My first job took me through the many different aspects of retail. Understanding it all (sales, merchandising, events, inventory, cash) gave me a good foundation to tackle any challenge. The next opportunity that came along was working in the food & beverage industry for a small company. I know.. what a jump. From sneakers to beer and wine. From a major global brand to a mom-and-pop shop.
Reviewing my career lineage, I was moving backwards through the supply chain, and getting more access by working in a small business. Starting customer facing in retail, I was now getting into a position that would grow to understand distribution and production. Game changer. Big learning curve. Another chapter in the world of business I was coming to enjoy.
I walked into a u-brew for the first time an employee and saw what a microbrewery and micro winery looked like. For those outside of Canada, a u-brew is a place that allows the general public to make their own wine and beer onsite. One year into the job, I was running the show. Brewmaster (making microbrewery style beer), serving customers, creating marketing, making sales, purchasing supplies and ingredients, doing payroll, and training staff.
With all of those things to manage, the business still was measured like most; top line revenue and new business. With a straight forward business model and a simple value proposition, it was all about getting new customers. We had a great customer base, mostly wine or beer drinkers who we would see regularly (2-5 times per year) and most were 40+, enjoyed our product (better bang for the buck), was living in the surrounding neighborhoods or passed through on their commute.
Thinking back to Brewhaven is literally a blast from the past. Back to a lot of good old marketing, pre-digital. Heck, myspace was a thing, and Facebook was just starting. It was a very different time. Our primary method of getting new customers was in store promotions, signage, and mail outs.
No matter what the marketing budget was, it was essential to have a positive return. We were not doing a brand building exercise (looking to build awareness), we needed to drive sales and expand our customer base.
New ways to build business
Staying with a hands on approach (plus a desire to compete again), I launched a basketball league with a friend and Brewhaven sponsored a team and provided some prizes to each championship team. The league was a success and it became a way for us to talk locally and reach a new demographic. The one demographic that was a big segment for most companies, but completely missing from our business: under 30.
Having a marketing channel that was developed on hustle gave us an advantage and was net positive. Using the skills you have as an unfair competitive advantage is something I didn’t realize until afterwards: this was something our competition couldn’t do. No matter how much they tried, they didn’t have basketball playing, event planning, beer making, hustling employees.
Using Creativity to Capture Interest
Our operation was a fascinating environment where we controlled a lot of the creative process. Based on customer feedback, or trends in the marketplace, we could create custom recipes, new flavours, or different combinations that became our signature series. Recipes created by our customers that they could only get at one place, Brewhaven. It was really awesome to change our position in the the market from a price-leader (cheaper than the liquor store) to a custom boutique.
We even explored getting into craft sodas. That’s a picture of a trial batch of bad boyz rootbeer. Making the product for customers on site made distribution easy. I learned so much about people in this setting. Much like a patron will open up to a bartender, I had many captivating conversations with customers while they were in the shop. A few have become close friends.
When we explored beyond our own walls for distribution for Bad Boyz, we learned about the major players of food & beverage, the ins-and-outs of grocery and convenience stores, how hard it is to control customers buying decisions and how regulated the industry can be.
Distribution – the connection of products and customers
The soda was the most fun to create, but the distribution was a key to our parent company. Distribution of liquor into emerging Asian markets. With my success at the shop, I was asked to jump into the bigger side of the business. Picture this… Just like we had run into hurdles with our micro batches of rootbeer, there were producers of wine, tequila, whiskey, ice wines; that had inventory and could get enough buyers or couldn’t reach the buyers in their local markets. No matter where you are in the world, alcohol is at the top of the list for regulation.
Demand for product isn’t easily met when regulations are between manufacturers and customers. Moving products globally is a big business and I was working for a very small player. Yet, we could be agile and there was more this enough business that the big firms wouldn’t touch because the production volumes of smaller manufacturers wouldn’t scale to meet their needs. Walmart isn’t the only company that pushes exclusive distribution and squeezes margins. We saw this numerous times from small producers of incredible product being squeezed by a middleman who controlled almost all of their distribution. They had this necessary problem because they couldn’t reach the customers who wanted their problem any other way.
I was sent on the road with a colleague to find more companies with this problem. Using my marketing expertise, I made our pitch deck, marketing materials and we went off. Going to local producers in the Okanagan and going to trade shows in Canada and the US. I quickly picked up my trade show hustle by never having a booth, calling ahead when I saw the vendor list and taking a very targeted approach to who we needed to meet. Once we arrived, we hit as many places as possible and followed up ahead of competitors. It lead to awesome relationships with people and we seemed to be on to something…
Now, many years later, I see that the business was pointed in the right direction. Looking at China as an example, the demand for imported goods, speciality food & beverage and unique items has exploded since that time. We were in the position to coordinate a lot of these opportunities. Myself, I was not the master behind the actual import/export, I knew enough to see that the logistics and planning were far beyond my expertise and focused on marketing. The introduction to logistics did help in another chapter of my career. Moving stuff is big business.
Seeing everyday how simple a business could be and how much of an impact a small company can have really changed my opinion of business. I had done some of my own projects on the side while working before, but I realized that I could make an impact without needing to have a lot of employees, a national footprint or a globally recognized brand. The impact you have on an industry is in your hands. It’s up to your hustle to make the changes that you see as opportunity. I saw it here with two business owners who chased down opportunity and made big plays by leveraging their expertise. Knowledge wasn’t only powerful, it was profitable.