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The Shifty Episode 5: HR At The Bar — Human Resources At Bell’s

HR... at the bar? In this episode of The Shifty, we spoke to two of our HR specialists -- Mike Fuerst and Carrie Yunker. Carrie is the director of HR at Bell’s, and has been with the company for 15 years. Mike has been with us for 18 years and is currently a training specialist.

During the interview, we touch on the history of HR at Bell’s and how the company looked 20 years ago. Mike talks about his rock ‘n roll roots and Carrie talks about the early days, when the company belonged to “surley dudes”.

The Shifty can be found on iTunes, Google Play and Spotify. We’re hoping this series will give you a fun look at Bell’s that you’ve never had before, and you might even learn a thing or two along the way.

Transcript

Carrie Yunker: And I'd never worked at a place where it was like, what do you mean you want me to shut it, you want your receptionist to go shut down your production facility? Okay.

Maddie Parise: Hello everyone and welcome to The Shifty, the podcast where we share a post shift beer with Bell's employees and talk about what makes our job so cool. I'm Maddie.

Nick Lancaster: And I'm Nick. And for this episode, we're talking HR at the bar. We sat down with training specialist, Mike Fuerst and director of human resources Carrie Yunker to learn more about the culture and history of Bell's.

Maddie: Great. Awesome. So, f you guys want to tell us, why did you come into work today? Not all at once?

Carrie: Well, Amie schedules me a lot of meetings. I have this lovely gal named Amie and she tells me where to go and where to be. But realistically, I sit in a lot of meetings. But regardless of that, I came into work today because I can make a difference when I'm in those meetings, realistically. We are working on some super cool projects and some really fun things that are going to make a big difference to, in particular the meetings I was in today had to do with safety and security, which is an important piece. And then I had sat in two different sort of what I would call sort of cultural meetings, meaning we're moving forward some projects and initiatives that will make a big difference to our culture.

Mike Fuerst: Yeah, I mean I can certainly agree that the sense of making sure that Sarah sees me walking out of the door and heading into work is always good. But realistically, it's to be with my family and to be with my friends and contribute to this thing that I feel like I've had a small part in building over the last 20 years. So, it's a sense of responsibility, a sense of family, a sense of commitment. I think there's folks that get motivated by seeing a project come together and things come to fruition and that just gives you steam going into the next project. And so, a little bit of it is, the ball's rolling, and it's been rolling and the momentum is there and you just do. You just come in and you just do.

Carrie: I would miss it. When I'm on vacation. I still miss work sometimes.

Nick: I can agree with that.

Carrie: Like what's going on there? Do they need something? Is everything okay?

Maddie: I think that's rare to miss your job when you're on vacation. You don't find that often.

Carrie: Yeah. I mean, not that I don't love my family and my time. Not that that's not needed honestly, but simply it doesn't feel like a job. Some days it does, some days are tough but it doesn't feel like a job the majority of the time that I'm coming in. It's like it's where I'm supposed to be and what I'm supposed to be doing.

Mike: My guess is that's probably the norm from what you said Maddie about it's probably not common for people to miss their job when they're away. But to be honest, like I don't think I know anybody who doesn't read their email when they're on vacation and just kind of keeping tabs on it here. I think people just, they love it enough where like you're concerned not only out of a sense of staying connected, but just because you just flat out care. You want to know what's going on and you want to know what your friends are doing and what happened with that conversation when I left on Friday.

Nick: Well it's kind of a kind of a good segue, Mike. You mentioned over the last 20 years. So how did you both get your start at Bell's?

Mike: So I started, my old roommate, his name is Johnny Apollo was the packaging manager and at the time I was a working musician. Had rock and roll dreams, so every weekend going out and playing shows. So the money you got from Saturday night is gone by Monday and so need a day job kind of thing. And so there was actually a couple of years where I kind of said, hey Johnny, can you get me a job as a packager? And he kind of kept at arm's length because his point was like, well, we live together, we hang out together, I don't know if I want to see you at work all day too. But it just made sense after a while so he offered me a job and I started in as a packager. Washing kegs, that was my first job. Eight hours a day, washing Hoff-Stevens kegs for three or four days a week. It was really just very much as a reason to pay my bills. But there was also very much a sense of pride being associated with the brewery from Kalamazoo. I had a lot of friends who actually did work there at the time. So again, I felt like I was kind of joining a bunch of guys that I already knew and a bunch of folks that I had kind of had a good time with. I certainly in the back of my head absolutely had the notion that, well, if music doesn't kind of take me to where I want to be, this could be a job I could fall back on.

