Uinta Brewing Company announced Monday its third notable leadership change in the last four years, promoting chief marketing officer Jeremy Ragonese to president.
Ragonese assumes the role from long-time beer industry executive John Lennon, who took over as CEO in early 2018 following the departure of Steve Mills, who left the Utah-based craft brewery to become CEO of Maine Beer Company.
Lennon will remain a member of Uinta’s board of directors. Meanwhile, Jeremy Worrell, a 3-year member of Uinta’s marketing team, will serve as the company’s new marketing director.
Uinta employees were notified of the changes on March 15.
Ragonese, who has served as CMO for 2.5 years, said he’s hoping to bring stability to a struggling Uinta organization that has suffered volume declines over the last year and fallen from the 36th largest U.S. craft brewery in 2017 to 42nd last year, according to industry trade group the Brewers Association.
“Part of what we have to do is rebuild that culture and make sure that feel like we are in control of the things that we can control,” he said. “Ultimately that’s a matter of making sure that our team stays positive, stays focused, that we’re adapting to the changes around us and really brewing the beers that we want to brew.”
Ragonese, who prior to joining Uinta served as director of marketing for Boulevard Brewing Company and Duvel Moortgat USA for 10 years, said the departures of several executives, as well as the 2014 sale of a majority stake to private equity firm The Riverside Company, have chipped away at company culture and hurt morale.
“Having been through a couple of these transitions where an ownership change has occurred and the founder steps back or steps into a different role, the first thing you feel is a loss of a person who everyone points to and says that’s the person whose passion created this business,” he said. “In the craft world, that’s their true north. That’s what motivates people.”
As Uinta’s new top executive, Ragonese said he’s committed to rebuilding the company’s culture and reclaiming its “true north.”
“It takes a few wins along the way to get there for people to start believing it, but that’s ultimately what we’re after,” he said.
Uinta had a “rough” 2018 and tough start to 2019, Ragonese said. Last year, its production fell to “just shy of 80,000 barrels of beer,” down from a peak of 93,338 barrels in 2017, he noted, attributing much of those declines to sluggish sales of flagship Hop Nosh IPA.
Then, in January 2019, Uinta voluntarily recalled 20,000 cases of beer affected by a yeast contamination. According to Ragonese, only 2,200 cases of those cases made it to store shelves, and consumers were offered refunds. That issue was “a blow” to Uinta’s staff, and damaged the “optimism” they had coming into the year, he added.
“Nobody wants that,” Ragonese said. “We want to regain the momentum we had starting in January.”
In the wake of the recall, Uinta has been working with its wholesalers to rebuild inventories in its 48-state footprint. The company is also hoping to create excitement behind new offerings, including Clear Daze Juicy IPA and Valley Orchard Wheat, as well as Pack It Out Session IPA, which was released in 15-packs in mid-2018.
In an effort to move Uinta forward, Ragonese said the leadership team is developing its plans for the remainder of 2019, which he expects to be finalized in the next 90 days.
“I’m on Day One, hour eight, so it’s a little bit early for me to divulge a whole lot of information on our strategy at this point,” he said.
Nevertheless, Ragonese said Uinta plans to dig deeper in the Mountain West region. As such, the company is preparing for a proposed law change to increase the alcohol content of beer sold in the state’s grocery and convenience stores from 4 percent ABV to 5 percent ABV. Those preparations include working on updated recipes for its core offerings to take advantage of the ability to sell beers with higher ABV in those channels. However, the company would still not be able to sell its 7.3 percent ABV Hop Nosh IPA in those stores, he added.
Uinta is also preparing for the opening of its brewpub at the Salt Lake City International Airport in 2020, and looking to fill vacant sales positions in California and Utah.
“When we get some of those key positions set up, that’s going to help us in some of the markets where we struggled in the last year or so,” Ragonese said.