Best Managed Companies

How singular focus made Steam Whistle Brewing one of Canada’s top workplaces

Three laid-off brewery employees decided to start a new business making the beer they wanted. Their winning formula? Relentless focus on one product

Canada’s Best Managed Companies
Steam Whistle event staff James Sheppard, Erica Muller Moran and Laura Commisso

From left: Steam Whistle event staff James Sheppard, Erica Muller Moran and Laura Commisso at the company’s Toronto tasting room. (Jennifer Roberts)

In the summer of 1998, Greg Taylor, Cam Heaps and Greg Cromwell were laid off by the Upper Canada Brewing Company. But, they quickly decided, they weren’t ready to stop making great beer. So, across the campfire on a canoe trip, they hatched a plan to create their very own craft brewery.

Nineteen years later, what began as a fireside brainstorm has become Steam Whistle Brewing, Canada’s largest independent craft brewer, with shipments to every province in the country except Quebec. It’s also been named one of Canada’s Best Managed Companies nine years in a row.

“Our goal from day one was to become Canada’s most respected beer,” says Taylor, who leads the company alongside Heaps (Cromwell is no longer involved in the business). Initially called the Three Fired Guys Brewing Company, the name changed to Steam Whistle in 1999 after Heaps suggested that they put a steam whistle on the factory to let workers know when it was five o’clock. Drawing on that symbolism, the company headquartered itself in Toronto’s historic John Street Roundhouse, which served as a repair site for Canadian Pacific Rail locomotives until the 1980s. “They use the centrality of the roundhouse to their great advantage,” says beer writer Stephen Beaumont. “They have one of the best brewery tours in the city, and they regularly sell out in advance.” He’s quick to point out that thirsty tourists in the area often find themselves wandering by the brewery. “If you walk by on the street, they will practically thrust a sampler of beer into your hand—they’re very good at making sure people are aware of them.”

Steam Whistle uses traditional brewing techniques developed in the Czech Republic to make their pilsner, using spring water and GMO-free malted barley, hops and yeast. In the beginning, the plan was to perfect one beer and then branch out into other offerings. “We started out making only our signature pilsner, because we thought it was wise to focus with a fledgling business,” Taylor explains. “We wanted to get the quality right.” It soon became clear, however, that offering a single product could be an advantage for the young company: a way to distinguish themselves from the competition. “We had a marketing guy come to us and say, ‘Not only does it make sense for you guys practically to make only the one product, it’s surprising to consumers, and you can turn that into a message: We do one thing, and we do it very, very well,’ ” recalls Taylor.

It’s been a successful strategy for the brewery, which has collected various accolades over the years, including a silver in the Bohemian Pilsner category at the 2016 Ontario Brewing Awards. “Some people might say, ‘Oh well, it’s just a pilsner,’ ” says Beaumont. “That overlooks the fact that it is a very good beer, and that there’s a big market for people who want to drink something other than Molson or Labatt beer but don’t necessarily want to jump into an IPA.”

For years the company only sold its products in Ontario, but it slowly started to push outwards in 2003, when it began to distribute in Alberta. Five years later, they successfully moved into B.C. Taylor believes in grassroots marketing, and the company sends existing staff to new provinces to win over new customers, instead of hiring new talent. “One of the things we’ve done, which is different than a lot of folks in the industry, is that we’ve only used our own people,” says Taylor. “We only use our own people to make our beer, and we only use our real people to promote it.” Chipper employees drive to music festivals and other events in vintage, bright-green vehicles to hawk their wares. “It’s been very cost-effective for us,” says Taylor. “They’re so well trained in our brand, they live and breathe Steam Whistle—they bleed green, as we like to say—so they really sell our product to a new province in a way that no one else could.”

Erica McOustra, brewing lead at Steam Whistle Brewing

Erica McOustra, brewing lead at Steam Whistle Brewing, adds hops to a brewing vessel at the company’s Toronto brewery. (Jennifer Roberts)

And Steam Whistle has plenty of workers who live and breathe their jobs—the “Good Beer Folks,” as the company fondly refers to all of its employees. The firm has won awards for its workplace environment, being recognized as one of Canada’s most admired corporate cultures by Waterstone. According to Taylor, it’s something that’s been very deliberately cultivated: “We always knew the quality of what we produced would be determined by how happy our employees were to contribute to it,” he explains. “Cam and I had this idea that people should be happy to come into work Monday morning.”

The co-founders established as flat a hierarchy as they could, with an open-concept office where high-ranking management sit next to new hires. “If you take a tour, you wouldn’t know who’d been there for years and who started two weeks ago,” says Taylor. The company tries to give its younger employees a sense of importance within the organization. It encourages leaders to reach out to their subordinates for feedback. “Management is in servitude more than anything,” says Taylor. “If we get complaints about a manager, that manager has to go to each member of his team and say, ‘Listen, I can’t stay here unless I do a better job of being your manager, so what am I doing wrong?’ ” This kind of environment is empowering to younger staff, he explains. “In many organizations, younger employees feel they won’t be heard until they’re established in their careers. We think that we’re in the business of selling beer to young people, so we should listen to what they have to say.”

Steam Whistle places a large focus on workplace culture fit—to join the ranks of the Good Beer Folks you have to be outgoing, hardworking and concerned about quality. The company focuses heavily on employee referrals and promoting from within to create a like-minded and enthusiastic workforce. Employee retention is high, with many staff hitting their five- and 10-year anniversaries (the company celebrates those milestones with team trips to Munich for Oktoberfest). After a year, staff are able to buy shares in the tightly held company and are included in the profit-share program, where five per cent of pre-tax profits is distributed evenly among the staff. “We want people to feel a sense of ownership,” says Taylor.

It’s that sense of employee ownership that has driven the enduring success of Steam Whistle’s brand. After all, there’s no better salesperson than a happy consumer, so Steam Whistle strives to ensure its employees love the products they make. Even as the company continues to grow and expand into new territory, its founders maintain a focus on staying true to the company’s roots. “On our bottles to this day, you’ll find the ‘Three Fired Guys’ emblem, which is 3FG,” explains Taylor. “It’s important to us to keep the origin story alive. A lot of our success comes from knowing our story, and being able to tell it so well.”