On the podcast this week, we continue our swing through the High Country Brewery Trail and return to Beechworth and Bridge Road Brewers to speak with CEO Donald Mace.
Bridge Road Brewery’s founder Ben Kraus has been a regular guest through the life of this podcast. As we learned last year he planned to set the business up so he and his family could take a sabbatical and live in Austria for two years. This conversation is the first time we have spoken with with Bridge Road’s CEO Donald Mace.
After our recent chat with Fermentum’s Ben Summons and Stone & Wood’s Nick Boots, business transition is something of a current theme on Beer is a Conversation, and in this conversation we discuss how Bridge Road managed the process of letting its founder step away from the business. We also learn a little more about Donald himself and discuss the importance of breweries such as Bridge Road to their community.
Enjoy the conversation with Donald Mace from Bridge Road Brewers.
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Matt Kirkegaard: Donald Mace, welcome to Beer Is A Conversation.
Donald Mace: Thanks mate.
Matt Kirkegaard: As I said in the intro, you are the CEO, or Chief Executive Officer of Bridge Road Brewing.
Ben Kraus would have to be probably the most frequent guest on the 10 years of the podcast because he’s been around for a long time and he’s always got something to say. So to our audience you’re probably not the best known guy in beer.
Maybe start off with a little bit of the story of what brought you to Bridge Road.
Donald Mace: Yeah, sure.
My background is originally from Melbourne working for Ernst & Young Consulting in a finance capacity, consulting capacity. And did a bit of travel to the UK and then ended up at CUB, or Fosters at the time.
Matt Kirkegaard: So just to give a little bit of context, what years was this?
Donald Mace: 2006 through to 2008, and was part of the Fosters splitting the beer and wine.
Matt Kirkegaard: I was gonna say, the South Corp era.
Donald Mace: So the internal split, I was part of that project.
Matt Kirkegaard: You come from the background of business into beer, what led you into the business of beer?
Donald Mace: I always thought I’d move into beer. Love the product, obviously. Having lived in the UK for three years I discovered some interesting beers over there. Fullers was my favourite beer, so London Pride. I lived about a kilometre away from the brewery, so that was my first exposure to that.
I came back to Australia and started getting on board into the beer scene. Wanted to work in the industry instead of working for a consulting business and was lucky enough to work for Fosters.
Matt Kirkegaard: And how long were you with them for?
Donald Mace: About three years.
Matt Kirkegaard: Okay so that was into the early 2010 to late 2000s?
And where did you, because you didn’t come straight here.
Donald Mace: No, my wife and I decided to do a tree change 10 years ago and moved to the beautiful Beechworth area. I’ve got two young boys and I grew up in country Victoria as a kid and always hoped to move to the country at one stage. My wife and I came to Beechworth in the middle of winter; freezing cold, foggy, said to her, “We’re just here for a holiday, don’t fall in love with this place.” And of course that the worst thing to say.
So she’s screaming down the middle of the road going, “This is so beautiful, so amazing, we need to move here.” The rest was history.
Matt Kirkegaard: And what were the employment prospects for somebody who’s come up in big consulting firms and then a very big brewery?
Donald Mace: Very daunting.
Basically we quit our jobs and came to Beechworth, bought a house, and had no jobs. After couple of months of enjoying the Beechworth summer started the bit of a job hunt, and I was lucky enough to get a role at Mars Pet Food who have their national head office in Wodonga, so it was a very soft landing to move from one corporate to another corporate. I was very fortunate.
Matt Kirkegaard: How long were you at Mars for?
Donald Mace: I was there for about three years. Enjoyed my time, and then decided to take a bit of time off as a house husband for a year. And while I was doing that I was helping out a friend with some consulting businesses, consulting work, and he needed a little bit of help to help develop the strategy for Ben and Maria for Bridge Road. I put my hand up to help him and we worked through the strategic plan together with Ben and Maria.
Matt Kirkegaard: Your time at CUB you were working through the de-merger, or the split of the wine business, were you involved in the business of the making and selling of beer and understanding the strategies that were going on to get beer on tap?
Donald Mace: To some extent. It was more around as we were splitting the two businesses we were looking at what that sales force looked like. How many reps did we need in which territories, what were the pushes, what were the primary focuses? Some reps were more about wine, others were more about beer, so really just a helicopter view around that.
