In the early 1990s, launching a craft brewery was innovative. But co-founder Kim Jordan was just getting started with New Belgium Brewing, one of the most innovative companies in the country.
Much of that comes from a focus on fostering a "high-involvement culture," which creates a loving, high-performing workforce.
"There's an expectation that our co-workers will be involved in the business of running the business," Jordan said in a recent discussion with JPMorgan Chase employees and two of its marketing executives, Kristin Lemkau and Samantha Saperstein.
Employees own 100 percent of New Belgium, based in Fort Collins, Colorado, after moving to an employee stock ownership plan in 2010, which became 100 percent in 2013. That means all of the nearly 800 co-workers of the company have access to its financials. And nearly all of them come to the annual retreat to hammer out the brewery's strategy for the year ahead.
That's helped generate solid growth. New Belgium distributes to all 50 states, selling nearly a million barrels of beer per year. That makes it the fourth-largest US craft brewery and eighth largest overall. Last year, it opened a second brewery in Asheville, North Carolina, to better serve distributors along the East Coast.
Inc.com named New Belgium one of America's 25 Most Audacious Companies and Outside magazine calls it a best workplace.
"The high-involvement culture has been an incredible engine for us, when coupled with the fun of beer and that love and talent," Jordan said.
Employees are invited to enjoy a beer after their shift and to take home a 12-pack each week. There's also the in-office fun slide as well as the all-expense paid trip to Belgium for employees after five years. This year, nearly 60 colleagues are joining Jordan to bike around Belgium and check out the breweries that inspired their own.
"I always want to make sure that we have time to break bread together," Jordan said. "It's not just sitting around and drinking beer. It's also the food that you're eating and the opportunity to just enjoy one another." That sense of community carries over into serious business decisions.
Jordan started the company in her basement with her then-husband, Jeff Lebesch. Even then, she was thinking about the environment—and about producing world-class beer, promoting beer culture and having fun.
Today, the company:
"If we don't get climate disruption right, a lot of the other stuff won't matter much," she said. "So we focus on renewable energy and climate-change advocacy."
The company encourages employees to bike to work, rewarding them with Detroit-made bicycles once they've been there a year. Of course, it reflects a commitment to employee health and the environment. But it's also a nod to the Belgian bike ride that inspired Lebesch to create Fat Tire Belgian Ale, the now-iconic beer that launched the company.
The company also tells its story through events such as the Tour de Fat, an annual beer, music and bike festival that raises money for local nonprofits. Now in its 18th year, the tour highlights local artists and buskers as well as big-name acts such as The Roots and Michael Franti & Spearhead.
The evolving image of bicycling parallels New Belgium's mission to be a force for good.
"When we started New Belgium, biking really was not considered a form of transportation," Jordan says. "Along with some other companies, we've been instrumental in changing that.
"When you believe in something and work at it from a lot of different angles—Tour de Fat, philanthropy, brand advocacy, policy making—you can be part of the force that changes the public dialogue about something like bicycle commuting," she said.
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