Navigating change is always going to be difficult. Navigating change while trying to mobilize an entire organization with you? Even more difficult. We have witnessed many of our client distilleries experience change over the years, and the common themes we found among those that did so with grace and ease: they know who they are, what they stand for, and have their entire team have their teams united in a common vision, and in pursuit of success – whatever that means for them. How? A deep-rooted organizational culture at the center of everything they do, which allows them make big decisions with minimal pushback.
We recently sat down with Karen Hoskin of Montanya Distillers, located high in the mountains of Crested Butte, Colorado. We have always admired Karen for being an outspoken voice in the industry and an advocate for change (as witnessed by anyone in attendance for her keynote speech at the ADI conference several years ago). We wanted to know more about how Montanya incorporates company culture in everything they do and keeps them working as one well-oiled (and ecologically friendly) machine through any hardship.
Building an organizational culture starts with a defined set of values that provide an unwavering foundation on which to build. It was important to Karen to incorporate her values into her business from day one. “Values have been inextricable for me since I’ve been alive. I wanted to be part of something bigger, a culture or community,” she told us. “I really try to emphasize to my employees that our distillery is a safe place to be yourself in everything you do. I want our culture to reflect an ethos or way of being – using business as a force for good throughout the industry. It’s about more than just making rum.”
There are three overarching pillars of the Montanya ethos: Environmental sustainability, building an equal opportunity work environment, and transparency.
Environmental sustainability and ingredient sourcing
Karen believes that Montanya’s customers shouldn’t just take their word for things. The distillery utilizes third-party verification and certifications to back up any claim they make as a business. Every business practice and purchase is rooted in being environmentally responsible – from the paper in the printers to the way they source and buy their mint. They don’t pick and choose which practices to align with their mission and values – it’s a holistic installment in their business.
Building a positive and equal opportunity work environment
For Montanya, diversity isn’t the goal. “It’s not enough to be diverse if the workplace doesn’t feel like home for everyone,” Karen explains. “We want to make sure employees can fully bring themselves to work and feel supported, and strive to create opportunity for anyone who would otherwise have barriers to entry into the distilling entry due to their identity.” Montanya maintains their commitment to being not only a diverse but an educated workforce by sending their employees through Shine Diversity’s “JEDI Training” program, a five-session course on justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion.
Transparency with employees and customers about state of the business and major decisions
Employees at Montanya have access to all information on the state of the business, how the company is structured and funded, and how employees are compensated. They also fully believe in being transparent with consumers in the information they share on their website, PR and social media communications – there’s no “smoke and mirrors,” as Karen says.
That transparency doesn’t go away when things get hard. Several years ago, Montanya announced a goal of being a zero-waste organization by 2020, but as the date approached, they realized they wouldn’t meet their target. Instead of staying quiet and hoping everyone had forgotten their commitment, they spoke up. “It’s fashionable these days to set goals,” Karen mused, but there’s very little accountability and follow up on the completion of goals that companies like to publicly set. Instead, Montanya was transparent about their miss, and disclosed the alternatives they had committed to. Their B-Corp certification keeps them accountable not only to themselves and their customers, but to society at large.
To tie this all together, we asked about a time that Karen made a major business decision and how she felt that having a cohesive culture helped make all residual transitions smoother. She shared with us that commercial compost is a very important business practice at Montanya. When the company that Montanya was outsourcing their composting to went out of business, Karen decided to bring it in house and purchased a biodigester, to be used for all the distilling and restaurant waste. Right off the bat, there was a huge amount of buy-in from employees. Employees took the initiative to research and learn how and when to collect waste, how to use the equipment, and how to make processes more efficient and effective. Karen attributes the ease of adoption of this huge process change for the Montanya team to their cultural alignment; the change was in line with the company’s culture, in which all business activities are deeply rooted, eliminating any potential friction.
Finally, when it comes to hiring, Montanya is trying to “mess up the model” and take the risks necessary to continue diversifying the team with a “value-fit, culture-add” focus in many of their hiring decisions, and a commitment to honoring the values of those diverse employees. For example, Montanya’s head chef is a Zulu woman from South Africa. “Her work style is completely different from anyone else in the kitchen – she definitely shook things up around here, but she brought a different level of quality to everything we do and it’s absolutely wonderful,” Karen reflected. With several Ute employees on staff, Montanya has also incorporated Indigenous land acknowledgment into their business practices, embracing and honoring an important and empowering practice for Native peoples.
Montanya’s approach to defining, expanding, and operating according to the values of its company culture is nothing short of awe-inspiring, and has allowed the distillery and the team to navigate the roadblocks they’ve encountered with finesse, peace of mind, and a shared, transparent framework.
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