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Friends, family and industry experts told Greg Taylor that he was making a mistake to open a brewery. (Sean Liliani For The Globe and Mail)
Friends, family and industry experts told Greg Taylor that he was making a mistake to open a brewery. (Sean Liliani For The Globe and Mail)

MAVERICKS

Two ‘fired guys’ poured ambition into Steam Whistle Add to ...

Greg Taylor admits he felt more than a little trepidation about bucking the trend and starting a craft brewery.

“Wouldn’t you be worried?” he asks. He, Cameron Heaps and a third colleague had recently lost their jobs when the independent brewery that had treated them like part of the family was swallowed up by a bigger brewer that had no further use for their services.

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The three, all in their early 30s, had to put up their homes as collateral for a bank loan to follow their vision and start Steam Whistle Brewing Inc. in Toronto in 2000.

“A lot of friends and family members came to us saying, ‘Guys we think you’re making a mistake here,’” he recalls.

Meanwhile, industry people were saying it was the wrong time to try this because competition was growing and smaller brewers were being swallowed up by bigger ones. “They warned there was no room left for us,” he says.

One of the “three fired guys” who drew up the business plan decided to move to Australia, but Mr. Taylor and Mr. Heaps forged ahead because “we were confident that our vision was real and we had the industry experience to make it happen,” Mr. Taylor says.

And they again swam against the current by deciding to make one product in an industry in which the trend was to produce multiple kinds of beer. They chose to make only a pilsener, which Mr. Taylor says is one of the most difficult to brew consistently.

They recruited an experienced pilsener brewmaster from the Czech Republic and found a European source of the ideal hops for making the beer.

Their motto became: “Do one thing really well.” Sales have grown by at least 10 per cent annually since they started.

Steam Whistle is a case study for entrepreneurs trying to carve a niche in a competitive industry, says Eric Morse, associate dean of the University of Western Ontario’s Richard Ivey School of Business, who oversees the school’s Quantum Shift program for entrepreneurs.

“They figured out what they wanted to be good at early on, and that’s not always an easy thing to do,” Dr. Morse says. “Entrepreneurs are often throwing a bunch of stuff at the wall to see what sticks.”

“Don’t vary until proven necessary,” is another lesson this emphasizes, he says.

It actually takes more focus and dedication to stay successful once you have initial success, Dr. Morse adds. “Once they had one beer in distribution, it would have been easy to put a honey lager or ale right alongside, but they haven’t chosen to do that.”

Indeed, Mr. Taylor says he regularly is given advice by other brewers who say they are making a mistake. “They’re adamant you have to make other beers. But we know what we want to be known for,” Mr. Taylor says. “It’s important that we live up to the promise to the consumers to do one thing really well. If you stray from that thing, then we’re no different from anyone else. “

Watching the stream of 110,000 green bottles a day that go through the production line in a former roundhouse near Toronto’s CN Tower, Mr. Heaps says it would be a mistake to assume they ignore all advice. The co-founders have been open to feedback and encourage employees to continually suggest ways to improve the process.

The partners were careful to seek the input of experts before they committed to their business plan.

“For me one of the greatest motivations is when someone tells me something can’t be done,” Mr. Heaps says. “But I’ve always believed that as long as you can get your business plan to a bunch of people who know nothing about the industry and they can crunch the numbers and seven out of 10 say ‘that’s incredible,’ then you’re ready to rock,” he says.

“If only two out of 10 say it’s feasible, you need to do more work refining the idea or the financial picture.”

When you’ve got confidence in your business plan and you believe in yourself and have experience in the industry, there’s no reason for a doubter to scare you off.

There will always be doubters, he says. “I always think of Wayne Gretzky’s famous quote: ‘You miss 100 per cent of the shots you don’t take.’”

Startup pitfalls

Sticking to an original business idea can be difficult, says Cameron Heaps, co-founder of Steam Whistle Brewing. Here are three factors that can stall would-be entrepreneurs.

Competition: “At this point almost every industry in the world is saturated, and my advice is as long as you can do something a little better than the other guys then there’s market share for you to get,” Mr. Heaps says.

Financing: “You don’t need to be rich to start your own company. As long as you can articulate a well-thought-out business plan with financials that make sense, there are a lot of people who have money to invest in startup projects,” he says. In hindsight he would have sought more from initial investors. It’s always more difficult to ask for more because you underestimated your needs.

Quitting your day job: “If you can, write a business plan and pass it around before you quit your job. If nobody supports the plan, you’ll need to take time to refine it or you’ll decide it wasn’t such a great idea after all. In that case, nothing’s lost.”

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