Matt Kirkegaard: When you ended up working for your friend who was a consultant and working on Ben’s account, how did Ben, who’s a very passionate advocate for independence and against big breweries, what was his attitude? Was he a little bit distrustful at first?
Donald Mace: No no no, absolutely not.
He had the early insight to think, “Okay, if I wanna take this business to another level, I need to get some help, I need to get some advisors, and I’ll listen to what they will say but I’ll still make my own decisions on things.”
Matt Kirkegaard: When you came into the business, Ben’s obviously been a bit of a stalwart for the industry, not the very first but very early in the craft beer wave. He’s been very passionate about championing the region and the brand, but he’s also been fiercely independent and quite outspoken.
What did you find when you stepped into the business? What was your feeling about the business?
Donald Mace: Oh absolutely that. I wanted to work for someone who was passionate about the industry, so someone you know they’re working towards the benefit of the business. And also I wanted to work for a business that was growing and developing, and also something that was local, so Beechworth, and to try and spread the word nationally.
It was fun and exciting, really, to be part of that. Daunting as well. Obviously, as you mentioned in the intro, the face of Bridge Road Brewers being Ben, so having somebody come in early on to help was very daunting actually.
Matt Kirkegaard: At that stage Ben hadn’t advertised for the CEO, had he? He was just getting consulting and working on the business.
Donald Mace: Part of the recommendation we did, which I was part of the recommendation, was to put a CEO. So yes, I did probably create a job for myself. No, it was actually a proper transparent process, and I was lucky enough to put my hand up and say, “Yep, I wouldn’t mind going for that role.”
Matt Kirkegaard: And you’d seen inside of the business by that stage I guess, so you were pretty confident in the position you were applying for?
Donald Mace: No, not really, to be honest.
Matt Kirkegaard: Not that you’d get it, but pretty confident in the future of the business.
Donald Mace: Oh for sure, absolutely. The product is a standout, the story of Ben and Maria and how they started the business is a standout, so it had all those elements to it that I thought, “Yes, this is a business that’s going somewhere.”
When we first arrived in Beechworth this was the place that we came to, to the venue to have beers, to let our kids play on the playground, and eat some pizza. So it was definitely a recipe for success and something I wanted to be a part of.
Matt Kirkegaard: One of the things that’s fascinated me over the last year or two of Ben’s journey is the fact that you’ve seen the very steady, almost organic growth of the business. They’ve never invested, as you see with some breweries that suddenly get a million dollar investment or a two million dollar investment and suddenly shoot up in size and scale, their growth has been very very organic. And then 12 months ago Ben said, “Right, I’m going overseas. Taking a sabbatical for two years, taking the family.”
Matt Kirkegaard: And it just said so much about Ben’s approach to business, that they’d been able to manage that. How important is that mindset that Ben’s brought, do you think, to the Bridge Road story?
Donald Mace: We want to be a sustainable, profitable business for the future, so we’ll be doing incremental growth not crazy growth, because I think you make some decisions that you probably don’t really want to live with and potentially might damage the overall industry, so we want to be sustainable.
When I first came onto the business, one of the biggest challenges was to maintain that culture, or to really understand what that culture is. So we developed our cultural icons, which you can see on our packaging, and part of that is to do most of the work ourselves. 100% brewed in house, so we’re very much about doing things ourselves, which requires a slower growth trajectory means that we’re actually more sustainable and therefore living within our own means as well.
Matt Kirkegaard: What do you think of Ben’s decision to consciously, it’s a bit of a loaded question but it’s not meant to be. Ben made the decision to, after 15 years of developing the business, he had family reasons. Maria was from Austria, to take the kids, give them that grounding in that part of their culture. But also, I guess after 15 years that’s a long time to be driving a business yourself. It was obviously a very, it was well thought through but a very clever strategy on his part to avoid, one of the things you hear, founder’s fatigue.
Donald Mace: Yeah absolutely. And we’ve been planning this for over three years to get to that stage. I think founder’s fatigue is a big thing, it can be anywhere between seven and 10 years when you start losing that interest and that drive, and I think Ben wants a business that’s sustainable which means employment for locals here. So he recognized that there is a need to bring in external help and assistance to help drive the business in its next journey.
