New Belgium Brewing may be the only business to employ both microbiologists and carnies.
It won’t raise eyebrows that a craft brewery in funky Fort Collins, Colorado is a swell place to work. But New Belgium offers more than free beer (one at the end of each shift and a 12-pack a week). The company is also a rare amalgam of art, whimsy, and ritual undergirded by a powerful spirit of ownership, concern for the environment, and respect for company history. When CEO Kim Jordan talks about the company as a tribe, for once it doesn’t sound like business-book cant.
New Belgium, with 480 employees and more than $180 million in sales, has been an ESOP since 2000 and became 100 percent employee-owned in January. Cultural immersion begins with the semiannual Ownership Induction Ceremony. Employees celebrating their first anniversary get two minutes to answer a question about what ownership means to them. Some will embellish their responses with music or artwork they’ve created. Jordan, who founded the company with her former husband, Jeff Lebesch, in 1991, spends hours before each ceremony handcrafting a charm called a “Mojo” for each new owner, using copper and sterling beads to represent the brewing process and a variety of other beads "to remind us that all of us are different and it takes each person’s unique talents to make a community," says Jordan.
New owners also receive cruiser bikes, whose colors, frames, lights, and seats are customized for New Belgium. (New bikes are designed for each class.) That gift harkens back to the company’s origin story, in which Lebesch fell hard for Belgian brews during a 1989 cycling trip through Europe.
That journey is commemorated again when Jordan leads employees celebrating their five-year anniversaries on a one-week tour of Belgium. The travelers are free to wander, although most stick together, biking from brewery tour to brewery tour. The only required event is an evening at a bar where Lebesch spent time learning about beer. "We talk about the creation story and how we’ve evolved," says Jordan. "The whole thing is an amazing bonding experience."
Back in Fort Collins, the offices and brewery give off a funky, homegrown vibe. Along with chemists, electricians, forklift operators, and engineers, New Belgium employs eight "carnies" who mount the company’s Tour de Fat fundraising events. During summers, these folks travel the country staging Mardi Gras-festive (but family-friendly) carnivals. During winter they hole up in Fort Collins constructing fantastical stage settings and props, including outlandish bicycles that might, for example, incorporate old shoes in place of tires. The company’s amateur artists, who are abundant in most functions, contribute their own ideas. Other opportunities to display their talents include an annual art show and an arts-and-crafts fair. Employees also participate in such market-facing events as a traveling film festival and scavenger hunts conducted on mountains.
Even using the toilets is fun. In a 20-year-old practice called Bathroom Reading, an employee culls through dozens of magazines every week--from Psychology Today and Esquire to Mother Jones and The Utne Reader--photocopies three intriguing articles, and hangs them from magnetic clips in stalls throughout the company. The articles are archived in a section called “Virtual Bathroom Reading” on New Belgium’s intranet.
Monkey-barrels aside, Jordan is out to do more than entertain her workers. The company is earnestly open book--laying out everything but salaries and providing an exhaustive education in financials. Debates about environmental strategy are ongoing. New Belgium practices on-site recycling and composting, and it makes bikes and a Prius available for local errands. A long-time user of wind power, the company is developing an internal energy tax, proceeds from which it will invest in renewable energy projects at its Fort Collins facility and at a new facility in Asheville, North Carolina.
New Belgium also renews its people. Employees mark their 10-year anniversaries with four-week sabbaticals. Given the company’s trivial (3 percent) turnover, 10 percent of the workforce may take extended leave in a given year. Michael Craft, the non-profit liaison for the Tour de Fat, took his sabbatical last summer. "My wife and I did Glacier National Park all the way down through Idaho," Craft says. "I took a train trip across Colorado with my mother. I got a new roof on my house. And I didn’t once check my phone or email.
"We’re making beer and turning people on to bicycles and inspiring creativity," says Craft. "It says something about this company that they realize we’ve still got to make time for ourselves."