KIM JORDAN: Early on I was putting together a plan for the bank that we had been using personally, and our banker said, you know, the way that you've sort of dribbled this paperwork in makes me think that you know nothing about running a business. And I'm not even going to take your loan to the committee.
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GUY RAZ, HOST:
From NPR, it's HOW I BUILT THIS, a show about innovators, entrepreneurs, idealists and the stories behind the movements they built.
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RAZ: I'm Guy Raz, and on this episode, how Kim Jordan helped turn her husband's basement home brewery into New Belgium, one of the biggest craft beermakers in America.
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RAZ: If you look at the founding stories of companies like Amazon or Apple or Google, you will find a version of the same story. And that story begins - where else? - in a garage. Jeff Bezos started in his garage. Larry and Sergey began in a garage in Palo Alto. And the two Steves, Jobs and Wozniak, built the first Apple computer in a shared garage. And of course there are variations on the theme. Daymond John started FUBU out of the trunk of his car. J.K. Rowling wrote the Harry Potter books at a cafe in Edinburgh.
You've heard the stories. And some of them are apocryphal, embellished a little bit years later to add mystique to the founding narrative. But this story you're about to hear really did start out at home - in the basement, to be exact. And the basement wasn't just the office, but it was for all intents and purposes the factory as well.
In 1991, Kim Jordan and her husband Jeff Lebesch were newlyweds living in Fort Collins, Colo. And Jeff was a really good amateur beermaker. He was so good that friends would encourage him to sell his homebrew. But Kim, she had bigger plans. And even though she thought she could turn their basement brewery into a business, she never thought it would become one of the biggest craft beermakers in the U.S., a company that's been valued at anywhere from half a billion to a billion dollars today. And how she got there - well, Kim Jordan sat down with me to tell her story in front of a live audience at the Boulder Theater in Boulder, Colo.
RAZ: So welcome to the show.
JORDAN: Thank you.
RAZ: Thank you for...
JORDAN: It's great to be here.
RAZ: Thank you.
JORDAN: Thanks to all of you for coming.
RAZ: This is a pumped up crowd. People are really proud of Colorado makers.
RAZ: Yeah. All right, so let's start at the beginning. Tell me a little bit about - you really grew up in Washington, D.C., as a kid, right?
JORDAN: Yeah, pretty much. My dad was involved in political administration, so we lived in Sacramento. He was Pat Brown's press secretary.
RAZ: Oh, wow.
JORDAN: This is Jerry's father. So that gives you a sense of how old I am.
JORDAN: And Pat lost to Ronald Reagan. And so we moved to Washington, D.C., because Lyndon Johnson was the president, and he was hiring Democrats for his administration.
RAZ: And I read that as a child, like, as a very small child you were taken to, like, pretty big rallies, like, even the MLK March on Washington. Like, you must have been - were you taken there as a kid?
JORDAN: We didn't go to the MLK march. I did march with Cesar Chavez in the, you know, San Joaquin Valley, and then we did later marches on Washington.
RAZ: So as a kid, pretty solidly liberal household.
JORDAN: Yeah, and also with a real bent for community organizing, activism. You know, we did go to marches, and we did - my mom was a social worker. And she worked in child protection, so occasionally we would have kids in our house that had no place to go. So - yeah.
RAZ: And as a kid, I mean, growing up in a house that was really about policy and child protection and things like that, did you talk about entrepreneurial stuff? I mean, did - was that even, like, a glimmer in your mind at all?
RAZ: Full stop.
JORDAN: I think it's good to set a tiny bit of context because I think business is different today than it might have been then. I'm not sure of that. You know, the profit motive was something to be a little bit suspicious of. Business was not something that our people did.
RAZ: Yeah. You went to a Quaker high school. Did that, like, have any influence on you, or was it just sort of, you know, the three or four years and kind of moved on?
JORDAN: I actually think it had a profound influence on me. George Fox, who is the father of American Quakerism, had a saying that was on the wall of our cafeteria which is, let your life speak. And so, you know, that notion - every day we had chores that we had to do, and every day we went to meeting. And that notion of sort of attending to the collective, to the community really ran deep and made a lot of sense.
RAZ: So you're in D.C. You're in Washington, D.C. You graduate high school. How did you end up in Colorado? What's the story?
