KALAMAZOO, MI — Bell’s Brewery is set to become the second major American craft brewing company to be acquired by Lion, an Australian-based beverage company with a growing international portfolio.
Lion recently purchased Fort Collins, Colorado-based, New Belgium Brewing Co. in 2019.
Bell’s founder and president Larry Bell told the Kalamazoo Gazette/MLive Wednesday that the board of directors at Bell’s voted in January to begin exploring the sale of the company. Upper Hand Brewery in Escanaba, which Bell opened in 2014 in Escanaba, will also be part of the sale.
“I had a couple health issues the last few years and as you start getting into your 60s you just have to start thinking about these sorts of things and how you’re going to handle it,” said Bell, 63. “It’s been on my mind a couple years and I think the key thing here has been we found somebody to join forces with that we really respect and like and feel confident in.”
That somebody is New Belgium, a fellow craft beer giant that has traveled a similar path from humble beginnings in a Colorado college town in 1991 to nationwide distribution in recent years. Notable New Belgium brews include Fat Tire and Voodoo Ranger IPA.
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“I don’t know that there’s been too many of these kinds of sales in the industry,” said Bell, who founded the brewery in Kalamazoo in 1985. “This has been a really conscious decision.
“I think this is a mature adult decision on my part, to just recognize that things need to be taken care of, the employees need to be taken care of in the business. I’m lucky that I found somebody that is going to be able to carry on that legacy and take care of my employees in Comstock, Kalamazoo and Escanaba.”
Once the sale closes, New Belgium CEO Steve Fechheimer, a Michigan native who has been with the brewing company since 2017, will head up a combined company leadership team that oversees the two breweries.
Bell’s executive vice president Carrie Yunker, who has been with the company 18 years, will continue to lead day-to-day operations for the Bell’s brand and John Mallett, Bell’s VP of operations, will also join the combined leadership team. Mallett, who has been with Bell’s for 20 years, will focus on integrating the two brewing organizations.
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“I think the future is rosy,” Bell said, pointing to what he called a meteoric rise in beer sales experienced by New Belgium over the last two years.
“Lion is not buying this company to sell less beer,” Bell said. “They intend to grow this and I think Bell’s is well poised with our production facilities and with our people to enjoy that growth.”
Beer drinkers should expect no changes to Bell’s current beers and employees will continue to work primarily out of Kalamazoo and Comstock, operating per usual, he said.
Fechheimer, who was raised in the northern Detroit suburbs and now calls Fort Collins home, said in the past two years the only change that’s been felt at New Belgium is growth.
“I think in a lot of ways, if you are a fan New Belgium and a fan of craft beer you probably haven’t felt any change,” Fechheimer told MLive. “My entire leadership team is unchanged since 2019. When we announced this, our mission, our vision, our values as a company are unchanged and we’re still, at the core, focused on our communities and our people as much as we are our profits.
“Lion’s given us the freedom to run the business exactly as Kim (Jordan) and Jeff (Lebesch), when they founded New Belgium, had dreamed it would be run.”
Fechheimer said since New Belgium was acquired by Lion, the company has added close to 100 employees, a second canning line to its flagship brewery in Fort Collins, expanded its Asheville, North Carolina site and opened a brewery in San Francisco. The company also operates a brewery facility in Denver.
In addition to soon to be two major American craft breweries, Lion, which is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Japanese company Kirin Holdings, has a portfolio that includes craft breweries in the UK, wineries in California and Oregon and a number of beers, ciders, wines, spirits, coffees and kombuchas worldwide.
Lion also leads the way in distributing major brands such as White Claw, Heineken, Corona, Stella Artois, Budweiser, Smirnoff, Johnny Walker and Wild Turkey in New Zealand and Australia.
But just because Lion is involved with major corporate brands doesn’t mean anything should be expected to change at the local level. Lovers of Bell’s Brewery are being told they can still expect the same level of community involvement and continued traditions such as Oberon Day and support for Kalamazoo Pride, which have been central to the company’s vision and values from the beginning.
“What’s exciting about this announcement is that we’re bringing together these two companies with support from Lion,” Fechheimer said. “We share a commitment to world class beer and a people-first approach to business that’s going to make these two companies even stronger than they are as they come together.
“We’ll continue to push forward with a focus on obviously great beer, but on our communities, on our people, just in the way that Larry has done with his company. Larry has built an amazing legacy here in Kalamazoo and in Michigan, focusing on those things.”
Bell said while he is retiring, he has no plans to leave Kalamazoo and will continue to be active in the community.
“This decision ultimately came down to two determining factors,” he said. “First, the folks at New Belgium share our ironclad commitment to the craft of brewing and the community-first way we’ve built our business.
“Second, this was the right time. I’ve been doing this for more than 36 years and recently battled some serious health issues. I want everyone who loves this company like I do to know we have found a partner that truly values our incredible beer, our culture, and the importance of our roots here in Michigan.”
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