Old Elk’s Adoption of Servant Leadership Has The Company Surging In The Marketplace
CEO Luis Gonzalez Believes In Organic Scalability And Building a Premium Global Brand Through Trust and Empathy
The management of Old Elk Distillery are fairly new to the spirits business but they know enough to get only the most qualified talent to take their brand from 1000 cases a few years ago to 60,000 nationally in 2021, and Old Elk is not slowing down.
Old Elk takes its name from a whiskey brand that was intended to go into production but stopped short in the face of Prohibition. A strong name for a whiskey from Colorado where the elk population is the biggest in the United States. Founder Curt Richardson has been a lifelong entrepreneur and notably headed Otter Products which, like Old Elk, is based in Fort Collins, Colorado.
Starting the Old Elk distillery in 2013, Richardson needed talent and had the foresight to know he needed to scale the business if people were going to take the brand seriously. Enter Greg Metze, a master distiller with Seagram’s Distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, where he specialized in developing bourbon whiskeys, rye whiskeys, exotic whiskeys, batch light whiskeys, gin and vodka. Metze knew his whiskey and he knew had to make good stuff at high volumes. Old Elk gave him the chance to run the show at a small boutique brand bent on making smooth drinking spirits from fanatically crafted mash bills and excellent ingredients.
“Creating whiskies on a smaller scale was new for Greg, but hiring him was very intentional,” says Old Elk CEO Luis Gonzalez, who joined Richardson from Otter in 2017. ‘He is one of the best in the business and we gave him the tools and left him unconstrained to produce the best bourbon possible. We put our trust in someone who knows the space and the quality of Greg’s recipes has not diminished with growth.” With roots at one of the largest distilleries in the U.S. Metze was uniquely capable of producing small batch productions then scaling them for a larger market as Old Elk grew at a rapid rate.
With the addition of Gonzalez and his experience at building and executing international brands, Old Elk launched in 2018 with 1300 cases and a small base of loyal customers, all of which remain important to the company as it has grown. Not only is Old Elk a story in uncompromising quality but one of management for growth and the happiness of their employees as well as their consumers
The many years leading up to the launch of the first Old Elk product in 2018 was time for Gonzalez to organize his management team for “organic scalability”, taking the time to do things right and remain customer-focused as the Old Elk brand exploded into all fifty states in an 18 month period.
Gonzalez credits this to building an “agnostic” team of which sixty percent have experience at building a premium global brand and 30% have specific spirits experience. The support of the ownership of the company to concentrate on four mash bills (recipes for whiskies) or four core products and build substantially before taking Old Elk to the next level: Intentional scalability with the heart of the business and distillation in Fort Collins, Colorado and production contracted out under Metze’s keen eye at MGP, his former employer in Indiana known for making spirits for private labels.
The core base of Old Elk’s product line up is Old Elk Blended Straight Bourbon Whiskey, Straight Rye Whiskey, Straight Wheat Whiskey and Wheated Bourbon. These are great sipping whiskeys but add depth and texture to cocktails; reviews of the product line found here.
Servant Leadership is a way of life at Old Elk and the company organization is encouraged to continually ask questions of each other because this is the way to educate themselves about the entire operation of the company. “Title does not dictate how you do business. All time is valuable; it just depends on what you focus,” says Gonzales.
“Servant leadership is at the beginning of everything here,” continues Gonzales. “Ask questions, trust the individuals that you serve, driving trust allows an environment to address problems early on, be honest with each other and create a workplace that is beyond transactional and more relationship driven. Be empathetic, have a passion for the business and each other, Failing is allowed and, at Old Elk, we have the true freedom to make mistakes because fear will overcome talent every day. We want to develop and provide an opportunity to prosper in life and share in the success of the business.”
Gonzalez and his team do not chase the numbers. They have built a plan and work the plan, executing with the consumer in focus and not forgetting the mom and pop stores that were there in the beginning. “We won’t forget who we are as we grow to 80,000 cases, or 40-60% year over year. We have adopted a healthy approach to growth choosing to be sanity-based rather than vanity-based.”
At Old Elk, everyone gets to know what the other employees do, meaning that even the CEO was pouring in the tasting room or waiting tables as Old Elk launched their Fort Collins tasting room. With a wife he has known since high school and two small girls at home that are his primary focus, don’t be surprised to stop by Old Elk’s facility to taste from a guy that forgot to take the pink nail polish off before running to work after family time. That would be the CEO and his servant leadership approach to management that has allowed Old Elk to grow quickly from launch and will propel the company forward as they near a million cases….and still take care of the local liquor store owner who believed in this line of smooth spirits in the early days.