He’s amazing at what he can and has done, both from a brewing perspective to a manufacturing to a marketing, so he’s got all the attributes there, and now it’s time to bring some more subject matter experts to help kick that along as well. So he’s worked so hard and deserves all the rest that he’s getting at the moment in Austria.
Matt Kirkegaard: Without disrespecting Ben or anything like that, but what didn’t the business have when someone who had a bit more of a business background stepping in, what did you bring to the business that may not have been here before Ben?
Donald Mace: I guess some of the boring stuff around structure. Whether that’s to do with procedures and processes that need to be in place as you start growing, simple things around payroll and making sure that that’s looked after well. Having a sales focus as well, which we hadn’t really had in the past. We’d used commissioned people instead of now changing our strategy to own our own destiny and recruit our sales force as permanent employees. So they were some of the gaps that we needed to bring on board. And also probably a little bit more forward thinking around the two, the three, the five year space as well.
Matt Kirkegaard: Interesting you talk about the salaried sales staff, because that is a big commitment to a business if you are looking at expanding your markets and you’ve got a permanent sales rep or a full-time sales rep on that is maybe earning $55, $60 thousand a year plus on costs plus the cost of employing… That’s a lot of beer you need to sell to make a profit to do pay that.
Donald Mace: Absolutely, but we firmly believe that the people we’re employing are people who align to our culture and our values, so those type of people are gonna be the best people to sell our beer. They’re the ones that are going to be able to put the story across, tell the story about Ben and Maria, tell where Beechworth is, and really be that personal connection so that when they do turn up to a pub or a bottle shop, they’re actually providing great value to that customer as well.
So owning that destiny, making sure that we go to market in the same way, really offering excellent service to our customers is really important for us.
We know it’s a slow burn, but I guess you need to invest early on to build that market presence. We’re very strong in Melbourne, obviously, and Victoria because we’re close by, but we start to lose some of that local relevance as you move to Sydney and further up to Brisbane. But we’re investing in those cities because we see the opportunity for great beer in more locations.
Matt Kirkegaard: You make it sound that it’s more than a sales role, but it’s investing in brand by having that sort of sales role rather than just a commissioned sales agent.
Donald Mace: Absolutely. They need to align with our values and be part of the business, because people buy beer off people. They’re not transactional, we don’t want them to be transactional, we don’t want it to be a corporate model, where it’s a tick list of compliance. It’s very much how can I help you, how can I help your business grow? What are the things that we can do to help bring people through the door, or promote so that you’ve got this event on, or fix your taps. You know, those simple things that do make a difference for our customers.
Matt Kirkegaard: How big a risk was it, though? It’s, like anything, to say this is a good idea is one thing, but nothing comes without a mental risk.
Donald Mace: Absolutely. It’s a big risk. You generally won’t get a payback for between two and three years once you’re starting to invest in those cities, so yeah, it does definitely take time. I think our expectations probably five years ago of how quickly people would get up to speed have changed dramatically in the last 12 months with the huge amount of extra competition. It’s not as easy to send pallet loads of kegs to a venue anymore, there’s still that one tap that you’re competing against and often you’re competing against it on a rotational basis as well.
Matt Kirkegaard: How long have you been with the business now?
Donald Mace: Almost five years.
Matt Kirkegaard: Almost five years. And you would’ve seen, we’re almost talking dog years in brewing these days. You must’ve seen even a huge change with, in five years we’ve probably seen 200 additional breweries open, or more?
Donald Mace: Absolutely. Absolutely. You see every town, almost every suburb having a brewery set up. The key to that is that localism, people want to have that sense of community, and they get behind their local watering hole or bottle shop, and therefore they’re getting behind their local brand. So it’s a lot harder to become a national brand with that localism or hyper-localism that’s occurring at the moment.
Matt Kirkegaard: Do you consider Bridge Road to be a national brand?
Donald Mace: Yeah, I do. We’ve had some great success through Woolworth’s and Dan Murphy’s, so yeah absolutely. I was very humbled to be voted number six in the GABS Hottest 100 this year for our Beechworth Pale Ale, so that’s showing that we are getting some great exposure and national presence.
Matt Kirkegaard: Particularly in Victoria, which, having seen how the Hottest 100 played out this year, there’s been a lot of talk about parochialism and having vibrant, engaged communities voting, but Bridge Road’s been around for a long time. You did send out some emails, you’ve obviously got a community that’s built up around the brand, but for a Victorian brand to be doing so well… There were a couple of Victorian brands that featured very highly, so obviously there are some strong brands there.
