Ninkasi Names New CEO

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Oregon’s Ninkasi Brewing today announced that co-founder Nikos Ridge would step down as CEO of the company he helped launch more than 10 years ago.

Cheryl Collins, who currently serves as Ninkasi’s chief operating officer, will take over as CEO on May 1, the company said. Ridge, meanwhile, will move into the role of president and maintain his seat on the brewery’s board of directors.

“As the industry evolves, we continue to evolve as well,” Ridge told Brewbound. “We have a situation where we are pretty stable after our first 10 years — in terms of the infrastructure, capabilities and maturity we have developed during that time — and I think now is the right time to focus on improving how we operate as an organization.”

Ridge, who helped the company grow to 100,000 barrels and oversaw an $18 million expansion that will enable Ninkasi to eventually produce 250,000 barrels of beer annually, described his leadership style over the last 10 years as “entrepreneurial-oriented.”

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But that isn’t the type of CEO personality Ninkasi needs to steer the ship at a time when 5,300 craft breweries are all fighting for shelf space and tap handles, and as overall category growth slows.

“I get distracted easily,” he admitted. “This move is all about deciding to do something and focusing on the next 50 steps to do it well.”

Collins, he said, will help sharpen Ninkasi’s focus on execution and carry it into the next era as an independently owned craft beer company. Ninkasi, based in Eugene, Ore., is now the 33rd largest U.S. craft brewery, according to trade group the Brewers Association.

For her part, Collins, who began her career with Ninkasi in 2012 and previously served as the vice president of organizational development as well as “chief people officer,” said she planned to examine the “future needs of the organization” and help determine what the company should look like as it grows into the future.

“The goal is to remain independently owned and to become a very strong organization that creates amazing products and continues the tradition of what Ninkasi is good at,” she said.

Ridge also denied the notion that Collins’ appointment somehow signaled a brewery sale, a rumor that has continuously circulated amongst industry stakeholders.

“There is nothing new as of this year,” he told Brewbound. “Over the last three or four years, there are many people who have done their due diligence to see what was out there. It wasn’t hard to have a conversation during the past couple Craft Brewers Conferences.”

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In addition to tapping Collins as its new CEO, Ninkasi also appointed Sarah Johnson, the former food & beverage director at Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas, as its new chief customer officer.

“She will bring strategic capability, perspective and organization capacity that we haven’t had before,” Ridge said. “Bringing those together will be a huge win.”

The company also said Daniel Sharp, who interned at the brewery in 2010 while earning a food science and technology doctorate from Oregon State University, had joined Ninkasi at the end of 2016 as its new director of brewing operations.

The organizational changes are aimed at moving the company’s focus “away from doing more things, to doing the things we already do better,” Ridge told Brewbound.

Ninkasi is coming off a year in which it failed to grow, something Ridge blamed on declining on-premise sales.

“If we were flat on-premise, we’d still be seeing significant growth,” he said. “But it’s getting more difficult with rotation, localization, the number of breweries and the taproom business.”

On-premise declines have continued into the first quarter of 2017, Ridge added, noting that the company’s draft beer volumes were down more than 10 percent to start the year.

“Our package business is still pretty healthy,” he said. “As the product mix normalizes, that will bottom out our draft business and allow us to grow on our new foundation.”

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Nevertheless, Ridge said he still expects the company, which sold approximately 100,000 barrels of beer in 13 states last year, to grow between 5 and 10 percent this year without expanding into any additional markets.

“We still think it is realistic,” he said, adding that growth in 2017 would largely depend on how the company’s products sell through as a result of new off-premise retail placements at Kroger and other major chains.

“We got some new business in California and throughout footprint,” he said. “With our new placements, new products and expanded sets, if we could get our draft business to flat, we would have more significant growth potential than we currently have.”

Additional information regarding Ninkasi’s organizational changes is available on the brewery’s website.

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