For a little more than two decades, Kim Jordan has been the champion behind New Belgium Brewing Company's growth. Under her leadership, the company she co-founded grew from a small operation to one of the nation's largest and most popular breweries. But it wasn't always smooth sailing. A drastic and risky decision she made early on into the business may be one of the reasons New Belgium is still alive today.
Jordan co-founded the company with her then-husband, Jeff Lebesch, in 1991. Two years after launching, New Belgium landed a partnership with a Denver-based distributor (Jordan declined to reveal the company's name) and sold it about 5,000 beers. But when Jordan called a week later to see how sales were going, she got concerned. The distributor said things were going well, but it didn't need any more beer.
Jordan waited several weeks and called again. She got the same answer.
Something didn't add up for Jordan. What's more, the deal was vital to New Belgium's survival and growth as a new company. Instead of calling a meeting with the distributor--which could have taken weeks to arrange--Jordan and Lebesch decided to drive to the distributor's office and see what was going on in person.
Upon arrival, they found their beer untouched and still in shrink-wrap. The distributor confessed that it was trying to launch its own brand, and bought New Belgium's product only to keep it out of the marketplace and make sure its brand prevailed. The next day, Jordan and Lebesch fired the distributor, rented a U-Haul, and spent several hours loading the truck with the 5,000 cans of beer before driving it all back to Fort Collins.
"We had to take care of us and taking care of us meant walking away as quickly as we could from this relationship," Jordan says. "We would have gone out of business." While they don't regret the decision, Jordan and Lebesch did face a few consequences. Without a healthy distribution partnership, the company lacked cash flow to pay employees. Operations had just moved to a second brewery and Jordan said the company had a lot of leases and bank loans out. She called her parents and borrowed $5,000 to pay her employees. For several months, the founders lived off credit cards to feed themselves and their two kids.
"That's entrepreneurship at its finest--when you're pulling it out of the jaws of death through the help of friends and family and good decisions," Jordan says.
It didn't take the pair long to turn things around. Several days after firing the distributor, New Belgium inked a deal with another company. Jordan paid back her parents, and in a hurry because they were charging interest. "I wanted to show them, 'You took this chance, and don't worry--we were able to pay you back.' "
Jordan's instincts were right. Ending that partnership saved the company, and helped turn it into one of America's most successful breweries. New Belgium did about $225 million in sales in 2015, according to Forbes. "Sometimes you have to be decisive and act quickly, and maybe you're even going to break the norm in doing so," says Jordan, who stepped down as CEO in 2015 but remains as chair of the board and manages long-term strategy. "But you can't sit around."