- Yuengling is the oldest brewery in America and the largest independent craft brewer, producing more than 2 million barrels of beer annually.
- Jen and Wendy Yuengling are responsible for the operations and marketing, respectively, of the family beer business, D.G. Yuengling & Son.
- Their father, Dick, began passing on responsibilities to his four daughters over the last couple decades.
- Jen and Wendy explained that their main challenge is determining how to push the brand forward without compromising a legacy business with millions of lifelong fans.
Four sisters are behind Yuengling, the oldest brewery in America.
For an episode of Business Insider’s podcast “This Is Success,” we spoke with Jen Yuengling, in charge of operations, and Wendy Yuengling, chief administrative officer.
Their father, Dick, took over the family business back in 1985. He was the one who turned it from a local brewery into America’s largest independent craft brewery – last year it produced more than 2 million barrels of beer.
Now it’s his daughters’ turn to take the business in new directions. This year, they released a new pilsner beer, and while that’s a far cry from some trendy IPA, it’s the first new Yuengling product in 17 years.
Jen and Wendy told me what it was like when their dad sat them down and asked if they wanted to run the company that carried their last name.
Listen to the full episode here:
Subscribe to “This Is Success” on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, or your favourite podcast app. Check out previous episodes with:
- Designer Pnina Tornai
- Harry’s cofounder Jeff Raider
- Drybar founder Alli Webb
- Comedy icon Caroline Hirsch
Transcript edited for clarity.
Wendy Yuengling: It was probably mid to late ’90s, where we had a sort of come-to-Jesus discussion with our dad. At that point, we had the one brewery and we were probably producing twice as much as the plant was capable of producing and he had some tough decisions to make. So, you know, he brought us together. We were away in Florida. It was spring break or something. And –
Richard Feloni: And how old were you guys at this point?
Wendy Yuengling: We were in college and Jen was grad school.
Jen Yuengling: I was in grad school, so I think between the four of us, it was late teens, early 20s.
Wendy Yuengling: And I think our youngest sister was just finishing high school at the time. And he basically said, “Hey, this is a family business. I can invest and keep it going if you guys are interested.” But he really didn’t pressure us at all. There was never any pressure along the way to join, but he just wanted to gauge our interest and see if it was worth investing and continuing to keep the business growing and keep it alive for the next generation. And, fortunately, Jennifer committed to it and Debbie committed to it right there.
Jen Yuengling: And I think that’s an important comment, too, is he never put any pressure on us to become involved in the family business, but he exposed us to it. I think it’s a fine line between recognising that there’s an opportunity there but feeling an obligation. And I know he was very good about never making us feel like we were obligated to come back to our family brewery. But, it was a point in my life where I was finishing up my graduate work, didn’t really have anything lined up –
Feloni: What were you studying?
Jen Yuengling: Psychology, which is always a good thing in a family business, right? Helps with the dynamics. So, I was just finishing up my grad work, did not have anything lined up after that, was not far from home to begin with and I kind of bit on the hook and I’m like, I recognise you need a commitment from the sixth generation and I have no problem dipping my toe in the water, per se, and seeing if it works out for me. And 20-plus years later, I’m still here.
Feloni: And Wendy, you didn’t include yourself in that, saying like, oh, I knew from the moment he was saying this when he brought you all together. What was going through your head when you heard that?
Wendy Yuengling: Yeah, it’s interesting. I do think that in the back of my mind the thought of going into the family business was there when I went into college because I did study business as well. I studied marketing. I just wasn’t ready to commit to coming back to the family business. I was – I can’t remember what year of college I was in, but it might have been my junior year and I just kind of wanted to do the things that all the college kids did, like move to the big city and have a job and kind of spread my wings, you know? And I felt good that Jennifer was going back and it just – I felt like that took the pressure off of me so I could do my own thing and it was important to me to go out and learn other industries, work for somebody else, learn different businesses and bring it back if I ever did return to the company.
Moving the brand forward – but slowly
Feloni: And Jen, you were saying psychology could prepare you for a family business. In all honesty, it seems like even if you have a great relationship with your family, it’s also the people who know how to best drive you crazy sometimes. How do you make that work when you’re all working together for this big business?
