It’s a bright morning in Fort Collins, Colorado. An overnight fog has just lifted. And inside the New Belgium Brewery headquarters, a big, glassy barn of a building, the craft beer producer’s CEO, Steve Fechheimer, is facing a firing squad.
“There’s been some concern around Mural,” he says, referring to the company’s most significant new product launch in four years. It’s an “agua fresca cerveza”—a low-alcohol, lower-calorie fruity beverage resembling a shandy that’s the opposite of a typical beer drinker’s beer. And New Belgium, the fourth-largest craft brewery in America, has built a reputation on making beer for people who like beer.
The crowd that Fechheimer is encountering today isn’t an investor group or a board of directors. It’s a roomful of employees, a hundred or so, who’ve gathered for the company’s monthly meeting. Lately, employees have been emailing Fechheimer, expressing their doubts that Mural can compete with hard seltzers, the refreshingly light malt beverages that have been stealing share within the $38 billion U.S. beer market. One person at the meeting asks if New Belgium is spending enough on marketing, to make sure people “get” Mural. Another wants to know if the company plans to play up the wellness angle on the packaging. Maybe this new offering was just too complicated, too different from the company’s other brews, such as Fat Tire and Voodoo Ranger IPAs, and not enough like those boozy seltzers from competitors White Claw and Bon & Viv. Mural is . . . well, it’s weird.
Fechheimer, a 6-foot-tall executive with close-cropped hair and a clean-shaven face, who joined New Belgium in the summer of 2017 after a stint as chief strategy officer for Beam Suntory (as in: Jim Beam), stands out from the generally scruffy New Belgium employees. Yet he stands fully among them, never doing the imperial, political, CEO thing. There is no patronizing “Good question” response before pivoting away to safer turf. He simply admits: “Confidence in the [Mural] plan is lower than where I’d like it to be.”
Then he does something even more remarkable: He turns the meeting back over to the folks who are actually running it, a 10-employee collective called the Posse.
Posse is—nearly—ESOP spelled backward, and ESOP stands for employee stock ownership plan, which is underpinned by a simple, powerful idea: The workers own the place. So the CEO works for them. New Belgium employees are always emailing Fechheimer with ideas, stopping him in the hall, or, often, sharing their thoughts over a beer at the end of the day. (Technically, an ESOP is a slightly arcane financial vehicle, a trust that takes out a loan to buy the company: As the loan is repaid, shares get distributed back to employees. As the company grows—and its shares increase in value—the stock grows in value too, and the ESOP itself functions for workers like a retirement account, holding their equity.)
The ESOP structure is not a New Belgium innovation. There are around 6,660 businesses with some form of ESOP in America today, representing more than 10 million employees (at companies such as Publix supermarkets and Gensler, the architecture firm). They don’t all operate in the same way, but when anyone who is ESOP-curious asks Loren Rodgers, executive director of the National Center for Employee Ownership, about it, he usually sends them to New Belgium’s glassy barn in Colorado. “They’ve hardwired employee ownership into what they do,” Rodgers says. “They’re pioneering a different corporate model that’s better, more democratic, more just.”
Employee ownership is an idea with surprising appeal across the political spectrum. Last year, Kirsten Gillibrand, New York’s junior senator, inserted into the 788-page defense bill a provision called the Main Street Employee Ownership Act, which made it easier for a business to transition to employee ownership by requiring the Small Business Administration’s loan guarantee program to be available for ESOPs. Republicans went along with the provision, which passed with the rest of the bill, not merely because it cost nothing but also because it helped business owners, particularly those looking to retire and sell their company back to employees. Alex Brill, a resident fellow at the right-of-center American Enterprise Institute, studies the effects of tax policy on business and has found that employees in ESOPs “get better at the job, and instead of quitting as soon as they get skills, they stay and get more skills.” The hosts of leftist YouTube shows drink Fat Tire on air to support New Belgium’s ownership arrangement. Meanwhile, the patron saint of free-market capitalism, President Ronald Reagan, promoted the ESOP idea in a 1987 speech, saying, “I can’t help but believe that in the future we will see in the United States and throughout the western world an increasing trend toward the next logical step [in capitalism]: employee ownership. It is a path that befits a free people.”
