John Hall is a typical midwesterner, growing up in Illinois and receiving his MBA from the University of Iowa.
"So you're a Cubs fan?" I ask.
"Of course," Hall responds.
Jumping on the opportunity to argue one of my favorite personal theories, I respond, "I believe the Cubs killed their brand when they won the World Series. Everyone loved rooting for them because they lost, and now that they're winning often, they've lost that endearing part of their brand."
"The point of baseball is to win," Hall aptly replies, "and I don't think any professional sports team overlooks that goal to accommodate a brand."
And so this profound foreshadowing is how my long conversation started with John Hall, the founder of Goose Island Beer Company (Goose Island).
For anyone who has followed the meteoric rise of craft beer over the past few decades, Goose Island is one of the original pioneers of the industry. Founded in 1988 in Chicago by Hall, it was his first entrepreneurial endeavor after spending two decades in the container business as a corporate executive.
Like many entrepreneurial origin stories, Hall had worked and risen through the corporate ranks to become VP of Planning for the Container Corporation. When the company had been acquired, and the future of the business and his career were ambiguous, Hall saw an opportunity to leave and pursue his own business endeavor.
"I had watched the rise of small breweries around the country with great interest," Hall recalls. "As someone who was fond of English-style beers, I found there just wasn't a variety in beers at the time that I enjoyed, and I wanted to do something about it."
"So you were a home brewer?" I ask.
"No, I was a 'home drinker,'" he responds with a chuckle.
This is surprising, because most of the now 7,300 US breweries have their origins in homebrewing, either dreamt up over a weekend home mash or at one of the always lively and collaborative homebrewing neighborhood clubs
Even without the personal experience of the alluring scents of hops and barley on a Sunday afternoon, Hall managed to succeed with his Goose Island, eventually opening a second brewery next to his Cubs' home ballfield at Wrigley Field and selling his stake in the company to the largest beer company in the world.
So how did he do it?
Don't Go At It Alone
Most entrepreneurs start businesses in an industry or field in which they have experience. Before opening his first Goose Island brewpub in Lincoln Park, Chicago, however, Hall had never brewed and, aside from eating out, had no experience operating a restaurant.
"I really had no idea what I was doing," he admits, "so I found the people I needed to start this business."
Unlike many startup businesses, and breweries in particular, John had a very detailed and carefully researched plan before he launched. He estimates that he spent two years planning before he ever broke ground. And, as expected from an MBA and VP of Planning, he hired a brewery consultant and even a former executive from the TGIF franchise to help plan and develop the systems necessary to open and operate a successful brewery.
There were only 124 US breweries in 1986, and the top six breweries (Anheuser-Busch, Miller, Heileman, Stroh, Coors, and Pabst) controlled over 90% of US beer production, so finding people with the expertise for this endeavor was difficult, but Hall never settled for "winging-it."
And while many entrepreneurs lack the capital necessary to hire consultants, it is well worth considering collaboration and even co-founders when there is an area of the business you cannot fill yourself.
Believe In Yourself
Like any entrepreneurial endeavor, all the experience and planning and expert consultants could not prepare Hall for the challenges that lay ahead, which started before Goose Island opened. In 1987, in the middle of planning and having already raised a considerable amount of capital from investors, markets across the world collapsed on what is known as Black Monday. This sent investors -- including Hall's -- into a frenzy.
"The way we survived was just by talking to people," Hall recalls when thinking about that time. "I had personal assets invested myself, probably more than I would have liked, and I believed in me and the project. When you can confidently communicate this to them, it is really the only assurance an investor needs."
Moreover, beyond just assuring investors, Hall feels that this belief in oneself is a necessity for all business leaders, because having the perseverance to "figure things out" comes more from confidence than experience.
Don't Make It Personal
One of the unspoken bonds among craft breweries is that they fight against the big production companies of "big beer," like AB-InBev (Anheuser-Busch) and Miller-Coors, which according to the Brewers Association fetched 86 percent of the beer market by volume in 2018. In doing so, local breweries have a culture and style that is meant to be unique and independent, often offering a selection of beers vastly different than "big beer" brands and unavailable anywhere else.
