Tanisha Robinson has problems with authority and swears with zeal. She never graduated college, and she has no professional craft beer experience. So she's perfect to lead BrewDog's quest for an American empire.
The canning line is the trouble today. Friday's test run failed. On Monday, things that had never broken before went haywire. It's always something. BrewDog CEO Tanisha Robinson and her team are trying to finalize employee training, operation and calibration for the brewery's new line for canning beers, which must run at 92 percent of full speed before it can be turned over to BrewDog by experts from KHS, the German packaging company that built and installed it. By late Monday, BrewDog founders James Watt and Martin Dickie are consulting from their native Scotland. Their message to Robinson: Deal with it. The experts won't leave until it's running properly.
It's Tuesday morning now. It's still not up to speed. Robinson is headed back to the brewery in Canal Winchester for a conference call with BrewDog's Scottish headquarters and KHS staff in Wisconsin and Germany. The canning line needs to be up and running soon; it's a busy week to put it mildly. BrewDog's shareholder meeting, dubbed Annual General Mayhem, begins four days from now, on Saturday, Aug. 26. Thousands of people will descend on the brewery, and Robinson is leading event communications and planning—handling permits, tents, the stage—all the details that must come together. The following day, the brewery will host its long-awaited public grand opening. It's always something.
At a recent staff meeting, a server from DogTap Columbus—the brewery's adjoining restaurant and bar—asked Robinson what she does all day. “I just wanted to be like, ‘Oh my God, you have no idea,'” Robinson recalls, laughing. “It's like, ‘I take bullets. I try to throw grenades back.'”
In other words, anything and everything to calm the chaos. Yet that's exactly where she wants to be, amid the bustle and bedlam. She cut her teeth on the topsy-turvy local entrepreneurial scene, where constant fluctuation and disorganization rule. She's built and managed several startups, with a specialty in e-commerce, but her experience has little to do with what BrewDog is attempting, which is to expand its highly successful European brand into the U.S. on a grand scale. Robinson wasn't even really looking for a job when opportunity knocked.
So why is she running the stateside headquarters of a decade-old, billion-dollar craft brewery from Scotland? And for that matter, why do they want her?
BrewDog USA, which Watt describes as “a massive gamble,” is no tentative toe into the waters of American craft beer. DogTap shares a 100,000-square-foot building with BrewDog's headquarters and brewing facility on an idyllic 42-acre campus in suburban Canal Winchester. Everything is gigantic and shiny and new.
“There's not many opportunities out there in the world to build a brewery of our size from the ground up,” says Tim Hawn, who joined BrewDog in March of 2016 as the head of U.S. production. As it's built currently, Hawn says, the facility is capable of pumping out 110,000 barrels—or more than 1.5 million cases—annually. By comparison, Rhinegeist in Cincinnati sold 56,500 barrels in 2016, and Hawn estimates Great Lakes Brewing in Cleveland is producing about 200,000 barrels a year. Columbus Brewing Co. is the largest craft brewer in Central Ohio, with 16,500 barrels produced in 2016, according to the Ohio Craft Brewers Association. If BrewDog expands production to its full capacity, the output could reach 550,000 barrels annually, or more than 7.5 million cases.
It all began in a garage in 2007 when Watt, Dickie and a Labrador retriever named Bracken founded the company. By 2015, their revenue in the United Kingdom was more than triple their closest craft-brewing competitor, according to The Telegraph. That success is built, in part, on a unique financing and marketing model they call Equity for Punks, an everyone-as-investor crowdfunding program that encourages diehard customers to buy shares for future returns, special rewards and induction to a likeminded community. They operate about four-dozen pubs, taprooms and restaurants worldwide, from Estonia to Brazil. They chose Central Ohio for their American debut with the February unveiling of DogTap, their largest bar to date.
“Pure gut instinct”—that's Watt's explanation for the high-roller risk of establishing a BrewDog beachhead in Canal Winchester. Watt visited Central Ohio for one day in May 2015 on the recommendation of friends at Stone Brewing, co-founded in California by a Pataskala native. He loved it, he says, and he immediately told Dickie that they had to bring BrewDog to Columbus—despite the fact that they'd done no feasibility study and it would cost $30 million that they didn't have. “We kind of jumped off the edge of a cliff,” Watt says, “and it's just felt like home ever since then.”