Carrie: So I started at the brewery almost 15 years ago now, and I started as a temp job through a staffing agency. So, I was going to school for, Haworth College of Business here in town. I was looking for a part time job, something to be able to do while I was going to school. I got a phone call from the temp agency which isn't even in business anymore at the time and they were like, hey, we're looking for, and I had done a couple of assignments for them, hey, we're looking for somebody, the woman, I will never forget her saying to me, like, I need somebody who can go and answer phones and be like part time receptionist at a brewery, but you got to be able to work with a bunch of surly dudes, take a joke, have a strong backbone. Like they were very clear with me, like here's the environment that you're kind of walking into. I was like, oh, I can totally do that. And I'm still trying to do that.

Maddie: So Carrie, you've been here for 15 years and Mike you said 20?

Mike: 18. I like to stretch that out to 20. I think I'm close enough.

Maddie: Yeah, you've earned it.

Mike: We round up.

Maddie: What were the early days like? How did that all look?

Mike: So the early days for me were a little different because my early days were actually down here where we're at the Eccentric Café right now. The Comstock Brewery didn't exist at that point. So there was a couple of years where everything took place down here, other than obviously sales and the marketplace and whatnot. There was a nickname that it was “Larry's Home for Wayward Boys.” And so Carrie's description about kind of having to work with a bunch of surly guys, that was kind of the environment. There weren't any female brewers, there weren't any female production employees. There was a few kind of over the years, early in the day, some strong brave women that decided to give it a try. It was kind of a little bit of a male-dominated kind of locker room environment to some degree. That certainly wasn't the thing that attracted me and I'm not trying to toot my own horn, but there got to a point where it was kind of, okay, I'm just going to kind of keep my head down and try to do a good job and kind of joke along a little bit here and there. Sometimes the environment was a little challenging as far as that goes. But that aside, there was very much also a sense of camaraderie and teamwork and you help each other out. You showed up in the morning and you stayed until the day was done. There wasn't like nine to five kind of thing. There were certainly schedules and shifts by the time I came on board in ‘99 but there was a sense that like you had to stay and get the work done and that was just how it was. But at the same time, because you're kind of having fun along the way, it really wasn't a chore. It wasn't difficult. The other thing that was kind of interesting in those early days back down here was you had to kind of learn how to work with the things that you had. You didn't have resources to buy some fancy new piece of equipment every other month. So you kind of had to accomplish things by ingenuity and repurposing things and duct tape. There was a little bit of a, not wild, wild west, I don't want to make it seem like it was a complete free for all. It was just that there was a sense that like we, it wasn't a challenge, it was an opportunity. It wasn't like we have to figure this thing out. It was we get to figure this thing out. It was really much like you get to learn, you get to grow. Then even moving out into Comstock, my former boss, John Mallett, really very much empowered packagers and maintenance to own what you're doing and figure it out and learn and try, maybe there's a little bit of trial and error and hey, that didn't work the first time but hey, it worked the second time. Why? Let's figure it out. Let's talk about it. Certainly, maintenance being a very important part of keeping any industrial manufacturing system going, we went in lean and there was not like a huge maintenance department to start and that was on purpose because maintenance folks are usually highly skilled, highly paid. And so, if you can get away with having your operators get a little smarter and understand the equipment and the processes, then you don't have to have this fleet of highly skilled maintenance operators. From the beginning, there was a very much a sense of let's empower and educate as best we can to give the people that are operating the equipment the greatest sense of understanding and ownership. Then that also contributes to that teamwork atmosphere and that support atmosphere of like how you are working together as a team, as an organization, as a department and as a company.