Jen Yuengling: I think we make it work very well because we each have different skill sets and we’re each responsible for different roles and we play different roles. So for me personally that was operations. I love the fast-paced machinery. I love the quick thinking. So, like, a piece of machinery breaks down, what are we going to do? We’re going to have guys work overtime. Do we have to cut orders? I think, in that respect, that we were all able to carve out our own path – it’s really lead to a lot of collaboration and maybe diverse thinking between the four of us, as we all bring something different to the table.
Wendy Yuengling: I would say early on we didn’t have a say in a lot of the big decisions that were being made. I think our dad ran the company much like most entrepreneurs run their business. They make the decisions and that’s what it is and we really didn’t collaborate on that. Over the last few years, as we’ve all sort of stepped into leadership roles and are more involved, I think we are taking more pressure off of our dad and taking off of his plate and starting to run with certain things in the business, and we each drive certain parts of the company.
Feloni: What are conversations that you have with your dad around the brand and where you want to take it?
Jen Yuengling: They range.
Wendy Yuengling: Yeah.
Jen Yuengling: They’re pretty similar in comparison as far as where our heads are, and obviously you get to be 75 years old. And he’s been quintessential entrepreneur and he’s on the down slope of that, which is to be expected, but the fact that he’s very supportive of some of these newer initiatives that we’ve set about – that saw the Golden Pilsner. I don’t think he had a full understanding of where we wanted to go with that and I think in his demographic it didn’t necessarily pertain to him, but he was supportive of it and since the brand has been out in the market he’s very supportive of it now. He has positive feedback. He’s sampled it and he obviously likes it.
Jen Yuengling: So, the Golden Pilsner, the advertising campaign – 25 years ago we didn’t need to advertise. We were that small a company that we didn’t rely on sales marketing and advertising. And the fact that he’s supportive of the Spread Your Wings campaign – it’s a testament to how he sees our company, how it’s evolved, and the nature of the industry today that he recognises that these types of things need to be done to continue to survive.
Feloni: I’ve seen him in interviews actually say that he was trying to push the brand to places that it had previously been reluctant to be when his dad was running the company. For you, do you ever have moments of that – where he’s maybe, “Uh, we don’t really want to do this,” but you know this is what he has to do?
Wendy Yuengling: Yeah. That absolutely happens. It probably happens once a week, but I think if we truly believe it’s the right thing for the company and it’s the right thing for the brand’s long term, we continue to make a case and he eventually does come around on most things. It’s satisfying, I think.
Feloni: How was that dynamic established? Did he learn to just be like, “All right. I’ve just got to trust you with this.”
Jen Yuengling: I think it happened over time. When you work every day, you’re going through your movements day in and day out. And then sometimes you have to take a step back and say, here’s where I am today, but here’s where I was 10 years ago. Here’s where Dad is today and here’s where he was. And we take a look at that and we kind of lose sight of how far we’ve really come –
Wendy Yuengling: Even the last three to five years.
Jen Yuengling: In the most recent years, too, and maybe not so much as a company overall but personally, and where we’ve grown and really how he’s grown too with the company, and allowing us to assume these leadership roles.
Feloni: So is it part of a transition phase from your father as the sole leader of the company into kind of passing it on?
Wendy Yuengling: Yeah. We’ve been going through that over the last couple of years, I think. He built this company from very little in 1985, so this is his baby. He’s still very hands-on. He’s there every day, twice a day, but I think it means something to him that we’re there alongside him and we’re working long hours aside him, and I think there’s some comfort seeing that we’re taking on more responsibility, and I think he’s got confidence in what we’re doing.
Feloni: I saw, in a story from 2016 in Forbes he was telling the reporter – he was wondering, what happens if I just died today, who would take over the business type of thing. Have you had those discussions yet as to who will be the majority stakeholder?
Wendy Yuengling: We’ve had discussions and I think – a lot of times he’ll say, “What’s going to happen when I’m not here?” But we’ve proven that when he’s not there, we can keep things going pretty well and we’re not too concerned about that.
Feloni: So, your last name being Yuengling – I mean, this is a brand that people all across America know. At what point did you realise that your name was actually a brand, too, that everyone knew?
Jen Yuengling: I think growing up it was a very different story for me, personally. Our father really didn’t have a lot of involvement in the brewery at that time. He had kind of branched out on his own and he had a beer distributorship. So, for me, that was like my first involvement or knowledge of the beer world, was him having a beer distributorship.
