EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published in the Chippewa Herald on Sept. 14, 2014.
The day before it was announced that Dick Leinenkugel would become the eighth president of the Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Co., he was digging through some old files to see what he could find.
Among all of the correspondence was a letter written more than 25 years ago by his father, Bill Leinenkugel, past president of the brewery and at that time still very much involved in the business that he had devoted his life. The letter was mailed to his son in Chicago, where Dick’s regional sales job was to make inroads in the northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin territory.
The letter began: “A little birdie told me that there’s still no shortage of beer in the marketplace. And within a week you have proven it to be true.”
In other words, there’s work to be done.
“My dad had a great sense of humor, and a love of this business and his family,” Dick said. What his father wrote “was just really special for me. I always remembered that. It was sort of his subtle way of saying, ‘Get out there and work harder.’ He always told us that because we are Leinenkugels, we have to work twice as hard as anybody else, because everybody’s going to be watching you.”
That is truer than ever now.
President in the making
Since that first sales job in 1987 Dick Leinenkugel has worked in many capacities for Leinenkugel’s and its parent company, now MillerCoors. That includes a decade as vice president of marketing.
“When I came back to Leinenkugel’s in 1994 (after serving as chain account manager in Chicago for Miller), I never really thought what I would doing 20 years from then,” he said. “I always knew there was this age gap between Jake and myself, and if he wanted to retire at 60 or 62 or 65, hopefully I would have prepared myself to be next in line.”
That preparation included a couple of years away from the beer business. He served in state politics as Wisconsin’s commerce secretary under Gov. Jim Doyle, and made a brief run for national office as a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate before returning to the Leinenkugel’s fold in 2010.
“Politics was something I always wanted to try. This was an opportunity for me to give back to the state that has so richly blessed our business and enabled us to do great things here in Wisconsin. So this was an opportunity for me to learn, to grow, to be in public service. It was a great experience,” Dick said.
“I knew beer and I knew marketing, but I had a tremendous opportunity to round out my managerial experience not only by leading a 400-person department, but by being able to travel the state and meet so many different business people. It was tough leaving the beer business,” he said, calling it at the time bittersweet. “It was a risk that I took. Looking back I was really happy I did it.”
Every job Dick Leinenkugel has held, including that time in state government, has prepared him for this day. It also made him the obvious choice to lead Leinenkugel’s into the future.
“I couldn’t think of a better person to assume the role of president of Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Company,” said Tom Cardella, president and CEO of Tenth and Blake, the division of MillerCoors that oversees craft and imports.
“Dick has spent a lifetime working with his family to run this historic craft brewery and was chiefly responsible for introducing the U.S. drinker to the Shandy style,” Cardella continued. “Now, Leinenkugel Summer Shandy is the craft industry’s number one craft summer seasonal.”
Coming full circle
Dick Leinenkugel grew up at the brewery. He was its one and only tour guide one summer, before he was old enough to work in the brewery itself, something he did through the summers of his college years.
He left Chippewa Falls when he was 18 years old for Marquette University, and joined the Marine Corps, following a path taken by his father (a World War II Marine) and his brother Jake. He’s lived in several places since then, primarily in the Milwaukee area, but never back in his hometown — until now.
He is looking forward to it.
“It’s important to have a Leinenkugel family member leading this business, and it’s really important to become part of not only the business community here, but the community in general. Jean and I are really excited about coming here to Chippewa Falls and fulfilling that role as well,” Dick said.
The couple will be celebrating its 30th wedding anniversary in November. They have three children: Jeffrey, 27, who is a high school teacher in Dallas, Texas; and 25-year-old twin daughters Katie and Lindsay. Katie is also in Dallas, where she is a director at a charter school, and Lindsay lives in Wauwatosa and works as an art director in Milwaukee for Jacobson Rost, Leinenkugel’s advertising agency.
Dick said that the role of his younger brother, John, is expanding. He works out of Minneapolis on the marketing side, and also on special projects, including helping oversee the company’s Big Eddy line of beers.
The brewery’s new president admires the job that Jake did in the role, particularly being the lead spokesman for the brewery, for spending so much time on the road meeting with distributors across the country and the public at special events, and for all of the building and technology improvements that has been done in Chippewa Falls. “That can’t be understated,” he said.
They share some traits, such as an affinity for the outdoors, but are different in many ways as well.
“We both get our energy by being in the beer business. We enjoy it,” Dick said. But he also gets energy from more solitary pursuits such as walking his dogs, biking and fishing.
The differences in the three brothers were appreciated by their father. In an Associated Press story, Dick quotes Bill Leinenkugel as saying, “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.”
Look to the future
Leinenkugel’s once was part of a David vs. Goliath story, surviving against the giants at a time when small breweries were folding and only a few dozen breweries in the U.S. remained. In the ensuing years Leinenkugel’s has grown to the point that some consider it too large to be considered a craft brewer.
But that is exactly what Leinenkugel’s does. It’s just that the landscape has entirely changed, and now Leinie’s has plenty of company. More people are drinking beer, but their choices have exploded. By the end of 2014 the number of breweries and brew pubs is expected to swell to 4,000.
“It’s pretty exciting,” Dick said, noting that craft brewers are sparking the renewed interest in beer and all of the various options. “As brewers we are giving them what they want, more flavor, more taste, more experiences within beer.”
He pointed out that’s not only happening with beer, but with coffee and foods. “I think that bodes well for us because of the category that we’re in, which is craft.”
That leaves Dick Leinenkugel optimistic, despite all of the competition.
“I’m tremendously excited to take over the company at a time when I feel it’s at a tipping point where we can accelerate the growth of our business. When I spoke to the employees at our brewery Tuesday, I told them one of my goals is doubling our business by the year 2020. We have a terrific team in Chippewa Falls, our partners at Tenth and Blake and our distributor partners are absolutely terrific, our brands are delighting our beer drinkers each and every day, and I have no doubt that goal is reachable.”
That’s an aggressive benchmark, considering Leinenkugel’s has nearly doubled its beer production twice since roughly 2008. But its tremendous growth is also indicative of how many things the beer company is doing right.
Back where he belongs
In the spring of 2010 when Dick was making his run for U.S. Senate, a reporter asked Jake about his younger brother.
“He is extremely bright, a great communicator, very creative and decisive,” Jake said of Dick. “As I told him, beer is beer and politics is politics — I prefer beer.”
This past week, while sitting in a meeting room in what used to be the Leinie Lodge/gift shop on the brewery grounds, the new president of the Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Co. was asked if his preference was also beer.
“Without question,” was his emphatic and immediate reply. “Yes, without question.”