Founders CEO tells his success story

Courtesy Photo / 

Top to bottom, Jeremy Kosmicki, head brewer, Mike Stevens, president, and David W. Engbers, vice president, at Founders Brewing Co.

Courtesy photo

Courtesy Photo / Top to bottom, Jeremy Kosmicki, head brewer, Mike Stevens, president, and David W. Engbers, vice president, at Founders Brewing Co.

Graham Liddell

Grand Valley State University’s Society for the Advancement of Management hosted a lecture by Mike Stevens, CEO of Founders Brewing Company, last Thursday.

SAM is a new GVSU student group focused on bridging the gap between the classroom and the corporate world by teaching students about professional development through hands-on experience, according to their website.

Stevens addressed a crowd of more than 50 people, discussing the craft beer industry, his personal approach to business and the story of his brewery’s success.

Founders opened in 1997, but the idea came years before that. Stevens was a self-described home-brew fanatic, and after starting three unsuccessful businesses, he decided to attempt to make money doing what he loved – brewing beer.

But the idea of owning the second-ranked brewery in the world and being one of the most successful entrepreneurs in Michigan never crossed Stevens’ mind, he said.

At Founders’ inception, there were absolutely zero breweries in Grand Rapids, and the idea of starting a brewery that wasn’t associated with big names like Miller, Coors or Budweiser was almost completely unheard of in the Midwest.

With that said, the first few years for Founders were rough. “We didn’t really invent much,” Stevens said.

They started by following the trends of the new West Coast microbreweries, brewing wheat beer, amber ale and pale ale.

After four years of working 12-18 hours a day, six days a week and taking out second mortgages on homes, Stevens said he had to “sell (his) soul to investors” to the point where he only owned 1% of his own business’ stock.

In 2000, Founders was nearly bankrupt, and Stevens said he knew that they needed to either go out of business or reinvest and make some serious changes. “We felt like it was time to hit the reset button,” Stevens said.

After finding a few key investors, Founders committed to making “bigger, bolder, more complex” brews.

Over the next five years, they developed a reputation as “the guys making beer for the serious beer geeks,” pioneering flagship beers like Dirty Bastard Scotch Ale and Kentucky Breakfast Stout.

Compared to what students learn in Business class, Stevens’ approach was quite risky, said Kip Nguyen, a freshman finance major and member of SAM.

“In real life there are a lot of other factors that you never learn in school,” he said. “Mr. Stevens’ story involves a lot of luck.”

Katie Armstrong, a senior majoring in supply chain management, said she admired Stevens’ perseverance.

By 2007, Founders had found its niche in a new culture of home-brewers and beer enthusiasts. “We decided to only brew the beers that we really wanted to drink,” Stevens said. Founders’ current slogan, “Brewed for Us,” comes from this attitude.

Between 2007 and 2012, Founders drastically increased beer production, began to distribute beer to 23 states, and increased sales from an average of $900,000 a year to $50 million a year.

“It’s sweet that he started the business when the industry wasn’t really there yet,” said Kevin Chau, a senior majoring in business. “And now it’s one of the leading brands of craft beer.” It is this difficult, rewarding journey that has defined Founders Brewing Company.

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