Update, Dec. 17: New Belgium Brewing Co. employee stock ownership plan participants voted in favor of the proposed transaction with Lion Little World Beverages. Matt Tapper, Managing Director of Lion Little World Beverages, said in a statement, “We are grateful to have the trust of New Belgium employees as we move forward to deal close. New Belgium has great people, great brands and a great company. I can’t wait to get started.”
This result moves us one step closer towards New Belgium Brewing officially joining Lion Little World Beverages. We’re excited about the next chapter for NBB and continuing to prove business can be a force for good. – CEO, Steve Fechheimer
New Belgium Brewing Co.’s pending sale to Kirin Holdings Co. Ltd. subsidiary Lion Little World Beverages is drawing criticism from human rights groups in Asheville and Fort Collins, Colo., the corporate headquarters for New Belgium.
The point of conflict is Kirin’s relationship with Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd., a military-run conglomerate that has been linked by a United Nations fact-finding mission with acts of genocide against the Rohingya people of Myanmar (formerly Burma) — a stateless Muslim minority — as well as crimes against humanity against other ethnic minorities of Myanmar, including the Karen people. Kirin and MEHL jointly own Myanmar Brewery, the country’s largest beer manufacturer.
With time running out before New Belgium’s employee/owner vote to approve the sale concludes on Dec. 17, a protest organized by the Fort Collins Community Action Network took place on Dec. 14 outside the brewery’s headquarters. Meanwhile, the Karen Community of North Carolina and the Karen Organization of America, in conjunction with Asheville-based ally Inclusive Development International, issued an open letter to New Belgium employees on Dec. 10, urging them “to stand for human rights and justice” and “vote no to Kirin’s acquisition” of the brewery.
In an August report, the U.N. Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar urged “consumers, investors and firms at home and abroad” to “sever ties with Myanmar’s military and the vast web of companies it controls and relies on.” The U.N. mission’s report concludes that the military’s earnings from domestic and foreign business contracts bolster “its ability to carry out gross violations of human rights with impunity.”
New Belgium co-founder Kim Jordan met with protesters, including refugees from Myanmar, inside New Belgium’s Fort Collins headquarters on Dec. 14. After the protest, New Belgium executives issued a joint statement to Greeley, Colo.-based public radio station KUNC.
“We were very grateful and humbled to have heard the personal stories of the refugees,” the joint statement said. “Going forward, we will continue conversations with this group and are seeking out additional advisers to be as informed as possible on this important subject matter, especially if we have the opportunity to express our values on a global platform.”
Kirin also issued a statement, saying the company takes “these matters very seriously” and that “respect for human rights is fundamental to all of our business activities. … Consistent with Kirin’s ongoing monitoring of the situation, we will now conduct a further examination of our operations and relationships in Myanmar.”
A separate statement from New Belgium touts the U.S. brewery’s status as “an ethical organization” with “a 29-year history of proving that business can be a force for good.” It also notes that New Belgium “has had a seat at the table with Lion and Kirin in identifying a path forward that addresses our shared concerns,” which “will involve a further examination of Kirin’s operations and relationships in Myanmar, under the auspices of Kirin’s International Advisory Board.” According to the statement, Jordan has been invited to participate in this process.
“We appreciate that our friends and fans are raising concerns around Kirin’s business in Myanmar, [but] this news is certainly unsettling,” New Belgium’s statement says. “We believe Kirin shares our commitment to human rights and we will continue to champion humanity and equity within all our relationships. Our view remains that the partnership with Lion Little World Beverages is the right one to take [New Belgium] into the future, and we have a firm commitment from Kirin that our own commitment to doing the right thing by our coworkers, promoting innovation and excellence in beer, and being a business role model will continue to thrive under this new ownership.”
In a Nov. 19 letter addressed to “New Belgium fans,” Jordan discussed the pending sale, pointing to the obstacles the brewery has faced in keeping pace with the “dynamic” craft brewing industry without losing sight of company values. She cited the need to balance the cash demands of the business, which included costs associated with the company’s employee stock ownership plan, the development of the Asheville brewery and the challenges of marketing the New Belgium brand to a broader audience.
“These are a lot of competing priorities, and it has been difficult to do all of them as well as we’d like,” Jordan said. “As we surveyed the landscape over the last several years, we found that options to raise capital while being an independent brewer weren’t realistic for us. Some of the most widely used options by craft brewers were going to compromise a lot about what makes New Belgium great: environmental sustainability and a rich internal culture. Some of these were going to lead to cost-cutting or a lack of focus on sustainability. Having the support and resources of Lion Little World Beverages allows us to attend to those competing priorities and utilize our brewery capacity to its fullest.”