Spotlight on Women Entrepreneurs
In 2012, the microbrewery scene in Atlantic Canada was just beginning to take off. A number of passionate beer connoisseurs emerged across the region and for Sonja Mills and Alicia MacDonald, the love of craft beer began.
Six years later, this lawyer/nurse practitioner duo are now bringing this passion to tourists and locals in Port Rexton, Newfoundland and Labrador.
“We were living at the time in Halifax. We were spending a lot of time travelling and trying beer and we got involved and wanted to know how we do this,” says MacDonald. “We started homebrewing.”
As their love of beer grew, it also became clear that they also had an entrepreneurial spirit.
“Sonja is a lawyer with an MBA and I’m a nurse practitioner,” says MacDonald. “While we loved our jobs, we kept thinking of ways to become our own boss. We kept homebrewing and, as two women, we kind of stuck out in the brewing community.”
Around the same time, the couple moved to Sonja’s hometown of Clarenville, Newfoundland to help care for her father, who was diagnosed with ALS. They quickly realized there was a microbrewery opportunity on the Island.
“There were only three microbreweries in Newfoundland at the time,” says MacDonald. “We put our business plan together and found the right building in Port Rexton, which has a great tourist season every summer. ACOA approved our funding application and took us under their wing. That’s how it all started.”
The couple opened the brewery in July of 2016 and have continued to experience growth every year.
Even with that, the couple admits that making the decision to give up successful careers to open a microbrewery in a town of 350 people may not be for everyone.
“You might need a little touch of crazy,” says MacDonald. “I definitely had to convince Sonja that this was maybe a ‘crazy’ good idea. Sonja, being a lawyer, looked at it from every different angle to make sure it would work, so by the time we made the decision we were ready and comfortable.”
“If you’ve got the passion you’re already in a great starting position,” says Mills. “But you’ve definitely got to put that homework in because it may not always make business sense in a certain location, or based on a certain business model for that location.”
Mills says that owners can also take an incremental approach – particularly if they are risk adverse.
“Demand is leading our growth,” says Mills. “We’re always growing to try and catch up with demand. We’re never growing beyond that. We’re trying to grow enough so we don’t turn off too many people, so we keep chasing the demand.”
“You don’t want to start so big that you’re facing big debt and wondering, ‘how am I going to pay the bills?’,” adds MacDonald.
The two are also reinvesting any profits back into the company to ensure they build a solid, successful and sustainable business.
The two were recently awarded the 2018 Canadian Women Entrepreneur Ones to Watch Award. It was presented to five companies across Canada that show “incredible potential through their innovative ideas, keen business sense, and solid plan for future profitable growth.” The pair was also awarded the 2018 Tourism Innovator award by Hospitality Newfoundland & Labrador and the 2017 Trailblazer award by the Newfoundland and Labrador Organization of Women Entrepreneurs.