Rod Kackley

The Founders Brewing Company is one of the brewing pioneers that brought craft-brewing to Grand Rapids in 1997…and nearly went bankrupt a few years after opening. CEO and founder Mike Stevens, a self-described “beer geek,” admitted he and his partner Dave Engbers made some bad beer decisions. They were able to keep their doors open and their beer brewing by switching their strategy. Mike and Dave started brewing the kind of beer they wanted to drink.

“When you are fighting for something you really believe in you tend to fight a little bit more. So, if times are a little bit tough you just come out swinging,” he said.

Stevens expects the company to produce 140,000 barrels of beer, which would move it from microbrewery to regional brewery status.

“I think the day is coming where quality is really going to play a part in survival,” he said. “There are a lot of people who are going to be getting into the industry because they see there is money to be made. But that isn’t enough. Passion can go a long way, if you back it up with quality and running a good, sound business.”

He sees Founders’ growth as being organic in the future. Stevens sees a lot of room for that, discounting the possibility of acquisitions. “We have made a decision as a company to not really expand our geography out west at this point. We are planning on digging our roots deep with our human capital and concentrate our final efforts there.”

Founders is concentrated in an area east of the Mississippi River. Stevens said the plan is to hire more market managers. “We think what is critical for our brand is to send a message loud and clear to our customers. Founders is in 23 states right now. It is very difficult for us as owners to get out there, shake hands and say thank you. The sales reps have to do that. So, our strategy is to get as many of them out there as possible so that they can tell the emotional side of the story. They have to be our conduit to the customer.”

Stevens still feels the passion of craft brewing “more than ever because there are more challenges coming out way now. I have grown personally in this business. You go through ups and downs, but we are going through such a hyper-growth period right now that it is exhilarating. It is fun. You learn something new every day.”

This is an excerpt from Quenching The Thirst, part of a five-book ebook essay series, Restore The Roar: Manufacturing Renaissance, that is available wherever ebooks are sold. For more information please go to

Rod Kackley is a journalist who has written for Crain’s Michigan Business and The Detroit News and is a former news director at WOOD AM/FM in Grand Rapids.

Rod Kackley
(C) 2013 Lyons Circle Publishing Inc.

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