Carrie: Some of my early memories are, I was I think employee number 50. And I started right at the time when we were opening the Comstock Brewery. So I started right at that point where we were starting to brew beer. We had one shift of packaging. We had a couple of shifts of brewers at that point. But you knew every single individual person's name. You spent time with them outside of work. We had fun together and there was always this sense of, if there's a higher road to take, we're going to take it. So I remember being a really small brewery and doing right things as it related to government compliance, were we doing the labels right, were we doing, some of the early work I did was like entering the handwritten brew logs for example and a lot of the tank fermentation work and like gathering that data to make sure that when we did our inventory the end of the month, our taxes were paid correctly. That spirit still lives now. Like if there's a higher road, we're going to take it. If we can do something with integrity, we will. I think that that has, that was really what kept me in some ways. Kept me interested is. And there was always a new challenge. There was this like, to Mike's point of like we get to solve this problem, there was always something new and interesting as well in all the different aspects of our business, whether it's a new beer or a new process, and I just felt like sort of the group of folks that was there at that time when I first started was eager to learn and eager to be the best. We had to figure that out on our own.I think that that is, you know, we still have some of those fun home grown systems, and I think, you know, it was the same, but we were still at a place where started in October and in December, I remember getting a phone call. It was on a Wednesday in December, first week of December. It was Larry and he was like, "Hi Carrie." I was like, "Hi." And he goes, "I need you to shut it down." And I was like, "What?" He goes, "I want you to shut it down. Everybody has to get down here to the pub. It's pre-Eccentric Brew day. Shut the brewery down." No thought or care for packaging or money or distributors, trucks coming or whatever the case may be. It was simply just like we all belong together. We all belong together right now. We should be down here. Again, I still feel like Skills Week to me is a bit of a kind of commemoration to that sort of spirit, right? It's like, we all belong together, we all do this together. There were some people already down here drinking beer and Bloody Mary's, which was a highly touted thing that happened Eccentric Brew Day. It was like, no, I want everybody else down here too. And I'd never worked at a place where it was like, what do you mean you want me to shut it, you want your receptionist to go shut down your production facility? Okay.

Maddie: Can't get enough of Bell's Brewery? Find us on social media. Get the latest announcements and sneak peeks and whatever feed you'd like to scroll through best.

Nick: So how do you do HR at a brewery?

Carrie: There's a lot of a gray area.

Nick: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Because obviously like we get beer benefits. It's like how do you tackle that sort of issue?

Carrie: So I have always been and will continue to be the kind of person who wants us to have sort of policies, if you will, or practices that trust someone and assume positive intention. So I think that that's incredibly important. We could rule the hell out of everything if we wanted to. When I first started and took over, sort of like when I became the ultimate kind of tip of the spear, if you will, for HR, the first thing I did was tear apart our handbook. First thing I did. First thing I did because it said over 100 times in there, “up to” and “including termination,” it was written by an attorney, it didn't feel like us. And I wanted us to have work rules that were reflective of what we were actually doing and what we actually respected. What I actually expected of everybody is to be responsible, which we define that and one of our values. But realistically, I expected that way back then. And everyone else expected that of each other too. We were able to hold each other accountable. I think that we can do that and still have fun. In fact, one of the projects I'm working on right now, one of the meetings I had today, very much related to sort of beer benefits, making sure that that is looked at in the right way. So what are we doing for our off shifters? What are we doing for our folks who, when the pub's closed for example? What's the spirit of that shifty? So those kinds of things still live on. I think it's just got to be, you trust until someone proves you wrong. And when they prove you wrong, we know what our work rules are and then we take action. We can't be afraid to do that.