JORDAN: I graduated from high school when I was 16, and I lived for a little while outside of D.C. with some roommates. And I had a friend who lived in Fort Collins. And I thought, well - I had a hundred dollars. I have a hundred dollars, and I have a car, and I have a friend I can stay with. And I packed up my Volvo 544 - it's the turtleback one. And I always knew when I moved from Sacramento to D.C. that I was more of a Western person. And I wanted to move back to the West.
RAZ: So this would be, like, the late '70s. You go to...
RAZ: ...To Colorado.
JORDAN: I moved to Fort Collins on July 10, 1976.
RAZ: And soon after that enrolled at the university.
JORDAN: No, I did that over - several years later I went on the self-paying plan. I was raised to be really self-sufficient and competent. And I just kind of decided I wanted to do that, so...
RAZ: When you were - when you got to college, what did you think you were going to do with your life?
RAZ: Because everybody knows.
JORDAN: Start a brewery and - yeah. No, not really. Yeah, no, I didn't really know. But my family were big believers in a liberal arts education. I'm a big believer in a liberal arts education. I think it makes you a good thinker. And so it really didn't matter to me what I was going to do. It mattered to me that I had that experience.
RAZ: So when you graduated, what did you do?
JORDAN: I started working as a social worker in a program for low-income single parents.
RAZ: In Fort Collins.
JORDAN: In Fort Collins and a town close by.
RAZ: Did you like it?
JORDAN: I did. Did I miss it when I started in this? Not so much.
RAZ: Yeah. It's - I mean, it's tough work, right?
JORDAN: But I would say that social work is a generalist degree. So you learn a lot about a lot of working with people. And it's also systems theory. And those two things were the perfect setup for the next thing.
RAZ: Tell me how you - you're in Fort Collins. It's the '80s - right? - early '80s. When and how did you meet Jeff Lebesch?
JORDAN: We met a few times through friends. And then we met at a party. And he - and we just sort of started, like, hey, you want to go on a hike? And...
RAZ: But you did not bond over beer or anything like that, right?
JORDAN: Not the first time.
JORDAN: But the first sort of date we had, he brought a six-pack of beer.
RAZ: Oh, nice, very romantic.
RAZ: And what - like, what was Jeff doing at the time?
JORDAN: Jeff is an electrical engineer. And he was doing benchtop engineering. I can give you sort of some blah blah blah words, but they mean almost nothing to me.
RAZ: Yeah. He was testing machines.
JORDAN: Things on benchtops, yeah.
RAZ: Right. And so you guys started dating, and you hit it off. Obviously you liked him. And how long, you know, between the time you met him and the time you guys decided to get married?
JORDAN: Almost two years.
RAZ: And so you - I guess you're in your 20s or sort of late 20s.
JORDAN: I was 31-ish.
RAZ: When you guys got married.
RAZ: So you are doing social work. Jeff is testing machines out in a way we don't quite understand.
JORDAN: It's not germane to this story in particular.
RAZ: I guess around the time you met him or around the time you really started dating, he had just come back from a trip to Belgium. Is that...
RAZ: Is that right?
JORDAN: Yep. And he took one of his mountain bikes with him on that trip. And that's how Fat Tire got its name. He tried a beer. And he was a home brewer. And he'd started winning awards for his homebrew. And he started brewing a beer that was to emulate a beer that he'd had there. And he named it Fat Tire as a homebrew, which is kind of a common homebrew thing, to try to give things clever names. When we started the brewery, people said, oh, my God, you cannot name that beer Fat Tire. That is the worst name ever. And we were like, well, we're going to take our chances with this one.
RAZ: Explain this to me. When he - he comes back from the bike trip, and he starts to try and emulate this Belgian beer. What did he say to you, or what was your impression of it? Like, what made it unique?
JORDAN: Well, you have to remember - again, kind of take yourself back - many of you probably weren't drinking beer then, but take yourself back to that time where beer was still really kind of, you know, the drink of the knucklehead. And it was - there was not - you didn't think about, what glassware do you want to put your beer in, or what might you eat with a beer? It was - we would go to parties, and we'd say, well, we'll bring some beer. And people would say, oh, that's OK. You know, we have a keg of Coors Light or something. And it was really kind of an uphill battle to convince people that beer with flavor - and, you know...
JORDAN: ...I do - I want to say, though - because the big two brewers in this country make technically excellent beer. And I never want to sort of discount that because they're very skilled at it. But they're not craft brewers. And they don't really have sort of that gut feel for how you might start a movement where people are talking about, what am I going to drink with that? And...
