By all rights, Moosehead Breweries should be in trouble.
With the brewing industry facing both intense global consolidation amongst major brands and the surging growth of microbreweries, a relatively small brewery in New Brunswick caught in the middle of these trends should not be prospering.
But 150 years after its birth, Moosehead continues to beat the odds.
Moosehead is the last of the great family-owned breweries, and the last major Canadian brewery still owned by Canadians. Andrew Oland is Moosehead’s president, the sixth generation of his family to lead the brewery.
Listen to our full conversation with Oland below:
Oland could have gone another way. But the beer business is in his blood.
“In our family, there was no expectation that you join the family businesses. There was certainly no pressure,” he says. “It was certainly not something that was predetermined or preordained.”
Oland’s first job after university was actually at the Halifax Shipyard, working as a project planner for a tugboat. But the lure of the family business, and the prospect of working with his father and grandfather, drew him back to Saint John.
Oland didn’t go straight to the executive ranks. First he was a foreman in the bottle shop and then spent time on the brewing side of the business and in different commercial roles.
Learning the business from the inside out was important says Oland. “The bigger opportunities were a chance to fail, a chance to make mistakes, and an opportunity to learn. In an environment where you’re the crew leader and things aren’t going well, it’s pretty obvious what’s going on,” he says.
“If it happens at 10 o’clock at night and there’s no one else around, between you and the other folks on the crew you’ve got to figure it out. That was very valuable.”
Export or Die
Moosehead Beer is arguably New Brunswick’s most famous export.
Oland tells the story of his father Derek attending a speech by the politician George Hees in Saint John in the early 1960s. Hees was Prime Minister Diefenbaker’s point man on trade and came to the port city preaching the need for Canadian companies to focus more on exports.
It was a message that Derek Oland, only in his early 20s at the time, took to heart, and that export mentality has been central to Moosehead’s business strategy for decades.
“Export or die” was the message his father brought into the business says Oland. “You have to look beyond your borders. You can’t be afraid of competition. If you look at most of the small Canadian brewers over the years, they have not survived and prospered because they’ve stayed only in their local market.”
“We’ve been selling in the United States since 1977, later in the rest of Canada because of interprovincial trade rules…we recognized relatively early the need to sell beyond your local market.”
“We have a strong presence in the three Maritime provinces and Ontario and growth opportunities in the rest of Canada,” says Oland. “What we are trying to do is become a national brewer, with a strong presence, not the biggest brewer, but a strong presence across the country.”
Part of that strategy included creating a larger Ontario footprint by acquiring Niagara Falls Brewing Company, which is now known as Hop City Brewing. It’s home to beers like Barking Squirrel and Hopbot IPA.
“So much of many of the craft beer breweries and brands are associated with people, place or thing. They’re very local,” says Oland. “We wanted to do something a little different. So that’s where we came up with Hop City. The premise behind Hop City is it’s all about great beers, and beers representing interesting styles.”
The explosive growth of the craft beer business is seen as a threat by many established breweries, but Oland sees only opportunities.
“There’s been dramatic changes in the beer business in the last ten years. You’ve got the growth of smaller breweries, but what that has done is created immense opportunities for breweries such as Moosehead,” says Oland.
“In the old days, the Canadian beer business was dominated by Labatt and Molson, [and] a lot of companies didn’t want to speak to us. Now their consumers are demanding variety, different styles of beer. That’s a great opportunity for us to fill that role because we have those brands, we have that selling story, but we also bring some of the tools that the bigger players would bring to the table.”
While Oland welcomes all the new brewers, he is concerned about the long-term viability of some craft breweries.
“I don’t think the current growth rates are sustainable,” he says. “We’re starting to hear in certain markets in the U.S. where small brewers are going out of business. The pie is only so big in terms of the styles of beer that are being produced.”
“A lot of people come into this business from the beer side and perhaps don’t understand that you’re still running a business, and it’s tough,” he says. “It’s a fight out there. It’s a challenge. If you go back five or six years ago maybe you were the only guy in town, now you’re the only guy on the block.”
“You’re going to have to work at it. That’s not 40 hour weeks, that’s doing all the stuff that other successful entrepreneurs have to do.”
Not For Sale
There is no shortage of suitors looking to acquire Moosehead and its well-loved brand. But Andrew Oland isn’t interested in selling.
“We have a tremendous passion for the beer business. My father has an expression, he doesn’t want to be the biggest he just wants to be around the longest.”
“The beer business has been good to us and I think just over time we’ve been fortunate in terms of recent generations that have focused on the business, and have been able to grow the business and create a sustainable business so there hasn’t been that pressure or need to sell.”
But everything is for sale, right?
“You never say never,” says Oland, but selling the family business is clearly not something he wants to consider.
“It’s not a price thing…It’s just not something that we spend any time thinking about.”
“Certainly from time to time I will have conversations as part of being in the beer business with potential buyers and I just say ‘look it’s not something that’s in our plans right now,’ but if something was to change, whatever that may be, I know I have a list of folks I could potentially call.”
Confronting Brutal Facts
Andew Oland is active in the Maritime business community and has served on the boards of the New Brunswick Business Council, the Conference Board of Canada and the Atlantic Institute of Market Studies.
He’s worried about New Brunswick’s future.
“You have to confront reality and what are the brutal facts,” he says. “The brutal facts are what I call the killer Ds… The first is the debt and the second is demographics. And they are not going away.”
New Brunswick’s debt now stands at a remarkable $14.4 billion, or about $19,000 for every man, woman and child in the province. Interest payments on the debt next year will reach over $700 million, making it the provincial government’s fifth largest expenditure.
That’s assuming that interest rates on that monster debt remain at historic low levels. If they don’t…
“It’s become a perilous situation,” says Oland.
New Brunswick’s demographic challenges don’t seem to be getting better, with the population aging and shrinking according to the latest census reports.
“I’ve talked for years about the beer business as a bit of a canary in the coal mine on demographics because the product tends to index a little younger in the population and a little more male, and we have less of those folks than we would have 10 or 15 years ago,” says Oland.
“I’m a strong proponent that we need to significantly increase immigration coming to the province of New Brunswick, and I’m not talking about the one-time numbers that we had this year. I’m talking 15 to 20 thousand new New Brunswickers for the next decade or so.”
You Gotta Live Here To Get It
“I love beer,” says Oland.
That’s a good thing as part of his job is constantly taste testing Moosehead’s beers as well his competitors.
When pressed to name his favourite beer, his answer is one shared by many New Brunswickers.
“My go-to brand would be Alpine Lager,” he says. “[It’s] a very special connection with my grandfather Phillip Oland who created Alpine Lager and I just think it’s a fabulous representation of a North American lager.
Check out our full interview with Oland below: