One Last Pint: Laura Bell on Leadership & Change in Craft Beer

Steven Burns

After over ten years at Bell’s Brewery (and one year and three months as CEO), Laura Bell, daughter of founder Larry Bell, is stepping away from craft beer - at least for for now. We caught up with Laura Bell on the cusp of the Craft Brewer’s Conference in Nashville, Tennessee. Our conversation, while rippled with nostalgia, revealed some hard truths about the once insular, now expansive, craft beer culture. Craft beer, says Bell, has some growing up to do, especially as many established breweries mature, infrastructures solidify, and competition increases. Bell also shares what she’s learned about leadership and cultivating a workplace environment that uplifts, challenges, and validates its employees. Above all, Bell recalls the beauty and endurance of the craft beer community, something her father recognized and pursued some thirty years ago over a giant soup pot in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Thank you to Laura Bell for your valuable insight and for interviewing with us.

CTH: “So, growing up, were your neighbors like, ‘What’s going on at the Bell’s house?’”

Bell: “Yeah! It was back in the 90’s. Homebrewing and brewing are nowhere near what it is today. Now it’s far less uncommon to have someone you know work at a brewery or like craft beer. Back then it was not what every Dad down the street was doing. My Dad (Larry Bell) started the brewery when I was two months old. I grew up around beer my whole life. I was the only four year old on the block who knew what water, malt, hops, and yeast made.

This interview is happening at a very funny time in my life. My Dad was really busy with the brewery growing up - I never thought I’d ever work for it, that was his thing. Then out of college I couldn’t find a job and he said, ‘Oh why don’t you try working for me for a little bit.’ I said, ‘I’ll do this until I figure out what I really want to do.’ Now it’s almost been 11 years later and I’ve been in the role I’ve been in officially for a year and three months or so. I’m doing that thing now: figuring out what else I love about life, find passions outside of the brewing industry. I’d never thought I’d work in beer. It’s been the best experience I could have had. I also don’t know anything other than beer.”

CTH: “What has been hard and what have you enjoyed about stepping into the role of CEO?”

Bell: “Honestly, I have the best team I could possibly work with. As a family business, it’s hard because I’ve worked with some of these people since I was a kid. The idea that I’m going to step into a leadership role and you’ve known me since I was a child definitely has driven me to be open, and to listen, and to learn from people who know more than I do. And then also be a support system for them. That’s part of being a good leader, knowing that your job is fundamentally to make sure that the people who work for you are successful. It’s been challenging; making sure everyone has what they need, feels supported, [and] can move forward. It’s the biggest joy. I might cry because the timing on this is funny. I’m the most honored to have been able to work with them.

If I don’t leave now, I might never do it. It’s a little scary. The news came out on Friday (4/27). I’m gonna go. My Dad has been really supportive as a Dad. I don't know anything else but the beer industry. I would be honored to do this for the rest of my life and I can’t imagine this is it for me and the beer industry. We’re still family owned, I still sit on the board, and I still have the opportunity to drive Bell’s.”

CTH: “According to Stanford University, 4% of brewmasters are women. Out of 2500 breweries, only 21% had a woman in a leadership role. Why do you think so few women are in craft beer, and is the tide on the upswing?”

Bell: “I think the tide is on the upswing. I think women for a very long time had to be their own advocates. To try, to do the hard work, to position themselves in an industry that has been challenging not only for women, but also people of color, people of different sexualities. It’s not just ‘it’s a woman thing’; there is a diversity issue. There’s been a lot of women who have stood up and said we’re going to do it no matter what. What I hope for, in this tide change, is that men stand up and be better men. And that men, especially white straight men, do the hard work to look at their businesses, look at their breweries, look at their staff and ask themselves what we can do to be a more inclusive company. What can we do to facilitate an environment that is open and accepting of anybody who wants to do any job that is available. That’s the next phase of hard work. The women who have been involved are amazing and inspirational. The women - we’re working, we’re trying. When I first started, to be successful, I had to know more, work harder to prove it. You’d be doing a tasting with somebody, a male volunteer, and you’re the brewery rep and the customer is asking to the guy about the beer and not you. I wish it was a one time thing, but it still happens all the time. It still happens to me now. It’s unfamiliar for people because the history of beer has been ingrained and institutionalized as this straight white male thing. Habits have to change. We can be as loud as we want. The men also can be as loud as they want. That’s where I hope the beer industry starts to shift.”   

CTH: “What have you done at Bell’s to make beer more accessible?”

