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ONE-ON-ONE WITH DICK YUENGLING Billionaire brewer plans to keep company lean, nimble and growing in existing markets

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Photo by Alyson Doria/Dick Yeungling
Photo by Alyson Doria/Dick Yeungling

Work hard and surround yourself with good people.

Be determined and don’t always listen to what people tell you (including your own father).

And, of course, throw in a pitcher of luck.

That’s the formula for the wildly successful career of Dick Yuengling, owner of D.G. Yuengling & Son Inc. in Pottsville, one of the nation’s top-selling beer makers.

Yuengling, though, left the company in 1973 because he couldn’t get his father to modernize operations. He returned in 1984 as the company was beginning to rebound and took over the next year.

Since then, he has led the brewer to remarkable growth based on the principles of remaining efficient, growing steadily within existing markets and staying nimble to satisfy distributors and consumers.

Today, Yuengling’s lucrative business is in its sixth generation, and he shows no signs of slowing down. With two production facilities in Pottsville and another in Tampa, Fla., Yuengling & Son has not had a down year in two decades.

The father of four daughters, Yuengling’s net worth is $1.3 billion, according to Forbes, and his company remains privately-owned and operated.

Recently, Lehigh Valley Business interviewed Yuengling in the conference room of his Mill Creek Road plant in Pottsville, where the constant sound of thousands of clanging beer bottles could be heard as they rode along the conveyer belt below. It’s a noise that brings comfort and a sense of calm to the 70-year-old leader of America’s oldest brewery.

Lehigh Valley Business: Let’s hear a little bit about your background and how you got started with America’s oldest brewery [which began in 1829]. There’s a long history with Yuengling, and several generations.

Yuengling: I started here in 1958 when I was in high school. I started working at the brewery. I always had a passion for the company, the beer business and our company in particular certainly because we’re America’s oldest brewery. It’s a family owned thing, and going back in time, when I started there were so many small breweries around in your area …Neuwheiler’s [Allentown] and the Catasauqua Brewery. We bought equipment from the Catasauqua Brewery when they went out of business. We bought some trucks from them.

We were limping along on a string, we were barely surviving, and this was when all these little breweries were going out of business. This was the ’60s and into the ’70s. And I just felt we could always survive because we had good beer, we made good products.

You know my dad [Richard Yuengling Sr.] was ready to sell the company back in the ’60s. … My grandfather [Frank D. Yuengling], when I started here (he passed away in 1963), he ran the company. He was 80-something years old. He wouldn’t invest anything; we weren’t making any money. We were a very inefficient operation, and I could see all this as a kid. I was 15 when I started here.

I would go back to high school and come back the next year and work in the summertime. As I got older, I didn’t want to go to college. I wanted to work in the brewery and learn the beer business so that’s basically what happened. … I thought it was important to get another generation in there because my dad and his brother were just taking over when I graduated from high school in ’61.

They started spending some money but they just didn’t have that much to spend.

And I had all these ideas. I wanted to do this and I wanted to do that. It’s easy to spend somebody else’s money, which I realize today, because people are trying to spend my money.

We only had the one little plant in Pottsville. I left the brewery because I couldn’t get my dad to do what I wanted to do as far as making an efficient operation over in Pottsville. He wouldn’t spend any money. He just wouldn’t do it.

I left in 1973 and bought a beer distributor business. So I went into the wholesale beer distributor business with Pabst Blue Ribbon brand and Rolling Rock, and I was there for 11 years. I learned a lot. I learned a lot about the wholesalers and what the wholesalers need, and I’ve met people, I’ve met other wholesalers, some of whom today are our wholesalers because they were good guys and we had a wholesaler network.

We delivered directly to Tanczos [in Bethlehem]. We delivered direct to guys like that. We have no wholesalers today. We have Banko Beverage [in Allentown]. We have a beer distributor in Philadelphia and a beer distributor in Reading. It’s an entirely different operation, but the fact that I went into the beer distributing business … gave me a knowledge of how it operates, and that’s the way you have to market your beer – through wholesalers. It’s up to them to represent your brands in a given area.

I’ve also met people who worked for Rolling Rock, [including] Tony Casinelli, who worked for Rolling Rock as a sales manager. He went to work for a wholesaler in Philly and that’s how this whole thing started. He took our brand in the Philadelphia market and just grew it, and grew it and grew it.

At the same time, Mr. Banko [Frank Banko Jr.] bought our brand, over in the Allentown area and he did a fantastic job with our products over there. Everything Mr. Banko touched was a good brand, whether it was Genesee, Miller, Schaefer. He started out with the Schaefer brand. He did a great job with our brand. So anyway, those are some of the things that I learned — how to distribute the beer through a wholesaler network.

