Let your business speak

(Editor’s note: In April, about 120 business and community leaders from Denver traveled to Fort Collins for the 2012 Colorado Experience trip, sponsored by the Denver Metro Chamber Leadership Foundation. This is an essays written for ColoradoBiz by a participant.)

I have a special place in my heart for Colorado craft beer. In 1994, I was fresh out of undergrad at CU when my then-husband and I opened Denver’s Great Divide Brewing Co. in an abandoned dairy building in the shadows of what would become Coors Field.  At the time, there were only four brewpubs in Denver and one other packaging brewery.  We were Colorado’s 44th craft brewer; today there are nearly 140. 

Eight years after we brewed our first beer, I “diversified,” by becoming a full-time law student at DU.  I stayed at Great Divide part-time through law school, and 11 years after we opened, I took the bar exam and graduated from the beer world to become a corporate lawyer.

Throughout those years, I knew Kim Jordan, New Belgium’s co-founder and CEO.  Jordan and her then-husband, Jeff Lebesch, opened three years before we did, and their flagship beer, Fat Tire, was an immediate success.  It took only a few years for New Belgium’s impressive growth to catapult them into their current spot as the third largest craft brewer and seventh largest of all U.S. brewers.

During Colorado Experience, we visited New Belgium and had the opportunity to hear Jordan discuss her company’s sustainable, triple bottom line business model of “people, planet and profits.”  In her presentation, “Social Consciousness in Business – Lessons in Beer, Love and Changing the World,” Jordan explained that they began with a vision, which still is the essence of the business: “to operate a profitable brewery that makes our love and talent manifest.” 

She described this original vision as the foundation for the core values and guiding principles that have made New Belgium an industry leader, not just in terms of its award-winning beers, but also in its environmental stewardship.  New Belgium started by analyzing the carbon footprint, of producing a six-pack of Fat Tire.

“Once we could see how and where we had an environmental impact,” Jordan said, “we realized we could reduce it – perhaps not starting with a splash, but we knew we could create a ripple.”

New Belgium’s environmentally-conscious approach is evident throughout the brewery, with its abundant windows and light tubes, recycled furniture and repurposed materials from building supply remnants.  In 1998, the company committed to pay a premium to support 100 percent of the brewery’s energy needs from wind power. 

In 2002, the brewery opened an onsite wastewater treatment facility.  This allows New Belgium to remove suspended solids from brewery wastewater (which would otherwise have a substantial environmental impact) and to produce energy from methane, a wastewater treatment byproduct. 

It also operates the largest private solar array in Colorado.  Last year, New Belgium sold 712,000 barrels of beer (the equivalent of 1,424,000 kegs) and produced 14 percent of its total energy needs onsite, with the balance coming from wind power. 

New Belgium is known for its “high-involvement culture,” which stems from being partially-employee owned. One of their guiding principles is “having fun,” and this permeates the brewery – from the one-story spiral slide to the one-year employment anniversary gift of a “Fat Tire” cruiser bicycle (a different, custom model made each year). 

The company’s business model has had impressive results – turnover is just three to four percent and the Wall Street Journal has ranked New Belgium in the top 15 percent of places to work in the U.S. 

Jordan acknowledges that this socially-conscious model is not always the best thing for short-term profits, but because the brewery’s vision, core values and guiding principles are based on the longer term, she hopes the company can inspire others to change the world through business. 

“We ultimately have been profitable not in spite of our business model,” Jordan concluded, smiling, “but because of it.” 

As soon as we got back to Denver, I got online to commit to 100 percent of my family’s energy needs from wind power.  By no means a “splash,” but one of several ways we can make a “ripple.”

Categories: Company Perspectives, Management & Leadership