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Shirley Leung

Boston Beer gives women cold shoulder

Jim Koch, founderof the Boston Beer Co.

Bill Greene/Globe Staff

Jim Koch, founderof the Boston Beer Co.

What does everyone’s favorite brewmaster, Jim Koch, have against women?

For years, he’s brushed off suggestions to put even one woman on the board of Boston Beer Co., the maker of Sam Adams. Last year, Koch finally allowed a woman to join the eight-member board of the company he cofounded.

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There’s just one problem: It’s his wife.

Which raises another question: What does Koch have against good corporate governance?

Now Mrs. Jim Koch, aka Cynthia Fisher , is no desperate housewife. She’s got an MBA from Harvard and has started several businesses, including ViaCord, a cord blood stem banking company that went public under the name ViaCell. She’s on the Boston Beer board, according to the company, because of her “valuable entrepreneurial CEO experience.”

The ever-affable Koch, who comes across as the guy who wants to buy you a beer as readily as he wants to sell you one, told me that putting his wife of 19 years on the board was “a little touchy.”

That didn’t stop him.

Boston Beer has just one woman on its board of directors — the wife of the company’s CEO.

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“Doing things a little differently has been very comfortable for me as long as they have made sense,” he said. “Having Cynthia on the board is unconventional — and it’s exactly the right decision.”

Koch (pronounced COOK) is considered a revolutionary in the craft beer industry. Using a recipe from his great-great-grandfather, Koch set out to make a better beer, brewing the first batch of Sam Adams Boston Lager in his Newton kitchen nearly three decades ago. Amber became gold. Last year, the company had $580 million in net revenue.

Fisher arrived on the board after Jim Koch’s father, Charles, passed away in 2011; the elder Koch, a brewmaster, had served on the board since the company went public in 1995. Jim Koch said he has approached other female candidates in the past, but they were too busy.

Too busy? Too busy to make about $250,000 in cash and stock options — and let’s assume a bottomless mug of beer?

Koch started bringing Fisher to board dinners so everybody could get used to the idea of working with the chairman’s wife. Of course, she was always a shoo-in, if for no other reason than Koch, as the sole Class B stockholder, controls five of the eight board seats, according to securities filings.

Why is this important? Here’s why. Because mega brewers would have you believe that women are mere accessories in the frat-boy, beer-guzzling culture depicted in so many bad television commercials.

You expect better from Sam Adams — and Jim Koch. You expect that the beer, the company, and the man behind them are going to honor the role of women as consumers and decision-makers.

Studies show that gender diversity is good for business. Bring different viewpoints, styles, and experiences into the boardroom, and it opens eyes to new ways of doing things and, ultimately, new ways of making money.

The best boards also benefit from being independent, at times fiercely and fearlessly so. Exactly how independent can a board be when not only the boss but his wife are sitting at the table?

Putting a spouse on the board is not a common practice, according to Calvert Investments, a firm focused on socially responsible investing. But all-male boards can’t seem to help themselves. Facing pressure to diversify its directors, Urban Outfitters last month gave a seat to Margaret Hayne, president of the company’s Free People brand and wife of the chairman and CEO.

It must have been really hard to find another woman in the retail fashion business.

Toni Wolfman leads corporate searches for women’s group The Boston Club and is the principal author of its annual census of female leaders at Massachusetts public companies. Wolfman said Fisher deserves to serve on a board, just not Boston Beer’s.

“I’d rather see Cynthia as an independent director of another company,” she said.

A guy who can produce a beer this good should be able to put together a board that’s better than the one he has. Women of the world, think about that the next time you’re knocking back an ice-cold Sam.

Shirley Leung can be reached at sleung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.
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