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Laura Bell, CEO of Bell’s Brewery Inc. Laura Bell, CEO of Bell’s Brewery Inc. Courtesy Photo

New Bell’s Brewery CEO talks family dynamics, national expansion

BY Sunday, March 05, 2017 08:20pm

Last month, Laura Bell took on the role of CEO at Comstock-based Bell’s Brewery Inc., the company her father started in 1985 when she was 2 months old. While founder Larry Bell will remain active in the company and serve as president, Laura Bell will take over the day-to-day operations and planning for the brewery that bears the family name and its satellite Upper Hand Brewery in Escanaba, Mich. The second-generation leader, who’s held various roles over the last decade, spoke with MiBiz about what it’s like to run a family-owned business, her vision for the company and why independence still matters in craft beer.

Transferring a business from generation to generation is hard enough, but it’s another thing when the founder is a legend in the industry like Larry Bell. How much pressure does that put on you? 

My dad’s management style for me has been trial by fire. He gives me a lot of opportunity to make my own decisions. And what I do is not always right, but then it’s how do you fix the problems. I’ve learned through the process that you’ve got to be OK with making mistakes. It’s really how you fix them, how you learn from them and not do them again. The best thing is that he does not hold my hand. … There’s no expectation that you’ll be perfect. 

How’s the management structure set up between the two of you? 

A lot of it is him allowing me the opportunity to work very independently. There’s this implicit understanding and growing trust as I’ve taken on more responsibility. We don’t have a formalized system between the two of us, but he’s communicative. He’s my dad and my boss, and sometimes that funny. 

I can’t imagine Larry would be shy in telling you what he thinks. 

I feel very lucky that we have the opportunity to be candid with each other. I don’t feel like just because he’s my dad that we’re not able to have an open and honest conversation about the business. 

Does working with your dad blur the lines of business and family? 

We try our best to keep it out of family time, although that’s hard. We’re both very passionate about it and get excited and love talking about beer and the business together, and the industry. It’s certainly something that we geek out over — much to dismay of the rest of our family, who are just like, ‘SHUT UP!’ (Laughs.)

Where else do you turn for advice about business? 

(I’m) trying to expand my personal network of family business owners and next-gen family business owners that are in similar positions. Additionally, I’m working with some leadership coaching to get outside my head and the industry a little bit. 

Bell’s has been growing in recent years with expansions at the brewery in Comstock and additional distribution across the country. What’s your outlook for the next five years? 

We have a beautiful brewery, so for us it’s building out the rest of the country. We made the conscious decision to grow as needed, not to grow for growth’s sake. But at some point, we’re headed to all 50 states and Puerto Rico. … It’s focusing less on what’s the next construction project and what’s the next state, and having those ideas set. That will help us take a look at the long-term planning as a cohesive (leadership) group. 

Is the plan still to be a national brand by 2020? 

Give or take, that’s been the goal we’ve talked about a little bit. Like anything, I think the more important thing to comment on is smart growth. We can always say that (being nationwide by 2020) is the hope and the idea, but certainly, it’s got to be the right thing to do. That’s where our ability to be flexible is nice because we get to grow in a way that makes sense for Bell’s. Whether that’s 2020, 2021, 2022 — we’ll see. 

What’s Bell’s brewing capacity right now? 

That’s a funny question. The capacity is what we need it to be. 

Sure, but how would you quantify it? 

Our plan is to be about 1 million barrels worth of capacity. There’s still some additions that will need to go into it, but that’s our plan for the brewery.

Would you ever look to grow by acquisition? 

We have no plans to do that at this time. If I had a crystal ball, I’d never say never, but it’s not something we’re thinking about right now. 

Speaking of acquisitions, what’s your take on how the craft beer industry is changing? 

For a long time, being a craft brewery has been about being independently-owned, making quality beer that’s not the norm or that challenged the status quo. As we move into our current market, things are a little bit different. Craft is different than its original intention because it’s seemingly no longer about ownership or size — or quality, even. We’ve got all kinds of different businesses that are falling under this one word. It’s definitely bringing up a lot of conversations about who we are, what is craft beer, what is independent beer. … There’s not a great answer to it. 

What’s the vision for Bell’s given its history as a fiercely independent brewery? 

I don’t have a crystal ball, but I’d like to think in 40 years that it remains that way. We’ve worked very hard to have Bell’s be family owned with my dad and my brother David involved. We want it to reflect our values and personalities without having to (pay attention to investors). We have to make business decisions but we get to think about best possible outcomes and how we want to take care of our people. It’s part of the DNA that Larry (instilled in the company).

I get that. But say Anheuser Busch-InBev comes knocking — what’s your number? 

There is no number. There’s not even a conversation.

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