It sounds audacious and reckless, and that's the idea. The founders have cultivated a do-or-die, punk ethos that's represented across the business, including this building. Watt sits in a sparsely outfitted office inside the U.S. headquarters, blue paint splatter framing the words, “We are geeks,” on the white wall behind him. A similar treatment in the office to his left spells out, “We bleed craft beer.”
They exist in opposition to industrialized, macro-brewing conglomerates like Molson Coors and Anheuser-Busch InBev. BrewDog fashions itself as an outsider, the flag-waving provocateur of a craft beer revolution, and Watt and Dickie have built the brand on brash statements and ostentatious publicity stunts. They announced a crowdfunding campaign with the alleged intent to gamble investors' money in Vegas, incurred the wrath of the Presley estate for naming a beer “Elvis Juice” and promised to build a bar on the U.S.-Mexico border, directly in the way of a certain president's proposed wall. And that's just the past 10 months. It draws the ire of some, but it also earns the loyalty of legions of fans.
There's some posturing and gimmickry to these public displays, but the rebellious streak carries through to their operations. Watt says one of the company's key tenets is questioning conventional wisdom—all of it. For example, why not select a 36-year-old CEO with no expertise in managing an international company and no industry experience—or any background in packaged goods whatsoever—to lead their game-changing venture across the ocean?
Robinson's circuitous journey began in Liberty, Missouri—or, as she often says playfully, “Missourah.” She's all big hair, big smiles, quick jokes, deep laughs, youthful enthusiasm. She seems at ease nearly everywhere. It's a radical departure from her childhood in Liberty.
She was born to a black father and a white mother, the second-eldest of seven siblings in a devout Mormon family. They weren't destitute, but money was tight with seven kids, and Robinson still remembers the common dinnertime refrain: “Are we rationing?” She learned that work was the only path to getting what she wanted. By the age of 12, she worked as a babysitter and ran “a little landscaping business.”
Money was hardly her only obstacle. She knew she was different by the time she was 5 or 6. Robinson says her mom was preparing the six girls to be wives and mothers, and that never resonated with her. She was always curious and deeply rebellious—not exactly prized traits in conservative religions. Mormon children are baptized at 8, and Robinson remembers asking if she could wait until she was 18 or 28—she'd hardly done much worth absolving yet.
She didn't fit in at school or church, and she struggled with depression as an adolescent. She was pressured to suppress herself and couldn't figure out who she was. Robinson came out as gay to her aunt as a teenager because she was worried she'd be disowned if she revealed her sexuality to her parents. Her first glimpse of a more relatable world outside of Liberty came with the advent of AOL's online chat rooms, where she met “other weird kids.” They were suffering and struggling with some of the same problems in places where they, too, didn't fit in.
“Belonging is this primal need that we all have,” Robinson says. “Even in the caveman days, if you don't belong, you die.”
After a stint at Brigham Young University—at her parents' urging—she established her independence by joining the Army and signing up for the Defense Language Institute in California, where she became an Arabic linguist. Ironically, under the specter of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Robinson felt like she belonged. The Army cared more about her capabilities than her social standing, and she gained confidence. But ultimately, she says, she was discharged for not staying quietly in the closet.
Robinson decided to continue her Arabic studies at Ohio State University, and she moved to Columbus, where she was finally able to fully embrace who she was in a city where she was an unknown. She received OSU's Huntington International Fellowship and traveled to Syria to study at the University of Damascus. For almost two years, she learned and taught and traveled, until a quarter-life crisis grabbed ahold. She wanted to work for social change, she says, but she couldn't determine the field. Should she join the U.N.? Doctors Without Borders? Eventually she had an epiphany: Why go to the Sudan to work for human rights when there was so much inequality and poverty within a mile of her Columbus home?
