April 21, 2011

New Belgium Brewing, CEO: ‘Let your life speak’

What started in the basement of then married couple Jeff Lebesch and Kim Jordan in 1991 has evolved into the third largest craft brewery  in the United States. New Belgium Brewing Co. Inc. is now owned by Jordan, her sons and her coworkers. The company’s core values and beliefs have earned not only the highest respect among their 380+ employee-owners, but numerous awards as well. New Belgium is a Colorado success story.

Kim Jordan will be the keynote speaker at the Women’s Entrepreneurs’ Leadership Summit at Colorado State University on April 27; visit www.entrepreneurialwomen.org for more information.

Q: How did New Belgium come to be?

A: Jeff volunteered at Sierra Nevada (brewery in California) and took brewing classes at UC Davis. Then he went to New Albion Brewing, and hung around Boulder Brewing Co. In 1987 he started winning awards in national home brew competitions with his own beers. In 1989, when Doug, Corkie and Wynne Odell opened Odell Brewing Co. in Fort Collins, we became friends. We found our niche in the bottled craft brewing scene.

Q: What were your initial sources and start-up costs?

A: We used credit cards and $60,000 through a second mortgage on our house. 

Q: When did you start having positive cash flow?

A: Within six months of starting the company.

Q: Did you use a business plan?

A: We had a set of values, a purpose, and outcomes we wanted to achieve, more like guiding principles and objectives.  We had financial pro-formas, and a lot of work went into the diagrams for the electricity and the how the tanks were going to be engineered and manufactured.

Q: What was your vision for New Belgium?

A: In the spring of 1991, before we ever made a bottle of beer, we asked ourselves what we wanted this company to stand for. We came up with 1. produce world class Belgium style beers; 2. promote beer culture; 3. be environmental stewards; and 4. have fun.

By 1995, as we got more customers and coworkers, we expanded our vision to take their needs into account. We combined open-book management, employee ownership (our coworkers own 41 percent  of the company), and a high-involvement culture. Our coworkers can see all financials, And our plans for branding, sales, capital expenditures, hiring, budgets, and strategies – and they participate in strategy development.  Once everyone knows where true north is, it frees people from uncertainty and allows them to do more creative work.  Powerful ideas come from all across the company: big ideas, little ideas, money-saving ideas, and culture-building ideas.  I think most people here would tell you that they feel their contribution matters.

Q: Where do you see yourself and your company in 10 years?

A: When we talk about being a business role model and creatively approaching the craft of brewing, my coworkers really get on the edge of their seats.  Of course we all want to be profitable and growing, but, more, we want our work to mean something and to bring us joy and a sense of accomplishment.  We are working with other breweries around the United States to develop some partnerships which  – who knows? – may lead to bigger things.  I think it would be great to create a consortium of breweries that collaborate and brew across the country thereby minimizing our environmental impact and being closer to our customers. 

I might move into a chair role by then, as opposed to CEO.  I’m cognizant of the fact that this has been an incredible gift and we’re involved in a craft – so I want to remain a part of that. Of course, you never know where you will be.

Q: Tell me about your biggest challenges and anything you wish you had done differently.

A: It was originally a challenge to provide opportunities for our coworkers. Growth by itself was never compelling. We thought, “Gosh, we have all of these dedicated and talented people – and if we don’t grow, all of us are going to sit in the same chairs.” 

I think everything adds to both the mistakes and the successes – and you can’t foresee either. It’s following instincts, knowing the basics and sticking with what’s important.

Q: What aspects of ownership have been the most rewarding and unexpected?

A: My biggest reward has been coming to understand how powerful we can be. Being in this industry is a gift because people are so interested in what we’re doing, and I don’t want to squander it. I want to spread the power. I still have ‘Pinch me!’ moments. I walk in and I can’t believe this is our brewery. Watching our people get married, have children, and grow into their professional lives and their community involvement is really rewarding and really fun.

Q: What’s most important for employees?

A: Key employee attributes are enthusiasm and dedication, which are slightly different but go hand in hand. We want generally good people who are decent human beings and   are committed to community. And there has to be execution. We get a lot of things done around here.

Q: Do you recommend an MBA for an entrepreneur? Any recommended training or resources?

A: We don’t look for people with MBAs when we hire. It is important to have the ability to read financial statements, understand ratios, and have a good overview of general HR legal policy, but you can learn all those things on the Web or you can hire people to do them.

Mastermind groups would probably be worth doing, once I’m not so busy. I have also used business coaches and I’m sure I’ll use one again.

Q: Do you have a slogan to live by or what might your tombstone say?

A: “We are right where we’re supposed to be.” I think that would be funny on a tombstone. I am also very fond of George Fox’s saying, “Let your life speak.”

Q: Is there anything else you’d share with an aspiring entrepreneur? 

A: It’s important to love what you do. It is not unusual to work 15 hours a day at the beginning of any entrepreneurial venture. It’s not unlike raising a baby.  In that early period, it takes a lot of dedication and nurturing, the equivalent of work. Babies move into childhood, go to school, begin to take less of your time. The same progression applies to a business. If you’re still having dinner table conversations about work on most nights and your business is more than 5 years old, then I’d say you haven’t figured out how to balance those things. In anything you do, it is particularly satisfying when you figure out what feeds your soul and get that into the mix.

Brian Schwartz is the founder of 50 Interviews Inc., and can be reached at www.50interviews.com.

What started in the basement of then married couple Jeff Lebesch and Kim Jordan in 1991 has evolved into the third largest craft brewery  in the United States. New Belgium Brewing Co. Inc. is now owned by Jordan, her sons and her coworkers. The company’s core values and beliefs have earned not only the highest respect among their 380+ employee-owners, but numerous awards as well. New Belgium is a Colorado success story.

Kim Jordan will be the keynote speaker at the Women’s Entrepreneurs’ Leadership Summit at Colorado State University on April 27; visit www.entrepreneurialwomen.org for more information.

Q: How…

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