By Anthony St. Clair
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Effective May 1, Eugene-based Ninkasi Brewing Company has a new leader. In her five years at the company, though, chief executive officer Cheryl Collins has already been an integral force shaping the brewery’s culture. Now she’ll set the company’s overall course.
“Our core purpose has been, and will always be, to perpetuate better living,” says Collins. “My chief role in guiding and molding Ninkasi will be to continue our pursuit of perpetuating better living by building an effective team that aims to create an exceptional customer experience by producing quality craft beers.”
Co-founder Nikos Ridge stepped down as CEO to take the role of president and will continue to serve on the board. “The first 10 years of Ninkasi were about inventing ourselves as a company,” says Ridge in a press release. “The next chapter of Ninkasi is about taking the capabilities and teams we’ve built and aligning them even more to better serve our customers and craft beer fans.”
Since its founding in 2006, the 11-year-old brewery has grown to 103 employees in Eugene and other states. In 2016 Ninkasi produced approximately 100,000 barrels of beer and had sales of $30 million, and the Brewers Association ranked Ninkasi the 33rd largest U.S. craft brewery, up from 36th in 2015.
With more than 10 years of organizational leadership and development experience, Collins began at Ninkasi in 2012. A recipient of the Recruiter of the Year award from the University of Oregon, Collins has also been recognized as Manager of the Year by the Willamette Chapter Credit Union Association, and she holds two national awards from the Credit Union National Association for development and execution of training programs. Industry publications look to her leadership on small business best practices, and in 2016 Collins was the keynote speaker at the Oregon Manufacturers’ Summit.
Her time at Ninkasi, though, awakened Collins to the joy underlying craft beer. “It started with Ninkasi, the first time I heard a brewer describe what they had made,” she explains. “You could feel the passion that went into it; they talked about it similar to an artist talking about a painting. It was contagious. As I expanded my palate and began visiting other breweries, I noticed this trend throughout the industry. There is such great passion we all have in craft beer, how could you not enjoy it?”
In her role as chief people officer, Collins shook up the company — and the industry — with a radical proposal: get rid of performance reviews. The company agreed, leading to an ongoing evolution in how Ninkasi employees and management collaborate on professional improvement. The change was just one of many ways Collins modified company policy and practices to ensure that they built and maintained a cohesive, mutually supportive company culture — instead of being mere tools of employee compliance.
“My background and education is rooted in understanding and building organizational cultures,” says Collins. “Above all else, if leaders do not understand the importance of impact of culture, then everything else becomes more challenging. By being able to lead the organization with respect to culture and how we operate as a business, we will be able to position ourselves in an even more viable position in the future.”
As vice president of organizational development and chief operations officer, Collins spearheaded implementation of both cultural and operational initiatives. She instituted programs for employee recruitment, training and onboarding programs; continuous improvement strategies and best practices across brewery operations; team-building activities to nurture organizational culture; safety protocols and initiatives; leadership development programs; employer branding; and overarching company strategies.
“Cheryl has worked closely with every department across Ninkasi and is a pivotal force in pushing our teams to their full potential,” says Ridge. “Her leadership, coaching and strategic focus make this transition an obvious step forward.”
Now Collins expands her role to direct and lead the company both in its day-to-day operations and to guide long-term strategy. “I look forward to continuing our commitment to our core purpose — perpetuate better living — and working with our teams to develop innovative approaches to how we do business,” says Collins. “The door is open for new and innovative methods for how we operate as a business. We a have a team of creative and dedicated people who have made Ninkasi what it is today, and I’m excited to continue to help us improve and remain leaders in the industry.”
The craft beer industry is experiencing upheavals. Some independent brewers have been acquired, others have closed. And Collins knows she’ll encounter hurdles during her tenure as CEO. “Of the many challenges we face in the industry, the ones prevalent right now are the increasing number of breweries in the market and the impact of localization, both of which present growth challenges for most breweries,” says Collins. “As the industry continues to shift and change we will navigate these challenges through staying true to who we are at Ninkasi and listening to what our customers are saying.”
Whatever challenges come, she knows she can rely on Ninkasi’s collaborative culture. “People — both women and men — are passionate about craft beer, and all of us strive to make the industry better.”
As she takes up her duties as CEO, Collins will continue to lead with a belief that operations and culture are interdependent, and that the success, growth and health of one depends on the other. “It’s inspiring to be a part of a community with the level of commitment and engagement we see here at Ninkasi,” explains Collins. “You feel, believe and know you are part of something bigger than yourself; that level of inspiration is what we strive for every day.”
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