Alaskan Brewing an inspiring example

Posted: Wednesday, January 14, 2009

In December 1986, Geoff and Marcy Larson turned their love of home brewing into 253 hand-packed cases of Chinook Alaskan Amber to sell in local markets. Almost a quarter century later, the Alaskan Brewing Company employs more than 70 Juneau residents yearround. Their award-winning brew is sold as far away as Arizona and Colorado. And although the Larsons remain the company's chief executives, they know they couldn't have done it alone.

"We have incredible investors and stakeholders," Marcy Larson explained. "It is truly an amazing story that illustrates what can happen when a bunch of people share a common dream."

Of course, all successful businesses have amazing stories. What makes the company's success interesting is the state and local economy was in a recession in the mid 1980s. Oil prices had dropped to less than $10 per barrel, people were walking away from their homes and mortgages and banks weren't anxious to lend money to anyone interested in starting a new business, especially to a couple in their twenties who had never operated a business before. When lending institutions say no to someone's plan, you wouldn't expect private investors to consider such risks either.

Over the course of a tenuous year, 86 Alaskans were willing to help the Larsons get started. They each put up a significant amount of money toward a highly uncertain outcome for more than the hope a monetary dividend - they wanted a share in the Larsons' passion and dream.

Uncertainty is a trigger to human apprehension, and times of economic hardship generally produce cautious investment decisions. People are more apt to put their money into businesses with proven track records or more conservative mutual funds and bonds.

But any investment in the stock market is not without some risk. We've just witnessed another bubble burst with substantial paper wealth disappearing overnight. Many of the most respected financial experts didn't see this coming.

Would those experts have advised against investing in the Alaskan Brewing Co. 23 years ago? The question isn't about who is right or wrong, but rather if lessons can be learned from the Larsons' story.

Whether the economy is healthy or not, the stock market has become a means of personal financial growth. When the reliance on financial advisors couples with vast geographical separation between business owners and investors, we become completely disengaged from the human story. All that seems to matter is the size of the dividend. We may be concerned about the ethics of business owners, but we're too far removed from the source to genuinely invest trust in their personal character.

The idea of sharing a dream gets whittled down to profit when the human relationship doesn't exist. Sharing the roller coaster ride of anxiety over risky decisions is lost. Also missing is the owner's sense of responsibility to the emotional welfare of the investor. It may be easier not to have these worries, but it also diminishes the value of the reward.

Investing should be about more than creating personal wealth. Among the Alaskan Brewing Co.'s core missions was to showcase that manufacturing in Alaska is financially viable. The realization of such goals stretches beyond the spreadsheet; it has the potential to inspire new ideas. We might do well to recognize dreams as the true source of economic prosperity. Without them, money loses its value as the means of measuring a person's success.

My point isn't to suggest that Wall Street should disappear and everyone should only invest in the local economy; there aren't enough opportunities here in Juneau. But we shouldn't leap into the global economy without at least understanding the meaning of success at the other end. If it's only about the bottom line, then we're enabling the erosion of ethics at the top of the corporate ladder.

We can learn a lot from the Larsons' success at the Alaskan Brewing Co. Their story reminds us that there are more rewards than just a high rate of return in exchange for trusting someone with our money. The idea we call profit isn't related to the passion in the human heart where success stories begin.



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