Interview with Industry Member Founders Brewing Co.’s Brad Stevenson
This article appeared in the May 2019 issue of MiMfg Magazine. Read the full issue and find past issues online.
“Beer” may not be your first response when asked to name a leading manufacturing sector but, in Michigan, it ought to be. Over the last 20 years, Michigan’s success as a manufacturing hub has become increasingly supported by the in-state growth of craft breweries. When Founders Brewing Co. started in 1997, there were 11 Michigan breweries. Today there are nearly 400 and Founders has grown from a small, local brewery to a national brand with a sales footprint stretching from coast to coast.
“Craft brewing starts with a passion to share something you love with others so they can love it, too,” said Brad Stevenson, chief production officer for the Grand Rapids-based brewery. “There’s something romantic and quaint about what we do because it’s inherently local. It’s people in one community or one region working and growing and innovating together to make something delicious.”
Like most manufacturers, Founders felt plenty of growing pains moving from “romantic and quaint” to a company with a sterling reputation for quality and more than 600 employees nationwide. It started with a few friends driven by a dream and not willing to let a lack of revenue slow them down. Brushes with bankruptcy were not uncommon.
“The threat of closure wasn’t rare for us in those days, but what we were doing wasn’t just something we wanted to do — it was something we had to do, so we didn’t close; we stepped up and figured out what had to change so we could keep going,” Stevenson recalled.
What changed? Perspective.
“The first thing we did was remember why we wanted to do it in the first place,” Stevenson explained. “We went back to our roots and what led us to start the business. The tagline you see today of ‘Brewed for Us’ came out of that shift.”
Founders kept the passion, they kept the dream and they kept the drive, but they added a much-needed business mentality.
“Once we took on a business mindset, a manufacturing mindset, the product improved,” said Stevenson. “We built processes to improve consistency, we locked down rules for safety and cleanliness, we developed standard operating procedures, we built a quality lab and hired a microbiologist. When you’re making a consumable product you need to take it seriously. You don’t have to lose the love for it; but you still need to be a business. It’s not an either/or choice.”
The company’s growth ever since has been stellar and the symbols are everywhere. A national leader in annual growth. Expanded operations to what is now a one-million-barrel-capacity brewing operation in Grand Rapids. A brand-new Detroit taproom. Sales teams covering the country.
The story of Founders is proof that beer production in Michigan can thrive but steps must be taken to secure that future. As Founders has grown, it’s been able to lend its voice to the serious challenges ahead. The brewery industry remains susceptible to people who lack a focus for quality and safety, FDA compliance and oversight isn’t where it needs to be, and breweries face the same struggles to locate talent as the rest of manufacturing.
“Brewing begins with passion and that’s something we share with all manufacturers,” said Stevenson. “I’m really excited about where we’re going. People are beginning to notice us as more than just brewers; we’re part of Michigan’s manufacturing fabric. We love what we make and we love sharing it.”