BrewDog's new U.S. CEO: People are the secret ingredient

Katy Smith
Allison Green, CEO, BrewDog USA

It took Allison Green two minutes in conversation with her husband, John, to decide she was moving to Canal Winchester from Blackpool, England, to become CEO of BrewDog USA this past spring. What to do about her 5-year-old Labrador, Hobbes, was another story. He would have had to travel in the cargo hold of a plane for nine hours, and who knows what getting him back to the UK for visits in a post-Brexit world would have involved—quarantine?

“As much as we really want him here, we’ve done the very grown-up thing—to the delight of my sister and her kids—and we’ve left him there. So every day I get a good morning picture and a good night picture,” says Green, who is a “massive fan” of the comic strip Calvin & Hobbes. “Two minutes deciding to come here, and deciding whether we should bring the dog or not took us three months. I have never been that indecisive about anything in my life.”

Hobbes is, in a way, the reason Green ended up working for the most outspoken craft beer brand in the world in the first place. James Watt, who co-founded BrewDog in Scotland in 2007 with Martin Dickie (in Dickie’s mother’s garage, of course), is an ex-fishing boat captain who “worked the North Irish Sea with his dad and his granddad before he came to run this company,” she explains. “We [first] spoke on Skype (about three years ago). The job was people director. And we spoke for about 10 minutes about great companies and what made them incredible, and I’m super focused: It’s people number 1, 2, 3 and 4. And five, the rest come after that. And then we spent the rest of the 20 minutes sharing photographs of our dogs. I told him all about Hobbes, he told me all about Simcoe, which is his dog named after a hop, obviously. And I think that’s probably why we hit it off … and he offered me the job.”

Green had the chance to lead U.S. operations after previous CEO Tanisha Robinson moved into a “chief disruption officer” role for BrewDog internationally. She’s since started a canned drink venture, W*nder, according to her LinkedIn profile, and is no longer employed by BrewDog.

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Besides having to leave Hobbes behind, what’s been the most difficult part of Green’s transition to the U.S.? “Portion sizes,” she says. “Oh my god, they’re giant.” Learning to drive was no biggie. “It’s great driving here. The roads are really wide.” Walking proved a tougher challenge. “I live in Canal, about 1.5 kilometers from here (that’s a little less than a mile). And I walked to work the first few weeks. People stopped to ask me if I needed a lift. My first day someone stops and says, ‘Honey, are you OK?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m just walking to work.’ And she was like, ‘Why?’ ”

Green grew up in the retail trade, working as a waitress in bars while she attended University of Chester in England. First she studied math, and then sport science because she liked rugby, but ultimately she honed in on a dual psychology and theology major, both fields “about the people stuff,” she says. She went on to hold positions in HR and operations at various companies. “I have worked for great companies,” she says. “I’ve worked for Footsie 100 companies in the UK (slang for Financial Times Stock Exchange 100 Index). I’ve worked in private equity companies, which are very fast-paced and all about delivering profit. I’ve worked in charities. I loved that I worked for the Youth Hostel Association. So I’ve had great jobs.

“I think the reason that BrewDog is so great to work for is, honestly, there aren’t really any rules. Our mission is to make everyone as passionate about craft beer as we are. And we do it in a way that that is real, and independent and true to our charter—you can almost do anything you want. That works for me. I’m not very good with rules, systems, processes.”

Sounds about right, considering BrewDog’s in-your-face, punk rock ethos. “At BrewDog we reject the status quo, we are passionate, we don’t give a damn and we always do something which is true to ourselves. Our approach has been anti-authoritarian and non-conformist from the word go,” Watt wrote in his book, Business for Punks: Break All the Rules—the BrewDog Way. “Rip up those stuffy old textbooks, reject the status quo, tear down the establishment and embrace the dawn of a new era. … Businesses fail. Businesses die. Businesses fade into oblivion. Revolutions never die. So start a revolution, not a business.”

Watt’s not just posing. What craft beer brand has an airline giving people branded vacations? Or a hotel with beer coolers in the showers, like it has at the DogHouse in Canal Winchester? On Twitter this fall, Watt floated the idea of adding a pool with a swim-up bar to its Canal complex. (Full disclosure: It is Allison’s wonderful, crazy idea. Watt and Dickie are considering it.) Because why not?

The attitude—and great beer—have earned BrewDog the admiration of a legion of fans and 120,000 so-called Equity Punks, 9,000 of them in Central Ohio, who can invest a minimum of £47.50 in the company in exchange for perks, special access to fun and more. The crowdfunding has helped propel the company to rapid growth—it was named one of the fastest growing brands in the UK in September. San Francisco-based TSG Consumer Partners valued the company at $1.24 billion in 2017, when it made a $264 million minority investment in BrewDog. TSG is bullish on its plans—and on Green’s hire.

“Having been with BrewDog in the UK for over three years, Allison really knows and gets the unique BrewDog culture,” says TSG President Jamie O’Hara in an email to Columbus CEO. “She has done a brilliant job so far in making sure the culture is just as strong in America as it is in Scotland. The U.S. business is having a very strong 2019 and sales are up over 90 percent year to date, which is tribute to the great work that Allison and all of her team have been doing. We have big plans and many opportunities to capitalize on in 2020.” Those plans include doubling U.S. sales and production to $20 million and 50,000 barrels this year; opening bars in Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and elsewhere; opening a bar at the Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse, home of the Cleveland Monsters; launching distillery operations in Canal including a partnership making bourbon with Columbus-based Middle West Spirits; building a mini-golf course on its 42-acre Canal Winchester campus; and adding suites situated in cargo containers to the DogHouse, complete with patios. Deep breath.

