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Reclaiming Labor Day as a call to humanize business

By Steve Fechheimer, New Belgium CEO


With Labor Day approaching, many beer CEOs (myself included) are understandably focused on one of the biggest weekends of the year for beer sales. Labor Day is celebrated across America as the last true summer weekend, a chance to spend time with friends and family and enjoy the sunshine, take a break from work, and down a few cold beverages. At New Belgium and Bell’s, we close our taprooms and pause all brewery operations except those most critical to keeping us going so that coworkers can enjoy a well-earned break.  

But the history of Labor Day would not make for fun conversation at most backyard barbeques. The holiday was born in 1894 in reaction to brutal working conditions across a variety of industries. Workers were paid very little to work 12-hour shifts, six days a week, with little regard for safety. Protests – sometimes turning violent – led to greater awareness and pressure on government and businesses to improve standards for workers.  

We’ve come a long way since that first Labor Day, but not far enough. Especially in the past four decades, the broad corporate trend toward prizing maximum short-term shareholder returns at the expense of more equitable, widespread prosperity and long-term success has created an historic economic imbalance – with disproportionate impacts for marginalized communities – that seriously threatens our society, our democracy, and the future of business itself. 

I came to New Belgium in 2017 as a financially-minded business strategist. That hasn’t changed. But I've always had a slightly different view from many business leaders in that I believe looking out for coworkers, our community, and our environment, and thinking about the long-term and not the next is quarter, is the best path for business success. I believe that even more strongly after 5 years with New Belgium. Why? I’ve experienced firsthand the powerful results of New Belgium’s unique, people-centric business model, which we call Human-Powered Business.

These days, we often hear terms like “purpose-driven business” or “conscious capitalism.” Too often, the discourse around these ideas implies a tradeoff between maximum business success, on one hand, and benefits for people and our planet, on the other. In my view, these catchphrases mean well, but miss the point: Humanizing business makes for better business

So, rather than accept Labor Day’s fading original intention, why not reclaim it as a call to action? Plain and simple, it’s time to make business work for every human who does the work of business. 

Under Human-Powered Business, we acknowledge that business is a human endeavor, made up of a group of people acting together to make things happen. So the business invests in coworker wellbeing. We respect the importance of health and family needs, and we provide benefits that allow our coworkers to meet them. We open our books fully to every coworker so they can see their place in the company’s financial health. We invest deeply in climate action because our company and our communities depend on it. We give coworkers a voice in how their work gets done. When the pandemic required us to close our taprooms in Fort Collins, Colorado and Asheville, North Carolina, we found new jobs for all frontline staff in other departments in line with their career interests. 

In return, centering people in our approach to business strengthens New Belgium in tangible, measurable ways – such as low turnover, the ability to attract top-quality talent, high engagement scores, impressive productivity and collaboration, and a world-class commitment to quality and innovation that continues to push our industry forward even after three decades of brewing. Not to mention it’s just a fun place to work. 

The results are clear: Putting people first in business has led us to 30+ years of success by any measure. Human-Powered Business has given New Belgium the resilience to thrive in uncertainty (I'm extremely grateful for our coworkers who successfully navigated countless pandemic-related challenges to make the past three years our best to date), the operational excellence to scale, and now a seat at the apex of our industry – both in terms of total sales and growth.

What does this mean for Labor Day? As we prepare for the long weekend, I urge us all – especially my colleagues in positions of corporate leadership – to spend a bit of this extra time examining how we can sharpen our business strategies by strengthening the ways we provide equitable support to employees and coworkers at all levels. 

It’s not altruism. It’s not about accepting a tradeoff. It’s about acting in the best interest of our businesses by doing right by the people who power them.

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