Subscribe to Here’s the Deal, our politics newsletter for analysis you won’t find anywhere else.
Thank you. Please check your inbox to confirm.
Leave your feedback
Colorado's New Belgium Brewing is known for its quirky culture, its Fat Tire beer and its distinction as a worker-owned business. Why did the founder of this successful craft brewery sell to her employees? Economics correspondent Paul Solman reports.
But, first, let's look at an unusual way of running a business, by having your employees own the company. One popular craft brewery has made a name for itself in part by going that route, with strong results so far.
Economics correspondent Paul Solman has the story. It's part of our weekly series Making Sense, which airs every Thursday on the "NewsHour."
New Belgium Brewing, known for its quirky culture and Fat Tire, its Belgian brew. This is its notorious Tour de Fat, a beer-financed travel-fest pushing bicycles over cars.
At company headquarters in Fort Collins, Colorado, co-founder Kim Jordan loves to show off the suds themselves.
KIM JORDAN, Co-Founder, New Belgium Brewing:
Should I show you how to do the perfect pour?
The perfect pour, yes.
A little bit out. Whoops. Oh, I — no, no, I screwed it up already.
Oh, this is a perfectly…
This is a perfectly horrible pour.
But what drew us here wasn't the beer, though New Belgium now sells 4 percent of all U.S. craft beer, 1 percent of all the beer in America. New Belgium's distinction, however, as a business is that it is entirely owned by its workers.
Ex-New Yorker Doug Miller has been at New Belgium for 20 years. Like most Americans, he had no stake in the firms he worked for in his early days back East.
DOUG MILLER, Warehouse Technician, New Belgium Brewing:
It's a job and you're just coming in and you're punching the clock and you're doing your job. Here, you just do it more because you're working for yourself. Like, I don't work for New Belgium. I am working for Doug Miller. I am working for people who work here. That's the difference.
Beer is malt, and hops, and yeast, and water.
And why did co-founder and CEO Kim Jordan sell the company to her workers, as opposed to a well-heeled rival or a private financial firm?
One of things that we think is a big societal issue is this widening gap between the haves and the have-nots. And we realized that we had an opportunity to support people owning something that was increasing in value. Shared equity has been an incredibly powerful engine for us.
CHRIS MACKIN, Partner, American Working Capital:
New Belgium's a great example of using this structure to preserve a legacy.
Worker ownership consultant Chris Mackin, who's advised New Belgium.
For a company like that to be consumed by a multinational firm, and to lose its identity, to lose what's special about it in order to make a few extra bucks, that's not what Kim Jordan was going to do.
You will notice on your glass here, see this lacing? That's actually a sign of a well-made beer.
So, the founder became a poster child for worker ownership, initiating an ESOP, an employee stock ownership plan, which began giving stock gradually to its workers and ended up in a 100 percent takeover.
What she's done has made it possible to reserve that independence and to be able to reward the people who made her a wealthy woman.
Reward them with shares they sell back to the company when they retire, a stock-based pension plan. ESOPs represent both ownership and retirement savings, which is why Congress made them the only pension plans allowed to borrow money for funding.
We were so excited to brew this beer that we decided to put it on tap today.
New Belgium, with a host of varieties, is now the eighth largest brewery in America. Its fans flow through the building on tours all the day long.
How do you pour a beer? I will show you how. And then the taps are yours, OK?
The employees seem, well, pretty juiced themselves.
CARRIE WEADY, Graphic Designer, New Belgium Brewing:
I feel like I have a stake in what happens here and that I have a — play a part in making this awesome place successful, yes.
Tiffany Banfield works in the marketing department for New Belgium.
So you liked it where it was?
Carrie Weady is a graphic designer.
The better I do, the better we do, and I personally take that to every day of my job, and it really does inspire us all to go above and beyond in a way that I haven't experienced at other employers.
So, why doesn't everybody do it?
Because they don't believe that it is a profitable model.
But it is, Kim Jordan insists, if management puts in the effort and is willing to empower workers in a variety of ways.
We're more profitable than our industry standards. We have a 3 percent turnover rate. And more importantly to us is our feeling of our engagement with our co-workers.
Each of those cities brought some pretty great incentives to the table.
A key feature of New Belgium's worker engagement: open-book management, teaching every employee how to read the books.
And so they had classes for us to go to. Like, we're going to teach you how to read an income statement, how to read a balance sheet, how to understand cash flow, all those things.
The upshot? The workers know exactly how the company is doing financially, and how they are doing as well.
So, I am making like the same money now that I was making 20 years ago, when I was working in the Bronx in New York City. But I have more money now. It's just because I can manage it better. That's the thing that blows me away, is that you can be making $30,000, $40,000, $50,000 a year and live in a $300,000 house if you manage your money well.
Are you operating at a profit this month? You know, that's what you got to ask yourself.
To Chris Mackin, who's been pushing worker ownership since the 1980s, ESOPs are a no-brainer, the main and obvious obstacle, workers don't have the money to buy their businesses.
For this idea to go to scale, you have to find some way in which working people who don't have assets can acquire companies that are worth value.
So, Mackin has started an investment fund that will allow worker groups to compete with private equity firms and well-heeled competitors when an owner wants or needs to sell.
The other beer that we make is called Felix, and that's the one that we get to taste today.
Happily for its workers, New Belgium didn't need Mackin's money. A bank ponied up much of the cash to buy Kim Jordan's stock. She financed the rest by accepting IOUs from the company, to be paid off from future profits. The risk, that the company will flounder, meaning lower pensions for workers and iffy IOUs for lenders, which suggests that it might take an unusually committed owner to make worker ownership happen.
So, why did Jordan take the chance?
One of the things that has been really fun about business is understanding that you can choose what you do with profits. You get this one life, right? And you get to think about, what am I going to do that makes me sort of joyful and sing? And this makes me joyful.
Fortunately for her, Kim Jordan's IOUs look like a pretty safe bet. New Belgium is slated to open a new operation in North Carolina in 2016. And since it's only in 38 states thus far, the beer may be coming soon to a state near you.
And push in now.
And it will stop it right there. OK.
You are very close to a perfect pour there.
For the PBS NewsHour, this is economics correspondent Paul Solman, long an enthusiast of worker ownership, but only recently of the perfect pour.
Watch the Full Episode
Support Provided By:
Additional Support Provided By: