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Watch now: Passing the torch, the next generation of Leinenkugel’s Brewing

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Dick Leinenkugel and Tony Bugher

Dick Leinenkugel (left) and Tony Bugher (right). After eight years at the helm of Leinenkugel Brewing Company, president Dick Leinenkugel is getting ready to step down. He’ll be handing the reins of the six-generation family company to his nephew, Tony Bugher.

After eight years at the helm of Leinenkugel Brewing Company, president Dick Leinenkugel is getting ready to step down. He’ll hand the reins of the six-generation family company to his nephew, Tony Bugher, who will be moving to Chippewa Falls from Georgia before the transfer of responsibilities takes place at year’s end.

Dick Leinenkugel’s career has been nothing short of illustrious and impressive.

“There’s a lot of great memories. I think the first one that comes to mind is opening Leinie Lodge in 2003 and having a place where fans of Leinenkugel’s can come, you know, see their Mecca and travel to Chippewa Falls to see where their favorite beers are made, take a tour, sample beers and then take home a little piece of merchandise to remember us,” Leinenkugel said. “Visitors have a great experience coming here to this wonderful town where I grew up. I think that’s a great memory.”

Leinenkugel said another highlight of his career was being on two teams that created what he calls, “really fabulous beers.”

Leinenkugel’s Sunset Wheat came out in 2006 and it’s one of Leinenkugel’s favorites, he said.

“By the way it is making a return out of hibernation,” he said. “Just had my first can last night. But it officially will be released in August. So that’s great to have a beer come back to the spotlight like Leinenkugel’s Sunset Wheat.”

He also got to work with the team to create the number one summer seasonal craft beer in the United States — Leinenkugel’s Summer Shandy.

“So if I was looking at a couple of products that I helped, at least deliver, and had a little part in creating it would be those two fabulous beers,” he said.

Leinenkugel said he spent more than 20 years in various roles with the Leinenkugel Brewing Company, starting in sales in Chicago before joining parent company Miller Brewing Company, as a chain account manager in Chicago.

Then he became Vice President of Sales for the Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Company, working and raising a family in Milwaukee, at Miller’s headquarters.

“I took on the marketing responsibilities in 1998 and I stayed in that role until 2008 when I took a step back from the company and went to work as the Secretary of Commerce for the State of Wisconsin,” Leinenkugel said.

He did that work for 19 months.

“Then I was fortunate enough to come back to, at that time, what was called Tenth and Blake Beer Company — a division of MillerCoors, as we were embarking on creating a specialty craft beer division for MillerCoors,” he said.

After working in a business development role there he began preparing to be his brother Jake’s successor when Jake announced his retirement from Leinenkugel Brewing Company.

“So I took over for Jake in 2014,” he said. “At the same time, believe it or not, I began thinking about me leaving someday, and I wanted to ensure that there was a succession plan that would bring on the next generation of the family leadership into this business.”

At the time, Dick’s brother had two sons and a daughter working in the business.

“My brother John was in the business and Jake’s daughter Ellie had just graduated from college. She was thinking about coming into the business,” he said. “But I figured that you could never have too many family members in a family run business, so I approached Tony (Bugher) who was working in a marketing role with TDs at the time… about coming in to work in the beer business, because my thought was, he could be a leader of this company.”

Leinenkugel said this day has been one long in the making.

“In 2014 I was taking over for Jake but with an eye on the future,” he said. “And lo and behold, that day is coming. Tony has been tapped to be my successor.”

Tony Bugher said he’s ready to do the family business proud. He’s lucky that he’ll have a year to learn everything he can from his Uncle Dick before he’s tasked with leading the business on his own.

“Fortunately, we have been in this position where I can work closely with Dick for the next year. Starting in January through the end of the year,” Bugher said. “(I am) really taking a lot of time and good opportunity to meet with our distributors, our key stakeholders throughout the nation, and introduce myself to develop those relationships that are critical to our business.”

Bugher said his focus is to learn about the daily operations at the brewery in Chippewa Falls and understand and cultivate some new opportunities for the company’s future.

“It’s been a really, really good opportunity for me to spend what I think is, you know, a good amount of time — a year — to get my feet underneath me and really get grounded in what the pillars are going to be moving ahead,” Bugher said.

Bugher said he looks forward to all aspects of the business. But he’s most energized about the new pilot system that’s on site at Leinie Lodge. Visitors can see it through the window of the facility.

“We just opened it this year, in February, and that is a small batch brewery that is designed to really kind of come out with new recipes, develop new recipes, play around with some different styles, and brew some different beers on a smaller scale that we’re not really able to do with the big brewery across the river there,” he said.

Bugher said that the new pilot system is designed to deliver the next big thing for Leinenkugel’s.

“We’re kind of ramping up and getting going with that new brewery and my expectation is that we’ll deliver the next big thing for Leinenkugel’s right out of there,” Bugher said.

Bugher and Leinenkugel have been out on a tour to visit Leinenkugel’s key distributors and break into new markets. Bugher said the biggest thing he’s learned from his uncle throughout this year is the power of their story.

“We’ve been brewing for 155 years, six generations now. That’s rare and very unique. There’s a lot of power in sharing those stories because there’s a lot of stories, there’s a lot of history there and there’s a lot of heritage,” Bugher said. “The ability to be able to do that in front of our distributors in person is very special to them. It means a lot and it’s meaningful to them. It helps drive our business.”

Leinenkugel said there are a lot of things about running the business that he’ll miss.

“You know, it’s kind of trite to say, but the beer industry is unique in terms of the characters in this business, not only the retailers, the bar owners, the tavern owners, co-owners that you get to meet, and to be in their place. I’ll miss that,” he said. “It’s not that I can’t do that as a private citizen, but I’ll miss meeting those characters from across the country.”

Leinenkugel also said he’ll miss the wonderful and amazing team in Chippewa Falls, the team that runs the Leinie Lodge, the brewery workers, and the packing and shipping staff.

“I will miss the dedication to quality that I see firsthand. I think it’s unlike any other brewery that I’ve been at in the United States, so I’ll miss that,” he said. “But I’m not going to miss traveling for work and being out late. I’m going to look forward to traveling on my own schedule with my wife, Jean, and being able to do snowmobile rides in the winter, midweek instead of on weekends. So I’ll be able to still enjoy life but do it in a different way.”

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