The breakneck pace of expansion doesn’t seem to be slowing. BrewDog is in 15 states and 60 countries, and it has more than 85 bars. It had half that number just a few years ago. Its pubs in Columbus are booming, and the DogHouse is running at 90 percent occupancy, says Jon Quick, BrewDog USA’s head of retail. “Our retail businesses [including at the Columbus pubs] was up 39 percent as of last month, which is absolutely incredible,” Quick says. He came to BrewDog from the Walt Disney Co. in Florida, where as a guest engagement manager he oversaw building projects and worked on the beverage program. A fan of its beer and its uncompromising personality, Quick had his eye on BrewDog as a dream job before it even moved to the U.S. in 2017.

Doubling sales when a company is still small is not so difficult, and for all its swagger, BrewDog is still small, to be sure. With production at 50,000 barrels, it would be the third-largest craft brewer in Ohio, according to Bizjournals. No. 1, Great Lakes Brewing Co., did 143,000 barrels in 2018. Still, with the craft industry growing at 4 percent, Green says, BrewDog’s doubling performance warrants a toast. But can it keep up the pace?

“It’s very easy to expand your distribution, and grow your footprint and your production that way,” says Rick Armon, veteran beer writer for the Akron Beacon Journal and author of the book Ohio Breweries. “But the question is whether it’s sustainable”—whether people like your beer enough to keep drinking it. One challenge BrewDog faces in craft is that local is king. “The eat local, drink local, buy local movement has really taken a foothold,” Armon says. “And I’ve seen regional brewers have to pull in and contract, and they’ve seen their sales decline, not because they aren’t making great beer. But if I’m a brewer in Columbus … When I take that beer and try to sell it in, [say] North Dakota, it’s not seen as a local product. The beer sold in North Dakota is what people are craving.”

What BrewDog has going for it, Armon says, is great beer. It could leverage its painstaking insistence on quality to create local variations that would give it a strong foothold in the communities where it lands.

The personality test BrewDog uses to promote teamwork involves colors, not the names of character traits. Red is for getting things done, and “I am incredibly red,” Green says. “Ally is a complete force of nature,” Quick says. “She is 100 percent the most uncompromising person I’ve ever met. She’s incredibly driven and focused and passionate. She’s always putting her people first, in every possible way.”

Green puts the ball back in the employees’ court. “Keeping that culture and engagement and involvement as we grow is everybody’s challenge, not just mine,” she says. “Everybody who works for us—all our senior team, certainly all of our managers and leaders of people.”

This year’s Aug. 24 annual meeting for investors and the community, the AGM—at BrewDog, that stands for “Annual General Mayhem” instead of “meeting”—was the largest in U.S. history with more than 8,521 attendees. It was 11 hours long and involved 25 breweries, 12 food trucks and 10 bands, with Manchester Orchestra and Caamp headlining. (Green wanted Dolly Parton, but she is not touring this year, and BrewDog probably couldn’t afford her if she was, Green says.)

Like they do annually, the founders took to a stage to share the year’s accomplishments and goals with Equity Punk shareholders. “Our plans are incredibly ambitious, to grow again, double for year three, start to make really good profit so that we can reinvest back into the business,” Green says. “Keeping that up is incredibly challenging. I guess my biggest thing [is] I just don’t want to [mess] it up. I am so incredibly lucky to lead it, the people that I’ve got are phenomenal. They’re not all the time, obviously, but in general they are amazing. And they deserve the very best of me that they can get.”


Allison Green was BrewDog’s people chief for three years before becoming CEO of its U.S. business. Here’s how she’s building its culture here.

How do you describe your team?

They would describe themselves as a group of dysfunctional individuals (said affectionately). They are committed, passionate, incredibly loyal. And they absolutely believe in what BrewDog wants to do. They believe that we’ve come here to make a real difference in the community, and then hopefully, across the U.S. And our beer has to be amazing. Because in the U.S., everybody expects craft beer to be amazing. So that’s just an entry point for us. Our team [members] truly are here because we come into communities, we pay great wages, we’ve got really good benefits, we develop people from within. Our teams believe in us believing in them. As a result of that, they’re phenomenal.

You’re taking a very people-centric approach to your leadership. What are you putting in place?

I’ve said that every quarter—providing we are on track financially— we will look together at the things that we can do to make us an incredible employer. And so we had quarter two, which is April, May, June, and the team did amazing. They delivered the top line number and controlled costs. Phenomenal. So I asked them what were the things that they would like? And so (in July we launched) an employee assistance program. It’s a 24-7 helpline for anyone that works for us and their families. They can call and get support if they are suffering from stress at work, if they’ve got financial difficulties or bankruptcy, and their family is struggling. Or if they’ve got problems with drug or alcohol abuse from any of their wider family. We’ve now got July, August and September, and the next thing they said was really important was the BrewDog Foundation, which is how we have a million pounds a year to spend across the globe doing great stuff for communities. I launched it here in June, and we had 60 charitable organizations come and listen to [a presentation about] what we’re going to do. And so the team said, as well as money, they want to give some time. So I said if we hit our number in September, then for the last quarter, I’ll launch an extra volunteer day every year. They’ll get [the usual] 20 paid time off days. And then they’ll also for one day be able to go and volunteer for a charity that is super important to them. For me, linking it to business performance demonstrates the value they bring. Next year, we’re looking at better maternity and paternity provisions. And we’ve got a number of BrewDog babies now here, which is amazing.

Katy Smith is the editor of Columbus CEO.

About the company and its U.S. CEO