CLEVELAND, Ohio - What began as an annual employee summit turned into an emotional gathering culminating with bottles of beers being cracked open.
The latter was encouraged by the owners, and with good reason.
Great Lakes Brewing Co. owners Pat and Dan Conway and CEO Bill Boor saved the biggest news for the end of the off-site meeting Monday, when they told employees that the company would begin an Employee Stock Ownership Plan. The executive trio used a bit of theatrics to announce the deal.
Each year at the summit - the private company's internal annual meeting held since 2010 - several awards are given. The big one is The Conway Award. The founding brothers choose who receives it.
Workers waited to learn the award recipient and were given a surprise instead.
"There's not one winner; everyone's a winner. So get in line to pick up your prize," Dan Conway said.
Workers were directed to a bar lined with bottles of Extra Special Opportunity Pils. At first, they said, employees were stunned. Then the fog lifted.
"It was hugely emotional," Pat Conway said.
Tears and hugs followed, as details of the retirement plan sunk in. Most of the company's 250 workers attended the meeting while the Ohio City brewpub closed for the day.
The ESOP announcement comes as the brewery is marking 30 years in business as the first craft brewery in Ohio.
Dan Conway said it doesn't matter what a person does at the brewery - brand ambassador, tour guides, dishwasher or brewer - everyone can benefit.
"We're not selling shares; we're contributing," he said.
Boor added: "The effect of this is every employee is a shareholder."
Eligibility is regardless of hours worked, wages earned or time spent at the company, they said. A percentage of income goes to the pension-like account. The company pays for the stock. And a sense of ownership keeps people focused on the overall goals, Boor said.
"More than a sense," Dan said.
"Our advisor said 'Don't be surprised if it's just silence," Pat Conway about the reaction they would receive.
That adviser - Cathy Ivancic of Workplace Development Inc. - acted as a consultant to guide the company on the ESOP's launch.
The majority of companies that use ESOPs are - like Great Lakes - private, she said.
"It's meant to be wealth in retirement," she said. "It's a real wealth-building opportunity."
The two types of ESOPs, she said, are leveraged and non-leveraged - the latter is better described as contribution-based and is what Great Lakes is using. With leveraged ESOPs, companies take a loan to fund the plan. That's not what the brewery is doing.
Each year, the company's financial position will be scrutinized for the stock value.
"They are making a commitment to contribute," she said of the Conways. "This year they are going to contribute a percentage of a salary in addition to their always generous profit-sharing and 401k." (Great Lakes will continue its profit sharing and 401k.)
"This is over and above," Ivancic said.
"It will start off small and ... will grow over time," she said. "ESOP companies can think strategically."
The ability for the company to think strategically is especially critical now in the competitive craft-beer landscape. This year, Great Lakes purchased land on the Scranton Peninsula near the Cuyahoga River for potential expansion.
An advantage for Great Lakes offering a contribution-based ESOP is that the private company doesn't have quarterly demands placed on them or outside public shareholders pressuring the owners. There are almost 7,000 ESOP businesses in the United States, which translates to about 14 million employee-owners. ESOPs were created in 1974.
Part of the emotional draw for the Conways is that their late father, attorney John F. Conway, introduced the first ESOP in Ohio.
Great Lakes is not the first ESOP brewery. Deschutes Brewery in Oregon - founded in 1988, the same year the Conways started the Ohio City brewery - is one. Odell Brewing Co. in Colorado also is an ESOP company. Its co-owner, Wynne Odell, is from Cleveland Heights. Harpoon Brewery is another. That New England brewery and Great Lakes are involved in a collaborative canning deal.
"We've been talking about it over 10 years," Pat Conway said. "Why not the 30th (anniversary) and have it at the same juncture as we're about to approach Scranton?"
The deal was kept quiet right up until the announcement. Only the brothers and several employees from Brokaw, the Cleveland-based advertising and design company Great Lakes works with, peeled and applied the labels by hand for the 12 cases of Extra Special Opportunity Pils beer. That's 288 bottles.
Even brewing the beer was a state secret. The Conways told a brewer they needed 12 cases, unlabeled, in a certain style - but didn't want anyone to know about the special order.
"It had to be a Pilsner for the (acronym) ESOP," they said.
"Just give them a Dortmunder," came the reply.
"No! They really want a pilsner!" the brothers said.
The tagline in small print on the bottom of the bottle sums the owners' goal for their workers:
"For freshest taste: Enjoy on this day, May 21, 2018, and for years to come"
Written by Marc Bona and published in Clevelend.com.