New Belgium Brewing might be in play.
On Friday, a report citing unnamed sources said that craft brewer New Belgium, best known for its Fat Tire Ale, was working with the advisory firm Lazard Middle Market on a possible sale.
It's a significant moment for the Certified B Corp movement, since New Belgium is one of the largest B Corps on a rapidly growing list of almost 1,500 firms. Reuters reported that New Belgium, which is owned by its employees, is looking for a buyer that would pay more than $1 billion for the company.
The report comes during a wave of acquisitions in the craft beer industry. Several small brewers that are well known for socially responsible practices were sold in 2015 — but so far, the new owners aren't backing off from policies the original owners made.
In March, Full Sail Brewing, which was also owned by its employees, sold to a private equity firm. Many employees received five- or six-figure buyout checks, and they also got to keep their jobs. In 2014, TriplePundit named Full Sail one of the 10 most sustainable U.S. breweries. Nine months after the sale, Full Sail's website still prominently features a video that describes its efforts at water conservation.
In October, Lagunitas Brewing Co. announced that it sold a 50 percent stake to Heineken, one of the largest brewers in the world. Lagunitas has generous donation, sponsorship and environmental programs that are integral to the brand. But its new owner, which is based in the Netherlands, also places a high value on sustainability. Heineken is making aggressive efforts to limit water use and also supports human rights in the countries in which it does business.
Neither Full Sail nor Lagunitas was a B Corp, however. And New Belgium has been an enthusiastic supporter of B Lab, the nonprofit group that performs voluntary audits of environmental, personnel and community practices to certify that subscribing businesses are "a force for good in the world."
In response to the Reuters report, New Belgium co-founder and board chairwoman Kim Jordan said: "New Belgium Brewing’s board of directors has an obligation to have ongoing dialogue with the capital markets with the goal of making sure that we remain strong as leaders in the craft brewing industry. There is no deal pending at this time."
A year ago, when New Belgium became 100 percent employee-owned, Jordan said the move was intended to protect the company's progressive culture. "There are few times in life where you get to make choices that will have multi-generational impact – this is one of those times,” she said. "We have always had a high involvement ownership culture and this allows us to take that to the next logical level. It will provide an elegant succession framework that keeps the executive team intact ensuring our vision stays true going forward.” (See this report in the Denver Post).
The prospect of a sale raises difficult issues for Jordan, other board members and New Belgium's 600-plus employee shareholders. The company's identity is tied to employee ownership and progressive stances on climate change, the living wage movement, bicycle advocacy and other issues. Its B Corp certification, which it gained in 2013, burnishes that reputation.
To an old-fashioned investor, B Corp certification might look like an unnecessary drag on the bottom line. An unethical buyer might make promises to get New Belgium's employee shareholders to approve a sale, without intending to keep them.
The Full Sail and Lagunitas stories, although unfinished, fuel hope that a new kind of investor might recognize that walking the talk on sustainability is what makes the brand worth buying in the first place.
Image credit: Flickr/Daniel Spiess