As Vice President and National Lead, Women Entrepreneurs at BDC, Laura Didyk used to spend most of her time traversing the country, interacting with women business owners. She’s keeping those conversations going virtually — and this month it’s with Drea Mulligan, co-founder and CEO of Sleeping Giant Brewing Company, based out of Thunder Bay, Ontario.
When Drea and Kyle Mulligan founded Sleeping Giant Brewing Company in 2012, she was working as a kindergarten teacher, and he was a family physician with a home brewing hobby. Armed with a business plan, a talent for brewing, and a shared passion for beer, the husband and wife team started with two taps and a hand-painted sign, and steadily grew their business into a multi-million dollar craft brewing company — and all without letting go of their original professions.
Based in Thunder Bay, the brewery is named after the nearby Sleeping Giant, a large mountainous formation on the North shore of Lake Superior — the first of many nods to a city and region that they love. Now in a 12,000+ square-foot production facility, tap room, and event space (that has recently been transformed into a daycare) their distribution network stretches across much of Ontario and into Manitoba.
In the five years that they have been BDC clients, we have seen them through strategic growth, a major move, ownership restructuring, and more. I caught up with Drea to find out more about her unique entrepreneurial journey, navigating the challenges of 2020, and her advice for other business owners.
Laura: I love your story, because it’s the quintessential entrepreneurial tale of turning your passion into a business. This all started because you and your husband were craft beer enthusiasts, right?
Andrea: Yes, we were those people who’d sit at the local bar and talk with strangers about beer, and how diverse it was, and how interesting. That’s where it started.
Then my husband Kyle began home brewing, and things kept progressing with his passion and talent for brewing. Seeing people try Kyle’s beer, and the great feedback we got — we knew we wanted to eventually open a brewery. We were thinking, maybe we’ll do it when we retire, but we decided to take that first step of writing a business plan. Of course, the beauty of a business plan is it tricks you into saying, “Hey, I’ve got this whole plan, let’s open a business.”
Laura: So you decided to take the plunge. How quickly did it all come together?
Drea: We finished our business plan in the spring/summer of 2011. We incorporated our company in September, moved into our first location by the end of December, and sold our first growler of beer in June 2012.
To be able to flip that in six months, and have our business up and running — some people will say you’re lucky, but I say, maybe it’s a bit of luck, but it was also a bit of common sense, focus, and a lot of hard work. We paced ourselves and were responsible. We followed our instincts. I’ll never forget when I talked to an owner of a larger craft brewery in Ontario before we opened, and he said, “Whatever your budget is, double it.” We said, “No way.” Our focus was to brew good beer, pay the bills, and make a bit of money. That was our little mantra when we were getting started.
But people make that mistake. They want it all, and they want it all now. Our success came from being methodical while taking risks, being reserved and in control. It’s been a lot of us digging in our heels because we weren’t ready to grow faster than what we could control. We know the capacity to grow is still there — and it’s easy to get there if you’re following the growth somewhat organically, versus trying to be ahead of it.
Laura: What I’ve noticed is that you take risks like any other entrepreneur, but you’re very strategic and intentional. Even though you knew it could and will be big, you started with the thinking that you were going to get there at your own pace.
Drea: Yes, we always had the plan to grow our business from the start. I was never afraid of failing. What made me nervous was I knew we were going to be successful. That’s not arrogance — it’s just I knew the supportive city, I knew what we were doing to bring a craft beer culture to Thunder Bay just as the resurgence of craft beer was taking off. I trusted our instincts and there was no option for failure.
Laura: The city has always been a big part of your brand and business — from your beer names, to the local ingredients you use, to all the product collaborations you do, to giving back with Craft Cares. Was that focus very intentionally done or did it evolve organically?
Drea: In the beginning it was definitely intentional, because we love our city so much. It’s a beautiful place to live, great people — and even before we opened we knew we wanted to make Thunder Bay proud. So it started out intentional, became part of the fabric of our business right away, and it has developed organically after that. We’re now an anomaly in the brewery industry — unlike a lot of other breweries in Ontario, we sell so much of our beer out of our front door to our local community.
Laura: And you’re still active in the community in other ways, in that you’re still teaching, and your husband is still practicing. What has it been like trying to navigate two worlds?
