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Jenn Lever honed her leadership skills working for one of the world’s biggest beverage companies. Now she’s home.

One of the first things Jenn Lever did when she started working at Baxter Brewing Co. in Lewiston in 2017 was get the whole staff involved in cleaning out a room in the historic Bates Mill, jammed with 12-foot and 16-foot planks of wood. Heavy lifting and not a lot of fun. But Baxter was housed in a tiny tap room. Everyone agreed it needed and wanted a tasting room and pub and Lever saw an opportunity to engage the staff around that goal. They might not be able to renovate, but they could get it ready for the work crews who would.

Jenn Lever, 33, is the new president of Baxter Brewing Co., the first woman to lead the Lewiston company, which is the third largest brewery in Maine, behind Allagash and Shipyard. It’s now the largest run by a woman. Photo by Heidi Kirn

“You can look at this space and say, ‘we played a role in that,” Lever says. That room is now a flourishing pub space, filled with tables made from some of those old planks. Some of her new co-workers then may have thought she was insane, she jokes. But “I wanted the staff to feel that they had ownership of the area.”

“I don’t think we ever could have imagined it to be as beautiful as it is,” Lever says. At 33, she’s gone from consultant to director of operations to president of Baxter, and she’s done it with a leadership style that echoes that cleanup effort, getting employees involved at every level. “They are our best asset,” she says.

Lever, a graduate of Auburn’s Edward Little High School (where she was president of her class for four years running) always knew she wanted to come back to Maine eventually. For one thing, she always promised her younger brother (“he’s my favorite person on the planet”) that she’d be there when he started raising a family. But she came back sooner than she expected, after making her way through the ranks at another company with canned beverages: the Pepsi Bottling Group.

She’d studied economics and sociology at Hobart & Williams Smith in Geneva, New York, and discovered during a summer internship at Cintas, a uniform company with a facility in nearby Syracuse, that operations was where she wanted to be. She was 21. The people she was working with—managing even—had been there on average 17 years. She knew she wasn’t going to tell them how to run a forklift. But she could ask them about the obstacles they faced on the job, and figure out how to fix them. She could offer incentives. “So that everybody has an interest in winning.”

That work led to a job at Pepsi. During her first 90 days there, she led a recycling initiative that went way beyond bottles and cans to clearing out decades worth of Point of Sale collateral, including cardboard, poster board, metal racks and wheels—and selling the materials to a recycling company.

“I was covered head to toe in dirt for weeks,” she says. “But we were able to turn what would have been an expense line into a $200,000 profit for that one location.”

A key element to Lever’s leadership is involving the staff. “They are our best asset,” she says. Photo be Heidi Kirn

Pepsi dispatched Lever to implement the same strategy at 10 plants in New York. Then Pepsi rolled out her approach nationwide. Over the six years that Lever worked for the bottling company in New York and Virginia, she took on several roles that are applicable to what she’s doing now at Baxter: warehouse, demand planning, quality assurance and operations. Around the time of her last promotion, she reached out to an old acquaintance in Maine, investor Tom Platz, to talk about manufacturing opportunities in the state. The plan was to just put out feelers. For later. But Platz connected her with Curran, a fresh-cut vegetable processing plant in Saco and she headed northwards.

“Within 90 days, we were able to become food-safe certified for the first time in the company’s almost 60-year history,” Lever says. “With a team of 150 people who spoke seven languages, it could not have happened without the engagement and trust of the entire team. We were able to completely change the culture around the strategy and processing of fresh-cut vegetables.”

Lever saw Curran through two re-certifications, facilitated the move to an expanded space in Biddeford and two years of over 500 percent growth. By 2016, the owners were in a position to sell the company to Growers Express.

Lever’s experience includes years at the Pepsi Bottling Group. The pace is a little different, with Baxter producing 44 cans a minute, versus 2,400 at Pepsi, but the skills translate. A key element to Lever’s leadership is involving the staff. “They are our best asset,” she says. Photo by Heidi Kirn

Lever took that as her cue to move on, and in 2017 she moved to Baxter, putting her beverage background to work. The scale of production is very different though, with Baxter producing craft beer at a rate of 44 cans per minute, versus Pepsi’s 2,400 a minute.

In September, Baxter founder Luke Livingstone, another Edward Little graduate, passed the presidential torch to Lever. He says his gut told him she was the woman for the job. “It felt right,” he says. Baxter is the third largest brewery in Maine, behind Allagash and Shipyard, and it’s now the largest run by a woman. (Other brewery leaders in Maine who are women include Heather Sanborn at Rising Tide, Matthea Daughtry at Moderation Brewing and Pam Powers at Bigelow Brewing.)

“She had experience running operations in the beverage industry, but she didn’t kick down the doors at Baxter with the attitude of knowing everything,” said Jamie Colpoys of Nappi Distributors. “She knew it wasn’t the same as craft beer. In the craft beer industry, it is tough to be relevant. Everyone wants the next new thing. It takes nimbleness on the part of craft beer brewers.”

Lever gets it. “This is a tough industry, and I’m all in,” she says. It’s fairly male-dominated as well. Last month Lever organized the first Women in Beer event at Portland Beer Week, and plans to host one with the Pink Boots Society every month through March, with the idea to provide a venue dedicated to women who are part of (or curious about) the beer industry in Maine.

Other improvements she’s made have been structural, like upgrades to the production line that enabled the brewery to upscale quantity and quality. Baxter has always been revolutionary. It was the first New England brewery to release all its beer in cans. Nine years in, the company continues to recreate itself, supplementing its 10 full-scale year-round production releases with seasonal brews and recently incorporating special releases tied to community initiatives into the mix. Limited availability releases have included a wet hop blonde ale called Limb-It-Less to benefit the Travis Mills Foundation and an India Pale Lager called MHT in partnership with Maine Huts & Trails.

Photo by Heidi Kirn

Two years ago, Lever challenged the brewing team to create a beer with a flavor profile reminiscent of a White Russian—the drink of choice of her ski lodge friends. The brewers came up with light bodied, amber in color, palatable White Russian stout called Apres Chalet that they ran as a pilot. It proved so popular in the taproom that Baxter planned full-scale production release. Marketing Manager Adrienne Beaulieu had an epiphany; align the release with last November’s  20th anniversary of the 1998 cult film The Big Lebowski (White Russians are the drink of choice for the main character, Jeff Lebowski). The White Russian stout was released in the fall of 2018 under the name Innuendo—with a sketch on the can that looks a lot like Jeff Lebowski. It was back this fall by popular demand.

“Our team had the ability to take a flavor request and bring it to life,” Lever says. “That’s the magic of craft beer and the thing that keeps us going. Starting with an off-the-rails idea or ingredients is what we do day in and day out. The fact that it developed to a full-scale production was interesting because it was unexpected. It was never intended to be that. The beer is what brought this to life for us.”

Amy Paradysz is a freelance writer who recommends Baxter’s sweet potato brew Gather Round with holiday dinner. No wine opener necessary.

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