The whole business changed because people wanted different kinds of beer, other than Miller or Coors. They want something refreshing, with character and taste. And that’s what our brand gives you. We’ve always maintained a domestic, premium price. You don’t get a lot of $30 or $40 cases like a lot of craft brewers. We try to maintain a fair price to our consumer. [Generally, a 24-bottle case of Yuengling Lager is priced at about $20.]

LVB: What’s your interest in the Lehigh Valley?

Yuengling: We got involved with ArtsQuest and Jeff Parks, particularly with Musikfest [Bethlehem’s annual music festival organized by ArtsQuest] and the success that Jeff had with that, and his people, not just Jeff. He put a great team together over there and they sold our beer at Musikfest for a couple of years. And along came the opportunity for him to get involved over at SteelStacks and they asked us, would we do some sponsorship. The guy does a great job and they support him.

LVB: How did the Musikfest Café by Yuengling come about at ArtsQuest? Also, please tell us about your interest in the history of Bethlehem Steel.

Yuengling: That was our commitment. It’s good for the Lehigh Valley, for people to enjoy it. He [Parks] did a wonderful job of building the thing. He gets great music venues over there. I don’t go over a lot, but we sponsor the Oktoberfest. We’re pretty heavily committed to the Lehigh Valley area.

You go over there, and I’ve seen what has happened to the old breweries in our area and in your area, they’re all out of business. Just to sit there and watch a show with those blast furnaces in the background, I mean, this is what America used to be like. It’s a shame that we lost all that.

That’s what my interest is in that. We would never have gotten through the Second World War without the steel business. They built the gun barrels for the ships and whatever else they did, they built America. And now they’re out of business. It just kills me.

That was our interest and our commitment to the Bethlehem, Allentown and Easton area. Also, what they’ve done with the Banana Factory [a cultural arts and education center in Bethlehem] with the kids. It’s great. …

The Lehigh Valley’s been very good to us. I said to Mr. Banko, “You know, don’t buy our brand and sit on it. Don’t do that to us.” He said, “I don’t buy anything and sit on it. I buy it to sell more beer.” He bought 17,000 cases from the guy who was previously our wholesaler and he got it up to almost a million cases a year. We do very well in the Lehigh Valley; they support us very nicely. That’s why I spend money in the Lehigh Valley.

LVB: Do you distribute beer up and down the East Coast? Any chance you would distribute further out West?

Yuengling: You get too far away and you run into transportation costs for your product. Our brand sells at a domestic premium price that’s set. We’re only in 14 states. We try to be consumer-friendly. We try to sell kind of a craft brand at domestic premium price, and that’s very hard to do. It’s hard to make a better beer and sell it at a fair price to consumers. So we operate very lean here. That’s our game.

We operate very efficiently, which goes back to my early days in the beer business. That’s what I was trying to do [in the old Pottsville plant]. Everything was done by hand; cases were piled by hand. We had no forklifts, we had no warehousing. Warehousing was in a room with a conveyor system running through it.

LVB: How many employees do you have?

Yuengling: We have a total of about 280, including sales office and gift shop, between the three plants. It’s about less than half of what Sam Adams has.

LVB: Any plans for another plant aside from Tampa?

Yuengling: No. We can handle it [extra capacity here]. We’ve added on here [at the Mill Creek Road plant]. Since we’ve built the [Mill Creek] plant [in the late 1980s], we’ve added storage unit tanks. We’ve increased the capacity of this particular plant probably by 600,000-700,000 barrels [per year]. In Tampa, we are also increasing the capacity of that plant down there. That’s going up in capacity so we’ll have a capacity of almost 4 million barrels. We always want to grow in our existing market. That’s always our goal. We get a bigger market share in our existing markets.

LVB: What drives you to do what you do?

Yuengling: Certainly you enjoy the fact that we started out here barely surviving. I mean we were selling 70 … 80,000 barrels of beer [annually] when I was a kid. It’s kinda been drummed into my head that there’s no chance we can survive. Go to school and find some other way to make a living ’cause we’re not gonna be here. Yeah, we’re gonna be here if we operate this thing. We got lucky, we got very lucky in that consumers’ tastes swung into better beers. They want more value. Everybody wants more value for less money, but that’s what we give them.

LVB: So what makes for a successful day for you?

Yuengling: Listening to that bottle line run all day long without stopping. And selling it. We’re doing well. We sometimes have to run seven days a week.

LVB: We’ve seen clips of you and about your business. How would you describe to people what you’re really like?

Yuengling: Demanding, probably. But you have to be. Somebody has to be the boss. I want to know what’s going on in our company. I just want to know what they’re doing. You can’t run a company this size the way I did when we only had one brewery.