RAZ: But I'm trying to understand. How did Jeff convince you? I mean, clearly, he knew about beer. He was brewing it. But how did you - how were you convinced that this Belgian beer he was making was special?
JORDAN: The beer was good. We had not yet had the we're going to start this brewery conversation.
JORDAN: But that conversation - we were sort of right at the crux of being married. And I just remember thinking, there is no way that I'm going to say to my brand-new husband, no, you have to go to that benchtop and do that thing you do, whatever it is...
JORDAN: ...Because we have to have this paycheck. It's like, sure, let's try this thing.
RAZ: He went to you and he said, hey, Kim, I want to brew this beer and, like, sell it.
JORDAN: I want to start a brewery. Yeah.
RAZ: And you said, OK, where?
JORDAN: Right. Well, that was - so we took a second mortgage out on our house.
RAZ: That seems like a big leap to saying, sure, let's take a second mortgage out on our house with no, like, worry about...
JORDAN: You know, I wasn't worried about it. I always felt like we had these daytime gigs, and we could always go back to those if we needed to. And this seemed like a really fun, interesting, challenging - the part that I maybe didn't quite factor in is the first few years of our marriage would be totally absorbed...
JORDAN: ...In stainless steel and hops and malt bills. And, you know, I - that part I didn't yet have a fix on.
RAZ: So you decided to take a second mortgage. What did you need the money to do? Because this was still - you were going to build this out in your home, right?
JORDAN: We had to build the basement and then the...
RAZ: To build a basement.
JORDAN: ...Floors above it. And Jeff designed all of our initial equipment, so that saved a lot of money. We had a dairy manufacturer in Denver fabricate it for us. The door to the basement was too small when we got the first equipment in, so we had to cut the door out so we could get the equipment in.
RAZ: Yeah. And was there a vision? Like, did you and Jeff sit down and say, OK, we're going to brew this beer in the basement and make some money and then get bigger and bigger and bigger? Or was it just like, yeah, let's brew beer in our basement and see what happens?
JORDAN: Well, I think this is fundamental to our story. Before Jeff and I ever made a barrel of beer, we went on a hike in Rocky Mountain National Park. And we said we were going to be four things. We were going to produce world-class Belgian-style beers. We were going to be environmental stewards. We were going to promote beer culture. And we were going to have fun. And you'll notice there was nothing in there about co-workers and there was nothing in there about customers because at that point we didn't have co-workers or customers. So it honestly didn't occur to me to think about including them. So we did another pass through that when it was like, oh, there are some pretty significant pieces missing here.
RAZ: So explain 'cause both you and Jeff still had day jobs when...
JORDAN: Jeff did not. I had a day job.
RAZ: Oh, so he quit his job.
RAZ: You had your day job. And he was sort of, like, dealing with the beer brewing all day. And then you would come home and start to deal with it at night.
JORDAN: Bottle beer. I would work four days a week. I had good insurance. And we had one kid, trying to have a second kid. And so I had good insurance, and we needed the cash flow. And so I would work four days a week. And on the fifth day, I would call all of our customers in the morning and say, OK, we have this beer and this beer and this beer. What would you like? And then in the afternoon, I would deliver all the beer.
RAZ: Who were your customers? Were they people who already kind of knew Jeff's reputation?
JORDAN: They were both bars and restaurants. And in Colorado, beer, wine and spirits are sold in independent liquor stores, which was key for us because you could build a relationship with someone.
RAZ: And what would you do? Would you go door to door to these bars and with samples of the beer and, say, hey, me and Jeff are making this beer, and can I pour you some?
JORDAN: At the time that we started, there was a brew pub in Fort Collins. And there was a brewery that made draft beer. And so we decided to focus on packaged beer. It was a natural because there was really nothing in the marketplace in our part of the world like that. So it was not really a hard sell. I would call in the morning, deliver beer in the afternoon, go pick up my kid from school. And he would - poor kid knew the town by the liquor stores for a while.
RAZ: Can you describe this? Because I do not have any idea how to make beer. How - were you, like, pouring beer through funnels into bottles and capping the bottles one by one?