Tanny Crane was struck first by Robinson's fearlessness. She readily spoke her mind, Crane says, and she'd already lived such a rich life for someone only in her 20s. The CEO of the Crane Group, a Columbus-based holding and management company, met Robinson at a dinner party hosted by Columbus Foundation CEO Doug Kridler to introduce members of the foundation's governing committee to the city's brightest young entrepreneurs. They struck up a fast friendship; Crane says she nicknamed them “Frick and Frack.”
Dwight Smith, the founder of IT consulting firm Sophisticated Systems, also met Robinson around then. He was impressed with how comfortable she was in all environments. “Her ability to navigate a community, see a need and put a creative idea around it is pretty darn scary,” Smith says. “In a good way.”
Robinson had already sold her first company, an online marketing business, and she was in the process of selling a second, Fudha, which offered discounts for eating at locally owned restaurants—a sort of gastronomic Groupon. The company was a turning point for her in recognizing the power of business to leverage social good; for every restaurant deal sold, Fudha donated $1 to the Mid-Ohio Foodbank, eventually raising more than $15,000, Robinson says. She also co-founded a third company, TicketFire, an app-based business that digitizes paper event tickets for easy sharing, selling or transferring.
Her most widely known startup is Print Syndicate, an apparel company that took off after Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was photographed with one of its quirky T-shirts, which read: “You can't handle the Ruth.” Robinson and co-founder Michael Limes distanced their company from a glut of other T-shirt shops by catering to the social identities of demographics that businesses previously ignored, fostering a unique sense of belonging. One of the top sellers early on read, “Introverts unite: We're here, we're uncomfortable, and we want to go home.”
By 2016, her fourth year running Print Syndicate, Robinson says it was generating more than $14 million a year in revenue. But the period of high growth had slowed, and she felt her interest wane. Crane and Smith agree that while she excels at strategy, development and directing nascent organizations, day-to-day operations and processes aren't her forte. “Ultimately, I just didn't feel inspired going to work every day,” Robinson says, “which is weird when that happens to you in your own company that you built.”
She stepped away in September 2016 (she's still an adviser and shareholder in TicketFire, she says, and a major shareholder in Print Syndicate). She took time off and traveled with her wife, Community Shelter Board executive director Michelle Heritage, whom she married in 2013. Robinson set up a consulting business, which she says she would have happily continued for a while. But a mutual friend introduced her to Watt, who was looking for someone to lead BrewDog's new U.S. operation.
Watt liked her instantly, but Robinson was hesitant to accept a job running an established company so far outside her previous experience. Yet she felt like they were “spiritually aligned.” In an email to BrewDog in May, she outlined a role she'd designed for herself that focused on speed and growth. At the end of the email, she included a few additional position requirements: “a dire need for autonomy”; “authority issues”; and a love for shooting things and blowing things up—expressed profanely.
BrewDog officially hired her as “growth guru” in June. Almost immediately, Robinson realized that the U.S. operation was in a frenzy, like an early-stage startup. “It's absolute mayhem,” she says, “and I'm completely in my comfort zone.”
Within two weeks, she was promoted to CEO of BrewDog USA.
“It is perfect. It utilizes all her skill set,” Crane says, adding that Robinson's fearlessness and startup experience will serve her well. “And now BrewDog U.S. fits her like a glove.”
Inside the Canal Winchester offices, Watt says it's rare to find someone who operates on his wavelength. He and Robinson both prize speed and quick decisions. They're kinetic, though she's the ebullient type, while he's intensely measured. They both want to make the best beer in the world, and they agree that BrewDog is about much more than just beer.
For one, the company isn't afraid to voice political views, and Robinson believes brands have to quit shying away from those conversations. She criticizes the CEOs who disbanded President Donald Trump's councils only after the Charlottesville protests, not earlier in his administration. BrewDog's proposed U.S.-Mexico border bar drew criticism from some neighbors in Canal Winchester and on social media, Robinson says, and some investors have asked for their money back. She's unfazed. “I would be more upset if we were appealing to people that want to build a wall in Mexico than that we're pissing people off that think that's a great idea.”