Mike: One thing I've always appreciated about this place and this may just be me in my head, but the way that I've tried to view it is this is, and this is going to get kind of broad and wide and maybe a little lofty, but I feel like this is our chance as a society and as our culture as a people and as humans on the planet to do the right thing. I think anybody who's mindful of history in any way and understands what manufacturing and what labor looked like 200 years ago versus 100 years ago versus 50 years ago, and I'm not going to quote him properly, but Dr King said something along the lines of the arc to freedom and justice is long but it's always pointing in the right direction. It's something along those lines. And again, I feel like manufacturing and jobs and how workers and employees and employees interact, there was a point in time in our country's history in our planet's history and a lot of the places that are still exist on this day where it's just not done right, you're not doing the right way. I feel like there's an altruistic notion that we can try and aspire to do the right thing, aspire to build the building in the right way, to put policies in the right way. I feel strongly that we have to lead, we have to show the example of how manufacturing can be profitable and at the same time mindful of what the people at the bottom are doing and what the people at the bottom, the folks that are kind of grinding away from the day to day, the operator level, how it impacts them. Because I think for too long in our society, especially in America, the profits and the CEOs and the folks who are on the board, it's all about protecting that profitability. And if you're doing that, then it'll trickle down, it's like, okay, I kind of see what you're saying. But I would much rather provide and develop a system that takes into account the folks at the bottom and the folks in the middle and the folks at the top, because we all have to be in those relative positions. At some point, you know, in order to have a top, you got to have a bottom. In order to have a bottom, you got to have a top. But if the people at the top aren't respecting and supporting the people at the bottom, then the foundation crumbles and it doesn't work. So again, I feel strongly that we have this opportunity here to show the rest of Kalamazoo and the rest of Michigan and the rest of the country and the rest of the planet, here's how you can be a profitable business and be respectful and mindful of the people that are developing and contributing at all levels. I really feel strongly about that, that we have this opportunity. And I really try and come into work every day to tell myself that. And again, it sounds a little lofty, it sounds a little fruity but it's true. Because if we're not doing it, who is? And if we don't do it now, when?

Nick: So, you mentioned earlier that you were a musician. You were trying to do the rock and roll thing. I kind of have a funny story about that. I knew that because I go to school for audio stuff that I know John, John Compos. When I was just out of high school, I was working at a grocery store. One of my former teachers came through the line. I was a cashier at the time. I mentioned that I was moving to Kalamazoo to go to school for like music, that kind of stuff. And he mentioned, oh yeah, I used to live in Kalamazoo. I used to live across the street from this band that used to rehearse called Knee Deep Shag. And I was like, oh, okay, that's interesting. I swear to God, a few days later, I would buy music at the secondhand store in Hastings, that's where. I'm from and I found Good Disguise by Knee Deep Shag for like $5 in a CD bin. I listened to it and I was like, I love this. I got super into it. And then, it was sort of like this weird sort of starstruck moment when I learned that you played bass in Knee Deep Shag. I have it, I'm moving soon so all my CDs are packed away. But I was almost like going to do that as a gag on the show to like pull out my copy and have you autograph it. That's just like a funny anecdote that I had that I was amazed to just weird things that come together like that.

Mike: Yeah, it's a small world man. I'm flattered. It might've been on Westnedge I would guess because there was a point where Knee Deep Shag, well, their practice room was in Matt Gross, the lead singer's apartment on Westnedge or I'm not sure where your friend lived.

Nick: Yeah, yeah.

Carrie: You ever listen to Mike play music, you wonder, how did we get so lucky to have him training people and packaging, you know, like seriously, You're just like-

Nick: I was here for that reunion show back in February. I was absolutely here for that.

Carrie: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Mike: Well, again, the music thing is my passion, but I can't express how lucky I was to have realized early enough that hey, this Bell's thing, this could really go somewhere and this could be a great job. So really, to be perfectly honest, as much as I would love to be 100 percent musically supported financially and whatnot, I don't think I'd be the same person had I not spent the last 18 years working here. I think that the lessons I've learned and the teamwork and certainly the management skills and some of the coaching that I've developed over the years of being a department head for a little while have also improved my ability to function as a musician and work within a band, which is usually kind of like a marriage between four people or five people or how many are in the group. Just the politics of working inside that system has been improved by my time at Bell's as well. As much as I would love to just play music, I certainly, again, I feel like I wouldn't be the same person had I not had the life experience that I gained from working at Bell's.

Maddie: So, come work at Bell's if you want to be a musician.

Carrie: We have a lot of them, a lot of incredible musicians.

Nick: Well, I think that's going to do it for us. Thanks to you both for sitting down and taking part in this little experiment that we're doing.

Mike: No, actually we're going to keep going. So, the next ...

Nick: Thank you to Mike and Carrie for sharing a drink and some great stories with us. I'm Nick.

Maddie: And I'm Maddie. And you've been listening to The Shifty. Cheers.

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