Fifty years ago, when the 23-year-old Derek Oland went to work at his father’s brewery, he could have been arrested for quaffing a cold glass of beer at a downtown restaurant in Saint John.
But on this day in 2012, Mr. Oland can savour his lunchtime Moosehead Light without fear of breaking the law.
It is testimony to the distance travelled by Mr. Oland, his company Moosehead Breweries Ltd., and his home province, during his half-century in the beer trade.
In 1962, New Brunswick was shackled by Prohibition-style laws, which meant you couldn’t order a glass of beer unless you were a member of a private club or the local Legion branch – although you could try a discreet nod in the direction of a bartender in one of those places.
For civilized drinkers, it was an abomination, but for Mr. Oland, “it was a big opportunity,” he recalls.
Knowing the drinking laws were about to be liberalized, the young Mr. Oland earned his stripes as a Moosehead salesman by unleashing draft beer on the province. That pre-emptive strike allowed Moosehead to dominate the draft market for decades.
It was the first coup in a career built on opportunistic marketing and a determination to survive. Now, at almost 73, Mr. Oland is executive chairman and owner of the private company that is Canada’s oldest independent brewer.
“I have a saying – I don’t want to be the largest, I just want to be around the longest,” says Mr. Oland, whose family has brewed beer in the Maritimes for 150 years, surviving not just arcane rules but fire and explosions, interfamily rivalry, and more personal grief than any family should have to endure.
Today, that grief hangs over what would normally be a pleasant lunch at Saint John’s Opera Bistro to mark Mr. Oland’s 50 years in brewing. But just a block away, on the morning of July 7, 2011, Derek’s younger brother, Dick Oland, was found dead in his office, the victim of an apparent homicide. More than a year later, no charges have been laid in his death.
“Dick was my only brother and what happened to him is a family tragedy,” Derek says quietly, indicating he cannot say anything more than that.
Beyond the personal loss, it has exposed the very private Oland family to intense public attention, and the nightmare never seems to end. On the day of our lunch, newspapers are reporting the release of previously sealed search warrants indicating that police believed Dick was murdered by someone he likely knew.
As disturbing reports about the death and investigation trickle out, the Oland family has continued to run a very challenging business. While Moosehead is a small company in the global brewing universe, it is one of the essential pillars of the New Brunswick economy, providing about 350 jobs – almost twice as many as in 1962.
At lunch, Derek Oland describes the delicate task of keeping afloat in a brewing sector buffeted by contrary trends – on the one end, the domination of huge multinationals in the mass market, and, on the other, the plethora of craft beers in the premium category.
Moosehead has sailed down the middle – as a purveyor of draft and light beer, but also craft brews with catchy labels like Barking Squirrel and Lawn Chair. Its mainstay product remains Moosehead lager, which straddles the centre of the taste spectrum but, on the strength of a rustic brand, has a cult following in cities in the U.S. Northeast.
“We’re still producing beer the same way we did, but we are much more focused on branding and packaging than ever before,” says Mr. Oland, who, in addition to Moosehead Light, claims a personal weakness for a light lager called Cracked Canoe.
Moosehead is no longer just the local New Brunswick brewery, but a nimble niche player in North America. With an import business and craft brewery called Hop City in the Toronto area, Mr. Oland sells more beer in Ontario than in New Brunswick.
About 40 per cent of his $200-million in annual sales comes from producing beer on contract for foreign brewers seeking access to the North American market – extra production that delivers higher efficiencies. And Moosehead is a Canadian importer of products like U.S. craft icon Samuel Adams and German wheat beer Paulaner.
In Canada, Mr. Oland competes against the big players by knowing his home market and letting his marketing team loose with new brands when they see a void. But in this hypercompetitive sector, it is very hard to get beer price increases to stick, and so Moosehead pays a lot of attention to boosting productivity.
That’s the mandate of Andrew Oland, the eldest of Derek’s and his wife Jackie’s four boys. Andrew became president 31/2years ago, as the sixth generation of Olands to lead the business. To cope with the price-cost squeeze, he has driven a $20-million investment in productivity-enhancing technology and processes.