Bell: “We’re not perfect, and we’re still working on this. We’re working with our employees and doing engagement surveys to understand and better support our employees to help them move up and learn new things. We’re active in a number of areas, particularly with LGBTQ pride. The folks who put on Kalamazoo Pride. We’ve had OutFront Kalamazoo, which is an organization that focuses on LGBT issues, come through and [perform] an audit for us on what changes we can make to be more inclusive. In our mission statement we say that we value the inherent self-worth of every individual. We’re outspoken about that, but we’re also able to say we don’t know everything. There’s still things we can learn and be better and open our minds. One of the things I’m looking forward to about having some time is that this is an issue I care a lot about. I’m thinking about other ways I can educate myself and learn more, even outside of the brewing industry, how to be a better facilitator for change. [Bell’s] just had a really good strategic planning meeting around this as well. What are basic needs of our employees and how do we help better support those basic needs? Whether it be through programming or education or resources.”

CTH: “What does good craft beer workplace culture look like?”

Bell: “Our jobs are to make our employees successful and support them in their careers. The idea that you could work for a company for 20 or 30 years and retire from it - if you could do that and you could say, ‘That was worth it, that was absolutely worth it and I’m so glad I did that.’ It’s hard to put parameters around that and that’s some of the work our team is doing now. We’re really working to define what that means. So I’m excited for the work they’re doing, for the work I still get to do on the board. It’s not enough to just feel valued. It’s knowing that what you do every day is valued and there is a direct relationship between what you do and the overall success of the company.”

CTH: “It’s also interesting because breweries started out so small. Bell’s started out, like so many other breweries, with an independent brewing store and somebody with a pot and some ingredients -“

Bell: “My Dad!”

CTH: “Your Dad, right! Now you’re trying think of, these guys and girls are probably going to eventually retire after working X amount of years at a brewery. That’s a new structure for a lot of small breweries who are independent to build all that into place and to think about brewing as a lifelong career instead of a hobby.”

Bell: “For sure. For folks of my Dad’s generation I don’t know that anybody ever anticipated they would make it this far. The day to day was mostly, ‘How do I keep my business running?’; ‘How do I pay my people?’; ‘How do I make sure my distributors and markets have enough beer?’ That’s been the singular focus and that’s absolutely where it should have been. Now that there’s 30 years of history and brand building we’re in a very fortunate place to be able to say, ‘What’s next? What’s next for creating sustainability, beyond just making really great beer?’ For the smaller brewers who are just getting started, that’s something to think about. If you really want to do this for a long time, what are the things you can do now while you are still in that building phase to set yourself up to be successful long term, beyond making great beer. And I know that is a really big ask. I know what you’re doing day to day is great, get really good at that, and also build a really strong company.”             

CTH: “Beer is great, but if the leadership isn’t strong, it’s going to collapse in on itself.”

Bell: “Absolutely. Just because you’re good at beer doesn’t mean you’re a good business person.”

CTH: “Where do you think craft beer is going? We have so many breweries now. Is craft beer having an identity crisis? Is craft beer going to dwindle and level out?”

Bell: “I think it’s more than that actually. I think it’s going to take a lot of hard work, in a way that’s different than a lot of breweries started in the last five years were anticipating. For us, for example, our sales people had to say ‘No’ to people because we couldn’t make enough beer. I think a lot of folks who have gotten into this have been so overwhelmed by the support and excitement for craft beer that that’s where everyone is. Our job is to manage relationships, try to send out as much beer as we possibly can. Now that craft beer is moving into this next phase of maturity, competition is harder. It’s not just enough to make good beer anymore. What you have to have is a plan. This next phase is about craft brewers honing the business skill and proving why they still deserve to have a place in the market.”

CTH: “Oberon always comes out around springtime. As the climate shifts and the planet warms, what is Bell’s doing in terms of sustainable and environmentally friendly brewing practices?” 

Bell: “We have a full-time sustainability manager. For the last five years he’s been focusing on our infrastructure stuff. One of his big projects was to put in a waste-water treatment facility at Bell’s while also looking for opportunities to take our production and make it greener. His focus is bigger and more broad - it’s also on the social and financial side of things. We understand as brewers that water is our greatest resource. For us to ignore that would not be advisable. My Dad is doing a lot of work on Great Lakes water conservation focusing on the Line Five issue in Michigan. It’s an oil pipeline that goes under the streets of Mackinaw. It’s aging and decaying at a rapid rate. If it breaks it’s in the center of the Great Lakes where most of us brewers in Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, and New York, get our water from. I think it’s important for brewers to continue to have relationships with water conservationists. This is our greatest resource. If there’s no water, we’re not making a lot of beer.“

CTH: “Where do you want to take everything you’ve learned? What have you learned over the last ten years?”

Bell: “It’s all about people. I think that’s it. People define so much of who they are by their careers and their value at work. There are a lot of people where ‘it’s just a job’ and that’s okay. A lot of us, most of us, derive much of our self-worth and value by how well we do at our jobs. It’s not everything, and it’s important that it’s not everything, but when you’re in a workplace and you’re dealing with people maintaining that level of care for oneself and the qualities they bring to you - recognizing that and lifting that up. And that’s applied to any job or any relationship, understanding where people find value in themselves and being able to support that.  At the end of the day everybody is trying to do a good job. Most people are coming from a great place.”   

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