In 1997, Mike Stevens teamed up with Hope College classmate Dave Engbers to turn their home brewing hobby into what is now known as Founders Brewing Co. It didn’t come easily, though, with 12 straight years finishing in the red, defaulting on two bank loans and staring down the barrel of bankruptcy twice. The Grand Rapids brewery eventually found its footing and became one of the largest craft breweries in the country. On Feb. 1, Stevens plans to step down in his role as CEO while still maintaining his ownership stake and serving on the board. MiBiz recently chatted with Stevens to reflect on his time at the helm.
Why was now the right time to step down as CEO?
I actually discussed this a couple of years ago — it was kind of pushed aside once COVID hit. Pre-COVID, though, I had talked about it. It really boils down to the fact that I never would have dreamed (co-founder) Dave (Engbers) and I — two home brewers that didn’t come from much means — would take a hobby and turn it into the seventh-largest craft brewery in the United States. I’m just cut from a very entrepreneurial cloth and I was very much an entrepreneurial CEO. And thankfully our company did become one of the top 10 largest breweries in the country, selling nationally and globally.
But as your business matures, you get to a certain level where you typically outgrow that entrepreneurial CEO or founder. I knew that was coming and happening. At the scale we’re at, we need someone to get in there and be a daily operational CEO. Dotting I’s and crossing T’s has never really been my skill set.
Who do you think is right for that role? Do you suspect they will come from inside or outside of the company?
We are looking both in and outside the company and both within the industry and outside the industry. We are looking for someone that is more operationally driven, but we also recognize that, in our business, you really need to be a people connector. That personality fit and that human element is so critical and it’s probably more critical than the business acumen they bring to the table.
As a longtime entrepreneur, I’m guessing your new business pursuits are probably not over. What kinds of entrepreneurial ventures do you have in mind?
I don’t have any plans to get involved in the alcohol space as of right now. I think what I love most is just the excitement of chasing after something. It’s that thrill of the race probably more than the finish line. We always enjoyed the hard times, quite honestly, as much as we enjoyed the good times. When we would get to a finality of things, I often felt a bit awkward and weird in that the excitement you would expect to be there isn’t always there because it isn’t always as fulfilling when you’re in the moment and running the race.
Founders faced plenty of financially challenging times in that first decade or so. What did you learn from that period?
That was the entrepreneurial period where we, in a twisted way, almost enjoyed those hard times because you grow your people and your staff in such a way that you become such a close-knit family. You have each other and you’re just hanging on because you’re not sure if you’ll be around tomorrow. You don’t know what’s happening and you’re willing to work 12 hours a day just to make it happen. I think that cultivated our culture at Founders into such a platform that the culture in itself became this living being that became more important than anything with Founders itself, and it lives today.
Founders encountered public backlash following an employee’s claims of racism and harassment. Is there anything you’d do differently, and what did you learn from that?
As it pertains to 2019, certainly we learned a lot throughout that time — that year. We’ve looked at it and said, ‘We can be better. We can do more.’ We can open our brands to the world and there are a lot more customers that are out there when you do open your arms to the world that way. I think our industry was a bit closed-minded when it came to that. I think the reason is — nobody was right or wrong here — it was an industry that grew up very quickly with a certain demographic. That was the box we all grew up in. Not because there was systemic hatred in there. It just was the simple fact that that was the demographic. People didn’t think outside of the box when they should have been, and that includes us and that was something that we were able to open our eyes to and realize as well.
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