Just let me know what you’re doing. If you’re in charge of marketing, if you’re in charge of production. Let me know what you’re doing. That’s all. I just want to know what’s going on. I don’t take much vacation time. I’m committed to it. There’s a commitment, like anything else.

With the brewery, it’s hard to find help. It’s hard to find people who will be as committed, whether it’s management or our hourly people.

LVB: And what else do you attribute to your success, aside from hard work?

Yuengling: Good products. We had an old-time brewmaster. He was the one who oversaw the brewing operations and made sure everyone was doing what they were supposed to be doing. And he kind of set the standards and gave me the confidence to stay in this business. After the second World War, into probably 1997, he retired. But he set the standards with employees, how to make beer, make sure you check this, and keep everything clean. It’s a food product. Guys get lazy. We have supervisors who won’t let guys get lazy.

LVB: Why do you think people appear so loyal to the Yuengling brand? Do you think that is why it grew so much?

Yuengling: People don’t like corporate America today. Whether it’s justified or not, I don’t know. We’re not corporate America; we’re family owned. Even though we’ve gotten bigger, I still don’t operate like. … People tell me I should have a board of directors. I don’t want a board of directors. I’ll go over things with my other management people. I don’t want a board in here.

We get things done. A lot of wholesalers will say to us, “We’re used to dealing with Budweiser where we can’t get anything done. We’ll call and need a change order or a load of draft tomorrow. And you can’t get it. So you go through the layers of employees. And if we call you, you get it done. We’ve never seen anything like it.”

And that’s kind of the difference, we get things done. It’s the way you should run a small business, and I would still consider us small. We’re not big. People will say, “Oh you’ve gotten so big.” We’re still only 145th as big as AB [Anheuser-Busch].

If you get that attitude that you’re too big to get things done, you’re gonna fail eventually.

LVB: As far as the future of the company, are your daughters going to be taking over eventually?

Yuengling: I hope so. I’m 70. Yeah, they’ll get their shot. One’s 42 and one’s 38. [Two of his daughters are planning to take over leadership duties]. They’ll get their chance, they’re learning.

They’re both doing a very good job. One daughter is in charge of exporter services, production, and she does well at that. The other daughter’s in charge of computers. She put a whole new computer system in here and I don’t even know how to turn a computer on. And I’m comfortable she did it right. She knows our needs. If she takes care of all that, she’s more management type. Family businesses don’t survive much past three generations. Here, we’re going into our sixth.

LVB: So who gets the credit for the Yuengling Lager? Why is that such a popular brand?

Yuengling: It was a product that we developed back in the late ’80s because people were looking for different beers, better beers. It has an amber color, not too much overbearing hoppiness. I’m not a brewmaster; I couldn’t make a brew if I had to.

That’s a good thing, because you stay out of that. Let your brewers and your brewmaster do their job. When they made the lager brand, I wanted something that’s tasteful, that has character to it, good appearance. This was when all the craft beers started coming back.

Now it’s like exploded. Everybody is making beer. When I started, there were 70 breweries in the country; now there’s 3,000.

LVB: Has your revenue grown from year to year?

Yuengling: We haven’t had a down year in 20-something years. We’re very fortunate.

LVB: About how many cases do you ship out of this plant in a day?

Yuengling: Now it’s about 50 to 60 trailers. It’s a lot of beer.

LVB: So what would you say to a small business owner; how do they keep going? How do they make sure their business stays successful?

Yuengling: You’ve gotta commit to it and invest in it. The whole thing doesn’t work without a good product. I just don’t think the consumer cares for corporate America. They’re looking for a little guy. And that’s us. We’re starting to get the reputation that we’re big. But again, we’re not big.

LVB: Any plans to expand into the Lehigh Valley or in Berks County with a new facility?

Yuengling: That’s too close. The transportation is a big piece of selling beer. And cost. When we started to build this, our little brewery in Pottsville, our guys did a phenomenal job of taking care of our consumers. So that’s why we bought the plant in Tampa. We ship beer up to Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware and keep our consumers happy. We kept people’s supply.

People were so committed to buying our brand that they would walk out of a beer distributor and look for it someplace else. That was when I bought the brewery in Tampa, to take care of that problem.

I did everything I could to get the capacity up to 600,000 barrels at the Pottsville plant.

It’s an old coal-region brewery; it’s running like a clock. It’s a great little plant.

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Brian Pedersen

Brian Pedersen

Reporter Brian Pedersen covers construction, development, warehousing and real estate and keeps you up to date on the changing landscape of our community. He can be reached at brianp@lvb.com or 610-807-9619, ext. 4108. Follow him on Twitter @BrianLehigh and read his blog, “Can You Dig It,” at http://www.lvb.com/section/can-you-dig-it.

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