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When Errors Are Not an Option

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Alaskan Brewing Co. leveraged its biggest operational obstacle to develop impressive organizational muscle.

The Juneau-based microbrewery, which generates more than $10 million in annual sales, is landlocked. This adverse geography affects everything — from bringing in ingredients to shipping finished product. A weekly barge from Seattle is the company’s primary transportation channel; not only is air delivery cost-prohibitive (about 14 times more expensive than the barge), but not everything can be flown in. "When we make a mistake, it’s glaring," says Marcy Larson, who founded the microbrewery with her husband, Geoff, in 1986.

For example, running out of malt could halt production for a week or more. And with their larger customers, such as Safeway grocery chains, missing one delivery might mean losing the account.

The easy answer might be to stock up on ingredients ahead of schedule. But that ties up capital, and Alaskan Brewing doesn’t want to produce its beer earlier than necessary.

To cope, the Larsons have become master planners. In the beginning, they used spreadsheets to plot inventory, production and deliveries. Today the company embraces software programs, networked computers, modems and faxes to keep dibs on what’s going out and coming in. A UPC system keeps costs down by tracking metal kegs used to ship product (a keg missing in action costs $100 to replace).

Though technology is a huge help, the Larsons chalk up much of their success to old-fashioned follow-though. When it comes to obtaining supplies or equipment, they don’t merely place an order and hope for the best. They ask for confirmation that the order has been received and then confirmation of shipping. "We leave nothing to chance," says Larson.

Writer: Writer: TJ Becker

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