Interview with Laura Bell, CEO of Bell's Brewery

Laura Bell, recently named CEO of Bell's Brewery, talks about her journey to becoming CEO, the philosophy behind Bell's and a new brew we can look forward to!
Can you tell us about your journey working for Bell’s?
It’s been a fun journey. Growing up, I had never really anticipated working for the brewery; that was my dad’s thing. My brother and I were always around the brewery, we helped with odd jobs when we were younger – we washed glasses, folded shirts, helped out with inventory and answered phones. They weren’t official jobs, but it was fun to give my dad a hand. Throughout high school and college, I worked in the kitchen, but I still wasn’t really interested in a career at the brewery - I wanted to do my own thing. It wasn’t until after college, when I was struggling to find a job - maybe I just wasn’t looking hard enough - that my dad offered me the opportunity to work at the brewery in sales. That is when I actually started to consider working in the craft beer industry. I thought to myself, “well, I don’t have anything to lose and it is my family business, I’ll give it a shot.” I worked in sales for about a year in East Lansing, Michigan, and my interest in craft beer began to grow. I then moved to Kalamazoo and started working at the brewery. I pretty much moved through every department in the brewery, from working in logistics and the warehouse to the bottling line, cellar, and fermentation lab. At that point, I realized that I was in love with craft beer, and that I was in love with Bell’s and was extremely grateful it was my family’s business. We didn’t have a marketing department back then, so I kind of helped wherever I was needed. I spent the next couple of years growing the marketing department, I then I took over sales. As the years went by, I was working both with sales and marketing, and I began taking leadership within our executive team, eventually assuming the role of CEO.
It really is funny the way things turned out, because growing up it was like, “Oh my gosh, I’m never going to work for the brewery. It’s Larry’s thing, he’s so busy with it.” Now look at me, I’m so incredibly passionate about Bell’s. This August marks my tenth year officially working at Bell’s, and I’m extremely happy with the way things have gone.
What’s the philosophy behind Bell’s? Has it evolved over time?
I think a lot of our DNA has persisted throughout all of our changes. There is this fierce spirit of independence about Bell’s, with a focus on quality, consistency, and continuous improvement that we have always stayed true to. We have fun too; it’s been a great time since day one. As we continue to grow, we are very cognizant of the fact that we don’t want to lose what made us special, and we don’t want to lose the reasons we love working for the brewery. I always think to myself, “I don’t want to own a company I wouldn’t want to work for.”
Our ownership is my dad, my brother and myself. We can brew whatever we please, and our goal and vision is not only to make the best quality beer that we possibly can, but also to be a great place to work. It is very important for us to take care of our employees, because they are passionate about what they do, they make great beer, and it all goes hand in hand. It feels really good to be able to keep them in mind when making all of our decisions.
What is your go to Bell’s and where is your favorite place to drink it?
That’s a really tough question. I don’t have a favorite Bell’s, because it really depends on the season - we’re pretty seasonally focused. I will say this though: drinking a Bell’s Octoberfest, in our beer garden, in late August or early September, when the leaves are just starting to fall, is pretty spectacular. We’ve got this beautiful beer garden with a lot of picnic tables outside, and Octoberfest seems to fit quite nicely.
Can you tell us about Bell’s community involvement and sustainable practices?
One of the things we are really grateful for is this amazing community we have supporting us. We’ve been fortunate enough to grow to the size that we have because of the people who are excited about what we make, especially here in Michigan. So we try to focus locally, and give back to those who have supported us over the years, in a number of different ways. From a community factor, we are supporting really good work that is being done in Kalamazoo, both philanthropically and also with volunteer hours. One of the benefits that we offer our employees is a volunteer day. We pay them to volunteer for whatever cause they are passionate about in our community. For the folks that aren’t quite sure what they want to do, we’ll organize an outing. We’ll take a day and go to the food bank, help with habitat for Humanity, or serve lunch to those in need. In the past 5 to 7 years, we have also made big advances towards becoming more environmentally sustainable. We’ve put a lot of effort into making Bell’s a sustainable business by looking at waste water, lighting, our compost, and our waste diversion rate, and we’ve made really great progress in that area.
Are there any particular styles or ingredients Bell’s is experimenting with? Any new beers we should keep an eye out for?
We have a coffee milk stout coming out in the fall. It’s a beer we’ve been playing around with the past year or two, and it is simply delicious. We have one coffee beer we make right now and usually put out in the fall, the Java Stout. This year we are changing it up a little bit with Arabicadabra, made with the Arabica bean – it’s a play on our sense of humor. It’s really delicious, it’s got that super bold coffee aroma and flavor. It’s not necessarily a new ingredient, but I feel like we’ve got the process down to get out what we want to get out of it – it’s magical.
What does the future look like for Bell’s?
We love our Comstock and Kalamazoo locations and are happy with where we are at, though we’re always under construction in some way or another. Our vision has been to build out our breweries to their fullest capacities possible and we feel like we still have a lot of room to grow, we’re working towards that million-barrel capacity.