By Geoff Gehman ’89 M.A.
Photos by Theo Anderson
The sisters are sixth-generation leaders of D.G. Yuengling & Son, Inc., America’s oldest brewery. They work with their father, owner-president Richard L. “Dick” Yuengling Jr., whose great-great grandfather founded the company in Pottsville, Pa., in 1829. Wendy, an administrative officer, and Jennifer, a plant coordinator, have helped their dad expand the family business through newer markets, bigger cans, and hipper promotions, including an online society for a 181-year-old ale named for an 18th-century English lord. They’ve refreshed Yuengling’s rich reputation as a maker of robust American beers with German craft. They’ve also refreshed their relationship with their father, becoming his friendly colleagues, his right and left arms.
Jennifer and Wendy grew up in the family beer business, but not the ancestral one. During their childhood their father spent far more time running his beer distributorship than serving the brewery owned by his father, also named Richard. The sisters hung out more in their father’s warehouse than their grandfather’s brew house, which has a stained-glass ceiling installed to reduce reflections off kettles. Both have fond memories of turning the warehouse into a roller-skating rink and a dolly-cart racetrack.
Dynamics and destinies began changing in 1985, when Dick took over Yuengling from his father, a victim of Alzheimer’s disease. Like previous owners, Dick bought the company at full market value; a stoic German clan, the Yuenglings consider ownership a privilege. As in other family businesses, Yuengling youngsters were expected to lend a hand. Jennifer did time in the gift shop. Wendy placed identification cards in cases of beer and failed to convince her father to let her drive a forklift.
Neither sister attended Lehigh with the intention of branching into a Yuengling career. Wendy studied business and economics to get a marketing or advertising job outside Pottsville. Jennifer planned to use her master’s degree in counseling psychology to counsel university students. Nor were they tempted to promote family brands at Lehigh. In the ’90s, they point out, Yuengling wasn’t exactly king on campus. Most of Wendy’s sorority sisters and Jennifer’s softball buddies drank budget beers—whatever was free at parties. Even Wendy’s future husband, Brad Baker ’97, consumed what Jennifer calls “subpremium” brews.
Wendy does admit beelining to tailgate parties that offered Yuengling Traditional Lager. Her beer ESP enabled her to spot those distinctive cream-colored cans across two parking lots. And she did begin dating Brad during a summer marketing program in Belgium, where the couple toured first-rate breweries.
Dick didn’t care that his daughters declined to be his collegiate agents. He preferred they focus on their academic business rather than the family business. He basically ignored this advice during his one year at Lycoming College, when he spent many hours in bars establishing Yuengling accounts. “I got more tap credits than school credits,” he says with a laugh. “That’s why I didn’t last long in college.”
Wendy is more forgiving than her father. “My dad didn’t have to graduate from college,” she says, “to become a naturally gifted businessman.”
Indeed, Dick expanded Yuengling with a heady brand of ambition and vision. In 1987 he reintroduced a long-retired lager to capitalize on the rising popularity of lighter, craftier beers. The amber brew quickly became the company’s booming best-seller. To keep up with increased production demands, Yuengling updated equipment and added storage cellars. By 1995 the company made nearly 360,000 barrels per year, nearly triple the number when Dick became owner-president.
Dick was confident enough to seriously consider building a second brewery. But he didn’t want to take a considerable risk without the all-hands-on-deck support of Jennifer, Wendy, and their sisters, Deborah and Sheryl. He needed to count on a sixth generation of Yuengling leaders.
Neither sister attended Lehigh with the intention of branching into a Yuengling career.
So Dick called a surprise meeting with his children during a 1995 family vacation in Florida. On a beach bench he asked them if they would consider working for, and eventually with, him. “I had to tell them: ‘You know, I really need you now,’” he says. “I wanted to see what kind of answer I’d get. It was kind of shock therapy.”
Dick received the reactions he needed. All his daughters assured him they would help him out. Wendy said she would come on board, in time. “I was not ready to jump into working for my dad,” she says. “I wanted to experience life first. So I gave him an indefinite yes.”
Jennifer was the first sister to join her father’s team. In 1996 she spent a month in every department of the Pottsville plant, which opened in 1831 after fire destroyed the original plant. She became intimate with the 24- to 28-day process of making Yuengling from water, barley malt, hops, and corn grits. She completed a 10-week brewing course in Chicago. She discovered that she shared her father’s hands-on mission to improve packaging, loading, and shipping.