In an era when the ratio of CEO pay to that of the average employee has grown from 15-to-1 in 1990 to 400-to-1 today, ESOPs are a way—possibly the way—to recapture and redistribute that capital to the less, and even the least, advantaged. At New Belgium, the ratio is less than 10-to-1, which matches that at most employee-owned companies, and the median salary workers make is about $65,000 annually. It’s not just that CEOs are poorer. Everyone else is richer. According to a March 2019 study from the Institute for the Study of Employee Ownership and Profit Sharing at Rutgers University, low- and moderate-income ESOP workers average $215,000 in savings, and in some cases their net worth is in the millions. The average household in America reports savings of just $17,000. (For more, see “Owners Do Better,” below.)
“This is a form of sustainability that, nationally, we are primed for, but haven’t yet fully undertaken, or even really started talking about,” explains Kim Jordan, who cofounded New Belgium in 1991 and, a decade ago, sold the company to its employees. “It’s financial sustainability.”
A memo appeared on the desk of Cody Reif, one of the brewers at New Belgium, reading simply: “Flavors of Mexico.”
Reif, whose job as New Belgium’s “pilot brewer” is to experiment, is used to responding to the vague prompts that arrive from all corners of the company: the sales and marketing staff, the delivery-truck drivers, the folks behind the bar at the tasting room who talk to beer drinkers every day. Reif got to work.
“Full disclosure, I’m a white guy from Colorado,” Reif tells me, thinking back to the research he began a few years ago that would lead to the beer that would become Mural. “I’m a little out of my wheelhouse on the flavors of Mexico.” He explored three flavor-driven possibilities. The first was mezcal-related and smoky, but he did a few prototypes, passed them around, and realized that, no, “this beer needed, above all else, to be refreshing.” Next, he experimented with Mexican lagers, but those, he and others decided, had been done so well by so many others that there wasn’t much room for originality.
Finally, he went down to Tijuana, and while walking through an open-air market, he ordered an agua fresca—the popular nonalcoholic Mexican beverage made with fruit, flowers, or seeds and mixed with sugar and water—and thought, What if I brought the elements of this into a beer?
Reif had the autonomy to land on this idea on his own, while still being accountable to his peers. Companies with ESOPs require fewer managers, as AEI’s Brill discovered in his research, because workers are given more freedom and are better able to manage themselves. At New Belgium, they call this “ownership thinking.”
As Reif began turning the agua fresca idea into a beer, he found that he needed some help. A colleague in marketing suggested that he get in touch with a Mexico City–based craft brewery called Cerveceria Primus. New Belgium had previously worked with Primus on a World Cup–themed beer. Reif followed through, and as the two breweries started creating samples, employees in Colorado conducted tastings and offered suggestions. They upped the hibiscus, dropped the alcohol content, and changed the yeast strain from a lager to a Kölsch. Practically anyone who wanted to could weigh in, and comments came from every department at the company.
This product-development system, employees point out, is inexorably tied to employee ownership. How can you own the company if you don’t know what’s going on? How can you care deeply about new products if you don’t have a financial stake in them?
“It’s an infuriating but incredibly rewarding process,” Reif says. “Everyone plays a role, so it’s ours.”
There is, of course, a limit to how much openness open-book management, as it’s called, can allow. In any business, there is always some degree of hierarchy. Jordan, who started New Belgium with her then husband in 1991 and was its CEO for 25 years, tells a story—now famous within the company—about literally having to pound on a table to force the brewers to make an IPA. (There had been resistance because an IPA is not a Belgian-style beer.) She had to remind them that she was the boss and, on occasion, they would have to do what she wanted them to.
But Jordan, who remains executive chair of the company’s board of directors, prefers, in the day to day, to use a consensus-building tool she calls thumbs. Thumbs up if you agree, thumbs down if you don’t. But there’s a third option, too. “The beauty is you get a lot of interesting dialogue in here,” she says, moving her thumb to the side. “I’m always interested in pointing out that consensus is not about ‘We all agree,’ ” Jordan says. “It’s ‘We will support it, even though we may not love everything about it.’ Donald Trump has yet to figure this out, by the way.”