Feloni: So it was your grandfather who was running it at the time?
Jen Yuengling: It was. Correct.
Wendy Yuengling: I would say the same thing. I don’t think I realised the power of the brand until I went away to college and people recognised it. And, you know, you grow up in a small town in Pennsylvania and we were just another family business in town. And I don’t think we thought twice about, you know – we made beer. Other people sold groceries. And other people had other family businesses, so there was really – it wasn’t significant to us at the time. And the business was very different then, too. It was a much smaller company. When our dad bought the business in ’85, it was probably 137,000 barrels and it was one brewery. It was America’s oldest brewery. When I got into college, the brands were growing. My dad had done a lot to turn around the company and he had introduced some new flavours that really put us on the map, so it was a much different company then. And then, as you get into the 2000s, our brands just took off.
Wendy Yuengling: But that’s also about the time that craft beer was becoming something. You had Jim Koch starting off, he started Sam Adams. So all of that was sort of happening at the same time our dad took over and was trying to kind of create this new business model for the company. So I think he did a lot of very entrepreneurial things, but I think timing was also right. We got lucky along the way.
Feloni: Yuengling is in a position where it’s the No.-1-by-volume craft brewer, so that means it’s kind of in a weird spot where you’re not – you’re way bigger than the local brewer down the street that just makes like really specialty, maybe some exotic beers, but you’re still very far from the Anheuser Busch InBevs of the world, so how do you balance that? Balancing the marketing of your brand, what do you want your brand to stand for, when it’s kind of in between worlds?
Wendy Yuengling: We’re sort of in the middle and I think, you know, you look to both for inspiration, but we are probably not even 1% of the total beer market, roughly 1% of the market. And I think, again, we just want to be the best that we can be in the space that we play.
Jen Yuengling: And I think the fact of having that title as the largest craft brand in the United States – and we’re only in 22 states – we’re very proud to have that. And going back to our core portfolio of brands, we make some very good beers. Some of which we don’t market outside of our local territory, so there’s a lot of room for growth just within our current portfolio.
Feloni: And it seems like your approach is a bit different even from a lot of very smaller breweries that I know, where they even try to get expanded internationally, like Brooklyn Brewery for example. They try to have a big national presence as well as get into Europe. It seems like you’re trying to double down in the regions that are already –
Jen Yuengling: Our approach is a very slow, cautious, growth model and we joke internally it’s taken us 189 years to get to 22 states, so that sort of tells you who we are.
Feloni: And I’ve talked with Jim Koch of Boston beer company Sam Adams, and we’ve had discussions where it took a while to go beyond just their core Sam Adams product to try maybe some more experimental or trendy things like IPAs or things like that. Is that something that you want to stay away from?
Wendy Yuengling: Innovation hasn’t necessarily been our business model. We talk a lot about how our breweries were built on efficiency and simplicity and I think that’s a big part of our culture as a company. We try to do things as minimally as possible and keep a very simple, common-sense approach to doing things, and I do think there’s a place for innovation, like I said, but I just think we’re always trying to be mindful of staying focused at what we’re good at. We’re good at making our core brands. We want to continue to reach consumers with what we think is new and relevant, and that was the thinking behind the Golden Pilsner. So I think we need to be mindful of innovation, but it’s not necessarily what drives our business model.
Jen Yuengling: I think the role that innovation does play for us is: We want to make sure that we’re doing the right thing. So, when we came out with our Golden Pilsner, it was about an 18-month-long process of research, consumer focus groups, internal testing and sampling, and just hitting that flavour profile. So we recognised there was a need in the refreshment category that consumers were trending towards and we recognised that our core brands weren’t necessarily playing in that arena, so we took our time, we made sure we got it right, and we feel like we have a very good product that’s out there. Actually, our first new product – year-round product – in 17 years.
Feloni: Oh, wow.
Wendy Yuengling: That’s interesting. Being women and being consumers ourselves, I certainly drink black and tan and I drink porters, but I like beers that are refreshing and that I can feel like they’re “sessionable” and I can drink a couple of them. So, I feel like we were able to influence that new product, being that we’re women and we’re consumers and we want to be able to reach that segment as well.
