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Ash Notaney

Ash Notaney

Executive vice president of operations, Lagunitas Brewing

Ash Notaney takes a strategic hop into craft beer

The executive vice president of operations at Lagunitas Brewing Company discusses his calling to make things better, faster, and simpler.

by Jen Swetzoff

“To work for a company that you love, producing something you love, is fantastic,” says Ash Notaney, executive vice president of operations for Lagunitas Brewing Company. “This is a dream job for me.”

That passion and gratitude has paid off. Since Notaney joined the 23-year-old craft brewery in 2014 — taking the helm of brewing, packaging, supply chain, engineering, and quality — Lagunitas has more than doubled its numbers in terms of production, revenue, and staff. Together, its two locations (in Chicago and Petaluma, Calif.) produce millions of bottles of beers each year, which are distributed in all 50 U.S. states and seven countries.

Notaney attributes the company’s success to the founder’s vision and the brewmaster’s recipes. But he is undeniably a large part of the remarkable growth in recent years, relying on his strategic operations background to help make Lagunitas’s breweries run more efficiently. He developed this expertise during his 13-year career with Booz & Company.

As soon as he graduated from Cambridge University with a bachelor’s degree in economics in 1997, Notaney started working in the firm’s London office, focusing on the financial sector. He quickly rose in seniority to principal while taking full advantage of Booz & Company’s global reach: During his tenure, he transferred from London to Sydney to San Francisco. After completing his MBA at Columbia Business School in 2003 and moving to the West Coast, Notaney began focusing on operations and revenue strategy projects, largely for retail clients, and soon discovered how much he loved working with creative teams.

“I’ve always had a creative side to some extent: I edited my high school yearbook, and I enjoy photography and cooking,” Notaney says. “But I’m a numbers guy at heart. I didn’t know what ‘lean’ meant back at university. I just instinctively always wanted to make things better, faster, and simpler.”

In 2010, Notaney felt a similar urge in his personal life as well — craving less travel and more family time with his wife and two young children. He moved on from Booz & Company to lead product and innovation for a local design and construction startup called Project Frog, which creates prefabricated energy-efficient building systems for commercial buildings such as schools, healthcare facilities, and data centers. A few years later, he leapt at the opportunity to take on his next challenge as the head of operations at Lagunitas, the sixth largest U.S. craft brewer. Under his direction, the company is currently building its third brewery, in Azusa, Calif., which is expected to further expand the brand’s reach.

Notaney commutes to the Lagunitas headquarters in Petaluma from his home in San Francisco, where he lives with his wife, 10-year-old daughter, and 7-year-old son. During a recent conversation with Strategy&, he explained the value of communication, golf, and contrarian insights.

When you reflect on your career with Booz & Company, what stands out?

As a consultant, I discovered my passion for doing operations work in creative companies. When we started engaging with the Gap, for example, our initial supply chain project was never implemented. Although the strategy made sense, in retrospect we realized we hadn’t made it relevant enough to the designers — they didn’t care about making things at lower cost. So when we did our second project with the company, we broadened our thinking: We explained how the supply chain work would positively impact designers. Lower cost was part of it, but we also explained how they would get their fabrics and samples faster and speed up their innovation overall. During that process, I also realized that although what you say is important, how you say it is just as critical — and that communication includes how you dress and whether you make a presentation face-to-face or via phone.

Why did you decide to move on from Booz & Company?

When my second child was born in 2009, I wanted to spend more time with my family. The leadership role at Project Frog was an exciting opportunity to travel less and work closer to home at an incredibly novel startup. And I had a friend working there. The company models its buildings on components like Lego blocks, so you’d have a catalog of different parts — like walls, ceilings, floors, lights, electrical components, bathrooms — and people can create different configurations of buildings out of that tool kit. We saw a lot of progress and had a lot of fun, but it was also really intense. I spent every day thinking about whether we were on the right track, with the right business model.