Donald Mace: Yeah definitely. If you’ve got national distribution or, to some extent, across multiple states, you’re definitely gonna get those votes as well. It’s not just a marketing effort that really gets you the votes. Obviously we have a very loyal community, we love those guys, but it’s also, like I was saying, the sales guys, the sales reps getting into venues. You know, you need to have that awareness and that ability to purchase that beer, otherwise if you can’t try it, you’re not gonna vote for it. We’re quite lucky.
Matt Kirkegaard: But we’re also not talking about the latest sexy beast, we’re talking about good ol’ Beechy Pale.
Donald Mace: Yeah, still keeps going strong. I still think it’s the best pale in the country, it’s the most flavorsome for sure. We’re really proud of it and that’s what we always talk about when we’re targeting customers or punters.
Matt Kirkegaard: And I haven’t checked, but I have a fairly strong recollection that Saison has been there or thereabouts for a number of years, and I’ve got no idea if it even featured in the top 100.
Donald Mace: No, it’s a difficult one. As a style it’s probably not recognized as well, but those people that are loyal to it, they’re very much, they’re onto it.
Matt Kirkegaard: It’s absolutely one that I use a lot for events, but again, I guess that goes back to the days when it and the Biere de Garde were such novel beers. Does the Biere de Garde even exist anymore?
Donald Mace: No, we haven’t done it for a couple of years, but it might make a comeback.
Matt Kirkegaard: That’s the nice thing about beer, even when they’re de-ranged they never no longer exist.
Donald Mace: No, the recipe’s still here, yep.
Matt Kirkegaard: But the Saison’s there, and again, it’s a nice little microcosm for, there weren’t very many Saisons being brewed back then. It was a very traditional style but it was still exciting, and these days I think just about everyone’s had a crack at a Saison before they moved on to Brut IPAs or Strawberry Milkshake IPAs.
Donald Mace: And ours has virtually stayed the same. Identical from when it was first started. It was one of the first beers that Ben brewed, so it’s really maintained that quality and that consistency there, too.
Matt Kirkegaard: What are the big challenges that you’re confronting these days on a national space? Taps is obviously one of them.
Donald Mace: Yeah taps is definitely one. There’s so many more players out there, and I think price is really becoming a hot topic at the moment. Generally if I talk about keg pricing there’s plenty of sub-$200 kegs that are out there, which some customers are taking advantage of brewers but it’s not really sustainable part of our business if that is maintained.
Matt Kirkegaard: It isn’t a sustainable part of Bridge Road business, or the industry’s?
Donald Mace: All across the industry.
Matt Kirkegaard: I remember seeing Phil Sexton talk at one of the early IBA Conferences and talking about the worst thing that can happen is the race to the bottom, which we saw in the big brewing industry. But yet, competition forces some people to act in a way that they think gives them an advantage.
Donald Mace: Yeah, and I guess that’s depending on what their insights, or what their strategy is. Is their strategy volume, and therefore very slim margins? Is their strategy high margins, therefore unique and interesting beers, which means that you can over-invest in quality ingredients and that’s what we do. We don’t compromise on price and we don’t compromise on ingredients.
The beers that we wanna make are ones that people are going to enjoy and be memorable. Sure, I can put a $200 keg in the market but that would mean compromising something, so we’re not willing to do that.
Matt Kirkegaard: And yet, and maybe I’m putting too much focus on it, you use the term over-invest as opposed to invest in ingredients.
Donald Mace: Yep.
Matt Kirkegaard: Over-invest makes it sound like it’s almost a mistake, that you’re spending too much on ingredients.
Donald Mace: No, we put a lot of hops in our beers, as you can try them. So we’re over-investing in those hops, so we probably add more than most people would.
Matt Kirkegaard: You’re also, one of the things that Ben is most passionate about is the idea of provenance. So independence is one thing, but also a concept I got from Ben very early on in the days of this podcast was where he said, “People love to tell you that this doesn’t matter, the name doesn’t matter or whether they contract brew or not doesn’t matter,” but yet the fact that they label their beer after a place, or the things that they say show that it actually does.