Feloni: In the beer industry now, I’ve been seeing that a lot of craft brewers, independent brewers, are saying that the tremendous sales growth in America that was going on over the last few decades seems to kind of be slowing a bit. How are you responding to that?
Wendy Yuengling: Yeah, I think again, we’re just kind of doubling down on our core business. We feel like we’re producing quality beers that are very drinkable to consumers. It’s absolutely gotten very complex in our industry and consumption is down, but we continue to compete every day with breweries of all sizes and we stay focused on quality. We stay focused on simplicity and maintaining our core business.
Feloni: Who do you see your competitors as? Is it competing against the Budweiser or is it competing against maybe a similar offering from one of the local breweries?
Wendy Yuengling: I think it’s probably everything. I think it’s also wine and spirits. People don’t seem to be drinking as much as they had been, so we just continue to fight each day to draw people into our company, and we feel like we’re a very authentic story that people can relate to. We’re a survivor. We continue to persevere and don’t be afraid to try new things and challenge conventional wisdom, and I feel like that translates into our messaging that consumers can relate to.
Feloni: So, when you have the industry influx and it’s kind of like, what’s trendy, what isn’t – at this point, when you’re looking at it, what do you want Yuengling to be 15 years down the line, 10 years down the line? Is it going to be much bigger or is it just going to be the go-to beer for a specific region in the country?
Jen Yuengling: Well, I think we want to continually be known as a fiercely independent, family-owned brewery. America’s oldest brewery. We plan to continue that on as a sixth generation, but again, going back to that focus on the organic growth. The products that have gotten us to where we are today and staying true to who we are. So, we don’t necessarily need to be the biggest, but we want to be sure we’re doing what we do very well.
Feloni: So is it a point of pride, then, to have the No. 1 craft brewer – or is it just a by-product?
Wendy Yuengling: I think it’s a nice distinction, but I don’t think we get caught up in the definitions. I think we continue to do what we do, and we try and do it well. And we’re more concerned with long-term, and is the business going to be healthy going to the next generation.
Feloni: And do you see this continuing as a family business? How core is that identity to it?
Wendy Yuengling: I think it’s critical. We each made commitments to the family business because there’s a tremendous sense of pride in keeping it going. That’s a big part of our identity in my mind, and I think it’s important to our employees, who are also heavily invested in the company with their own families. We have so many husbands, wives, siblings, who come to work every day and are working together. We have some employees that our grandfather hired, so they have been with the company for 30-plus years now. And they have grown with us. People who started out at a job when we were just one plant have now grown to manage certain aspects of two plants or all three plants, so I think their careers have defined our success as well. And I think consumers do appreciate that.
Jen Yuengling: I think, if you look at just the landscape of the beer industry today – whether it’s the 6,000-plus breweries that are out there, the competitiveness from wine and spirits – it’s all difficult. Don’t get me wrong, but when you look back at what our ancestors went through, there was Prohibition. Prohibition shut down a lot of breweries in this company. We were just very, extremely fortunate that our third-generation owner had the foresight and the ability to diversify and make new beer. And the things that he did to keep us where we are today – but bottom line is, whatever we’re going through right now in the beer pales in comparison to what our ancestors went through.
Figuring it all out as they go
Feloni: What would you say has been the biggest challenge that you’ve had to overcome when you joined the company?
Wendy Yuengling: I think when I joined I set out to pave my own way, make my own path. I would say in the beginning it was probably challenging because there was not a lot of direction and you’re forced to figure it out on your own, but I almost feel like it’s satisfying to be where we are now and know that you’ve earned where you’ve gotten to in the company.
Feloni: So for you it was a matter of, “What direction do I want to take in this company?”
Wendy Yuengling: Yeah. The ambiguity of venturing a family business and not really knowing what my path was and so you just – you create it.
Feloni: And how long did it take to get to that point?
Wendy Yuengling: I’m still working on it, but I would say I had an eight-year, 10-year plan when I set out, and I’ve been with the brewery now for 14 years, so I knew after eight or 10 years this is where I wanted to be. So I feel good about getting there, but certainly there’s still a lot of work ahead of us.
