To call Brian Harris restless would be an understatement. The 65-year-old native of Calgary first moved to Ontario, then Australia and South Africa before settling in Vancouver. And along the way he was involved in a handful of tech startups, including the company that would become Ticketmaster Entertainment Inc. and EFTech Ltd., an electronic funds transfer company in Australia.
When his most recent tech venture – a voice-over-Internet company – wound down in 2004, retirement was not on the radar for the serial entrepreneur. But when his son Andrew, a restaurateur, approached him with the suggestion of buying a brewery, Harris recalls, “My first response was, ‘Are you nuts? It’s an oligopoly. How the hell is a little guy going to get ahead?’ ”
After some market research, however, and inspired by examples such as Sleeman Breweries Ltd. and Big Rock Brewery Income Trust, Harris became convinced that the little guy just might carve out some space somewhere between local craft brewer and multinational conglomerate.
Today the CEO of Russell Breweries Inc. is seated in the cramped boardroom of the company’s Surrey head office, a patio umbrella dominating one corner, cartons of beer stacked in every available space. He admits he isn’t a typical craft brewer, stating bluntly, “This is not a love affair with beer.” One beer tastes as good as another, he says, as long as it’s fresh, cold and free of preservatives.
Nor is he in it to build a family dynasty. It just happens that, one by one, each of his four kids was won over by his story of building a national beer brand from the ground up and has climbed on board, each taking an equity stake in the company.
Harris’s initial plan was to raise money by taking Russell public, then build the company in stages – first by expanding beyond supplying draught beer to pubs, to selling bottles and cans in liquor stores. His plan then called for growing through acquisition, establishing a regional presence before taking the brand national.
After taking the company public in 2006, he executed the first two stages, introducing bottles and cans, then tripling brewing capacity with the 2007 acquisition of Manitoba’s Fort Garry Brewing Co. Ltd. But then the recession threw a wrench into his plans. He adapted by maximizing the potential of his newly expanded capacity and adjusting the product mix, relying less on the “premium” category of Russell’s signature cream ale and introducing two brands to compete in the more mainstream mid-price and “value” categories.
Although profitability is still on the distant horizon – the company lost $3 million on revenue of $4 million in 2008 – Harris says revenue continues to grow, and the burn rate is coming under control. While he’s contemplating further acquisitions once capital markets come back to life, he’s confident that should the recession persist, Russell is well positioned to survive and prosper as a regional craft brewer.
Harris reports that his involvement in a startup typically doesn’t extend beyond three years, a milepost he’s already well past at Russell. As for his future, he concedes, reluctantly, that if all goes according to plan, he could be out of a job sooner rather than later. “At some stage it’ll become professional,” he says, “and that’ll be a time for someone else to be doing what I do.”
However, this is one business he has no intention of leaving entirely. In a business built one customer at a time, one glass of beer at a time, the gregarious Harris has obviously found his comfort zone. “No one hates a guy in the beer business,” he says, grinning. “It’s a fun deal to be in.”