Derek, who still works out and runs, no longer gets much involved in daily management, but he knows what’s going on. He likes to describe his style as “nose in, fingers out.”
And he is proud of the way that Andrew, a 44-year-old Harvard MBA, and his younger brother Patrick, a 43-year-old graduate of France’s INSEAD business school, act as a team. Patrick, a chartered accountant, is the chief financial officer and “has a nose for costs,” the father says. Two other brothers, Giles and Matthew, have pursued careers outside the beer industry.
The observations are particularly poignant because Derek and Dick also worked together at Moosehead, before Dick left the company 30 years ago, after it became clear Derek was going to be their father’s successor.
Derek, Dick and their sister Jane grew up in a brewing dynasty, hailing back to the 1860s in Nova Scotia, where great-great-grandmother Susannah Oland brewed an “October brown ale” in her backyard. The Olands became brewers in the Halifax-Dartmouth area, but gave up the company in a financial crisis, and then the indomitable Susannah got it back again.
The Oland brewery was destroyed in the Halifax explosion of 1917 but the family rebuilt in two places. One Oland brother retained the Halifax address and another moved to Saint John. By the 1930s, two separately controlled companies had emerged – Oland Breweries in Halifax and a second business, to be named Moosehead, in Saint John. Two camps of Oland cousins duked it out for the Maritimes market.
That was the scenario in the late 1950s, when Derek’s father, P.W. (Philip) Oland was managing the Saint John brewery and a young Derek had no intention of joining the business. He wanted the outdoor life of a farmer.
He attended agricultural college in Montreal but couldn’t master the science courses. Leaving school at Christmas, he didn’t want to limp home to Saint John, so he spent seven months working at Molson’s brewery in Montreal – and he found out he had an aptitude for the old family trade, after all.
After earning a business degree at University of New Brunswick, he entered the company in 1962, joining the tiny sales force in the Saint John brewery, on a site where beer had been brewed since the 1860s. It was a company that generated revenue of just $7-million a year. Dick would later finish university and join the company on the production side.
Derek left Saint John to move his base of operations to the Halifax area, where Moosehead had been battling the local Oland cousins in the Nova Scotia market. That posting lasted 26 years. In 1971, his cousins sold Oland Breweries to Labatt, now part of brewing mega-player Anheuser-Busch InBev. Derek shut down Moosehead’s Dartmouth, N.S., plant in 1993, but continued to modernize and expand the hometown New Brunswick brewery.
The key to Moosehead’s survival as a family business, he says, is that, in generation after generation, family members who were active in the company bought out the shares of inactive members. “It doesn’t make you rich,” Derek points out. “You pay taxes of all kinds but it keeps the focus on the business itself.”
When P.W. died in 1996, the estate was divided and Derek, as the designated successor, ended up with 51-per-cent control. Then, over the next 10 years, he bought out his brother’s and sister’s minority stakes.
Derek has said in the past that he and Dick were not close, but they were brothers. After Dick left Moosehead, they made their separate ways as businessmen. They met one day last spring at the Union Club, Saint John’s private club, where they were part of a group gathered around a table for lunch. That was the last time Derek would see his brother alive.
At the moment, Andrew Oland would seem to be positioned to inherit control of Moosehead some day, although the story of the sixth generation has yet to play itself out. Still, whenever he looks down the hall of the old brewery and sees Andrew and Patrick, the potential future of Moosehead, working together, Derek Oland feels about as lucky as any patriarch could possibly feel.
Born in Saint John, Sept. 29, 1939.
Lives just outside Saint John.
He and wife Jackie have four sons.
Bachelor of business administration, University of New Brunswick, 1962.
Graduate of Harvard Business School’s owner/president management program.
Five decades at Moosehead Breweries Ltd., as salesman, marketing manager, general manager, president, and now, executive chairman and owner.
A car guy, he displays over his desk a picture of the McLaren FI, designed by the legendary Gordon Murray.
He and a friend once owned and raced a Porsche 944.
Over the past 15 years, his personal cars have been BMW 5 Series models.
Quote: “I enjoy driving but I enjoy driving well, not fast.”
Member of the advisory committee of Economic and Social Inclusion Corp., dedicated to reducing poverty and building self-sufficiency in New Brunswick.