Robinson and Watt are also aligned on the power of business to create better communities. BrewDog recently committed to giving away 20 percent of the company's annual profits in perpetuity; 10 percent will be split evenly among all employees, and 10 percent will be given to charities chosen by non-management employees and the Equity Punk community of about 60,000 shareholders. Watt says it's a way to democratize the company's positive impact.
Crane believes Robinson has the potential to develop a major philanthropic effort, something on the scale of Pelotonia, given her platform with BrewDog and her powerful local business connections—she calls on the likes of Smith, Kridler, digital marketing guru Nancy Kramer, restaurateur Cameron Mitchell and Cardinal Health CEO George Barrett. Robinson is aiming at least that high; she admires the work of Bill and Melinda Gates. In Syria, she saw firsthand the limitations of helping at ground-level—money magnifies impact, she says. “The one vehicle I think I have is to amass a giant pile of money and then give it all away.”
She's talking immense wealth, counting in billions. She doesn't think BrewDog will get her that far, but she's giving herself at least a decade to help the company build an American empire.
If Watt has his way, they'll build it in half the time. Next, he's traveling through Asia to select a site for BrewDog's first brewery there. There's a partnership with the Blue Jackets for taps at Nationwide Arena, a Short North bar coming by the end of the year and a Franklinton taproom and brewery planned for spring 2018. Construction of The DogHouse, a hotel and sour beer facility, is scheduled to break ground in Canal Winchester this fall. This hypercharged growth is fueled by a $264 million minority investment from TSG Consumer Partners, a San Francisco-based equity firm that valued BrewDog at $1.24 billion in April. Watt says the investment allows BrewDog to execute its five-year plan in the next 18 months. He hopes to take some percentage of the company public with an IPO in the next five years.
In that same time frame, BrewDog USA's sights are set on becoming the top craft brewery in the country. Robinson and her team will need to win over new customers, not just cater to stereotypical craft beer nerds—flannel-wearing, bearded white men. The push to attract new demographics was a major topic at this year's Craft Brewers Conference, says Adam Benner, co-founder of Land-Grant Brewing. He's already seen some shifts in his Franklinton taproom, including one recent group of IPA-drinking elderly women, “almost like a church group.”
All of which sets up perfectly for someone who once made T-shirts of an 84-year-old judge popular with millennials. Robinson envisions bridal shops pouring flutes of craft beer; she wants BrewDog to land on Oprah's Favorite Things holiday list; her dream placement is on the TV show Martha & Snoop's Potluck Dinner Party.
On a brilliant Saturday in August, people flock to Annual General Mayhem in droves. BrewDog's canning line now up and running, the CEO stands at the gate checking the IDs of fans from down the street and across the Atlantic. The large field behind Robinson is lined with taps from BrewDog and other Ohio craft brewers—Land-Grant, Rhinegeist, MadTree, Platform and Jackie O's.
Under a large white tent in the middle of the field, TSG president Jamie O'Hara pulls up a chair next to an Equity Punk to wait for Dickie and Watt's shareholder presentation. The two men are investors of vastly different scales in the company's meteoric rise, but both espouse their deep belief in BrewDog. Levi Fetherolf watches the founders' presentation from the same table. He's a believer too—he loves how much they care about their beers and their people. His mother, Regina, a resident of nearby Carroll, came to last year's AGM because she thought it sounded interesting. She's a craft beer convert now, sipping a pint of dark stout next to her son.
A couple hours later, in one corner of a sprawling warehouse connected to the brewery, Robinson looks to grow the craft beer flock, leading a hopped-up crowd of a few dozen through a brief educational tasting session. She offers background information on BrewDog beers and asks audience members to call out the flavors they taste. But the crowd is boisterous and easily distracted, and her microphone seems permanently set to the same volume as the surrounding commotion. It's unruly.
From the front of the room, there are calls of “lime!” and “grapefruit!” and Robinson gamely continues the tasting. After all, the pitchers are emptying quickly and people are enjoying themselves. At the end, she receives an enthusiastic round of applause for her effort, or at least for the free beer. As people mill about afterward, drinking and carrying on, her laughter is the only sound distinct enough to rise above the din.