How did you end up at Lagunitas?

One of my friends, a former client from my days with Booz & Company, told me that the brewery was looking for someone strategic to run operations — someone who could manage a couple of plants, make sure there was consistency between them, and then think ahead in terms of future expansions — like the brewery we’re now building in Azusa, outside Los Angeles. I got lucky. It was the right fit at the right time for me. I love my job.

What’s the most fulfilling part?

It’s a thrill for me to work with our genius brewmaster, who’s just hilarious, unbelievably creative, and very smart. Overall, it’s the culture that makes everything we do fulfilling. Lagunitas is the most accepting company I’ve ever seen. We’re a motley crew of people from so many different backgrounds, and everyone is seen as equal — everyone is respected for what they can do, not where they came from or what they look like. When I joined the company, people were unbelievably generous to share their time and knowledge with me. This isn’t a place where people hold their cards close to their chest and try to protect information in order to improve their power base. Here, everyone is open; everyone shares things. As a result, we get things done very quickly, because people are so humble and collaborative.

What are some of the challenges?

The biggest challenge is managing the company’s growth. Since I joined two years ago, we’ve more than doubled in size. It’s a capital-intensive, people-intensive business, which means it requires constant hiring and frequent, large investments.

What do you consider your greatest accomplishment?

I implemented something unconventional to alleviate issues we had in supplying our customers, and it led to retooling our whole production process. We originally relied on conventional safety stock forecasting methods.

Although craft beer is perishable once bottled, it’s pretty quick to brew. So we didn’t try to increase our inventory levels, as traditional forecasting models might have suggested. Instead, we implemented a more sophisticated production planning model which used a combination of forecasts and orders. This required production to become a lot more reactive, but the team was up to the task. We took advantage of our strengths, and it’s been a great success. I’m proud of being able to implement an innovative strategy like that and see it work.

How would the people closest to you describe you?

People tell me I’m quick. I can retain a lot of information in my head, and it usually surprises people how I can quickly quantify issues to enable fast decisions.

But, most important to me, my wife tells me I’m a great dad. I normally get home around 6:30 p.m., so sometimes in time for dinner, but certainly before the kids go to bed. I often pack lunches and walk the kids to school in the mornings. Then I’ll jump in the car and come to work. In high-pressure jobs, family too often takes a backseat I’m really happy that I manage to maintain quality time with my family.

What do you consider your most marked trait?

My people skills. I believe that there are relatively simple things we can do to make people value what they do and feel good. Every employee at Lagunitas, for example, has the same vacation policy and everyone gets a case of beer each week. I personally manage more than 250 people, and I really try to make sure that my entire team feels respected, appreciated, and listened to. I think that’s what makes me a well-rounded leader, in combination with my more naturally calculating, data-driven business side.

Who or what do you most admire?

I admire visionaries who can analyze a situation and find the contrarian insight. There were a number of people like that at Booz & Company, and the founder of Lagunitas is also that kind of person. He reads an unbelievable amount, he parses data, he thinks about things very deeply, and he comes up with the strategies that serve his company well. I admire and aspire to that.

Where do you find yourself happiest?

On the golf course. Both my son and daughter play a bit, and my daughter recently got her own set of clubs. She has even played 18 holes a few times with me. I think the golf course is a nice place to connect with my kids, and I’m hoping that will serve us well in the years to come.

What’s the one thing you couldn’t live without?

Water.

What’s the one thing you could live without?

My iPhone.

What’s next for you?

More of what I’m doing, honestly. I’d like to perhaps one day build a Lagunitas brewery in Europe, where I’m from and where we’ve recently started exporting. In the shorter term, and more personally, I’m planning to celebrate my 40th birthday by playing golf and catching up with some of my greatest friends at Pinehurst this fall. Work is important, but the people around us matter most.

Jen Swetzoff is a freelance writer and editor. Previously, she worked with Strategy& as the deputy managing editor at strategy+business magazine.

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