Alumni Q&A – Brian May (BBA ‘02)

The CFE is hosting its annual trek to Grand Rapids on Oct. 14. Apply for GREAT now to spend an all-expenses-paid day in Grand Rapids, touring startups and networking with West Michigan’s greatest entrepreneurs. Applications are due Oct. 2

By Eric Bacyinski, M Engage Program Director & Kate Toporski, CFE Content Development Intern

Q: What’s your degree?
Brian May: I received my BBA from The Ross School of Business in 2002.

Q: Are you a Grand Rapids native?
BM: I grew up in Jackson, Michigan and worked in management consulting in Chicago. My family was in Grand Rapids; I went to visit and fell in love with it. I love the city and the surrounding area, especially the close proximity to Lake Michigan.

Q: What is a myth most people have about Grand Rapids?
BM: Grand Rapids is much more diverse and embracing of new ideas than most people think. I have friends and neighbors from all backgrounds, and it’s much more welcoming than most people who aren’t from the area know. It’s the quality of the people who are here that makes it a truly inclusive, special place.

Q: What do you wish you would’ve known while a student?
BM: Keeping an open-mind is key and allowing an honest assessment of yourself will put you in a position to be passionate about what you do. I started out Pre-Med, and look where I am now! Don’t be afraid to stretch yourself and truly learn, get out of the safe zone and discover what truly makes you excited.

Q: What is the secret to Founder’s success?
BM: Frankly, we have really good liquid. We’re a company that’s not afraid to innovate and try new ventures. Our 20th anniversary is next year and we went through a period of time chasing trends for the market; we almost went bankrupt, and there was a point when we thought the whole operation was going to close. The decision was made to stick to what we wanted to do and create the beers we wanted to make, regardless of trends in the market. Not being afraid to dedicate ourselves to a passion for that type of brewing that has led us to a great deal of success.

Q: How can I get my hands on your famous Kentucky Breakfast Stout?
BM: That’s a tough one. We keep it under lock and key, and each employee is only allowed to purchase a small amount. That being said, it releases once a year and we also keep some around to tap at various high-profile events in the taproom throughout the year.

Q: How did you get into current role?
BM: I’ve had my hand in a lot of strategic growth planning and consulting, and for a while, I worked at a global footwear company in GR called Wolverine Worldwide. I then went on to help with Abercrombie & Fitch’s turnaround plan development and spent a decent amount of time on international strategy. So, I had a relevant background when I joined Founders in early 2014. I helped them do some strategy work and market analysis. I’ve since helped find a strategic investor to provide some liquidity to the owners and then was recently promoted to build a new business unit focused on international. We’ve been the fastest growing brewery in the US for the past seven years; going international was a natural step.

Q: What three skills should students be learning to be best prepared for the ‘real-world’?
BM: Developing your personal skills (soft skills and networking) are really important. “How to Win Friends and Influence People” is a valuable book, and I think a lot of recent grads don’t understand the importance of knowing how to engage with other people. In the “real-world”, situations often come down to relationships. Another crucial skill is to be more efficient with communication and to synthesize what you’re communicating vs. carrying on forever. Students undoubtedly understand how to find information, but pairing that ability with critical thinking about what is most important and clearly communicating why is critical.

Q: Why should startups consider GR?
BM: The Grand Rapids area has a long history of entrepreneurship, with several family companies that have done really well. There’s a real spirit of collaboration in this community, and it’s built around a culture of doing; it’s not based on pedigree, and truly evaluates an individual’s willingness to be part of the team. If you’re doing something interesting it’s a unique place in that you can easily get attention. Additionally StartGarden, and others, have done a great job at making the concept of failure comfortable, and they have really helped establish this area as a forward-thinking community.

Q: What other startups and organizations have you been involved in? And why’d you bother to get involved with them?
BM: I think life is too short to let the things you’re passionate about pass by. I’m on the board of a high-growth consumer appliance company called Oxx.  Additionally several years ago USA Boxing needed some help in revamping their board, and I’m passionate about underprivileged kids, so I felt this was an opportunity to get involved in an area where I could really make an impact nationally. My wife (Kelly May, BSE ‘06) owns a successful management consulting company and we both really enjoy helping companies grow and we’ve begun investing in a handful of companies and mentoring them the past couple years.  We aren’t big stock market people and like to use or skills and networks to add real value. It’s our dream to eventually spend all of our time doing that.  One can dream right?

Are you interested in meeting more passionate and engaged alumni like Brian? Apply for GREAT today to spend an all-expenses-paid day in Grand Rapids, touring startups and networking with West Michigan’s greatest entrepreneurs. Don’t wait- applications are open now, but due soon!