Drea: That’s one thing I never thought about when we first opened. I never thought we wouldn’t be able to work our jobs. I’ve had to take leaves to be at the business, but I’m always torn because I love teaching. It’s not easy to manage, but Kyle and I are a good team and support each other. Our staff are also crucial to us being able to manage and grow our business while maintaining careers.
I try to organize myself as best that I can. I also allow myself to not be perfect, because you can’t be when you’ve got a lot of balls in the air. I’m very open about that to my staff, I’ll let them know, I’m sorry, I can’t do this, or I didn’t get back to that specific email because I just opened a classroom during the COVID-19 pandemic. We cut each other some slack.
Our SGBC team is strong, which is really important. They understand our situation and support us, not just the brewery, but also as a couple, and as working members of the brewery. This is what everyone signed up for — to have Kyle be a physician, and he’s not there every day. He’s in contact all the time. I’m teaching, and I’m still available. Normally, I’m there right after school, or I go in on the weekends. It’s not easy, and it’s definitely not perfect, but we’re still doing it at this point in time.
Laura: And what about with the added dimension of a global pandemic?
Drea: The pandemic was not in our business plan! I laid off 24 people immediately. The 10 people who were left, we put our heads down and we worked so hard for months and months. Kyle and I tried to put our needs after the needs of our staff, because we had to be there to support them. They supported each other, too. They didn’t argue, they didn’t complain. They did whatever needed to be done. It was a wild time, and has already made for some unique reminiscing with staff.
Now we have staff that are returning. How does the staff that lived and worked through that cope with returning staff with a different COVID experience of being at home, or being laid off? We’re still navigating those waters. I think the important thing is communication. We do our best to talk through it, to talk about what’s going on, to try to check in with each other. We try.
Laura: That’s a great segue into how you ended up opening a daycare on site. How did that new venture start?
Drea: By the beginning of July, I was hearing grumblings from our staff about the lack of childcare options they had due to Covid-19. I’m a mom, I know how important childcare is, and what an impact it has on your family and your own ability of what you can do, and also how it impacts the development of your children.
Over a coffee one night I was telling Kyle about these grumblings and said, “I wish we could open a daycare.” He looked at me and replied, “Why can’t we?”
It came together quickly from there. I held a meeting with all our employees with families, and said, “Here’s the plan. We’re going to open a childcare facility. We’re going to be unlicensed and you are going to have the priority to have your children here. I just need to know who’s in or who’s out.”
We had already thought about how many people had to be in for us to do this, and made the decision that we only needed one. Kyle and I, our thought process was, If we can do this, we should do this. So now the Barrel House, which is our new, private event space, is also the Sleeping Giant Childcare Centre. We plan on getting it licensed, so we can have space for more children from the community.
Laura: Outside of COVID, what have been your biggest challenges you’ve faced while navigating your growth?
Drea: To become more ‘corporate’ and to become a CEO, and what that role truly means. I’ve struggled to make an org chart; there is a hierarchy, but to put it on paper, it’s an interesting process when we are trying to maintain the grassroots of the brewery. Going from ground zero to a now multi-million dollar business with still a lot of room to grow, it’s a big responsibility and it can be overwhelming.
That’s why it’s so great to talk with other women in business who are further ahead of me and have created large, successful businesses. And just before COVID hit, we had begun working with BDC to create a 3 year Strategic Action Plan. This alone is helping us all speak the same language and reach and strive for the same goals. Planning, organization, and follow through are essential tools for any growing business.
Laura: What advice would you give to others who are following their passion and becoming an entrepreneur?
Drea: We’ve learned after eight years that we trust our instincts. That’s my best advice: You have to trust yourself. Also, failure shouldn’t be an option. Mistakes are welcome, but when you hit a roadblock, there’s always a solution — you just have to find it. You can’t be ego-driven.
Lastly, try to take care of yourself. Every single time I drive by Sleeping Giant, with that view of Lake Superior — it’s just a little bit of a centering spot for me. As an entrepreneur, you need to find those little moments in your day where you breathe. Every time I look at it, and I look at it a lot, I’m reminded about my company and our city, and how awesome things are going and how lucky we are. The future continues to be bright!