How important is Beechworth to the Bridge Road story?
Donald Mace: Oh hugely important. We know when people come to our venue and we do a brewery tour with them, they come going away with a great experience about what the township is all about. They get to see and touch and experience what we offer, they get to see all our tanks, they see our small batch, they really get a sense of who we are. We kind of extend that in the ingredients we use, but also our Mayday Hills range would be a prime example of where we really talk about provenance.
Mayday Hills was the original name of Beechworth before it became a township, so we use that with our foeder tank, we use local ingredients in each of the beers that we’re producing for that series of beers. We’ve used Beechworth honey, obviously iconic brand also nationally. We’ve used kiwi fruits, which actually there is a kiwi fruit about 20 kms down the road, various different berries and grapes and things, so really talking about that provenance and it’s really spelt out in the labeling and the messaging that we’re talking about.
Matt Kirkegaard: So what’s next? Ben’s obviously away for another year, I think?
Donald Mace: He comes back about mid-year this year.
Matt Kirkegaard: And how’s it been going? The kids haven’t messed up the parent’s house?
Donald Mace: No no, it’s been great. It’s been great. Like I said, we’ve been setting this up for a long time to get to allow them to take the time off. I think the great thing about it has been that the staff have really stepped up. Where we probably use Ben as a bit of a comfort blanket to just ask him the question, or what does he think, we’ve actually been able to think ourselves and say, okay, let’s make the decisions ourselves. We don’t need Ben’s approval for every single decision, let’s be confident in our abilities, that’s why we’re here so we can make some decisions.
Matt Kirkegaard: As somebody that comes from the background of business and consulting and looking at the nuts and bolts of the spreadsheets, which is what I’m taking from the story that you were at the beginning, it sounds like building a documented culture has been important to that as well. Have you been responsible for driving that?
Donald Mace: Yeah, absolutely. And the viewers can’t see it here, but our culture is flashed around all of our offices and it talks about what’s really important to us. Because culture is one thing that, if you get it wrong, you get it very wrong. And it’s really difficult to fix a bad culture. So I wanted to make sure that we firstly identified what the culture is and then maintain that culture. So that what Ben and Maria have set out to do is still true today.
Matt Kirkegaard: How much did you have to do? Because when Ben was here, and I’m just picking up on that idea that when Ben was here, staff formed a habit of doing what people do, and they defer rather than back themselves or make the decision. How much consciously went into creating that ability that, when he stepped out, people were empowered to make decisions, people had tools to make decisions, and people also knew which decisions were the right ones for the business?
Donald Mace: I went through an exercise to work out, I guess you can take the basics of what someone’s job description is and you can clearly articulate what areas they are accountable for. I really tried to bring in the language around accountability, so the buck stops with you, and really tried to say, well, you’re accountable means you need to do it all. You’re making that decision. If you’re responsible, you’re doing something. But no, if you’re accountable, you’re actually making decisions. So really changing that language and making sure that people were aware that they were accountable for those decisions.
Which everybody has taken on fantastically, so part of motivating a staff or feeling motivated is that if you can give them some freedom and some accountability, they’re more likely to enjoy their job and they’re more likely to be a higher performer.
Matt Kirkegaard: You haven’t taken Ben’s role in terms of people just bringing problems to you?
Donald Mace: A little bit, but that’s okay. It’s always a constant challenge to keep teaching people to come with solutions rather than just problems, but that’s the nature of business and that will be always the case.
Matt Kirkegaard: And how easy has Ben found it to leave you guys alone?
Donald Mace: He’s been great, he’s actually been really good. The first few months was very much about relaxing and enjoying himself. He’s obviously kept engaged a little bit, we’ve done regular board meetings, for instance, over Skype. And there’s some things that we’re getting him to research and do as well. So he’s still aware of what’s going on, and I know he checks a lot of the media outlets in the industry to keep up with trends and things as well.
Matt Kirkegaard: He’s been very active on social media. I caught up with him in Germany late last year and I’ve also seen that he’s been very active on the Facebook groups, weighing in when he’s got something to say.
Donald Mace: Yep, absolutely. He’s a staunch advocate for independence, and that’s something we’re proud of and fully part of.
Matt Kirkegaard: We spoke to Ben 18 months ago at the hop harvest festival almost two years ago, and at that stage the volumes were starting to get up around the million liter mark and Ben was very, sorry, are you allowed to talk about this?
