Until Dick Oland was murdered nine days ago, the most dramatic event in the brewery clan’s history took place in 1865 in Nova Scotia, where Dick’s great-great-grandmother, Susannah, landed from England with a family recipe for dark brown ale tucked away in her memory .
She brewed the first batch in her Dartmouth backyard, it is said, and launched a beer-making dynasty that spawned rival empires in Halifax and Saint John, and survived fires, family splits and the devastating Halifax Explosion of 1917.
That recipe paved the way for Saint John-based Moosehead Breweries, the largest surviving Canadian-owned beer-maker, which is run by Dick’s older brother Derek and his sons – the sixth generation of Olands to brew beer on the East Coast.
It was also instrumental in making the Olands the epitome of Maritime gentry, part of the coterie of powerful families that dominate Atlantic Canada, including the McCains and Irvings – and thus explaining the lurid fascination with the murder of Dick Oland in his Saint John office.
For Maritimers, there is something patriotic about cracking open an Alpine – the Olands’ 74-year-old local brand – or if transplanted to Toronto or New York, hoisting a Moosehead lager, which has enjoyed cult status in far-off markets.
And behind the grisly headlines, local people say, there is a family that has given much to the region – epitomized by Dick Oland’s own contributions to rebuilding Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Rothesay, the pretty Saint John suburb where his funeral took place Wednesday.
“They’ve been a family that has put back into the community, and not just taken out,” says David Ganong, whose family chocolate business in St. Stephen was founded in the early 1870s, shortly after the Olands opened their first brewery in the Maritimes.
That factory was in Dartmouth, and was founded in 1867 by Susannah and her husband John, who named it the Army and Navy Brewery. After John’s death in 1870, the Halifax-Dartmouth operations had to be given up, but several years later the enterprising Susannah restored the family business as S. Oland, Sons & Co. The business survived ruinous fires and the 1917 explosion, which levelled the city and the brewery, killed one of the Oland men and injured another.
In the face of devastation, the leader of the next generation, George Oland, used his insurance money to build a new brewery in Saint John, N.B., as the Nova Scotia factory was slowly rising again from the ashes. In the 1930s, when George died, his will divided the empire, leaving the Halifax branch to his middle son Col. Sidney Oland and the smaller Saint John unit to the oldest, George B. Oland.
From that moment, the two factions were rivals. The Halifax branch in 1928 bought the Alexander Keith brewery, folding in another proud Maritime beer name that stretched back to 1820. The Saint John branch in the 1940s took on the name Moosehead Breweries, after its pale ale brand, and built its own competing brewery in Halifax in the 1960s.
The Oland families dominated beer markets in the Maritimes in an age when suds were king and interprovincial trade was barred, thus giving local brewers immense power.
But the family rivalry had its costs. In 1971, the Halifax Olands sold their business to Labatt Brewing Co., the expanding Central Canadian beer and food giant. Since then, the global beer market has consolidated mightily, with Canadian giants Labatt and Molson both becoming part of international mega-companies. In one strange twist, the ale brand called Oland Export is made for the Maritimes market by Labatt, which is now controlled by a Belgian-Brazilian beer company.
But the Moosehead side of the Oland business rolled on under family ownership – although with a few dynastic turns. George B.’s son Philip emerged as patriarch, and his two sons, Derek and Dick, held senior roles in the company. The two heirs bickered. In Harvey Sawler’s history of Moosehead, Last Canadian Beer: The Moosehead Story, Derek is quoted as saying “Dick would argue with anybody. It didn’t matter who it was.”
Only one of the sons could succeed the father. Derek was chosen and Dick left the company in 1981 to run the family transport business, which has since been sold. “I was just looking for opportunities, and if they weren’t present in the existing system, I had to leave,” Dick told a newspaper reporter in the early 1990s.
Even before rising to president, Derek’s great contribution was to convince his father to push more aggressively into the United States, where Moosehead attracted a loyal following with its rustically northern name. Derek and Dick both worked to improve the production process in the landmark Moosehead brewery in West Saint John, beside the Irving paper mill and a stone’s throw from the Reversing Falls.
Dick and sister Jane remained minority shareholders for a while, and sold their interests to Derek, who has said the key to success in a family business is “pruning the tree” so that one branch carries the business succession. Dick settled into a life as an investor, philanthropist and sportsman, who helped bring the 1985 Canada Games to Saint John.
Derek and his family got to guide Moosehead’s future, while Dick’s son Dennis and daughters Lisa and Jacqueline took other courses. In 2008, the oldest of Derek’s four sons, Andrew, a Harvard MBA, succeeded his father as the sixth-generation president, letting Derek slip into the role of executive chairman and an industrial statesman with a passion for developing New Brunswick entrepreneurs.
Moosehead’s annual sales reached $200-million, terrific for a New Brunswick company but small beer in a global market that is still dramatically consolidating.
Interviewed on his appointment, Andrew said, “It’s been a goal of my grandfather and my father that this business would go into the sixth generation and beyond. My grandfather ran a business that was financially disciplined and growing so that when my father took over, he was inheriting a business that was small but in a strong position.
“With any family business, your goal is to pass it from one generation to the next in a strong position. That’s what my father has done with me.”But would the Oland family ever sell out? He indicated there was no interest at that point. “We really like what we do,” he said. “There is a lot of pride in what we do. We have a very nice lifestyle. What more do we need? And this beer business, particularly a family business, gets in your blood.”
At a time of a painful family tragedy, that sense of continuity in the face of crisis must bring some small comfort.