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New Belgium Brewing: How Intangibles Keep Employees Coming Back for More
July 27, 2012
When you first walk into New Belgium Brewing there is a palpable, pulsating vibe to the place. You’re standing in the Liquid Center Tasting Room where more than 120,000 visitors each year experience our liquid culture. The folks who work in the Liquid Center are so much more than “tour guides.” They are beer-savvy storytellers, performance artists and, important to our story, each one is an employee owner at New Belgium Brewing. When they are not waxing poetic on the beauty of a malty Belgian double like Abbey Ale, they can be found studying profit and loss sheets, sitting on the philanthropy committee or cross-training in one of our labs. They give input throughout the year at monthly all-staff meetings and help develop the strategic plan at our annual summer retreat. They are encouraged to bring their best self every day and that comes across in their infectious energy and passion as they shuttle beers about the tasting room, parade tours throughout the facility and pour their shift beer at the end of the day.
We call it “high involvement, ownership culture” at New Belgium. The ownership piece came into play when co-founder and CEO, Kim Jordan, decided to make New Belgium an employee-owned company through an employee stock ownership program (ESOP) program. Today coworkers own a 44% share in the company. As owners, we are expected to participate in the business of running the business. There are opportunities to join any number of committees: philanthropy, wellness, POSSE (our ESOP education committee for which people are nominated by their peers). In this way workers can quickly find themselves contributing to high-level decisions no matter their tenure. This can be a very gratifying experience that leads to better connectivity throughout the organization.
At the end of their first year employees are awarded a cruiser bike at an all-staff meeting (live-streamed for remote workers) to copious applause. We’re encouraged to bike to work as often as possible at New Belgium, made easier because we have covered bike-parking, a shower facility and a relaxed dress code that celebrates helmet hair as a badge of honor. In a separate ceremony around this time, these vets are fully recognized as employee-owners. During the ceremony each new owner “gets to” address existing owners (a more sizable and daunting audience each year). There have been skits, short films, free verse poems and at least one five-minute guitar solo. Invariably, the biggest, most heavily tattooed presenter breaks into tears at the emotion of it all and the whole room gets misty.
The ceremony comes to a close with the presentation of a “Mojo” from our founder Kim. The mojo is a fob made from materials that represent different things. There is copper to symbolize the conveyance of water. Stainless represents brewing. A bead symbolizes the individual nature of each person and either the word “Love” or “Talent” is stamped into the metal to evoke our purpose at New Belgium, which is to “Make Our Love and Talent Manifest.” Kim, to this day, hand-ties these Mojos, sometimes working furiously right up to the final moment.
All of this adds up to an employee retention rate nearing 97%. It’s easy to look at the on-site cross bike track, the free shift beer, the ping pong table and the climbing wall as reasons to work at New Belgium. Ultimately, it’s the intangibles. We aim to produce world-class beers in an environmentally friendly fashion and we have a core value that we want to have fun while doing it. That’s a great place to start a culture and that’s what keeps us coming back for more.