Kim Jordan: America's Richest Female Brewer

Kim Jordan: America's Richest Female Brewer

Jul 16, 2016, 1:48:19 PM Life and Styles

Cofounder of Colorado’s craft brewery New Belgium, Kim Jordan is worth an estimated $225 million, just $25 million shy of making FORBES’ list of America’s top 60 richest self-made women in the country

but still easily putting her in the ranks of most successful female entrepreneurs in the country. She probably would have made it had she held onto her company for a bit longer, or didn’t sell New Belgium to her employees. But to Jordan, empowering those employees was not only the right thing to do, but also the best move for her business. “I wanted them to have some access to wealth. When I bring it down to a personal level, there’s only so much money that I need,” Jordan recently told Forbes. “We have a high involvement culture. Everyone knows where the money goes and everyone is expected to participate and build strategy. It’s created an environment that not only with a level of transparency that fostered trust, but also a shared ‘we’re in this together’ feel.”

Lebesch’s interest in the business faded early; he stopped working at New Belgium in 2001. The marriage failed a bit later in 2009, and Jordan got his stake in the business. But Jordan’s commitment to New Belgium never wavered. She continued to push ahead, launching new brews and entering new markets. As for work-life balance, she never cared about that: “I believe in equanimity, trying to feel like you have poise and grace. I worry sometimes when people use that phrase they feel it needs to be in balance at every moment,” Jordan says. “If you see something that is the coolest thing ever, you should run to that thing and do it as hard as you can for as long as you can. I fear sometimes in our efforts to have balance that we’re missing opportunities to really do that thing.”Though beer was always her drink, Jordan’s initial move into the industry had a lot more to do with falling in love than loving brewing. Rhode Island-born Kim Jordan grew up in California, the daughter of an aide to then-Governor Pat Brown. After graduating high school at 16, she moved to Colorado. It was there that she later met Jeff Lebesch, an engineer who traveled to Germany for work quite frequently. While biking through Europe, he learned about the creative way Belgians brewed bee, using more fruit, spices and herbs in the process. Back home he started brewing beer in his basement. Shortly after Jordan, then 24, and Lebesch married and decided to open a brewery, taking out a second mortgage to pay for it in 1991. She was CEO; he was the head brewer.

After taking on their second employee, Jordan started transferring ownership slowly to her workers. As the brewery grew, the company launched a formal deferred compensation plan with 10% of the company equity earmarked for coworkers. New Belgium formally switched to its current employee stock ownership program in 2000, and Jordan recalls having to fight advisers and accountants to get it finalized. In 2012, she sold the last piece of her ownership – an estimated 47% stake – to the ESOP. Had she held on until more recently, Jordan’s New Belgium stake probably could have gone for much more: Craft brewery acquisitions in the past few years have picked up as the industry’s big companies like Heineken, MillerCoors and Anheuser-Busch InBev have tried to get in on the small-batch trend. In 2015, one fast-growing brewery Ballast Point with 123,000 barrels shipped the year before (with revenue of $50 million) reportedly sold for $1 billion. New Belgium sells about seven times more craft beer annually.

But Jordan doesn’t care. The deal Jordan championed gave 100% of New Belgium to the employee stock ownership program. “We believe we spend a lot of time at this thing called work, and if it can’t feel warm and like everyone you see everyday has your back, then I think that’s a real tragedy. It’s a large part of one’s identity and time,” Jordan adds.

As for the skeptics, the numbers show the employee-owned strategy has worked. New Belgium has become the nation’s fourth largest craft brewer with more than 914,063 barrels sold in 2015. That’s up from 20% from the year before the ESOP got full control. Sales are up an estimated 25% to $225 million for 2015.

Jordan stepped down as CEO in 2015 but remains chairman in charge of long-term strategy. One big plan is going national: the beer’s 30 brands are currently sold in 45 states. It launched in New York in May, selling 20,000 cases of beer in two days. It’s second facility, a 133,000 square foot facility in Asheville, North Carolina opened earlier this year and will help them break into Vermont, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Oklahoma.

Below is a Q&A with Jordan expanding on everything from her favorite fictional hero to her favorite beer:

What’s your favorite rule to break?

“When you get bigger, you won’t be able to do that.”

What is your brag – one thing you’re great at?

Understanding how to speak in a straightforward and human way. I have a good gut sense, too.

What’s been your biggest failure?

At New Belgium, I think it’s more like a death by 1,000 cups. We had some layoffs in 2003. We were overstaffed. We did it en mass. It was just 10 people. But it felt like a big deal to the organization.

Is failure a requirement for success?

I think failure is really useful. I also think competition and drive to be better is really useful for success.

What’s your “keep me going” quote?

“We are right where we’re supposed to be.” It can be used in good times and bad. And also “pros don’t panic.” A distributor told that to me years ago.

What is your big audacious goal?

Creating a national and international amalgamation of craft brewers who are able to grow and reap the benefits of their entrepreneurial efforts. I think of it as brewing with friends. It’s pretty exciting to think about. I think to be able to do that and also continue to practice being a business role model in a way that is consistent (environmental stewardship, broadly held equity).

If you had to pick a three-word motto, what would it be?

Here we go.

Who’s your favorite fictional heroine?

Pippy Longstockings. She had a suitcase of gold coins and could carry a horse. What’s not to love about that?


What’s your bedtime, and when does your alarm go off?

I tend not to worry about a bedtime. Sometimes it’s 9:30 and sometimes it’s 1 am. I don’t set an alarm unless I have an early flight. It’s typically when the sun is up or slightly before.

What phone app do you use the most?

Google GOOGL -0.08% maps. I travel a lot.

I have Nest thermostats in my house.

What’s your favorite drink?

My day in and day out New Belgium beer is Ranger. I like hoppy beers and it’s bright.

How do you stay fit and active?

I do a variety of things. I lift weights because I think it’s a great way to get muscle definition and functional fitness. I ride bikes because it makes me feel like a kid and I like the cardio. I like to run because it’s the easiest thing to do. I work out four-ish times a week. I like to go hiking.

What’s your #1 productivity tip?

Make a list. I keep a master list of all the projects I’m working on and then a daily list. Get up and walk around when your focus is starting to flag.

What would you tell 20-year-old you?

It’s going to be great. And you’re right where you’re supposed to be.

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Published by General Olomu

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