By: Michael Connors Issue: Vision Section: Business
Beer. How I love to opine about the virtues of the Valhalla of hops and I am fortunate to be able to touch on the topic for ICOSA a second time. For those who are interested in such matters, there is an entire culture built around beer and it is one of unity, community and compassion. Here in Colorado we have many smaller breweries—not to knock Coors and Budweiser—that have passionately pursued the niche of craft beer. And I believe there is no microbrew finer than my personal favorite Fat Tire.
I had the opportunity to talk with Kim Jordan, CEO of New Belgium Brewing, during a recent ACG Denver event. She is a compelling public speaker who has a genuine passion for what she does and who she works with, thus when she speaks about New Belgium she is simply telling the story of the brewery which is entwined with the story of Jordan herself.
ICOSA featured New Belgium in its 2009 issue on conscious capitalism because of its remarkable culture and approach to the environment and community. What they have there is truly special and unique. But because of the theme of this issue—vision—I want to focus on how Jordan’s leadership and vision have helped shape, foster, and perpetuate the culture of sharing and compassion that permeates their business.
Jordan noted in her talk that beer is a culmination of art, science and food. It is from this perspective that she tells the story of herself and her then husband, Jeff Lebesch, envisioning a future for their craft beers. She explained that before they ever sold any beer, they went on a hike in Rocky Mountain National Park and we talked about what they wanted this baby company of theirs to be. She said, “We wanted to produce world-class beers; we wanted to promote beer culture and the responsible enjoyment of beer; we wanted to be environmental stewards; and to have fun. . . . But one of the things I learned from this is that codifying what you want to be really helps focus energy in a core direction. We still live by this today—more than 20 years later.”
So while he created the beer, she was involved in everything else—and today the organization and its character speaks for itself. In fact, she was New Belgium’s first bottler, sales rep, distributor, marketer and financial planner. And, it is only from a foundation rooted in practicality that a vision can arise and thus be sustained. In many ways the sustainability of a vision can only be brought about by sound fundamentals that help guide, shape and perpetuate the identity of an organization.
Jordan comes from a Quaker family and was raised in the 1960’s so the drive and desire to compassionately change the world were embedded in her DNA. It is from this background that her influence and vision for New Belgium is heavily focused on sustainable practices, both environmental and social.
I believe that a good barometer into someone’s professional and personal world view is really enveloped in their mentors. When I asked Jordan about hers, she pointed to the work of Patagonia’s Yvon Chouinard—whose thoughtful work was woven throughout her speech. Both share similar corporate structures and business philosophies, but one is a brewer and one is a sporting goods company. Patagonia started when, as a young rock climber, Chouinard started developing equipment that was effective, yet kind to the environment. A standing saying at Patagonia echoes the sentiments of New Belgium, “We can’t bring ourselves to knowingly make a mediocre product. And we cannot avert our eyes from the harm done, by all of us, to our one and only home.”
These values seem to mesh almost identically with the culture that Jordan has encouraged and worked hard to instill. “We had to picture what collaboration looks like here because we’re so immersed in this reality, that for us, it’s as natural as breathing,” said Jordan. She went on, “Our employees never have to hide behind their true personalities. No matter what they do or who they are, they are New Belgium.” It’s a company steeped in leadership and vision to sustain and promote the growth of a corporate culture, while nourishing its people, and inspiring them to make a difference.
A visionary leader is much like a prism—a confluence of angles that helps focus the varied and disparate rays of their organization into the compact beams of color that help guide their people into the future, while maintaining the essential characteristics of the company that made them great to begin with. Jordan clearly understands the vital necessity of running a successful organization based on best practices in order to carry out her vision and this is what helps make her a successful leader and visionary. I asked her where she sees her organization decades from now and her answer was illuminating. She said, “It’s one of the interesting things about having a vision like ours; the purpose is to be a profitable brewery that makes our love and talent manifest; in some ways it’s so essential to be enduring always. And so, if 100 years from now if that essence is still core to how New Belgium shows up in the world—that will be fabulous.”
The final and key component to building a successful dream is finding people who share in that dream and are passionate about its success. The people that give her the most inspiration are those around her on a daily basis. New Belgium has a culture of collaboration at its core. “I get a lot of my inspiration from my coworkers… They’ll say ‘hey we should do this,’ and it will be about being better than we currently are. I have many pinch me moments with them and they often bring me to tears because I am so inspired by them.” When all levels of a company have access to such invested and truly interested ownership/leadership, there arises an openness where ideas can flourish and innovation can thrive. It is at this nexus where visionaries are born.
Personally, I am intrigued how beer becomes the emollient that brings festivities to life, when enjoyed responsibly. And, there is certainly a beer culture and beer people, as demonstrated by what New Belgium has accomplished, at its core.
Moving forward, Jordan’s greatest challenge may be to keep that sense of a small community brewery, as their success forces them to grow in order to fill the needs of an expanding and global marketplace. All I have to say is, ‘Good Luck Kim! You have my support. Oh yeah, one more pint of Fat Tire please.’