By Dave Woods
Globe Market Development Manager
JOPLIN, Mo. —
Mike Magoulas said he isn’t afraid to take a chance or two and to stick his neck — and reputation — out as the new CEO of Boulevard Brewing Co.
“In our (Boulevard) culture we affectionately call it ‘running with scissors,’” the 58-year-old Joplin resident said of the Kansas City brewery, which is the largest American-owned brewery in Missouri and one of the largest craft brewers in the country.
“We’re going to be smart and do the right thing, but we’re going to be a little bit dangerous,” Magoulas said recently. He was sitting on a bar stool, drinking a Boulevard brew and talking to Joplin craft beer lovers at a local pub. “We’re going to stick our necks out there. We might fall on those scissors sometimes, but that doesn’t mean we’re not going to run.”
Magoulas, who also owns and operates Component Packaging in Joplin, is settling in as Boulevard’s CEO, a position he has held for six months, commuting back and forth. It is, he said, the job for which much of his life experience has prepared him.
“It’s management 101,” he said. “I think that is what defines a good CEO or a bad one. If I fall on the scissors too many times, I won’t be here that long. You see that a lot in the business, but right now, some of the craziness within the craft (beer) business is what is driving the spirit of the industry.”
‘The Tall Blonde’
As a young man, Magoulas, a New York native, said he didn’t know what he wanted to do when he grew up. He decided to try and figure it out while studying business at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas.
“I just had a passion for (business) and I was good at it,” he said. “I was a pretty good student and staying in school and was making good grades.
“I got hired on in the beer business as a campus representative in college,” he said. “The local distributor would pay me — beer usually and not so much money — to hit the fraternity houses and sorority houses and make sure that when they were buying beer for their parties,” it was Miller.
“I think my first beer was the original Miller High Life in the longneck bottle,” he said. “They used to call it ‘The Tall Blonde.’ That was the hit brand at the time, and I had just started coming up the ladder. I was weaned on that coming up.”
Magoulas, after finishing school, also did a stint in sales with Del Monte.
Again, opportunity knocked. He landed a job as a beer rep in North Carolina. During his career as a beer guy, he’s rolled hundreds of hand trucks stacked with cases and kegs of brew into bars and restaurants. He hasn’t forgotten his roots.
“I think it keeps you a little bit humble,” he said. “You remember where you started and that it’s a relationship business. It’s about the beer and the friendships, but it’s all about building those relationships.”
He left the brewery and ran a distributorship in Kansas City and saved his money. At one point during his career he also spent time as an executive with Gallo Wine. He bought a printing company and parlayed it into ownership of a Kansas City-area bank. He bounced from banking back into beer, acquiring a distributorship in Wichita, Kan.
“My father used to tease me. He would say, ‘I spent a fortune sending you to college and all you learned is how to drink beer.’ Now he would laugh, ‘You’ve figured out how to make a living at it.’”
Magoulas retired a couple years ago as sales manager overseeing distribution for Miller Brewing Co. in more than 20 Midwest states and turned to business consulting.
Art of beer
About that time, John McDonald, founder and president of Boulevard, with whom Magoulas had a longtime business relationship and friendship, decided he was ready to change his focus at the brewery and step aside as CEO.
McDonald had built Boulevard — operating since 1989 — into one of the largest craft brewers in the country with products available in 25 states. In 2011, Boulevard declared revenue of more than $32 million, up more than 11 percent from 2010. Boulevard also was named “2012 Small Business of the Year” by the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce.
When McDonald was looking for a savvy beer guy to take over day-to-day operations so he could get back to the beer, he turned to Magoulas.
“John McDonald is the master of the art of brewing,” Magoulas said. “John, who is a little bit of a visionary, would probably shoot me for saying this, but he’s kind of a cross between the scientist from ‘Back to the Future’ and Einstein. Somewhere in there he blends the craziness and the smarts of where we are going with the brewing.”
Magoulas thinks they are a good team and that McDonald has surrounded himself throughout his career with quality people.
“Because I’m more of a strategist, I do a lot of the five-year projections and focus on the programs we need to get where we want to be. I like figuring out how we get there. I think that as I’m getting older and a little wiser in this business, chasing the dollar all the time isn’t as important as what you are making. The craft business is all about the beer.”
Much time and many resources, Magoulas said, are spent on keeping Boulevards products consistent, drinkable and appealing to craft beer consumers.
“We spend a small fortune in our microbiology work and the sensory experience,” he said. “Every brew that goes out every day is run through the lab with different mechanical and biological tests to get the right bitterness levels. Then those beers are tried by eight people every day who taste the beer and decide, ‘This is good.’”
Magoulas admitted that despite his years in the business, his pride took a hit when he started settling in on the daily quality control tasting sessions with Boulevard.
“It’s so funny,” he said. “For all the years that I’ve been in the business, I thought I’d be really good at it. When God gave me this big Greek nose, I thought I’d be a pro at this stuff. I’m not really good at it. It’s more of a learning curve for me than I thought it would be. The brewers tell me that it might take a year before I can sense and taste the way I should be able to, but I work on it.
“My background lets me to know how to put the beer in bottles,” he said. “My selling and marketing background lets me know how to sell it and make money. But I don’t think I ever had anybody teach me the beer.”
That moment, he explained, was “an epiphany.”
“I thought I would just walk into this job and it would be second nature to me,” he said. “I’ve discovered a pretty big learning curve. It’s very humbling. You have to think through the beer. Within the craft business, the secret isn’t how good of a strategy plan you build; it’s how great of a beer that you make.”
Dave Woods is market development manager for The Joplin Globe.
Boulevard’s Ripple Glass, a recent offshoot of the company and a Kansas City community partnership, recycles thousands of tons of glass bottles each year, including Boulevard bottles.