Nelson Brewing Company owners refine their business skills for continued growth
Epic—that’s the word the Nelson Brewing Company uses to describe its organic beers, and it could be used to describe its accomplishments, too. For 29 years, the brewery has been operating out of an 1897 building in Nelson that once housed the city’s original brewery. It introduced craft beer to the Kootenays. People can now enjoy products like Harvest Moon Kolsch Hemp Ale and Bent Pole Northwest IPA in restaurants and bars throughout the Kootenays, or buy them in liquor stores in BC and Alberta.
In 2016, when Kate and Matt Walker purchased the brewery, they brought lots of enthusiasm and diverse skill sets. To boost the know-how they’d need to keep the brewery flowing strongly into the future, they turned to the Trust’s Basin RevUp program.
“I feel like the program for me was life-changing,” says Kate. “It was really such a positive experience that I think it’s shaped my future in a very beneficial way.” It has also refocused the brewery’s future, which Kate sees as “pretty fantastic.”
Making a home
After being raised in Nelson—where her father was one of the brewery’s original co-owners—Kate moved on to an education in criminology. Matt (originally from northern Alberta) was an NHL player, and the couple had been living in the United States for Matt’s decade-long hockey career. However, they’d spend time each summer in Nelson.
“When Matt retired from hockey, he was adamant that we come and live in Nelson,” Kate says. “He just loves it here. And I’m very glad that he convinced me to do that.”
When the brewing company came up for sale, the Walkers grabbed it. “We were really excited,” Kate says. And did they have all the skills they’d need? Not at first. Kate says, “We were quite blissfully ignorant. You don’t know what you don’t know.”
However, they did notice that the staff and culture weren’t where they needed to be. They started to take steps to build a better team, including hiring a new head brewer. To attract more consumers, they added a tasting room. They introduced new beers and taller cans and did some rebranding. But to continue, they needed personalized guidance.
Reducing the knowledge gap
At the same time, competition in the craft beer market was steadily growing. “The number of breweries pretty much doubled between when we first purchased the business and today,” Kate says. “We realized that it’s going to be a good business sense and a good business plan that are going to set apart the breweries that really succeed.”
For a good portion of 2020, the Walkers worked with the Basin RevUp program. This program helps businesses that are poised for growth with customized support, training and networking. It does so by connecting owners with experienced business coaches who create tailored, actionable plans designed to help the business address its individual challenges and achieve its growth potential.
Weekly discussions with their RevUp team helped the Walkers nail down and address three focuses.
First, they needed to better understand and manage their financials. Now they know how to ask the right questions and do the right planning, and have created a well-thought-out budget and sales plan.
Second, they needed to develop a mission statement and vision for the brewery—something the staff could unite behind—plus a long-term strategy that would help them preserve the brewery’s history while taking it in a new direction.
Third, they needed to become better in their roles as chief executive officers. Kate and Matt needed to learn to work “on the business rather than working in the business,” Kate says. “That was a really big one because I think, like a lot of owners, you’re just so engrossed in the day-to-day.”
The process at first seemed overwhelming, “when you realize what a good business looks like, and then the large gap.” But Kate felt it all started to come together during the last few months of their involvement in the program. “It really allows you to start putting your knowledge into practice and seeing some movement forward, which is really encouraging. You sort of see that light at the end of the tunnel.”
An exciting outlook
The Walkers have since hired an experienced sales manager, a role Kate had previously taken on. “The candidates we had apply for that job were at such a higher calibre than they would have been a year ago, because we had our ducks in a row and really knew what we could offer them and what our vision was for the company.”
Now overseeing 17 employees, Kate and Matt are better leaders. “We understand what good leadership looks like, what a strong business looks like.”
When the pandemic put a wrench in the works and restaurants shut down, the brewery lost its draft sales entirely; they’re now at about 50 per cent. Initial liquor store sales went down as people rushed to buy boxed wine or large bottles of alcohol that they could store, but have since rebounded. Some months, these sales are even higher than those of previous years.
Columbia Basin Trust’s Basin RevUp program helped them face such turbulence. Their coaches encouraged the Walkers to develop plans for various scenarios that might occur in the future “to not sort of wing it as things come up, which is how we would have approached it before,” Kate says.
Despite this challenge, the brewery’s prospects are looking great. Kate’s voice brims with enthusiasm: “We feel really confident about the future.”