JORDAN: Well, we were capping them one by one. I mean, it was a very bootstrap situation. We - Jeff actually designed - he built kind of a frame to put four bottles in with a food-grade rubber tubing with a peristaltic pump. So it would push the beer into the bottles. And so at night I would also bottle and label beers, label each one and then, you know, hand-cap.
RAZ: How similar is Fat Tire today to what Jeff was brewing in 1991?
JORDAN: Well, it's generally very similar. One of the things that I always want to remind people, though, is that beer is food. It's an agricultural product. And so you have changes in the characteristic of a hop or the malt bill because, you know, it was a wet year or it was a dry year. So it really is an art form that takes both the ability to have a gut instinct and a scientific mind.
RAZ: So in the first year presumably, I mean, there's a limit to how much beer you could make and sell, right?
JORDAN: Well, we were so small that there was a limit to how much we could make. But we could have sold a lot more. I mean, in Telluride - Telluride Liquors had a sign in the store that said, if you're going to Fort Collins, we'll pay for your gas...
JORDAN: ...If you'll stop at New Belgium and pick up 10 cases of beer.
RAZ: How did they find out? Was it just word of mouth?
JORDAN: Just - you know, you go to some festivals. You serve beer at events. And, yeah, so...
RAZ: In that first year or two, did you ever have any anxiety over whether the thing wasn't going to work? I mean, it sounds like people love the beer. Like, it was getting a lot of attention. And, you know, people were driving from miles around to come and get it. But, you know, it's still tricky to run a business, right?
RAZ: Did you have any concern that maybe this thing might not work out?
JORDAN: No, my anxiety was more - if I had anxiety, it was more keeping up with all of it because there was just a lot to do, you know? You start hiring people. And in the beginning, they're walking through your living room. Later on, we moved to a second location. I did get pregnant with our second son. And...
RAZ: That's in 1992 I think, right?
JORDAN: ...In '92. So things like - we went to the Great American Beer Festival. In those days, you served your own beer. So I served beer on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. I had Nick on Wednesday. And we moved into our second brewery on the following Monday.
JORDAN: Thank you. I look back and think those people must've been like, oh, my God. Don't let her give me any beer because she's going to explode here. So - yeah.
RAZ: And all of this was financed by the second mortgage, the money you guys get out of that.
JORDAN: Well, once we weren't sure we were going to make payroll, so I called my parents and asked if we could borrow $5,000. And they loaned us money. We took out some credit cards. In those days, they sent you things that said, you've been pre-approved for a line of credit, especially for engineers. Less so for social workers.
JORDAN: And so we took out some of those. We...
RAZ: ...Maxed out some credit cards.
JORDAN: Insert American Express ad here.
RAZ: OK. I swear to you we did not ask Kim to make that little joke. But in actual fact, this live event is sponsored by a certain credit card company. So we're going to take a quick break to hear a bit from them. And when we come back, how New Belgium expanded out of Kim's basement to become a craft beer powerhouse and how Kim Jordan eventually sold the entire company to her employees. Stay with us. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to HOW I BUILT THIS from NPR.
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RAZ: Hey, welcome back to HOW I BUILT THIS from NPR. So it's 1992, and Jeff Lebesch and Kim Jordan move New Belgium from the basement into a new space. And at that point, Kim finally quits her job as a social worker to focus on beer full time. And of course they're doing all of this not just as business partners but as husband and wife with two small children.
What about, like, the dynamic of being parents, raising children and also running this business? I mean, how did you navigate that? Was it...
RAZ: So you're - really? It was easy?
JORDAN: No, I mean it was a lot of work. I also really...
JORDAN: You have kids. I kind of can't believe you fell for that.
JORDAN: It was a lot of work. I wanted to be a mom. I - I was a soccer coach. I volunteered in my kids' school. I worked. The good news is as a self-employed person, you can flex your schedule.
JORDAN: And then you - I would go to Kinko's at night and work on, you know...
JORDAN: ...Point of sale and marketing things.
RAZ: When Jeff - both you and Jeff worked at the company, I mean, did you argue, or was it pretty, you know..
JORDAN: This is not therapy, right?
JORDAN: I'm just checking to see...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Whoo.
JORDAN: ...If, you know, I'm, like, reliving my past here. Sometimes, we argued. And I would say, like, that is really a bad idea. You know, we really need to try to have these disagreements in other places.
JORDAN: Because there's a lot, you know? Personal quirks...
