Founders Brewing: Focus on the Future

Mike Stevens, co-founder of Founders Brewing, speaks on the current state and future plans for his brewery.

Sommbeer is tracking and posting updates on the Founders lawsuit by plaintiff Tracy Evans for racial discrimination

A charge of racism was levied against one of the nation’s prominent brewers. We are going to leave the final resolution of this matter to the lawyers however.   Rather, we want to use this event as opportunity to reveal what a company should be. To this end, we contacted Founders Brewing to hear their side of the story.

Mike Stevens, the Founders Brewing co-founder agreed to this interview. We initiated this discussion because of the lawsuit but along the way I discovered a man reflecting deeply on his life and his employees. He is looking back on the success of his brewing company with a deep desire to hand it off properly to the next generation.

Courtesy Founders Brewing

Mike: Hey David
David: Hi Mike 
We read your press release yesterday and John Fahrner and I were both impressed.
Mike: Yeah good, it was nice to get that off our chest.
David: I got the impression you did it despite the lawyers.
Mike: Certainly in the legal world they don’t want you talking about lawsuits and we didn’t go into too much detail…ultimately we felt we owed it to our fans, our staff and our families to speak the truth…it’s an opportunity for us to get back to selling beer, look to the future and all the great things we have going on here.

It’s been a hell of a ride for 22 years, that’s for sure. As I look to the future I see only great things coming our way. Last year we were the fastest growing brewery in the United States. We are the 7th largest craft brewer. Every day I wake up and look up there into the sky and hope the ceiling’s not getting closer.
We have a lot of fun coming our way in the future.
David: In my opinion, this is only the tip of the iceberg for you guys and the rest of the industry
Mike: I agree, I think we look at the beer industry and sometimes we’re a bit divided from the big guys to the little guys to whatever it might be, but at the end of the day, beer is beer is beer. What I think is a better approach is more of a united front.
Beer is the largest alcoholic beverage consumed in the United States so it’s a powerful powerful product. Our goal is to look 10, 20 30 years out and…what would that headline look like? I’d like to see something like how Founders became America’s next greatest brewery and these things can happen.
I do believe that the beers of today will be completely different than the beers of tomorrow. Doesn’t mean the big guys are gone, I think they’ll participate there .. I think there’s an honest shot at craft getting into a much larger space. It’s what we are trying to set our company up for.

A lot of us that are older in this space…we’re 50-60 now and what we are starting to see is a generational shift and I think that’s been difficult for others…it’s this acceptance of the fact that you are getting older each day and there will come a day very quickly when other people are going to run your company and they’re going to come from this generation that has a different look at life.  It doesn’t mean it’s wrong. The leaders of this industry are going to be the ones that accept that change and accept that leadership and welcome them in. It’s where at Founders, our head space is at right now…accepting that challenge, looking at that challenge as a huge opportunity and taking our products and our platform with the help of the next generation to a whole ‘nother level
David: Clearly what I’m hearing is that you’re not interested in retaining what you have but how maybe you can pass it on
Mike: Pass it on with knowledge, with respect with an acceptance of the next generation and an understanding that they will do things differently. And you know what? That’s ok
David: Nothing get’s me more excited to go to the brewery and the same passion from someone that is 23 as they are when they are 40, 50 ,60 …
Mike: Couldn’t agree with you more and that’s the beautiful thing about our space.

Courtesy Founders Brewing

We have 600 employees now and hey I get it, you can’t control everybody and all those personalities…but generally speaking of those 600 the overwhelming majority of them want to work here and want to be in the brewery space and they’re excited about it. You still have lots of home brewers out there and you still have creative people and it’s home for them and it’s more than just a job and that’s the brilliance of this industry…
I think the resilience of this fighters mentality that we all grew up with, will stay alive in that next generation. That’s the cool part about this industry and why I think as you look to the future and the growth of beer it’s going to continue to come from this space.
David: <in regards to the lawsuit> I won’t name names … but it was at least one or a couple of your employees that reached out in … social media that got our attention on this whole subject. John and I were looking at it when the subject came out and it kind of hit me in the stomach. It seemed like there was an attack because you guys were big and successful and to me that just sits wrong.

Courtesy Founders Brewing

Mike: I’m not going to throw stones here.
Certainly when a company grows and gets larger you’re going to be susceptible to this. This is part of Industry. You know with 600 people or if you were a company with 30,000 people you’re going to have some bad eggs. but what’s important is how you react to those. That’s what we do and we do it well, we always react to concerns, we always have we always will. We will continue to get better and better at that.
David: How you react to something like that really defines your culture and a good (organizational) culture is going to make good beer.
Mike: We were talking the other day… to paint the scenario of how could Founders be called out as one of the top 10 greatest companies to work for in America in 10 years.
David: That’s awesome..
Mike: That’s the kind of stuff you get very serious about it. You think about what that headline looks like 10 years out. I’m with you 100%, I’m circling back to your comment…

When you build great strength internally great strength comes outward of that and that creates commerce and that creates a great healthy company for the future. You’ve got to take it internally and that’s a primary focus for us. I’m sure you’ve seen that we’ve hired a D&I (diversity & Inclusion) director and we are doing some things to look at that thing as a whole and say the world’s a big place. The world doesn’t just look like us here, the world in Europe looks different, the world in South America looks different and we distribute to these places. If we can open up our minds to this then we will ultimately create great commerce from it. It’s a byproduct of that success.

