Expert Topic How to Recruit and Retain Exceptional Employees – An Interview with Pontoon Brewing CEO Sean O’Keef

As the brewing industry grows and becomes more competitive, brewing companies need to make sure they are offering competitive salaries and benefits to recruit and keep top talent. Sean O’Keefe, the CEO and co-owner of Pontoon Brewing in Sandy Springs, Georgia spoke with Beer Edge editor John Holl about his brewery’s approach to employee compensation.

John Holl: What approach have you taken when it comes to salary and benefits for employees?

Sean O’Keefe: We’ve had success with being transparent. If you look at the corporate world transparency can be hard to come by and people are tired of seeing a posting that talks about “competitive wages” or just offers a range and only later find out that it is not what they need to pay bills, survive, and even save a little bit. We wanted to be ultra-transparent with our salaries and benefits.

John Holl: Has that approach worked?

Sean O’Keefe: I think so, because we’re also approaching this as selling [potential employees] on our business. It shouldn’t be the other way around. That’s another corporate mindset that I believe should be changed. By figuring out what a wage should be has helped us get qualified people who want to come work here.

John Holl: How have you been calculating what is fair?

Sean O’Keefe: The brewing industry is collaborative. We did about 7,100 barrels last year and we are opening a second facility soon and I want to get us to 10,000 barrels between the two. I’ve reached out to other breweries that size and had the conversation about what they are paying and I’ve shared our info as well. I’ve also reached out to breweries that are the next size bigger to see what they are doing and then factored that into our plans as well.

Some finance people look at our numbers and give us side eye. Over the last four years our staffing costs have gone from 38 percent to 61 percent of our operating expenses. It’s not really a sustainable model but it will level out as we grow. To get good people you have to pay them well.

John Holl: What else have you done to help employees?

Sean O’Keefe: Benefits are important. We pay one hundred percent of the premium for employees on a really good health care plan. It’s just one less thing they have to worry about. We also have a professional development fund where employees can take classes or get a certification. It helps them, but it is also a return on our investment for the company.

John Holl: Anything beyond a base salary and benefits?

Sean O’Keefe: We have a commission program for employees on top of salaries. If they are looking to make a bit more outside of our compensation program, we try to find ways that they can bring more or different revenue into the company or cut costs in other ways and work out a percentage to make sure they are paid for those efforts. It helps quite a bit for people who have made quite a bit of extra money.

I see that as funding growth. Our investors don’t always like it, but at the end of the day they’ll get their returns because we’ve invested in our people.

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

How to Recruit and Retain Exceptional Employees - An Interview with Pontoon Brewing CEO Sean O'Keef posted in:
John Holl
John Holl

John Holl is a contributor to ProBrewer and the editor of All About Beer.

One Comment “How to Recruit and Retain Exceptional Employees – An Interview with Pontoon Brewing CEO Sean O’Keef”

  • Jeff Porter

    Some salient points. I would also add, the craft brewing industry as a whole should up their game. You are competing for basically the same talent as other large scale CPG companies and can’t rely on the ‘panache’ of being in the industry to continue to pay low wages. In some conversations I have had with brewery owners lately they seem to think that $40-45k for a head brewer is the going rate?

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