How do you maintain the vital culture of a craft brewery while it grows distribution and expands into new businesses? It’s a question many young breweries are forced to answer, as they struggle with balancing the spirit that builds a brand with the need for experienced leadership, the demand for increased sales, and more capacity.
Night Shift Brewing is trying to figure it out right now: The Everett, Mass. brewery recently hired two C-level executives to join its team, and it’s once again looking to double production and sales. Meanwhile, the brewery is also trying to support a new wholesaling business — Night Shift Distributing — and managing a growing roster of employees.
It can make it hard to maintain a reputation.
“It’d be easy for someone on staff to say Night Shift is going super corporate,” co-founder Michael Oxton told Brewbound. “But we’re doing the opposite. We’re doing this to preserve our culture and create a support system.”
“This” is the addition of a pair of corporate aces, including former Boston Beer Company exec Rich Lindsay as CFO, and Jeff Glennon, who has an extensive history working with tech startups, coming on board as its first COO.
Night Shift’s founders are sensitive to how these additions might look — to both insiders and outsiders — but they say they’re confident that the team and the brewery’s fans recognize that they are filling a need.
“One thing that I think makes our culture unique — and it starts with our leadership team — is that there’s not much tolerance for ego,” Oxton told Brewbound. “We keep a very open, honest dialogue about both our business’ strengths and its weaknesses. We’d never be successful in recognizing our strengths alone.”
Oxton said the additions of Lindsay and Glennon came with the recognition that the brewery needed to strengthen its finance department as well as help with managing its growing staff — something the three founders didn’t have much experience with.
“Both Jeff and Rich fit comfortably into our leadership team because they don’t bring egos to the table, despite their extensive experience,” Oxton said. “They didn’t show up assuming they knew all the answers to our problems. They showed up looking to help us ask the right questions. That’s a key distinction for me, and helps me keep the ‘soul’ of our company intact.”
Part of the ease in preserving that soul is Glennon’s and Lindsay’s previous work with Night Shift’s owners. Glennon had been consulting with the brewery since last summer before he joined full-time in December. He had also worked as Night Shift co-founder Rob Burns’ manager at three previous companies. And Lindsay had done accounting work for the brewery in its early days. Night Shift co-founder Mike O’Mara, who previously ran the brewery’s finance department, handed over the CFO duties to Lindsay earlier this month.
One priority for Glennon, who will be tasked with synchronizing Night Shift’s taproom, marketing and events: making sure that, despite the growth, the founders stay involved in the day-to-day business.
“They are the heartbeat of the company,” he said.
Despite being the brewery’s beating heart, the founders admittedly didn’t have experience managing a staff that had grown from fewer than 30 employees to more than 60. That’s where expert outsiders enhance the environment, rather than dilute it, Oxton argues.
“The cultural impact of growing that quickly is huge,” Oxton said. “Someone like Rich is sensitive about preserving and treating delicately culture. People’s lives are affected as you grow.”
Lindsay brings experience in growing companies on both the beer and spirits side of the beverage industry, having served as CFO, vice president and controller of Boston Beer Company from 1997 to 2003 and CEO of New York whiskey distillery Tuthilltown Spirits from 2014 to 2016.
“His experience at Boston Beer is hugely relevant to what we’re doing here,” Oxton said. “We’re not trying to become the next Sam Adams, but it’s nice to have his perspective applied to a small brewery. He knows the landmines ahead.”
Lindsay’s veteran voice was something lacking at the brewery, and it’s already being heard.
“We had a conversation the other day talking about a beer release and how to approach it,” Oxton said. “He jumps in and goes, ‘Typically, here’s how it’s done with the bigger guys.’ Everyone just turns to him and quiets down. No one at the company had ever said that before. That phrase didn’t exist. That’s not to discredit the people we have onboard.
“It’s a very unique opinion in the room,” he added.
Lindsay said he’s joined Night Shift to provide “more vision support” than to change that vision. He’ll help “whiteboard” and provide analysis. He recalled his first lesson in the beer industry: being told to wring out cash to put behind sales and marketing to keep the brand growing. “We didn’t look at that as a slight,” he said. “We saw it as an investment in the future for everyone.”
The hires come as the business moves from primarily taproom focused to the inclusion of new business Night Shift Distributing, which Oxton anticipates will announce its first brand partners in the next few months.
The taproom has been the primary source of income for the brewery for the last few years, Oxton said, but now it’s being balanced with the growing wholesale business.
“It’s definitely a recognition of how much wholesale can grow and the runway it has,” Oxton said.
Night Shift has grown from 4,000 barrels sold in 2015 to 10,000 last year and a projected 20,000 this year — most of which is being gobbled up by existing accounts.
“We’re going through so much more volume than we expected,” Oxton said. “We produce twice as much beer, but we’re not selling to twice as many accounts.”
Running two companies has been a “bigger challenge than we initially expected it to be,” Oxton admitted. That’s where Lindsay comes in, sorting out the two businesses as he’ll serve as CFO of both.
“He’s an absolute beast in that world,” Oxton said.
Oxton said Night Shift Distributing has taken its time in signing supplier partners because the founders want the bonds the company forges to be long-term so the expectations on both sides need to be laid out and fully understood by both parties.
“This is not a six-month or one-year relationship,” Oxton said. “It’s potentially a much longer relationship, but not forever if they don’t want it to be. That’s a very important distinction.
“We want to make sure that we’re meeting their needs now and meeting their needs in a year and two years from now and so we’re not met with a surprise,” he added.