary flexibility that got here with being a part of Lion. “It gave us time to determine what it was we needed to do,” he says. “I didn’t have to fret a couple of quarterly monetary report due in two weeks. We have been actually in a position to take a little bit of an extended view.”

A part of that longer view now consists of becoming a member of up with Bell’s Brewery, which was bought to Lion in November 2021. Founder Larry Bell has been buddies with New Belgium’s management for years, Jordan says, and so they share related cultural values. “For the becoming a member of of any two corporations to achieve success, you’ve bought to have a cultural alignment,” Fechheimer provides. He factors to how each New Belgium and Bell’s are “OG craft beers” (Bell’s was based in 1985), how they each help environmental points (Bell’s has acquired awards for its sustainability efforts), and the way they deal with their workforce members. New Belgium makes use of MIT knowledge round a living wage, and early on Fechheimer says he discovered that Bell’s makes use of the identical knowledge set.


[Photo: courtesy New Belgium]

Simply as no CEO may have recognized how 2020 (and 2021) would end up once they despatched staff residence throughout the lockdown, it’s inconceivable to know what’s on the horizon for the subsequent 30 years for New Belgium. However no matter it’s, Fechheimer and Jordan say the corporate shall be guided by those self same core values Jordan sketched out in 1991.

Fechheimer says that the “unbiased nature of New Belgium” has stayed true over the previous two years, even beneath Lion’s possession. New hires undergo the identical core-values coaching as earlier than, and the corporate just lately unveiled a brand new inside system of governance with a steering committee, chaired by Fechheimer, that can focus on the corporate’s human-powered enterprise practices and think about new commitments which are in keeping with that ethos (corresponding to, new worker process forces, on all the things from carbon neutrality to DEI). The purpose is to maintain the unique values of the corporate and assist staff play an lively function, even because it grows, and management inevitably modifications over time.

At a time when extra corporations are desirous about goal, serve stakeholders (their workers, the planet), not simply shareholders, and stability a long-term view with short-term calls for, New Belgium is already forward of the sport on that rating. Over the subsequent few many years, Jordan hopes they could be a firm that strikes these conversations even additional. “The function of companies to make a greater planet is a extremely, actually necessary factor, and that’s not simply stability sheets and [profit and loss statements],” she says. “It’s enhancing each the human situation and the planetary situation.”