Maintaining "Cultural Fabric," Odell Brewing Converts to Employee Ownership

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Wynne, Doug and Corkie Odell had three goals when they began thinking about the future ownership of the brewery they'd founded in 1989: upholding its financial stability, keeping independent control, and maintaining their cultural fabric.

On Monday, Fort Collins-based Odell Brewing – the third largest craft-beer maker in Colorado – announced that it would do all three by transitioning into an employee-owned venture.

Odell is the third major Colorado craft brewery to do that: New Belgium became 100 percent employee-owned in 2013, while Left Hand Brewing in Longmont announced that it has switched to employee ownership just three weeks ago.

“We have worked really hard to create a team-oriented collaborative culture,” says Odell CEO Wynne Odell. “Everyone who works here is given a significant amount of responsibility as they become trained in the area where they are working. You own all the work that is associated with your role. That is meaningful to all of us.

“It would have been difficult to bring in an outside party and ensure that we could still operate that way,” she continues. “Because it does require an awesome lot of trust and talking to each other. It's not something that just happens.”

The transition was important because the market for craft breweries has begun heating up significantly over the past few years. Several well-known companies, including Firestone Walker, Elysian, Oskar Blues, 10 Barrel, Goose Island, Sweetwater and Boulevard, have all been co-opted by larger breweries or by private-equity firms.

“The market is so hot, you can choose your destiny if you want to,” Wynne says of brewery buyouts. “But that model wasn't what we wanted.”

“The craft-beer industry is changing dramatically and we have seen several of our friends and neighbors selling their companies, in whole or part, to major brewers and private equity firms,” Doug Odell said in a statement. “While these options are more lucrative than the one we chose, we believe that the people who built Odell Brewing Company are the best ones to lead us successfully into the future.”

To pull off the switch, Doug and Wynne Odell and Doug's sister, Corkie, sold 19 percent of the brewery's stock to a newly-formed Employee Stock Option Plan (ESOP), which all Odell staff are now a part of. “The stock in the ESOP will change in value as the company grows, creating a direct reward for the efforts of each co-worker,” the brewery says. Odell currently has about 115 employees.

More than 50 percent of the stock is now owned by the company’s executive team, which includes Eric Smith, Brendan McGivney and Chris Banks. “This team collectively shares 52 years of experience with the Odell family and the brewery,” the company says.

The founders each retained 10 percent of the stock. All three will remain active in the continued management of the company.

“One of the things that allowed us to get this done now,” Wynne says, is the recent infrastructure expansion, which included a huge new brewing system, more capacity and a large new taproom. “We are in a comfortable place. Last year, we grew 24 percent. That was really hot growth for us. We're on track for 15 percent this year.”

Odell is on pace to brew 115,000 barrels of beer in 2015. The company is the third-largest craft brewery in Colorado, behind New Belgium and Oskar Blues. Left Hand is the fourth-largest.

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