Donald Mace: Generally, yes.
Matt Kirkegaard: It was starting to get up around the million liter mark that Ben was quite happy to share at that stage. And I understand the headwinds had been a bit stronger then with all of the new breweries, the increased pressure at tap points with the acquisitions and things. What’s the strategy that you’re employing now, obviously the organic growth is no longer the market, the stuff that just comes because craft beer is exciting. There’s a lot of new breweries coming out and starting to fill some of, if their is additional growth, they’re starting to feel that.
How is Bridge Road staying relevant and keeping that growth going? Or are you happy to just fill organically the niche that you’re at?
Donald Mace: No, no, we’re happy to keep growing. I think you need to keep growing to stay relevant. You need to have physical availability, which means you need to be in premises and in customers. But you really gotta start off with the beer, and the beer is paramount to it and we’ve got a great product, a great head brewer, and a great team that are really delivering on point with that.
The shift of focus has probably been more around our marketing and our sales strategies. More and more taking, as we talked about, more and more about our ownership of our sales force and really growing through there, but also being a little bit more focused on our marketing effort as well. Being clear around the messaging that we’re putting out there, because you can be inconsistent or not have cut through, so we really are trying to work through all those mechanisms, whether it’s to do with the story of Ben, the Beechworth location, and our innovation. They’re the three things that we really talk about from a marketing.
And then trying to find the right things that create a sense of community and belonging. That could be Facebook, Instagram, events we’re quite strong on as well. Backing that up with disruptive innovation as well is some of the things we’re working on.
Matt Kirkegaard: And by disruptive innovation you mean things like the Declaration of Independence?
Donald Mace: That’s exactly right. So Brewland, again, just trying to put it out there. Independence is really important. We believe that’s one of the decision criteria when people buy our products and I think they value that. So that’s why you’re on sacred ground at the moment in Brewland, so I hope you’ve signed up.
Matt Kirkegaard: Absolutely. It’s one of those interesting things I find very hard to, I have a personal preference for independence, because that guarantees, in my mind, a vibrant and interesting industry. And it’s not about the quality of the beer but there’s a whole lot that goes with that. But at the same time I am very aloof a little bit and I wanna know, what does independence mean?
Pete Brown gave a very interesting chat at BrewCon last year talking about the different between craft, that had all sorts of passionate arguments about what craft is and what it should mean, independence just sort of came and everyone kind of knows what it is, but nobody’s as invested in independence.
How have you guys found that idea of when you declared independence? I know it got a lot of media, but how have you found the response from consumers about what independence means to them and how that resonates?
Donald Mace: I think you get that immediate explosion. I think you get that uplift really really quickly, but the challenge is to keep talking about it. So that’s probably what the opportunity for us is, to keep talking about it, otherwise it leaves people to forget about it pretty quickly. We know very clearly that locally we’re really known as being independent, so we can really build on that strength, but it’s a matter of trying to play that out on a bit more of a national scale.
I think with the recent acquisitions over the last three or four years, there’s going to be a strong anti-independence fight, I think. The majors will probably try to down play that, so I think it’s up to us as independent brewers, as well as IBA to really keep talking loudly about it and really really promote it.
Matt Kirkegaard: And how do you counter that? One of the things, again, as an external observer watching, in the US we saw Goose Island go and we saw a whole lot of dominoes fall. And when the Brewers Association in America brought out the independence logo, suddenly you had nine or 10 AB-InBev breweries, their head brewers come out with a video. Because I don’t think anyone would say they’re not passionate brewers and they don’t take pride in their work, but they seemed to be personally stung by the idea that they were no longer part of the club.
How do you deal with consumers having that message resonate with them?
Donald Mace: I think when you’re talking about independence you’re talking about what type of business you are, and you can really spell out the back end behind it that you have local employment, you’re putting money back in to the community, you’re investing into the sustainability of the future of the industry as well. So we try and talk about it that way.
It’s still up to consumer preferences whether they value that or not. We definitely have it on all of our packaging and will keep celebrating it as much as we can, and be part of all the IBA’s efforts as well.
