On the morning of Feb. 1, 2017, the 525 current employees of Bell's Brewing Company did something not one of them had ever done before. They went to work for the very first time under new company leadership.
Thirty years and five months after Larry Bell sold the first bottle of beer he brewed in a 15 gallon soup pot, he was officially succeeded by his daughter Laura as CEO of the company. Whereas Larry started Bell's as a way to get the beer he wanted to drink, and maybe make a few bucks on the side, Laura will be in charge of the seventh largest brewery in the country. A brewery that distributes more than 310,000 barrels of beer to 32 states and almost single-handedly gave birth to the booming West Michigan craft beer industry.
“That's something I've been thinking a lot about," says Laura Bell. "He spent the first thirty years creating and growing the business and really expanding both Bell's and the idea of craft beer. I think my job in this position is to really solidify and make sure that we have a structure built in so that we're able to handle what comes in the future. We've been growing and expanding so quickly; we have a beautiful brewery, we have a new bottling line, we've done a lot of work so now it's all about making the most of that work.”
A lot of that work will include continuing to create new, innovative beers while also expanding the Bell's commercial footprint as only three other craft breweries in the top ten by volume have a market share in fewer states.
“I'll be looking at how we want to build out the next 18 states. I think the biggest thing we can do though is to not take for granted that everyone has heard of us. When we go into new markets we have to be diligent in telling our story in the hope that we connect with them. It's about making sure that you're intentional about how you want to grow, where you want to grow and to be set up for the long haul, not to just make a big splash at the moment,” Laura Bell says.
No one, outside of Larry Bell himself, has been more set up for the long haul than Laura, as she was essentially raised in the brewhouse and has spent at least a little bit of time doing nearly every single job Bell's has to offer.
“I used to hang out at the brewery on Saturday afternoons. We used to have odd jobs as we got older, I mean like six, seven, eight years old," she says. "I remember painting and rubber cementing labels on the six packs, washing glasses, folding shirts. I remember doing inventory."
As the new CEO she may not approve of six-year-olds working the production line, but having that experience in her back pocket certainly won't hurt. Neither will having Larry Bell as a father and mentor.
“Larry will always be involved,” Laura Bell says. “Whether he's the president or retired, I fully expect that my dad will be engaged for as long as he wants to be.”
One thing Larry will no doubt stay engaged with is Upper Hand Brewing, the Escanaba-based subsidiary that began brewing in 2014. However, it will also fall on Laura to make sure that company reaches its potential as well.
“Upper Hand is a passion project of my dad's. He loves the U.P. and is heavily involved in the creative process. Ultimately that's a fun project. I want it continue to be fun,” Laura Bell says.
"I think that my role is really implementing structure and making sure that our executive leadership team is all on the same page and engaged together in all of our projects and developments at Bell's. I've been asked if I'm going to change certain things since 'we always do it this way,' and if the way we've always done it is the best way, then, no, I'm not going to change it. But if it's not, then where do we need to make changes, and how do we make that work?”
One thing that may change a bit is how much time Laura spends on the road. Since beginning work full time at Bells in 2007 she has, in many ways found herself to be the face of the company -- scouting new markets, meeting with distributors, and attending conferences, festivals and seminars across the country and beyond. Her new position, however, will allow her to spend a little more time on the homefront.
“Last year we opened seven states and it was pretty intense. I'm anticipating this year to be in Kalamazoo a lot more, working closely with my new team members,” Laura Bell says. “I also like sleeping in my own bed. It's amazing. I haven't gone this long sleeping in my own bed in, like, five years. But I also do want to be a bigger part of our community here and I can't do that when I'm traveling all the time. This job will really be all about finding a balance.”
In a word, "balance" will truly be what the new CEO of Bell's will bring to the company. Finding ways to balance the company's rich and eccentric history with the new demands placed on a large company attempting to expand in an ever competitive industry.
Jeremy Martin is the craft brew writer for Southwest Michigan's Second Wave.