Photo courtesy of Jonathan Timothy Stoner
Founders co-owner Dave Engbers tells the story of Founders growth-and the struggles to keeping going before they discovered the key to their current success.
Every year hundreds of businesses open up all over Grand Rapids. Making sure a business doesn’t merely survive but also thrives is a difficult and complicated process- requiring constant innovation and research. Where better to garner some invaluable advice on this subject than the very people who have already established long running and successful enterprises right here in the city. In this series, various local business men and women with an extensive history in this sector will be sharing some of what they have learned about doing business in Grand Rapids, and why they have experienced such success in their field.
Founders Brewing Company is a dearly loved local institution, but its acclaim is not confined to Grand Rapids or even to Michigan. The Brewery is regularly dispatching to 24 States. Having recently sent two bottles back home for my father to rate, I can attest to the fact that their beer is also cherished in England. Dave Engbers, co-owner and Vice President of Brand and Education, says that there are no plans to slow down. “We will continue to grow, while making sure we nurture and maintain the tight knit group that has contributed to our success,” he said. Engbers explains that Founders’ rapid expansion is not necessarily all their own idea. “It’s not coming from us, but more from our responsibility to increase production in order to meet demand.”
That demand is so great that Founders has in the past struggled to satisfy it. “There are large markets we’re not yet involved in, as well as pent up demand we are aware of. Existing markets are also still growing,” Engbers explains. When Engbers and his partner Mike Stevens wrote up the business plan for Founders in 1994, Engbers estimates there were maybe “one or two other craft breweries in the entire state of Michigan. By the time we actually started brewing around three years later there were probably fifteen.”
The popularity of these small breweries is erupting once again. Grand Rapids has seen Harmony Brewing Company on Lake Drive open earlier this year, and the reopening of Grand Rapid’s Brewing Company is tentatively planned for later this year.
Engbers describes Founders as “brewer friendly,” regularly entertaining their industry contemporaries. When asked if he only drinks Founders’ own beer Engbers is emphatic in his reply “Oh God, no!” he laughs, “We enjoy a variety.”
The morning atmosphere of Founders preceding opening is one of contentment, each staff member industriously taking care of business. Engbers is constantly transferring credit to his 108 strong army of staff. “I don’t like to use the word employee; we prefer the Founders family,” he explains. “What we have here are highly educated and passionate staff with great palettes.”
It has not always been so laid-back. There was a time around 2001 when Founders was facing the real threat of bankruptcy. “During our leaner years the bank told us they were going to chain our doors shut,” Engbers explains, “That’s when I bought some bolt cutters.” Those very bolt cutters hang up in his office today, mercifully unused, a humbling reminder that “things were not always this good.”
Engbers retrospective advice to himself would be to “go with your gut.” He explains that it was only really when Founders started to brew bolder, riskier and punchier beers that business started to take off. “We found we began to form a creative stranglehold, from brewing nicely crafted but mainstream beers, we instead began to brew only beer that we wanted to drink.” These more complex beverages brought waves of beer enthusiasts out of the woodwork that Engbers says he didn’t even know were there.
“There has always been a feeling within all of us here [at Founders] that we are the underdogs. The brewing business is an industry run by the big boys, but what we have is that we make truly phenomenal and unique beer.” This emphasis on beer and specifically its individuality is at the core of the Founders philosophy.
Each member of the Founders family seems diligently invested in the success of the brewery. Their expertise and dedication adds up to a slick operation that has “practically doubled in size every year for the last four years.” A tour of the facilities really brings home the sheer size of their expansion: an original 30-barrel container is diminutive next to a newer 440-barrel one.
Apart from the beer, what makes Founders such a success? Engbers heartily concludes, “Our staff are the heart and soul of our product, and it’s all about the product.”