Jake Leinenkugel retires from craft brewery

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

MILWAUKEE (AP) — Jake Leinenkugel announced Tuesday that he is stepping down as president of the Wisconsin brewery started by his great-great-grandfather and will be succeeded by his younger brother Dick Leinenkugel, who formerly led economic development efforts in the state.

Jake Leinenkugel, 62, is familiar to beer drinkers as the star of ads promoting his family's brand. He took over day-to-day operations of the company a year after its 1988 merger with Miller Brewing Co., now MillerCoors, and oversaw recent rapid growth fueled by the popularity of the lemonade-flavored Summer Shandy.

Leinenkugel's, with its 147 years of family history, picturesque Northwoods brewery and expanding line of flavored beers, has been a near-perfect fit for the millennial market. Eighteen- to 25-year-olds crave variety, but they also want authenticity, said Andrea Riberi, a senior vice president at Nielsen, which tracks beer sales. Leinenkugel's has made the most of its story with marketing that emphasizes the outdoors and includes "family reunions" that draw 10,000 people to the flagship brewery in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, each year.

Sales, excluding those at bars and liquor stores, grew about 130 percent over four years to $161 million in 2013, according to Nielsen data. Jake Leinenkugel said the company brewed about 1 million barrels of beer last year, twice as much as he envisioned when he became president 25 years ago.

Both brothers served in the Marines before going to work for the family company, following an example set by their father, Bill Leinenkugel. Jake Leinenkugel inherited his father's gregariousness. He loves mingling with beer distributors and drinkers, created the festival-like family reunions and, on tough days, gets a boost by stopping at a bar to mingle with fans.

"I love bringing people together," Jake Leinenkugel told The Associated Press on Monday, adding, "I would say, I'm a very good coach, and I love being involved in tactical things, selling beer."

Dick Leinenkugel, 56, describes himself as the more deliberate brother, the one who pays attention to details and balances his brother's "go with my gut" style of making decisions. He served as commerce secretary under former Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat, and then ran as a Republican for U.S. Senate in 2010 before bowing out in favor of Sen. Ron Johnson.

A third brother, John Leinenkugel, works for Leinenkugel's in marketing in Minneapolis. Their father, who died in 2008, taught them to appreciate their differences.

"He said, 'The other brothers compliment Jake and bring other things to the business. If all three of them thought the same, two of them wouldn't be necessary,'" Dick Leinenkugel said.

Jake Leinenkugel's tenure has been shaped by the partnership with MillerCoors. He learned a tough lesson early on, when he gave Miller permission to brew Leinenkugel's in Milwaukee without setting brewing or taste-testing standards.

"I learned that, holy smokes, 'There's people in Chippewa Falls who could taste the difference,'" he said.

The company now has teams that ensure batches made at its Eden, North Carolina, brewery match those produced in Chippewa Falls. A third brewery in Milwaukee produces ales.

But Jake Leinenkugel said the merger overall has been a great success, with MillerCoors providing access to distributors nationwide, money to expand the Chippewa Falls brewery three times and expertise in everything from quality control to finance. Future generations of Leinenkugels are preparing to run the business in Chippewa Falls by working first in other MillerCoors divisions.

Jake Leinenkugel predicted continued growth and success under his brother, saying they share the same values instilled by their father.

"We both know that we need to wake up every morning and say, 'Don't screw this up," he said. "We also need to have a connection to our people, here in Chippewa Falls, at the brewery. ... And treat everybody as if they were important."