Client Stories

To Plan for the Future, Harpoon Brewery Looked to Its People

“Love Beer. Love Life.” is the motto of Harpoon—and also the community-minded ethos that guided the company to transfer partial ownership to its most passionate supporters: its employees. Learn how the Boston-based business relied on its culture to write the next chapter in its growth story.


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 It was a July day in 2014, and some 200 employees of Harpoon Brewery had assembled in the company’s Beer Hall on the Boston Seaport. What would usually have been a lively gathering was clouded by an air of nervousness as employees eyed the strangers in suits lining the walls—lawyers and bankers who had been visiting CEO Dan Kenary with increasing frequency in recent months. Everyone knew how crowded the craft beer market had become, and how common it was for independent brewers to sell to investors or a competitor. Would they be next?

Kenary then got onstage. He’d brought everyone together, he said, to announce the new owners of Harpoon.

“You could’ve heard a pin drop at that point,” he recalled. “And then I said: ‘I’d like you to turn to the person next to you and shake their hand. You are now all the owners of 48 percent of Harpoon.’ The place erupted.”

Kenary describes it as one of his most rewarding moments in the three decades since he founded Harpoon with two college friends. The three were originally inspired by the rich, varied beer culture they experienced together while backpacking around Europe. At the time, light yellow lagers dominated the American market, but Kenary’s love of beer pushed him to leave a job in banking to be at the vanguard of the US craft beer movement.

A Succession Plan for the Passionate

The wild cheers from his staff on that summer day in the Harpoon Beer Hall were validation that Kenary had made the right decision to transfer ownership of the company through employee stock ownership plan (ESOP).

As a succession plan, ESOPs can be an especially good fit for owners looking to maintain some independence and reward their people—which is what made it such a natural extension of the participatory, engaged culture of Harpoon.

Harpoon chose JPMorgan Chase to lead and help finance its ESOP transaction after Kenary convinced his partner and other Harpoon investors that it was the best decision for the company.

The expertise of JPMorgan Chase’s ESOP Advisory Group immediately set them at ease about their decision. “The ESOP community is small,” Kenary said. “So you’d say, who should we talk to? And the name that would always come up was JPMorgan Chase.”

Rooted in Community

One of the individuals in the Beer Hall that summer day was Rick MacDonald, New England Region Manager for Middle Market Banking, and someone who could appreciate why the company needed to maintain its local ownership.

“Harpoon is a Boston institution,” he explained. “It was important to make the ESOP work to keep the company’s culture in place.”

Homegrown, middle market companies like Harpoon also play a critical role in fueling their local economies.

“We bank companies for long periods of time and we get to know them, we’re in their communities,” said Jamie Dimon, Chairman and CEO of JPMorgan Chase & Co. “It’s particularly fun to watch a company like [Harpoon] grow out of the ground and build something.”

Putting People at the Center

While Kenary is the CEO steering the company through what has become a fiercely competitive craft beer market, he says his staff is the beating heart of the company. “If we treat our people well, they're going to treat our customers well and it's going to be reflected in everything that we do.”

 

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