Brewing Big (With a Micro Soul)

Brewing Big (With a Micro Soul)

At least three days a week, Kim Jordan hops on her Spot Brand custom bike and cycles the three miles from her house in Fort Collins, Colo., to the New Belgium Brewing Co. just outside the city's Old Town.

The path she takes meanders alongside a stream and over train tracks, not far from where hundreds of people converge during the company's summer "bike-in movie" events, gathering on the lawn to enjoy films paired with fine beers--like New Belgium's flagship Fat Tire Amber Ale, the organic wheat offering Mothership Wit and La Folie, a sour ale aged in the large French oak barrels that loom behind the bottling site.

In a town like this, Jordan's way of commuting might not seem out of place. But for the CEO of the third-largest craft brewing company in the U.S.--which posted $93 million in revenue last year, and is expected to break $100 million in 2009--her habits are progressive.

Just consider this: In less than two decades, she has increased production from a mere 220 barrels to a staggering 567,000 barrels. Employee ranks have swelled above 300, and the brewery has had to move into bigger facilities twice. Today, New Belgium is housed in a gleaming $100 million, 210,000-square-foot facility.

But it still has the soul of a startup. And a CEO who believes that is the secret to its success.

"I like collaboration," says Jordan, who's wearing her typical jeans and a plain shirt. Her office has no sweeping view or swanky furniture--it's crowded enough with just a desk and a loveseat. "I like riffing off of other people and that process where you build something that's bigger and better than you can imagine."

And it's true that New Belgium's culture has more in common with an early stage company than one approaching the 20-year mark. There's the 92 percent employee-retention rate, helped along by enviable perks: ownership in the company and a special edition cruiser bike after one year, an all-expenses paid trip to Belgium after five--and lots of free beer (two six-packs a week, plus a daily shift beer). The bulk of the marketing budget even goes toward events such as the Tour de Fat, a nationwide bicycling tour that spreads the gospel about alternative transport.

Jordan also points out that in 1998, New Belgium's workers voted to convert to 100 percent wind power, even though the move meant cutting into raises and bonuses. Now, some electricity is generated on site, too, using a waste-water treatment plant that pulls methane out of the brewing process. The brewery is also careful to invest in equipment that will pay for itself in energy savings.

"I think that's sexy," Jordan says. "Conservation is sexy."

Basement to Boardroom
It all sounds pretty groovy, but the fact is you can't get to where New Belgium is without serious work along the way.

In 1991, Jordan and her husband Jeff Lebesch quit their day jobs and made the incredible leap to start a brewery in their basement. The couple--she was a social worker, he was an engineer--took out a second mortgage to set up a brewing operation and made liberal use of several $10,000-limit credit lines.

"For about eight months, we didn't pay ourselves," she says. "We borrowed money from my parents and made payroll, but looking at the bills, we had to decide which to pay, which would have to wait--and who wouldn't notice if we didn't."

When they tried to move to a bigger facility, they hit a wall with funding. "That's the tough spot most entrepreneurs find themselves in, when they're not old enough or experienced enough as a company to give banks confidence--but if they can't figure out how to get that larger infusion of cash, they can't carry on," Jordan says. Lebesch solved the problem, she says, by telling equipment vendors that whoever helped them secure financing would get their business.

"I would guess you hear this kind of thing fairly frequently," she says. "It's really about entrepreneurial tenacity. We just said, 'We're going to figure this out, we're going to make it work.' And you get over that hump."

She made it work.

New Belgium came completely under her watch after Lebesch retired in 2001, and she has since increased production by nearly 250 percent. Expect even more change next year. The company recently bought out Lebesch's shares--and the couple's divorce should be finalized this month.

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Jennifer Wang is a staff writer at Entrepreneur magazine in Southern California.

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This article was originally published in the November 2009 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Brewing Big (With a Micro Soul).

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