Tuesday, January 01, 2008

How to run a business: New Belgium Brewery

i spent a few days during the winter advertising agency break in denver visiting friends and being reminded why i should live in colorado. alas, i'm back in the flatlands missing the mountains terribly. while there, we went to Fort Collins to imbibe in the fruits of two of my favorite breweries, Odell and New Belgium. while my time at Odell was delish, this post is about New Belgium and why it is setting a standard for companies, employees and employers everywhere. as the owner of a green(er) and socially-conscious company and an employee in the marketing world, many examples, best practices and innovations were taken from the tour, all of which, if heeded and followed, will make my own corner of the world better. first, some beer shots.

(@ Odell)

(@new belgium)

i've been a New Belgium loyalist and Fat Tire advocate for a long time. in fact, the first draft beer i ordered (legally) in college was New Belgium's hearty 1554. there is simply so much good to say about New Belgium that this post would begin to be a rambling love fest if i don't organize somehow, so here's what we're going to do. a review of the brewery and its relevance to corporate culture in two parts:
1) The company
2) The employee

so here's the environmental-and marketing-framed review. grab a brew and enjoy.

1) The Company

Let's start by getting the obvious out of the way: you'd be damn lucky to work here. and here's the fun detail in that statement: being around beer is not even the best part of the job. no, after touring New Belgium, I realized that this company's best asset is that it sees itself as something much, much bigger than a brewery and in turn, its employees and customers share that unique vision. if you have a short attention span, getting to this point has pretty well summed up the rest of the post, which will attempt to legitimate that claim.

so how does a company gain that kind of "something bigger" brand personality? by being attentive to its every working part. it's clear, when you tour New Belgium, that they've considered all aspects of production, customer interaction, employment and brand relationships to ensure they are doing better each step of the way. from taking a burden off of Fort Collins (and bettering New Belgium's efficiency) by treating its own wastewater to instituting an employee-owned culture that actually engages employees in major decisions (not the superficial "employee stock option" plans so many companies tout, but do little to make relevant). the employees vote on everything from the purchase of new technology (like the new brew kettles below) to new positions created within the staff.

as far as perks, the company gives each employee a custom-made cruiser bike upon their one-year anniversary (the building is teeming with bikes and the culture promotes pedal-commuting as equal parts fitness and environmentalism...and yes, i had a nerdgasm over this perk). employees get up to a case of beer per week to take home (most are not only environmental and cycling zealots, they know their beer backwards, sideways and suds).

but back to the main takeaway, the company has focused on every single moving part to find a way to make it better, meaningful and consistent with the brand. waste is turned into livestock feed. or, wind-powered production.

while most companies (production and service) work hard to cut corners, New Belgium is reaping brand and profit benefits from leaving no stone unturned. a great example of this brand attentiveness is New Belgium's sourcing of furniture, sculpture and merchandise from recycled-bike-parts-artists Resource Revival. here's a pic of the tasting-room barstool, constructed out of recycled bike rims.

New Belgium is well recognized among the green and sustainable circles as one of the best examples of a "green company." and like most successful companies, it gained this recognition (could be "innovative" or "socially responsible" or "design-centric") by implementing a mindset in each step of it's growth in an honest way. New Belgium didn't adopt sustainable production and management because it's trendy. it adopted the sustainable mindset because it was good citizenship, good business, and moreover, an inextricable part of its founders' and employees' personality. what a novel idea: believe in what your company stands for.

click here before going farther to get a great, short, view of the way the New Belgium has utilized its focus on sustainability and social consciousness to be profitable AND fun. an example in vision and strategy all companies should follow.

2) The Employee

the most commonly asked question and topic of conversation during our tour was "how do I get a job here." people hounded our wonderful tour guide. it spoke volumes about the company that he was such an educated zealot and perfect brand ambassador after just four months of employment. you'd think he was a founding partner. and that (bosses, managers, owners reading) is exactly what you want your employees to convey. he had buy in, both literally in his ownership plan and in his loyalty. he had excitement for the brand that was as sincere as you can get (not the dog and pony company tour or recruitment b.s.).

i enjoyed hearing him describe his employer. he loved his founders and reveled in the sacrifices they made to build the company. it was certainly a tone you don't hear often and his excitement for the brand and knowledge of its history was remarkable. he splits his time from bartender in the tasting room to tour guide (a hybrid position many employees have) and let us know that everyone from the founders to the marketing folks to the receptionists give group tours (how well does your receptionist live your brand?).

sure, he digs the perks. as a cycling nut, he is anxiously awaiting his one-year gift (what did you get at one year? a pen? nothing? was anyone keeping track?) and is thankful that his employers recognize and reward his contribution. he digs taking home new brews at night and sharing them with friends (all of whom are jealous of his job). he likes the fact that his employer is one of the most green companies around (click here for its sustainability overview). he likes that the cruiser bike he'll get in a few more months is representative of the company's growth strategy: slow and enjoyable, like a spin on a fat-tire cruiser and not just some corporate gift.

New Belgium employees benefit from open-ended growth opportunities, proven profitable ownership and from my short time there, a healthy HR program. this is something that has come to be a pet peeve of mine. HR is such an essential feature of a company. the employee benefits are huge, but moreover, if the HR dept. is in sync with the company's brand strategy, the way that brand is lived and absorbed internally positions the company to spread a level of brand awareness essential to success.

it's my experience that companies can be divided in two ways, both of which involve the way an employee is viewed: employee as a means-to-an-end (also referred to as a cog, replaceable, etc.) and employee as an irreplaceable linchpin able to propel the company forward or take it down. we've all worked for the first type of company and most of us spend much of our professional careers trying to find a place in the second type. New Belgium is one of the best examples of this second type i've ever seen. it's clear - from the genuinely enthusiastic bartender to the nerded-out brewer to the guy who cut me a 15 percent off deal on merchandise for being involved with Team Wonderbike - that empowerment is a cultural norm.

in short, New Belgium is a company that tries harder and does better. in return, its employees are more valuable and its customers go the extra mile to advocate for and be loyal to the brand.

whew! i'm thirsty.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks Andy.Greg from New Belgium here. I just finished reading your review of us and I'm totally energized (we tend to forget what a goosebumpy enterprise we work for).

Unless you object, I'm posting your blog on the New Belgium co-worker portal.

11:07 AM  
Blogger Andy Woolard said...

go for it, greg! speaks further volumes that you all are monitoring the web chatter. keep it up and my best for the new year.


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Blogger Thomas Gaines said...

I just came across this blog entry in a google search. Well-written and thoughtful. New Belgium is a company to get excited about. Here in Tennessee we eagerly anticipating the arrival of NBB beers, as they are expected to hit the stores June 24th!

2:47 PM  
Anonymous Blue Smoke Coffee Roasting Co. said...

Hi Andy,

You nailed it on the head with this article about New Belgium. I've long been a fan of New Belgium and was inspired by them to start my own eco-socially responsible business after being terribly disappointed with corporate america. Blue Smoke Coffee Roasting Co. (www.BlueSmokeCoffee.com) has been in business now for 3 years and have a very loyal customer base that appreciates our environmental and socially responsible business practices. New Belgium is a constant inspiration for us and it is great to see them getting this kind of positive press and I hope many other companies will be inspired by New Belgium.

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