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This couple used the Scaling Up system to grow their brewery to $1 million

By Verne Harnish

David and Cristina Ackley run Ginger’s Revenge, the first and only craft brewery in North Carolina to specialize in alcoholic ginger beer. Back in the days before Prohibition, ginger beer was just as popular as ale and cider. Today, it’s making a comeback. The Ackleys, a husband-and-wife team, have distinguished the Asheville-based brand by making it gluten-free and using ingredients that are 95% organic. They have grown their business to about $1 million in annual revenue and 16 people since founding it in 2017—despite the closure of their taproom for a couple of months in 2020 and almost a year of operating at reduced capacity because of COVID-19.

They were able to succeed under tough conditions by using the Scaling Up platform for growing a company. The couple completed the One-Page Strategic Plan in mid-2019 and worked through the ideas in Scaling Up: Rockefeller Habits 2.0 on their own. David discovered the book through a primary-care physician, who recommended the Rockefeller Habits after using the principles to launch his practice. “We struggled to find a strategic planning process that worked for both of us,” says Cristina. “It helped us to get on the same page.” 

Here is how they applied the lessons to their company. 

Ducks in a row

Asheville, N.C., is a tourist town, and business at the brewery is usually strongest in the summer. The Ackleys and their team made the most of their annual quiet period in Q1 by setting a Quarterly Theme of “Ducks in a row” and lining up their “ducks” to get ready for the seasonal rush. That meant investing in a couple of palettes of new kegs, along with additional brew equipment. They also began looking for new talent and just hired a new bartender. “Part of this was recognizing that coming out of COVID, there would likely be a lot of pent-up demand,” says David. They anticipated correctly: April 2021 was their biggest month ever by about 20%.

After doing the Mission from Mars exercise, the company set Core Values: customer service, teamwork, leadership, positive attitude, ownership, continuous improvement and quality. These will make it easier to hire any new team members who are needed as the season progresses. “We’re ready to rock in the summer,” says David.

Setting the right Top 1

For the Ackleys, getting their strategy right has been mission-critical. In completing the One Page Strategic Plan, they focused on building the brewery into a business that generates revenue from both its retail side, in the taproom, and through wholesale distribution to grocery stores. When COVID hit, the taproom was temporarily closed, so they focused on grocery store distribution for their packaged beer. For their Top 1 in Q4 2019, they aimed to win distribution at Ingles, a regional chain, and succeeded in winning a contract in February 2020. They added 15 grocery store locations overnight and now are up to 50 with that chain. “It proved to be incredible timing to have all of that grocery store volume when all of the bar and restaurant volume disappeared overnight,” says David.

Along the way, the couple set an ambitious BHAG for Ginger’s Revenge: That every bar, restaurant, or grocery store will sell ginger beer. Meanwhile, their guiding critical number for the year has been selling 2,000 barrels. “We distilled that down from our four-year vision, which is to get to 8,000 barrels,” says Cristina. They have created a chart for their team that shows the territories in North Carolina where they project the business will come from, tracking the progress in each one with a thermometer chart. “We’ll see them all side by side and make decisions about where we want to focus our attention,” says David. 

Keeping a team on the same page

By holding a weekly all-hands huddle, the Ackleys keep their team aligned—typically a 15-to-20 minute check-in that includes a progress report by David on meeting the company’s sales objectives and a Round Robin where everyone offers updates on what they are working on. A team lunch follows.

For specific groups of staffers, there are also weekly production meetings on Tuesdays, a weekly manager’s meeting on Wednesday and a front-of-the-house meeting on Thursday. David holds a weekly sales meeting on Monday mornings, and Cristina holds a marketing meeting on Wednesday mornings. The Ackleys and their assistant also hold monthly strategy meetings, as well as separate meetings for HR and finance. Beyond this, they hold a weekly coordination meeting with their assistant on Fridays.

“The Rockefeller Habits helped create a system for those meeting rhythms,” says Cristina. “It took several months to find the right balance of what works.” 

Rewarding customer service

With the company growing rapidly, the Ackleys have put systems in place to ensure flawless execution of the company’s objectives. The sales team is rewarded by commissions. Tap-room employees get rewarded for customer service, in keeping with the company’s Core Values. They are each eligible for a bonus, based on five-star customer reviews. Instead of bar service, the company pivoted to table service during the pandemic. “We focused on making people feel comfortable,” says Cristina. “People tended to stay longer.” They also tend to spend more during longer visits. On the production side, team members get rewarded for metrics such as volume sold, progress in meeting company objectives and a lack of quality-control issues. These incentives have inspired the team and helped to grow sales. “We’re right where we want to be,” says David.

Staying in front of cash-flow concerns

To get through the pandemic, Ginger’s Revenge secured a $20,000 city grant, as well as two Paycheck Protection Program loans and a loan from a distribution partner. They also refinanced some of the business’s debt and secured more equipment financing. To lower overhead, they made the difficult decision to lay off several team members and reduce hours for the remaining team. 

The result of all of these efforts is a more sustainable, scalable business–one that is playing a leading role in the comeback of alcoholic ginger beer. “We’re in a much better position than before the pandemic,” says Cristina. 

Verne Harnish
Verne Harnish
Verne Harnish is founder of the world-renowned Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO) and chaired for fifteen years EO’s premiere CEO program, the “Birthing of Giants” and WEO’s “Advanced Business” executive program both held at MIT. Founder and CEO of Gazelles, a global executive education and coaching company with over 150 coaching partners on six continents, Verne has spent the past three decades helping companies scale-up. The “Growth Guy” syndicated columnist, he’s also the Venture columnist for FORTUNE magazine. He’s the author of Scaling Up (Rockefeller Habits 2.0); Mastering the Rockefeller Habits; and along with the editors of Fortune, authored The Greatest Business Decisions of All Times," for which Jim Collins wrote the foreword. Verne also chairs FORTUNE Magazine’s annual Leadership and Growth Summits and serves on several boards including chairman of The Riordan Clinic and the newly launched Geoversity. He is an investor in many scale-ups. A father of four, he enjoys piano, tennis, and magic as a card-carrying member of the International Brotherhood of Magicians.