David: Positivity, especially with the culture is going to grow a good team. It’ll be something that people want to be a part of it. It just grows and grows. …obviously if you’ve got employees defending you….
It’s a good sign Mike it really is

Mike: Yeah, it’s a lovely place to work. And I’m of your age. I was born in 67 as well and you get to a certain point in life where you start to actually understand that life goes pretty quick ,ya know to go through it in a negative way or to be spiteful it’s not where you want to be and happiness is such a better place to be. You come to Founders and that’s exactly what you see you have people that want to be here you have people that fall in love with it. You have home brewers, you have musicians and you have this whole large circle of life that kinda comes together and it’s how this thing started.

I don’t know how we did it. We never defined it, but we were a mixed bag of individuals all with different backgrounds and ethnicities and beliefs and whatever but you can taste that grouping in the bottle somehow. I can go to Atlanta and see someone who is a Founder’s fan and they instinctively feel like one of us, like an employee it’s very relatable. They may have never been to Founder’s but they dress like it, act like it, sound like it.
The culture transcends more than just the physical. There’s something that people can get about a great culture and it’s something that they may inherently have within themselves. It’s a great connector for companies and I think when companies find that magic sauce between company and consumer that’s built some of the world’s greatest businesses. 
David: You and I are both blessed at the age of 51…but it seems that gaining material items and material success has its limits right? You start to value the people you influence, the people you work with more than maybe even the car you drive unlike when I was 16 or 18 and that’s all I cared about.

Mike: I’d rather spend the day laughing then driving around in a Mercedes
David: What kind of message can we get out for you?

I know that what Founders represents is a great place and it’s a place of love and it’s a place of success and it’s a home for 600 of us.

– Mike Stevens

Mike: For us it’s always been about the truth. I’m not looking for a spin, I want you to hear my voice and speak the truth about what you think. 

I know that what Founders represents is a great place and it’s a place of love and it’s a place of success and it’s a home for 600 of us. We’ve created a beautiful thing here, we’ve always tried to be fair and we will continue to try and do that. As we look to the future, we can lead with this example of understanding what this next generation looks like , that this generation is coming and that a great shift can happen. Really, only great companies are built out of understanding the fact that the “old guard” switches to the “new guard”. The more that is accepted and understood the more we can carry this thing forward and look at this from more of a global approach and that is what we are truly doing. We are in 48 states and roughly 25 different countries…our marketplace our consumer is vastly different than what it was 22 years ago. That is a beautiful thing. Now it’s up to us to open up our arms and bring that inward and bring that in here …and to spread that message to our industry, to be leaders so that we can be on top of this thing. We can have that headline 10 years from now, how Founders built America’s greatest brewery
David: What I’m hearing is some very positive stuff …
It’s more than just the beer.

David: I was looking at your library of beers last night just kinda reminiscing having followed you guys for a couple of decades.
I love what you’re doing on the innovation side but I still double back sometimes to my “Dirty Bastard”. 
Mike: You know the two that I go back to, just to have one beer and I sit with my wife and pour a Porter or a Dirty Bastard. It doesn’t happen often but when it does..I always tell her, damn. You kind of forget how great this really is. You do. I don’t pickup a Porter 6-pack that often but that and Dirty Bastard, I’m with you. When you let it warm up a bit, it’s just the perfect balance. Sitting in front of the fire with a Bastard, it’s glorious. 

David: The trick with a Dirty Bastard is to start it cold and then let it warm up. It’s a magical thing. One and done but it’s still really good.
Before I let you go, any directions you’re going to take the beer?

Mike: The beautiful thing that we’ve created here is that our brewers are world class at brewing and we’ve got a full spectrum now. All the way to a KBS to a Solid Gold and we are getting a lot of accolades and high ratings. It’s really a broad spectrum of beers and it’s been rewarding. I can remember Dave (Engbers co-founder) and I 18 years ago. I was interviewed and they asked if you could look into the future what would you want to be know for? I gave the response that it would be really cool if we could be known as one of the worlds greatest beer makers. To cover a spectrum in a great way not just be #1 in this beer or that. The quality that comes out of these walls… I just gotta pay tribute to the production team and what they do. It is world class and when you travel the world, you don’t find that magic that often.
David: It’s more than just the product, it’s the process and the team behind it.
Mike: 100%, it’s all about the people.
If you get back this way let me know.
David: You got a deal. Mike it’s a real pleasure to finally meet and speak with you, honestly.
Mike: Thank you it was great to catch up and have this conversation.

Courtesy Founders Brewing

DG Barrett
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