JORDAN: ...Working styles, financial pressures, hiring more people. It's a lot to do, a lot going on.
RAZ: But despite any tension, I mean, the business was growing. I mean, you were...
RAZ: You guys were winning awards. You were...
RAZ: ...Selling more beer. 1995, you moved to a bigger...
JORDAN: Our current brewery. Yeah.
RAZ: Your current facility. So how - by the way, how are you at this point financing the company, all from revenue?
JORDAN: A lot from revenue but also traditional bank financing.
RAZ: So you didn't take any outside...
JORDAN: ...Which is also a fundamental thing for us. You know, I understand in some organizations people really need to sort of bring in outside investors. But for us, I really wanted to kind of have our destiny in our own control. And a bank doesn't want to run your business. They want you to run your business well and pay them back.
RAZ: But it's hard to get a bank loan.
JORDAN: Yeah. We failed a couple of times. I - early on I was putting together a plan for the bank that we had been using personally. And they'd say, well, you know, you also need to give us this. So I would put that together and give that to them as well. And our banker said, you know, the way that you've sort of dribbled this paperwork in makes me think that you know nothing about running a business. And I'm not even going to take your loan to the committee.
RAZ: So how were you - so eventually you were able to convince banks to give you loans based on the fact that you were growing - right? - and you were - your revenue was growing.
JORDAN: We did. And we also built all of our own automation - every single motherboard, every solder, every wire, which was Jeff's strength back to that benchtop thing I don't know so much about.
JORDAN: He was really good at that. And because we had to cut a couple of million dollars out of the total project in order to feel comfortable...
JORDAN: ...With the amount of money we were borrowing.
RAZ: Do you remember how much that project cost to...
RAZ: ...How much?
JORDAN: Well, the building was about $10 million, and then the equipment was another $10 million.
RAZ: Wow. Sort of put this into context because I guess around the mid-'90s, the craft brewing phenomenon really just started to explode. Did it feel like there was a wave that you guys were riding?
JORDAN: You know, we were at the front of the wave, and we were leaders in the industry. I have been a part of the community of - it is a movement in a lot of ways. A lot of my very close friends come from this industry. We go on vacations together, and we check in with one another. And that's unusual, I think, in business. And we had what we felt like was a really solid management team. We had a really great way of developing strategy. So, you know, '96, we were 5 years old.
RAZ: Wow. I guess - and that was the year where it became clear that Jeff probably wasn't the right person to continue as the brewmaster. You guys went out to the original Belgium - to old Belgium...
RAZ: ...And found a brewmaster and convinced this guy, Peter Bouckaert...
JORDAN: Peter Bouckaert. My pal Peter Bouckaert.
RAZ: ...To come and move out to the U.S. What - how did that happen?
JORDAN: We had sponsored some speakers at the Craft Brewers Conference in Boston to come talk to American craft brewers about Belgian beers and Belgian styles. And we were having this dinner. And Peter was sitting next to me, and I thought, well, I'm just going to see how this goes. And so I said to him, yeah, you know, we're hiring for a brewmaster. And, you know, we talked about this and that and left it at that. And I came back to Fort Collins and was working at the brewery. And someone said, this guy from Belgium is on the phone for you. And I picked up the phone, and it was Peter. And I was like, yes. And he said, my wife and I are in Rhode Island. And we thought we would come drive to the brewery.
RAZ: To Fort Collins.
JORDAN: I said, you know, it's a big country.
JORDAN: So they drove all the way to Fort Collins.
RAZ: And was anybody really making these kinds of beers in 1996?
JORDAN: No. Well, we were the first brewery in the United States to specialize in Belgian-style beers. The first three years that we took our beer to the Great American Beer Festival, they didn't even judge our beers because they had no categories for Belgian-style beer. So somebody took them home and had a great time and - but...
RAZ: Enjoyed them. Yeah.
JORDAN: ...You know, like, we got these - the GABF gives you judge's tasting notes. And we got these notes back that were like, yeah, we didn't taste them because we don't have categories for those.
RAZ: Yeah. So once once Peter becomes your brewmaster - I'm sure it's a trade secret, but, like, just in general, was he bringing in, like, coriander and orange peel and lemon peels and...
JORDAN: Well, we were already doing that with some of our core beers. But one of the things that I now see, in retrospect, is that just by naming ourselves New Belgium Brewing Company, we gave ourselves license to do so many things because, you know, we could use fruit and coriander and crazy yeast strains and things that were very new to the American beer scene.
