I was admittedly surprised when Ken Grossman called my cell phone. I had sent him a few bottles of wine, with a polite letter asking for his input on a school assignment. But I knew very well that the founding owner and CEO of America’s second largest craft brewery wouldn’t have time to connect with every college student who wanted his attention. And yet, there he was: “This is Ken at Sierra Nevada. What did you want to talk about?”
The assignment for class was to profile a “sustainable business.” Sierra Nevada is certainly that, with everything from solar panels and fuel cells to a hybrid Peterbilt, but what I really wanted to know was this: How did Sierra Nevada, founded in 1980 along with hundreds of breweries during the same decade, create a mob-like following of consumers who now support production of one million barrels per year? Fortunately for me, Mr. Grossman withheld little information on that topic.
What followed was a great business leader’s humble recollection of starting a company in a barn, and growing it into a national brand. It included all the expected, the focus on hiring and retaining great people (the brewmaster is the original, the company’s second employee) and a quest for quality over profits and growth. It included being at the right place at the right time. (Have you ever noticed how great leaders take very little credit for success, almost as if they stumbled upon thousands of great decisions by pure luck?)
And then came the most interesting answer to a question I had hesitated to include. “What would you do differently, Ken, if you were starting again with a small brewery at age 30?” (He must have guessed that I had a personal connection with the question.) “What would I do differently?” He repeated the question. “I would have dared to believe that Sierra Nevada could become what it is. From the start, I didn’t believe it. And so I didn’t plan for it. If I had dared to dream it from the start, imagined that we would physically outgrow the block with buildings for the brewery, I would have planned it better from the start.”