(I wrote this quickly so its not be perfect aka spell and grammar checked to the ends but I wanted to get it done because it was such a great story and while it was fresh in my mind.)
This week is Global Entrepreneurship Week and in celebration StartMeUp Ryerson is holding events all week for students and startup folks alike. Yesterday they held a Tribute for John Sleeman of Sleeman Breweries and he spent the evening having a fire side chat about how he went from being an entrepreneur that sold other companies beer to brewing it himself (so to speak).
It is a story that began with an itch to get out in the world when he was 16. He left school and struck out on his own looking for opportunities. John wanted to be a millionaire by the time he was 30. He went to England following a girl when he was 18 and wanted to start his own English pub. He was told that there was more opportunity for him in Canada so he soon made his way back to this side of the Atlantic.
When John was back in Canada he realized that there was a market for English beer. He went to local pubs and bars to see what kind of interest there was. Then he went to suppliers in England to see if he could work up a deal to get their beer to the Canadian market. Well that was when he was faced with the fact that he needed approval from the Ontario Liquor Board before he could become an agent for these English beers.
He started his own pub close to a college campus and met with the head of the Ontario Liquor Board regularly to change the laws to enable him to sell English beers to pubs, bars, and other establishments in Ontario. The only thing John asked for was a monopoly to protect when he was building and they agreed. They would keep their monopoly for over a decade.
After that business flourished and the beer strike in the early 1980’s only increased their growth since they were one of the only sources of beer available to establishments. He would repeat this model across the country and reached his goal at becoming a millionaire by the age of 30.
This was before he knew about his own history. His family had a successful brewery during the 19th century and operated through prohibition in Canada and the USA in the early 20th century. Eventually they were caught and had to leave the brewing business completely.
John’s aunt told him about their history and wanted him to rekindle the family business. John sat on it for some time because he was already very successful and he knew that selling beer and making it were two different things completely. First he wanted to buy the remnants of the company and went to Nabisco who held the Sleeman name and sent a letter to the CEO that said he was interested in restarting his family’s business.
The CEO thought it was a great idea and sold the rights to him for $1.00.The trademark for Sleeman was in use by the Canadian National Railway but they were in the process of rebranding so they let John reclaim the rights to use the trademark. By this time he was running out of reasons to say no and in 1985 restarted part of his family’s forgotten past. He partnered with an American company who didn’t have a presence in Canada and they were off to the races.
The brand grew slowly at first which put pressure on the company. So John decided to buy some of the regional brewing companies to bring them into the Sleeman fold than try to set up the Sleeman name from zero in those markets. John grew Sleeman into the 3rd largest brewery (by market share) in the country which was his goal when he had always been aiming for when he started his own brewery.
John’s reputation helped him along the way and he learned to always be upfront and meet his commitments. He had strong relationships with the bank that helped make the company possible. In 2004 the public company was being pursued in a takeover where Labatt and or Molson wished to buy the brand lock stock and beer keg. John learned from his father that “it takes a life time to build a reputation and 30 seconds to lose it.”
If Sleeman was bought out by one of the big breweries the Sleeman brand would continue but the company would not and John didn’t want that to happen because of the impact it would have on his employees. So eventually he went to Sapporo Breweries and they came up with the best offer for shareholders that offered the best price and the most protection for the company’s employees.
There was so much in John’s story this is some of the main beats that I came home with. It made me think about having a bit of bravado and belief that if you are willing to put in the work the risks are worth taking. Whenever John was working with other companies he was looking for that win win scenario that would allow everyone involved to come up ahead.
For an entrepreneur you need that bravado to do what you need to because most people will try to talk you out of it. After the fireside chat everyone was invited to have a pint of Sleeman’s courtesy of John and got a chance to get his autograph. It was great to get the Sleeman story from the man himself and to learn what it took to get there.
The event is just one of many during Global Entrepreneurship Week. Make sure to check them out, to be inspired, and find out if you are willing to take a risk and build your own path instead of following one laid out by others.