What does it take to captain one of the oldest craft breweries in Western North Carolina? A sharp business sense, a well of creativity, and a dedication to quality come to mind. When I posed this question to Leah Wong Ashburn of Highland Brewing Company, however, she had other qualities she credited as her keys to success. In my humble opinion, they can all be summarized into one word: grace. We don’t think a lot about finesse in business. More often than not, the emphasis is on being competitive, tough, hardworking, and holding your cards close to your chest. Ashburn’s approach to her role as President of Highland Brewing Company flies in the face of the conventional business model.
And while Highland may have started out small on a shoe string in the basement of Barley’s Taproom, it is anything but small today. They produce 42,000 barrels (1,302,000 gallons) of beer a year and distribute to nine states plus the District of Columbia. They have 50 full time employees, an additional 25 part time staff, and a team who works on-call. They brew five flagship beers year-round, plus six seasonal beers. They’ve just announced a new line of special release beers, The Warrior Series, and there are countless small batch releases each year that are brewed on their pilot system and available on tap at the brewery tasting room. Highland hosts a number of festivals, concerts, and sporting events. They also participate in beer festivals across their distribution area. To say that there are a lot of irons in the fire is a vast understatement.
How does Leah keep track of everything that is going on at Highland? She points to her father, who is still very much involved with Highland, her husband, and the talented team of employees that Highland attracts. “I rely heavily on a really great team. I wouldn’t do this without them,” she said. There is a meeting every Monday with all the department managers, and the entire company is invited. In addition to these meetings, there is a sales meeting every other week with all members of the sales team. Ashburn attends all of these. She hopes to also attend more production meetings so she can have a better grasp of that part of the business. Even though she is Oscar Wong’s daughter, she says she has never felt entitled to Highland. “I communicate that to my team all the time. They know that I still have a lot to learn, and that I respect their knowledge, skills, talents.”
Wong was reluctant to bring his daughter on board when she first approached him about working for Highland twenty years ago. He insisted that she pursue her own career. It was important to him that Leah have the experience of gaining her own successes and learning from her own failures. Years later, he gave in and offered her a position, but she turned him down! “We couldn’t afford her! We still can’t afford her,” he says. Ashburn admits that she took a pay cut to join the ranks of her father’s brewery, but that isn’t what is important to her. She is motivated by carrying on the Highland legacy and being a part of the Asheville community.
Another perk that drew her to make the change was the work environment. “There’s a mix of really cool people in the beer industry. In some other industries, competitors don’t talk to each other. In beer, we collaborate! And we are in the south, so there’s also southern hospitality.” I asked her if she had experienced any disadvantages based on her gender in a male dominated industry. She said that it actually works in her favor. “There are times that as the only woman in the room, you can bring a different perspective. It can be a good thing.”
She spoke of her plans for the future of the brewery. “I want Highland to be the brewery that the southeast is most proud of. Our mission is to be the craft brewery of choice in the southeast. Not the biggest, but of choice. I hope that people who drink our beers will drink Highland because they want to. Of course we have to grow to be successful, but I want to grow the smart way, the right way.”
Leah is also excited about the new energy being pumped into Highland. New team members joining the team bring a wealth of experience to the plate. This is allowing for new beers that fit well with the Highland brand stylistically. There is a lot of buzz about the expansion that is nearing its completion. The additional space is allowing for more production and higher efficiencies in packaging, as well as new spaces for visitors to enjoy. Highland will have an indoor event space along with a rooftop beer garden. The extra public space will allow for private events that the brewery had largely been forced to turn down in the past. Now Leah looks forward to the ability to host weddings, corporate events, and trade shows at the brewery.
It’s exciting for me, as a native to Western North Carolina, a brewing student and beer writer to watch the growth and success of the beer industry in our area. I am happy for my town to have the promise of a thriving job market that the breweries offer. I am so thankful for all of the hard work that Highland and other breweries have done in the last twenty years to make Western North Carolina attractive to new breweries opening facilities in the area. Most of all, however, I am comforted to know that there are people like Leah Wong Ashburn leading the industry and making us proud.
This article was first printed in WNC Woman Magazine, September 2015