RAZ: So you're growing - 2000, 2001, Jeff leaves the company, you know, unusually - doing so well. It was a dream of his. Do you know why he left?
JORDAN: I think he wanted to do other things. And that sort of day-to-day process was less interesting to him than that kind of early designing of things.
RAZ: I shouldn't bury the lead, but, eventually, your marriage ended. You still are - have a very civil relationship.
JORDAN: Sure. Yeah.
RAZ: You've got children that you raised together. And I guess you just even saw him recently. Was that period of time after he left - was it easier for you? Was it challenging? I mean...
JORDAN: Well, to go back to Peter Bouckaert for a moment, one of the things I've heard Peter Bouckaert say is that I have never seen one person grow so much as you grew in that time.
RAZ: As you grew.
JORDAN: Meaning me, yeah.
RAZ: What did he mean by that?
JORDAN: I just - you know, when, all of a sudden, it's all yours.
JORDAN: There's no ambiguity. Are you the boss? Are you not the boss? Who's the boss?
RAZ: Yeah. Right.
JORDAN: And I don't think that leaders should discount that, you know? You're like, oh, we're all equal, and it doesn't really matter who the boss is. No, in fact, it does matter who the boss is.
JORDAN: And there were a lot of things - open-book management, employee ownership. We had wind - you know, we were doing a lot of really fun stuff, both in beer and in business practice. And I have been really transparent and honest and vulnerable. My co-workers will tell you that I am a sap, and I cry easily. I have stood up in front of them and talked about getting a divorce. I've stood up...
RAZ: You stood up in front of the whole company...
RAZ: ...And talked about your divorce?
JORDAN: Yeah. I've stood up in front of them and said, I'm looking at how we're going to have this sort of succession planning and turn of the founders' liquidity wheel. And here's what I see as the pros and cons. And I have tried to really make nearly nothing off limits. And I've also, I think, been really human about it. And I think there are certainly people who might sort of poo-poo that within our organization, but I think there are a lot more people who understand that I have tried to be really real and human and care.
RAZ: We had Jim Koch on the show about a year and a half ago. And he said that, at a certain point, as they became bigger, beer snobs did not want to drink it anymore. You're not as big as Sam Adams, but you're big. I mean, you are a big craft brewery.
JORDAN: Yep. Yep.
RAZ: Do you also have that issue where you've got - eh, Fat Tire. You know, they're too big. New Belgium's too big. Like, I'm going to my local...
JORDAN: I'm totally sure we do. I mean, there is - we will put our wood-aged and sour beers up against anyone. Yeah, we're a bigger brewery, but we do a lot of - you know, from the silly to the sublime, we do a lot of really fun, interesting things. And I don't want to be counted out...
JORDAN: ...Where that's concerned.
RAZ: Do you - what's your annual revenue now? It's like 230, 240?
JORDAN: We don't generally talk about that publicly.
RAZ: But you have an open-book, transparent policy.
JORDAN: Well, yeah, when you get a job, I'll be happy to talk to you about it.
RAZ: Oh, I see. OK.
RAZ: But it's in the 200 to 250 range, right?
JORDAN: Yeah. In that - yeah. I like to say a quarter billion.
RAZ: Quarter billion.
RAZ: Do you remember ever getting to a point where you just thought, we started this in our basement, and we're doing $10 million a year now. Or we're doing $20 million a year. Like, do you ever remember thinking that? Or were you just constantly working and just...
JORDAN: No, I totally have pinch me moments even, like, today, you know?
JORDAN: When I walk - where it really hits me is when I walk out of the brewery, and I watch all these people, you know, sitting in our beer garden, playing Rolle Bolle or just sitting on the front patio or playing with their kids on the lawn. I have this feeling, like, wow, look at this thing. Look at this touching people's lives through something as great as beer. I'm still in awe.
RAZ: So pretty early on, you guys decided that you would give ownership - some ownership equity in the company to your employees. I mean, was there sort of - was there a specific idea behind that? Did you think, that's how we're going to attract good people? Or was there another reason why you decided to do that?
JORDAN: The early days of New Belgium, it took all of us to work really hard. And I really felt this deep sense of wanting to acknowledge that my co-workers were - you know, those were 14-, 16-hour days. You can't bottle a half a batch of beer and say, well, we'll pick that up tomorrow. It's a live food product, and you have to finish. If the machine breaks down six times or 20 times in between the beginning...
