Female lobbyists change face of beer industry

by Alex Gangitano

The leading voices for the beer industry in Washington, D.C., are women, breaking the stereotype that beer is a male-dominated business.

For women at the industry’s most prominent groups, those changes are long overdue.

When Kimberly McKinnish, the National Beer Wholesalers Association’s (NBWA) senior vice president and chief financial officer, started working in the beer industry 30 years ago, she never had to wait in line for the bathroom at conferences.

“When you went to the ladies’ room you walked right in, and there was this long line at the men’s room. It was the reverse of wherever you went in your regular life,” she said. “Now, when we’re at our convention or conferences, there’s a line at the ladies’ room.”

Highlighting those changes, the NBWA has 12 women in its 15 senior-most positions, the Beer Institute has six women on its 11-person staff and the Brewers Association’s only D.C. staffer is a woman.

The Beer Institute’s vice president of operations, Susan Haney, has been with the group for almost 18 years.

“When I started, literally in the interview they had sort of warned me that it was a male-dominated industry and I would go to meetings and could be the only female there, which I thought was odd,” she said.

The Brewers Association, focused on promoting craft beers, is based in Colorado and has one lobbyist in Washington, their federal affairs manager, Katie Marisic.

“I spend a lot of time in campaigns and lobbying,” Marisic said. “You get used to navigating areas that might not have a lot of women in them, but women who are in them are strong and hardworking and they look forward to mentoring other people.”

Laurie Knight, the NBWA’s executive vice president of government affairs, is the distributor association’s top lobbyist.

The Beer Institute also has a woman at the top of its lobbying team: Mary Jane Saunders, vice president and general counsel.

“The women who work in beer aren’t going around, raising a flag, saying, look at me because I’m female,” Saunders said. “They’re saying, look at me because I’m really competent, look at me because I’ve earned my seat and I have no issues working in a male-dominated industry.”

The changes in the industry’s D.C. associations mirror the broader trend as women climb the corporate ladder at beer companies.

At membership meetings, both the NBWA and the Beer Institute say about 20 percent of the people at the table, who are C-suite executives of beer companies, are women.

In 2018, Heineken named its first female CEO, Maggie Timoney.

“Just the fact that there was so much news when that happened is very telling,” Haney said.

Other prominent women in the industry include Gemma Hart, the vice president of communications at Anheuser-Busch; Sam Adams chief marketing officer Lesya Lysyj; and the Yuengling sisters, Jennifer, Debbie, Wendy and Sheryl, who manage their family company.

“A majority of our businesses are family owned, multigenerational,” Knight said of the NBWA’s membership. “It is now clearly becoming more balanced with women stepping into the role.”

But the industry is also increasingly marketing its products to women in recent years.

“In the ’90s, all of the ads that I can remember were just dudes,” said Ramsey Cox, director of media relations and public affairs at the Beer Institute. “Turn on the TV and watch a beer ad today and they’ll all have women in them, and that’s important.”

The Brewers Association estimates that more than 31 percent of craft beer consumers are women. The group also launched a diversity committee in 2017 to encourage people from different backgrounds, including women, to open breweries.

“I think that the beer industry is working to try to make itself a place where everybody feels comfortable. That means having people drink your product, of course, having people work at your brewery is amazing but also encouraging people to open their own brewery,” Marisic said. “That’s all things that they’re striving towards.”

At the Brewers Association headquarters in Boulder, Colo., the group has a woman as marketing director, Ann Obenchain, and a woman as senior vice president of operations, Stephanie Johnson Martin. Overall, the association has 30 women on staff and 35 men.

“In terms of the association directly, we’ve always had a balanced mix of men and women. I had a female boss in the early days, and we’ve had women on our management team from the first day I started here,” said Martin, who has been with the association 24 years.

Prominent women on the craft beer side include New Belgium Brewing Company co-founder and former CEO Kim Jordan; in D.C., Right Proper Brewing Company co-owner and director of operations Leah Cheston; and Julie Verratti, co-founder and chief brand officer for Maryland’s Denizens Brewing Company.

At the NBWA, McKinnish also spearheads the Next Generation of Leaders Group to educate members about the business. McKinnish said the program is 40 percent women.

“When I first started and I would go somewhere, I would try to find a female that I can have a conversation with, and now that’s very different,” McKinnish said.

“We really do try to make a point of mentoring other women,” added Lauren Kane, vice president of communications at the NBWA.

Patti Rouzie, the NBWA’s vice president of membership and meetings, said bringing in more women was a process.

“There are many more women from their businesses attending meetings, seeing the importance of being involved in NBWA, taking advantage of that education and being part of the legislative process,” she said. “The attendance has grown over time.”

The Beer Institute, which dates back to the Civil War, when it was the U.S. Brewers Association, is the second oldest trade association in the U.S.

Saunders has what she calls an “old white men picture” in her office, showing the group’s membership from 1885.

Now, the institute’s meetings look quite different.

“It’s not tokenism. The women who are there have earned their seats. They are well-regarded and well-respected,” Saunders said.

Women in the industry, though, say they still experience the stereotypes around women and beer, but are working to change those.

“When my husband and I go out, we’ll both order a beer and they’ll give him the IPA and give me the light lager. Nope, it’s the other way around,” said Cox.

“It happens all the time,” said Saunders. “You go out and you order beer and the waiter or waitress will come and immediately hand it to my husband. I’ll say, ‘No, no its for me.’ ”

This article orginially appeard in The Hill on April 4, 2019.