Jordan has politics on her mind a lot these days, particularly because of her father, who recently died of Alzheimer’s. He worked in the Department of Housing and Urban Development under Lyndon Johnson, and took her to civil rights marches and a farmworkers’ rights march led by Cesar Chavez. He invited strangers into their home, often for weeks at a time, simply because they needed a place to stay. He was, Jordan says, “very immersed in what we now call social justice.” Before cofounding New Belgium, Jordan was a social worker. Then, taking to heart her father’s dictum that “profit could be used for something beyond its own sake,” she created a company that grants its employees ownership shares after their first full year (along with a bike) and a free trip to Belgium after their fifth.
Last year, New Belgium laid off 28 employees—about 4% of its workforce. The company had added staff in 2015 when it expanded to Asheville, North Carolina, where it built a second brewery and distribution center. But the growth it had anticipated didn’t materialize, as younger consumers turned to those hard seltzers, as well as to ultrapremium brews, and the company was forced to adjust. Its brutally honest monthly meetings can be messy, and consensus-building tools like thumbs sometimes slow things down, but they help mitigate the surprise from management moves that could otherwise end up corroding company culture.
Mural, a major step in New Belgium’s rebound, epitomizes the company’s strategy moving forward, diversifying away from being the Fat Tire brewer to managing a portfolio of brands. Some employees have been “really bummed out” about Mural, Jordan says, but the new brew also reflects how democracy works at the company. They can be disappointed, but then they give their reasons why, and those ideas are thoughtful and productive, and things change a bit to reflect their contributions.
That’s already happening. Suggestions to market Mural to health nuts in some regions and fans of Mexican fare in others have helped the new brand find a foothold. As Jordan says, there’s a difference between input and feedback. She prefers input, because you can do something with it. With feedback . . . sometimes you just nod your head.
When asked why she thinks the ESOP structure works so well for New Belgium, she brings up Doug Miller, who runs the loading docks. “We talk about the competitive landscape, because Doug loves to talk about it,” she says. “Sometimes he’s got great input. But it’s not his job. If Doug is spending all his time talking about the competitive landscape, then he should probably be CFO.”
Miller, who has the sort of skinny, angular aspect of a TV-show detective, says he’d never want to be CFO, but he relishes his role as “the guy who gets everybody everything they need before they need it.” As the shipping and receiving coordinator, “I get to see the whole company,” he says, smiling and leaning back in his chair at his desk, which is next to the loading dock. It’s given him an education he says he can’t put a price on, which is a tad ironic, since he spends most of the day putting a price on everything that comes in or out—and telling anyone who will listen all about it.
Most new employees, especially if they work in an office job upstairs from the loading docks, get to know Miller pretty quickly, often when they try to send a bottle of beer for marketing reasons via next-day air. Miller will find the employee and convince them it’s not that urgent: “Dude, this is $100 to get it there tomorrow. Or it’s there a few days later, and it’s $8.” A savings of $92, multiplied across the company and over time, adds up—and goes back into everyone’s pocket.
Years ago, Miller noticed that he was receiving quite a few broken wooden pallets along with the kegs that would come in from the company that supplies New Belgium (the brewer fills the kegs and ships them out to retail customers)—between 20 and 50 a week. If a pallet came in broken, New Belgium could get a refund—a dollar or two—but only if it kept track. By logging the broken pallets, Miller realized, the company could recoup up to $50 a week. That’s several hours’ pay for most loading dock employees, and Miller remembers joking aloud to his colleagues, “Hey, these next few hours? We’re working on this other company’s dime!” He sits up straight and drops his grin. “When you start thinking about things holistically, how the parts of the company fit together, that’s when you start thinking like an owner.”
Turning to his computer, he clicks a few keys, and all the company’s finances are right there. When new employees start out at New Belgium, they don’t totally get it. Miller will point to things, whatever is around: a broom, a trash can, a $10,000 aged oak beer barrel, a case of Mural heading out to market. “I explain to them, ‘You don’t understand. This is yours. Treat it like you own it, because the thing is, you do.’ ”
A version of this article appeared in the November 2019 issue of Fast Company magazine.