Matt Kirkegaard: But I’ve always felt that Ben probably didn’t need an external logo because he was such a walking ambassador for all of those things, and when you’ve got an independent logo that includes publicly listed breweries, or breweries that have got 400 investors or potentially a multi-national mining company, but because that mining company doesn’t have other brewing interests they can be independent. It makes it a little bit harder than Ben and Maria standing in the main street of Beechworth saying, “We’re a family owned brewery.”
Donald Mace: I think we do get a bit of a benefit from being in a small town like Beechworth as well. It’s only 3,500 people, so people who are thinking about independence can picture, okay, that’s small. And I think the smallness of a town and therefore that community sense starts to play out as well. I think we can leverage or create that sense of community through a small country town. And it does feel a little bit like we’re fighting against the big guys who are generally in the major cities, so we do quite well to punch above our weights with that.
Matt Kirkegaard: What does, if you were distilling the independence message down as a business model, what does independence give to the community and the brewing industry?
Donald Mace: In mind I think independence starts to create a bigger size beer industry, so whether that’s employment or interest in beers, the flexibility to do things, the fast pace gives a lot of opportunities for people who are home brewers to move through quickly into their careers into independent beers as well. It really gives lots of employment, as well as, I think, it gives the flexibility to do what we want as well, and speed to be able to deliver things.
Matt Kirkegaard: Just stepping out of Bridge Road for a second, putting your consultant’s hat back on, what do you think are maybe the top two or three mistakes that small breweries are making that if you were charging for advice you would give them for free now?
Donald Mace: They’ve gotta understand their long game. What are they in it for? Do they just wanna be a brew pub and have distribution just within their local area? Or do they wanna take it to a national scale? I think your investment decisions will be different based on those two different ideas.
The next thing is probably really understanding your costs. Really understanding your financials. Because while you think you might be making good profits out of that, by the time you load everything else on, you’re probably not. Don’t compromise on your price because generally speaking customers will be shopping around for those lower price, and therefore there’s gonna be no loyalty. You might think you’re gonna get longer distribution and longer loyalty, but generally those customers are gonna shop around as well.
And I guess the last thing is to really be confident in your product. After all, that’s what we want to drink and enjoy, so make sure it’s really bang on and the quality’s there.
Matt Kirkegaard: Great advice. We might even share that separately.
Just before we finish up, and it’s been a fascinating chat, but we are here doing a swing through the High Country reminding people that there were, back in January, the fires.
What was the impact that you saw within the community? Obviously Bridge Road Brewers wasn’t directly affected, but you’re part of a much bigger community. What was the impact that you guys saw?
Donald Mace: We were really lucky that there were no fires here and no loss of life or property, so we’re really fortunate because of that. We have had fires in Beechworth over 10 years before my time, so that’s quite a significant impact on a community. Bot for us, yes, January’s our peak tourist time so this is where the venue itself is at its busiest, so we were going great guns after Christmas through to the new year and growing really well and getting great engagement and then it just fell off a cliff.
The advice was not to come to Beechworth and the areas, which we understand as well, and lots of towns were evacuated so we saw our sales dramatically decrease and haven’t really recovered in January at all. Not likely, probably, to recover until March or so. So that’s been unfortunate because we know that’s our busiest part of the period.
The second impact also is on our wholesale customers. They too have either been closed or fire affected as well, so therefore they haven’t been able to trade so they’re probably suffering a lot more than what we are. We’re doing as much as we can to help them with some free kegs to help put money into their pockets. We’re donating kegs, we’re doing a special Beer Aid coming up as well that we’re gonna distribute through one of the majors. So it’s been a big impact.
We’re hoping people will come back because it is such a beautiful part of the world, but we know it’s probably going to take a bit of time.
Matt Kirkegaard: It was one of the interesting things that I’ve noticed is that a lot of breweries have been affected themselves, but there seems to have been greater concern for the community or, you know, every brewery were out telling people to get out and visit the breweries, but the broader region as well. And yet each one of those breweries is collecting for somebody else. There just seems to be an incredibly powerful sense of community up here.
Donald Mace: Absolutely it is, it is. They support us, we support them. We know what they’re going through, so we want them to be sustainable as well. We want them to have great business as well, so that’s why we’re helping them too.
Matt Kirkegaard: Well Donald Mace, thank you very much for joining this conversation, and congratulations on stepping into Ben’s shoes.
Donald Mace: Thanks very much.