Jennifer was front and center when her father made two of Yuengling’s boldest moves. In 1999 the company started a second plant in a former Stroh’s brewery in Tampa, Fla. In 2001 it opened a $50 million facility three miles from the Pottsville brewery, which crowns a steep street like a tilted commercial castle.
Wendy joined Yuengling in 2004 after working in market research and advertising in New Jersey and Maryland. Last year she helped launch a splashy promotional campaign for Yuengling Porter and Lord Chesterfield Ale, a pair of beloved but under-advertised brands dating from 1829. The company began using Facebook and Twitter to convince 20- and 30-somethings to drink brews made from 181-year-old recipes. A new Web site—www.chesterfieldsociety.com— that dispenses tips from the actual Lord Chesterfield to his real-life son. “If it’s not confusing, you’re not doing it right”: that could be Dick Yuengling’s advice to his daughters.
Jennifer and Wendy embrace their father’s philosophy that a family business should be an extended family. They respect him for plowing snow inside and outside the Pottsville brewery at 5 a.m. They admire his concern for the 225- plus employees at the three plants, some third-generation Yuenglingians. They share his belief that Yuenglings must make Yuengling beers in Pottsville, which has a church built by the Yuenglings, an arts center in a former Yuengling mansion, and a park donated by Yuengling with a spring that once supplied water for brewing Yuengling. No wonder some Pottsvillians consider Yuengling beer more important than the municipal water used to make it.
“My dad is so in tune with every part of the company,” says Wendy. “He has his fingers in everything. That’s what makes him so successful.”
Dick admits he feels more successful with Jennifer and Wendy as his aides-decamp. During the sisters’ six joint years at Yuengling, the company’s yearly production topped two million barrels for the first time, negotiations began to buy a former Coors brewery in Memphis, and 24-ounce cans of Black & Tan were sold in addition to the 16-ounce ones available for decades.
“They’ve taken a load off my mind; they’ve made my job less overwhelming,” says Dick of Jennifer and Wendy. (His other daughters, Sheryl and Deborah, don’t currently work for the company.) “It’s good because now you have two of your children running their programs their own way. I like that. It gives you a better management team. They’re not both in the same department, locking horns. It’s more right arm and left arm.”
As Dick has relaxed, he’s relaxed his control. Jennifer now runs the packing schedule, once one of her father’s babies. “He’s come a long ways,” she says, “in releasing the reins a bit.”
One of Wendy’s major projects is installing the company’s first integrated information system. She has no hope whatsoever that her father will join the digital revolution. After all, he doesn’t know how to use a computer. He doesn’t know how to return calls to his first cell phone, which he acquired last year. Nor does he care to know how.
As Dick has relaxed, so, too, has his Germanic stoicism. He feels free to tell Wendy and Jennifer stories about Yuengling’s storied history that he should have told them when they were kids. “I tell them about the past so that they’ll have some appreciation for what we accomplished,” he says. “In the ’50s there were no forklifts; we lifted beer all by hand. People don’t realize what our company went through to survive.”
The sisters have a vivid appreciation of their heritage. They can hear it in the whirring carousel where bottles are filled from the bottom to prevent foaming. They can smell it in the sour-mash odor that Jennifer likens to boiling noodles.
“Anytime I venture through the old brewery on Mahantongo Street, I realize how special our opportunity really is,” Jennifer says. “Any family business is going to have its struggles and frustrations. But when I take a step back and look at what’s around me, I realize how far my family has brought this company and even how far we can still go. When I think about how my predecessors have survived Prohibition, World Wars, Depression etc., I realize that we’ve got things pretty good right now. It doesn’t get much better than being a sixth-generation member of a family brewery.”
It’s too early to know if Yuengling will be run by a seventh generation of Yuenglings. Jennifer and Wendy haven’t discussed the possibility with their five children, all of whom are under the age of 9. The sisters think they’ll advise their kids to test life outside Yuengling, then decide if they want to join the family business.
Then again, Dick may still be running the show when his grandchildren are young adults or teens. The 67-year-old owner-president could very well work until 83, the quitting age for his grandfather Frank, who headed Yuengling for 64 years. Besides, why should he retire to Florida, where there’s little to no need for snow plowing?
Once Dick is succeeded by Jennifer and Wendy, don’t expect them to change the brewery’s name. The sisters plan to keep D.G. Yuengling & Son to honor five generations of their male ancestors, including one whose daughters married brew masters. Besides, they figure, adding “& Daughters” would be too long for a label.