Jen Yuengling: I can empathise with that. We didn’t have a lot of structure. Either any of us, as a sixth generation, came into the brewery and it was sort of, “OK, Dad. What do you want me to do?” “Well, go just figure it out.” OK. That’s pretty broad –
Feloni: Sounds scary.
Jen Yuengling: – that’s pretty broad. It’s pretty scary and there’s not a lot of direction, but I was fortunate to – I don’t want to say follow in his footsteps, because it sounds kind of corny or gawky. But that’s what I did. I watched what he did in the warehouse and with operations and I was fortunate enough to be able to go through a pretty regimented training program throughout our brewery. So I would receive incoming raw materials. I would work with our brewers when they would brew. I would work with the seller guys when the beer went to fermentation and then storage and then filtering, all the way through to warehouse, to the backend when the trucks left the door. So I went through all that internally, then had an opportunity to study in a nine-week brewing course out in Chicago. Very rigorous, very technically oriented. Got that behind me, came back and really just worked my way into different areas of operations. Working with the night shift guys, getting to know the guys and what they do and understanding essentially what it takes to make a bottle of beer. So, yeah, long story short, it took me a little bit to figure that out, but that’s where I landed.
Feloni: Was that a matter of years for you as well?
Jen Yuengling: I think so, yeah. And I still go through it, still do it, and you still run into situations where you’re not sure what to do, obviously, but I’ve got a great team that I work with. I’ve got two awesome plant managers. We’ve got packaging managers, brewing managers. So those are the experts, in my mind. I’ve got a good team to rely on and if we have a problem that needs to be resolved, let’s get together. Let’s collaborate on this and let’s figure it out, because I want everybody’s input.
Feloni: How do each of you personally define success?
Wendy Yuengling: Well, as a sixth-generation family-business perspective, I would say success for us is keeping the family business strong and healthy and growing for the next generation. I think that’s extremely important to everything that we do and, like I said, we always look at everything with a long-term focus, as opposed to what might be a short-term win. Personally, I would say success to me is finding satisfaction in what I’m doing and feeling like I have an impact, whether it’s on the company or on the community or on the people that we work with inside the organisation or customers outside the organisation. And so, I feel like when they feel good about their job and good about where the company is going, to me, I feel good that I’m doing my job.
Jen Yuengling: I think – we didn’t collaborate on this. To me, my interpretation of success is – and it’s on a personal level, and it’s in an abstract philosophical view of it – it’s completely satisfaction. Whether it’s overcoming a challenge, whether it’s seeing the reaction from a consumer who has just tried our brand or seeing the reaction from a consumer who has come to visit us for the first time in Pottsville, and they may have travelled a long way. And I think surrounding ourselves with talented and trustworthy people is completely key to obtaining that success as an individual, and that in itself inspires an open environment where there is a lot of collaboration. And when I sit in a room and I can see where we’ve come together as a group and collaborated on something and have made it work, I get extreme satisfaction out of that.
Wendy Yuengling: It feels really good to know you have that support. And I think we’re very lucky – to be a six-generation family business is unbelievable, but we’re four women in the sixth generation and, for our company, this is the first time the business will go from father to daughters. I think when you look around and you see, I get to work every day with my three sisters, that is very satisfying.
Feloni: What advice would you give to someone who wants to have a career like yours – not necessarily in brewing, but this type of executive role?
Wendy Yuengling: I would say if you’re coming into a family business, you absolutely have to roll up your sleeves and learn from the bottom up and earn respect along the way. I think that’s extremely important. I think, if you’re coming into a family business, outside experience is extremely helpful as well. I would say, always persevere. Don’t let people let you talk yourself out of something. Just always stay committed to what your end goal is and always have a plan.
Jen Yuengling: I think that is how we were raised though, too, is just knowing our dad’s strong work ethic and going back to his days when he was running his beer distributorship. I remember as a child – he’d come home, he’d take his nap, and I would ride back with him on the beer truck, bouncing up through it. And just looking back on it and observing the customers who came in – and he then moved on and transitioned to a different beer distributorship, and he’d still get the same customers in, and it was the relationships that were built. So, it’s working hard, establishing relationships, and with that, I think, comes success.
Feloni: Well, thank you so much, Wendy, and thank you so much, Jennifer.
Wendy Yuengling: Thank you for having us here.
Jen Yuengling: Good to be here.