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Greg Taylor: ‘I’m just a guy who started a brewery’

Steam Whistle co-founder Greg Taylor poses outside the John Street Roundhouse where Taylor and his partners have been brewing Steam Whistle pilsner since 1999.

Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail

Greg Taylor, previously vice-president of sales at Upper Canada Brewing Co., started Steam Whistle Brewing with Cam Heap and Greg Cromwell in 1999. The brewery, operating from renovated space in the John Street Roundhouse, a national historic site near the Rogers Centre in Toronto, makes a singular Pilsner using spring water, malted barley, hops and yeast.

Frank Heap [Cam's father, former owner of Upper Canada Brewing] taught me how important it was to respect individual employees and understand that they represent the future of our business. So when the brewery was bought by a larger business [Sleeman Brewery, in 1998], we watched it get dismantled by people who didn't really know anything about the brewery or the employees.

Then they fired us. When we got let go, we didn't see it as an opportunity, but it was. That's what I tell people – look for the opportunity.

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We were still passionate about making beer. So on a camping trip, as the three of us stared into the campfire at 4 a.m., someone said, "We could make a better beer. And we'll call it, Three Fired Guys." My wife, Sybil, suggested "Three Fired Guys" would not be a positive association with the beer. We chose Steam Whistle to associate with something that signified the end of a work day and time for a personal reward.

At the time we opened, craft breweries were on a down cycle, while imported beers were growing aggressively. People thought we were taking significant risk by opening up a craft brewery and were concerned about our future. That didn't stop us, though.

I learned my business model from my parents. They helped me start a painting business when I was a kid. My dad said the only way you could guarantee future success is by doing a good job today. But add on better value than the customer expects, so your business builds by word of mouth. For any business, that is key.

My mom gave me great tips on how to get more customers and keep them. That was a big help in my career. My work ethic stems from my upbringing. .

I go to the office around 5 a.m. to respond to e-mails and then head to the gym for a workout so that I'm back when everyone else gets there.

We learned early on that in order to make a great beer, we had to first develop an industry-leading culture. Creating a workplace where staff are respected and encouraged to contribute results; employees who get up in the morning motivated to make a difference each day. If we can accomplish this, then we are guaranteed to have a better-quality product and an enhanced customer experience. As a result, our engaged "Good Beer Folks" have become Steam Whistle's greatest asset.

Having our desks in an open-concept area is a representation of our culture of openness and collaboration. If you walk through our office, it is difficult to tell who started the business and who started two weeks ago. Cam and I felt it was important to minimize hierarchy and remove barriers so that staff have direct access to the founders with a genuine opportunity to be heard and to contribute to our business.

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I love meeting the people that come through on the tours. Those customers are important to our business.

Cam and I met as co-workers at Upper Canada and became great friends. We make good business partners because of our shared passion, values and vision, yet we have different but complementary skill sets in business. [Mr. Cromwell moved to Australia and is no longer active in the business]. In any relationship, patience and honest communication is the key. No one person holds the ability to be right. Humility and empathy are essential.

If someone comes in looking for advice on how to create a brewery, I don't mind talking to them. If they are dreaming of starting a brewery, they should chase it. I think craft-brewed beer across the country only represents 5 per cent of the market. There is plenty of room for more craft breweries in Canada.

I'm just a guy who started a brewery in 1999 so I feel fortunate to be here. I feel I have a lot to give back.

As told to freelance writer Joanne Elves. This interview has been edited and condensed.

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