JORDAN: ...And the end, you stay, and you finish it. And it was important to me - we had talked to people who were experts who said, well, you know, it's really customary to give management ownership. But you really don't want to give, you know, a forklift driver ownership.
RAZ: That's what your accounts were telling you - or advisers.
JORDAN: Right, advisers. And I said, no, I really want to give the forklift driver ownership because, to me, we were building this community. We were all in this together. So we started off with a phantom stock plan. Every six months, we would allocate shares pro rata to our co-workers. And we would make them stand up in front of all of the current owners. Seems bizarre now, but - and, like, speak to us about why they wanted to be an owner and convince - and we'd ask them questions. Not just Jeff and me, but all of the owners. So how long are you going to be here, and what kind of skill are you going to work on in the next six months and those kinds of things.
RAZ: Yeah. And then eventually you decided to sell your entire stake to your employees. You do not own any of New Belgium today, right?
JORDAN: Except as an ESOP account holder within the ESOP trust...
JORDAN: ...Just as my other co-workers are. I own that portion. But other than that, no.
RAZ: So a hundred percent of the company basically became an employee-owned company. What...
JORDAN: I wanted to see, how do we test this model where people in America get to own something where they build value? They're all in it together to do this thing. And it's this engine. And you add love, and you add beer...
JORDAN: I mean, beer is great. And it's this engine that builds this palpable - I mean, I've had thousands of people say to me, I came to New Belgium for a tour. And you can just tell that these people are into it. They like this thing. We spend a lot of time at this thing called work, and it should feel good.
RAZ: Yeah. It's - I think it goes without saying you are one of the few women leaders in the beer industry.
RAZ: Was it ever difficult? Did you ever face - I mean, you must have spent so many years going to conferences and trade meetings, and you were one of the few women in the hall.
JORDAN: So I was - we had two trade associations for smaller brewers in the United States. And I was the only person that was on both boards and the only woman. So like, one, woman on two boards. So that's 30 men, one woman, two boards. Most craft brewers are really more enlightened on the spectrum of that kind of - you know, some of the things we read these days are kind of jaw-dropping, honestly.
But I do think that gender bias is subtle and pervasive. And I think people who I love dearly sometimes don't really even realize - you know, friends of mine in the industry - occasionally, I will think like, wow, did you just ask that or mansplain right over the top of me? Or - and I'm pretty opinionated and strong, so I can hold my own. But you kind of have to be opinionated and strong and hold your own.
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RAZ: How much of what has happened to you and the success of your company and your own success do you think is because of your skill and intelligence, and how much because of just luck?
JORDAN: You know, I think it is a combination of those things. And, you know, there's that sort of old saw about luck is how hard you work and timing. You know, we worked really hard. We didn't say, oh, you know, let's all take a week off. And if there - I like to win. If there is a competitive advantage to be had, we're likely to push to try to prevail in that way. So it was all those things. It was simple stuff. It was hard work. It was timing. Fat Tire was a great name for a beer. So it's all that stuff put together.
RAZ: Kim Jordan, founder of New Belgium, thank you so much. It's so great having you here.
JORDAN: It's been my pleasure.
RAZ: Kim Jordan stepped down as CEO of New Belgium back in 2015, but she still serves as executive chair on the board. By the way, in addition to that employee ownership plan, New Belgium has some pretty cool perks for its workers. At your one-year anniversary, you get a brand new cruiser-style bike, and some of the models have built-in bottle openers. And after five years at the company, you get an all-expense paid trip to Belgium where of course you can make a pilgrimage to the very bar in Bruges where Jeff Lebesch got the idea to make his own Belgian-style beer.
Hey, thanks so much for listening to this live episode of HOW I BUILT THIS recorded at the Boulder Theater in Boulder, Colo. Our show was produced this week by Casey Herman with original music composed by Ramtin Arablouei. Our live team in Boulder included Allie Prescott and Elle Mannion (ph). Our recording engineer was Andy Huether. Thanks also to Rachel Faulkner, Rund Abdelfatah, Nour Coudsi, Benjamin Klempay, Neva Grant and Jeff Rogers. Our intern is J.C. Howard. I'm Guy Raz, and you've been listening to HOW I BUILT THIS from NPR.
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