Friday, December 14, 2007


I was reminded this week, thanks to one forgetful meeting, of three things: the resonance of genuine character, the virtue of being enamored with what you do, and the value of telling a good story. The (antithesis) catalyst was a meeting with a fathead, an anything but genuine, passionless, quant-citing financing type. Life to (with) said lard brains is a game of drab checkers. It was one of those encounters, to paraphrase Buffett, where you step on a pop top and blow out your flip flop (cut your heel and have to cruise on back home). What a waste.

Enough whining; back to my memory. Econ courses in grad school kicked my rear. Supply, demand and the point of elasticity were ungraspable concepts. One week in one econ class, we explored the economics of the beer industry. I was trickling through my twenties … beer was the libation (oftentimes the cuisine) of choice. My interest amplified, I immersed myself in the week’s readings and case studies.

At the onset of our lecture, we noticed an older, grandfatherly gentleman in the back row. Must be the prof’s dad, we whispered. A few dozen minutes into his lecture, Dr. Smiley welcomed our guest: I would like to introduce Fritz Maytag, tonight’s guest speaker. Fritz who?

For those in the know – not me, obviously – Mr. Maytag was the proprietor of Anchor Brewing Company. He commenced a two-hour-or-so visit with a story, detailing how – in the early 1960s, if my too-many-Anchor-Steams-ago memory serves – he purchased and operated the brewery. Seated in a tavern in San Francisco, Fritz overheard two advertising execs lamenting their failure to profitably operate Anchor Brewing Company. Tears in their beers, they were getting high on their own failing supply.

A third or fourth generation descendant of the Maytag (appliance) family, Fritz was fresh off earning a masters in Japanese (or something equally esoteric) from Cal. “I didn’t have to work another day in my life,” he shared. Fritz turned to the ad guys and asked if they’d be interested in selling the toilet-spiraling company. Yes.

Commencing with nary a clue about how to make beer, let alone run a brewing company, Fritz and his secretary set forth. Part chemist, part craftsmen, part bottler, part labeler, part deliverer, they brewed their first batch. And then another. The beer – Anchor Steam was and remains their flagship delicacy – got better, consumers multiplied, and taverns throughout the city ordered more and more barrels. A craft – microbrewing – was invented as the company was reinvented.

My favorite (and Fritz’s personal pride): Anchor’s Christmas Ale. Fritz road-trips every year to handpick and procure unique ingredients for the annual recipe, a little nutmeg here, a special crop of hops there. From their site:

The Christmas Ale’s recipe is different every year—as is the tree on the label—but the intent with which we offer it remains the same: joy and celebration of the newness of life. Since ancient times, trees have symbolized the winter solstice when the earth, with its seasons, appears born anew.
Just another story, eh? Not quite. Beer to Fritz was more than hops, barley and water. The business was more than a business. He stood before our wide-eyed class, paused in the tradition of Paul Harvey, hoisted a bottle of Anchor, and opined, “I love my product.” It was the most sincere, genuine, passionate, and memorable reflection I’ve experienced. To that day – in his late sixties and 30-plus years into running Anchor – Fritz visited taverns throughout San Francisco, changing kegs, stocking refrigerators, telling tales.

Fritz shared a story that night and, along the way, taught us a little about economics (and a lot about life). Cheers.

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