Executive Briefings

Once a Craft Beer Darling, New Belgium Is Struggling to Go From Niche to National

In January 2013, Kim Jordan, the cofounder and CEO of New Belgium Brewing, called an all-hands meeting and stunned employees by announcing that the company had been sold.

Once the gasps subsided, she told staffers that the envelopes on their chairs contained the identity of the buyer. Inside they found a mirror, Jordan's way of informing them that they were the new owners of New Belgium through an employee stock-ownership plan.

Two years later, the more than 600 employee-owners of New Belgium awoke to a Reuters report that stunned them again: New Belgium was up for sale, its corporate leaders looking for a buyer willing to pay $1bn for the Fort Collins, Colorado, craft brewer. A brewery tour guide, Dave Ponceby, remembers having trouble mustering enthusiasm that day as he walked visitors through the spotless, high-ceilinged brewhouse, past the four gleaming stainless-steel tanks where barley and hops are mashed and boiled. He gave his usual spiel but couldn't bring himself to talk about what it meant to be an employee-owner. "I was hurt," he says. "The rumor was that they were going to sell to Anheuser-Busch, which would have changed everything."

Anheuser-Busch InBev had in fact been buying up craft brewers. At the same time, New Belgium customers were defecting to microbreweries. In the past five years, according to the Brewers Association, the number of brewers in the United States has more than doubled to 5,300 and counting. Fort Collins alone has 21, with 4 more in the works. Increasingly, New Belgium has failed to match cachet with the smaller players and marketing dollars with the Goliaths. "New Belgium is too big to be small and too small to be big," says Beer Business Daily editor Harry Schuhmacher. Jordan's response: Get bigger.

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Once the gasps subsided, she told staffers that the envelopes on their chairs contained the identity of the buyer. Inside they found a mirror, Jordan's way of informing them that they were the new owners of New Belgium through an employee stock-ownership plan.

Two years later, the more than 600 employee-owners of New Belgium awoke to a Reuters report that stunned them again: New Belgium was up for sale, its corporate leaders looking for a buyer willing to pay $1bn for the Fort Collins, Colorado, craft brewer. A brewery tour guide, Dave Ponceby, remembers having trouble mustering enthusiasm that day as he walked visitors through the spotless, high-ceilinged brewhouse, past the four gleaming stainless-steel tanks where barley and hops are mashed and boiled. He gave his usual spiel but couldn't bring himself to talk about what it meant to be an employee-owner. "I was hurt," he says. "The rumor was that they were going to sell to Anheuser-Busch, which would have changed everything."

Anheuser-Busch InBev had in fact been buying up craft brewers. At the same time, New Belgium customers were defecting to microbreweries. In the past five years, according to the Brewers Association, the number of brewers in the United States has more than doubled to 5,300 and counting. Fort Collins alone has 21, with 4 more in the works. Increasingly, New Belgium has failed to match cachet with the smaller players and marketing dollars with the Goliaths. "New Belgium is too big to be small and too small to be big," says Beer Business Daily editor Harry Schuhmacher. Jordan's response: Get bigger.

Read Full Article