Leinenkugel leaders share what it is like running a family business that’s no longer family-owned

Leinenkugel Brewery's Dick Leinenkugel (left), president and chief beer merchant, and his successor and nephew Tony Bugher, who is currently associate marketing manager.

Last updated on June 14th, 2022 at 11:51 am

Running an iconic family business that is no longer family-owned provides a unique set of challenges.

Dick Leinenkugel, president and chief beer merchant at Jacob Leinenkugel Brewery Company, and Tony Bugher, associate marketing manager, incoming president and Leinenkugel’s nephew, walked attendees through some of those challenges, during BizTimes Media’s Family & Closely Held Business Summit at the Brookfield Conference Center on Wednesday.

Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Co. was sold to Miller Brewing Co. in 1988 and is now a subsidiary of Molson Coors. Despite the Leinenkugel family no longer owning the company, generations family members have remained at the helm, leading the brand through years of success.

“It (the dynamic) changes over time and certainly with leadership and the strategy of company,” said Dick Leinenkugel.

He said in the early years, Leinenkugel Brewing Co. was afforded a bit more freedom as they were “not material” to their parent company. Leinenkugel represented a new category of beer – then called specialty beer – and the company found success with their Red Lager and Honey Weiss brews. With a track record of success, the Leinenkugel family was able to continue spearheading operations.

“When you all of a sudden have a beer like Summer Shandy, which takes off, and you – as part of your business plan – decide to take it nationally, and it becomes a big brand within their portfolio, all of a sudden you find out more people have interest in you,” Leinenkugel said.

The key to the partnership between the Leinenkugel family and its parent company is a level of respect of the Leinenkugel brand itself, which has been around for 155 years. Bugher said Molson Coors recognizes that Leinenkugel Brewing Co. being a family-led company is an asset in today’s crowded beer market.

“Competition is crazy in the beer industry and differentiation is key,” Bugher said. “One of our points of differentiation is our history and family involvement. Our parent company recognizes that and respects that and our ability to share our family history to our key stakeholders is critical to our business.”

Leinenkugel added the proof of Molson Coors’ belief in the brewery can be seen in Molson Coors’ continued investment in the Chippewa Falls location and the news that Bugher – the sixth generation of the family – will take over.

While succession can be a difficult topic, especially when several members of a family are involved, Bugher said the Leinenkugel family has always maintained a level of respect for both the process and one another.

“We all understand the journey it takes to get to a position like this,” Bugher said. “We have a lot of fun just bantering over it.”

Before joining the family business, Bugher held a variety of roles at Molson Coors including craft and import manager, field marketing manager, and senior distributor sales executive. Family members working their way through the ranks on their own and often times gaining outside experience has been a pattern. It has also helped ease any possible discordance.

“In a lot of ways, I think that (family dissonance) was taken from us when we sold to Miller Brewing Company,” said Leinenkugel. “We didn’t really have to worry about that. We were no longer family owned, so if you wanted to come into the business you came in under Miller and you had to make it on your own.”

As he becomes the sixth generation to lead Leinenkugel Brewing Co., Bugher said he expects the brewery’s next big beer to come out of a new pilot brewery located within the Leinie Lodge. Innovation has and will remain a core component of the brewery’s culture.

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Ashley covers startups, technology and manufacturing for BizTimes. She was previously the managing editor of the News Graphic and Washington County Daily News. In past reporting roles, covering education at The Waukesha Freeman, she received several WNA awards. She is a UWM graduate. In her free time, Ashley enjoys watching independent films, tackling a new recipe in the kitchen and reading a good book.

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