Craft beer is about the experience
Fans of craft beer are very passionate about this mission as well, and rarely if ever will you find any selection from production breweries at a craft beer establishment or even the refrigerator of a craft beer diehard.
This zeal for the industry is often reflected in the backlash craft breweries face when selling out all or even a stake of the business to one of the "big beer" giants. Even the recent acquisition of Dogfish Head brewery by Boston Beer Company (Sam Adams), two craft beer legacy companies, was met with some fan disappointment. Many saw this transaction as putting profits ahead of experience.
This backlash was felt by Hall and Goose Island when the company sold part of the company to the Craft Beer Alliance in 2006 and later, in 2011, when the company stakeholders sold to Anheuser-Busch InBev (AB-InBev). When I asked Hall about this, I cautiously danced around the term "sell out."
"We did what we needed to do for the stakeholders of the business," says Hall simply.
Throughout the past two decades, the craft beer industry has grown at a remarkable pace, with new breweries opening every day on average. With more breweries came more competition, and while Goose Island had differentiated itself with a strong brand that delivered high-quality unique beers, it was still suffering the woes of a rapidly expanding company -- lack of capital for growth.
More important, investors and valuable distribution partners, through whom beer is legally required to be delivered to retailers as part of the US three-tier system, were starting to get antsy. Without the growth, Goose Island was losing the valuable support system upon which it was built. Bringing on a "big beer" partner was a clear next step for Hall.
"Big beer" had been calling Hall for years, but in 2011, Hall decided it was time to hear them out. True to form, he hired an investment banker and eventually negotiating with Anheuser-Busch InBev to be acquired, while allowing the company to maintain its brand and continue its growth strategy.
"Our decision to partner with Anheuser-Busch provided Goose Island with the resources to grow while continuing the innovation and quality of its beers," Hall recollects, "improving safety and retaining the unique Goose culture."
Moreover, Hall never set out on starting Goose Island as a personal project. His plan has always been to build a company, fill it with talented people, and develop a culture that would create a lasting business, and if that plan evolved into being acquired by a larger competitor, industry sentiment was not going to get in the way.
This might be the most valuable lesson for entrepreneurs, who often pour their time, sweat and soul into a new business and rightfully create a bond so intimate as to compare it to that of a child. When you do this, you unintentionally begin prioritizing emotion over pragmatism and miss very important signs of change necessary for survival.
Instead of making decisions based on a logical next step, entrepreneurs hunker down and try to solve problems with the same solutions used to get them to that point.
In business, however, the decisions and solutions that get you to one benchmark are often woefully ill-equipped to get you to the next. As well, as an organization grows, you have many more stakeholders in the business, all of whom deserve the consideration and respect in your decisions. Those decisions often are most difficult because they mean delegating authority and potentially relinquishing control.
"I believe in the importance of having a personal mission statement," says Hall, "and it is equally important for businesses to have one too." From the planning to the launch to the exit, Hall had always run Goose Island like a business. Because of that, he made decisions for the business and its stakeholders that ran against the conventional thinking of the industry. In doing so, he focused on developing a brand and a culture that endured.
"I could not be more proud of Goose Island today," Hall emphasizes. "There has been greater opportunity for employees to grow both professionally and financially, Goose continues to introduce new beers that are available all over the world and it continues to invest in building community here in Chicago."
"Are you still a Cubs fan?" I ask, knowing it is a silly question I to pose to a life-long fan.
"Of course," replied Hall, "I root for them now more than ever."
And as he launches into reasons why his Cubs will give my Dodgers a run for the National League pennant this year, I get lost in just how much Goose Island and the Chicago Cubs are alike, having created such endearing and lasting brands. And like most great organizations, loyal follower love them whether they are winning or losing.
Of course, I admit now, it is always better when you're winning.