By Lisa Boonstoppel-Pot
Full of energy, curiosity and charisma, it’s probably no surprise the former “nerd who worked for the military” became a successful businessman. But the journey did not come without stress, threat of bankruptcy and fear.
When your business reaches that point, it’s time to unleash disruptive behaviors, said Graham Sherman, owner of the Tool Shed Brewing Company in Calgary, Alberta who was a key speaker at Farm Credit Canada’s Forum held December 7 in London.
“I had to start NOT thinking the way everyone in the industry had thunk before,” remembers Sherman, as he tried to establish a brewery in 2013 in a province that didn’t support craft breweries at that time. So Sherman became an importer! Then he started making his voice heard about opportunities being lost to turn one of Alberta’s golden crops -- barley -- into a value-added product. It was the beginning of a massive shift in craft beer that started for Sherman with an obsession for coffee.
One of Sherman’s passions is merging his ideas with technology. So he ordered a “massive coffee maker” from Italy and using his technological expertise, created a communication port to create roast profiles for transfer to a coffee roaster.
Then he became fascinated with barbecue and tweaked his barbecue so that his ribs would not fall into enemy hands. Clearly, this is a man who takes things to a new level. As he says, “Adding technology to hobbies is the most fun ever!” He got into competitive barbecuing and became so good at it, he qualified to represent Canada at the world championships for barbecue. In fact, he won a gold medal.
What Sherman discovered along the way is that his real passion is bringing people together. “I love service and I love hosting. A great life, for me, is searching for ways to bring people together.”
It isn’t surprising, then, that he turned to beer as his next project. It wasn’t so out of his realm of understanding for Sherman’s brother is a professional brewer in Australia. “I told him I wanted to brew the same quality of beer in my toolshed.” His brother tried to discourage him, saying “you always take it too far and you will end up divorced over this one. You need lab equipment and all this gear.”
Sherman was like, “yep, yep” and wrote down a shopping list.
To start, he needed kegs but discovered it was hard to buy kegs as a home brewer. He solved that problem by stealing some from Big Rock Brewery via a ruse of touring the company. “Don't worry, I later apologized,” said Sherman.
The process of making beer began and Sherman discovered he made great beer. Soon, his tool shed was the place to be for poker night, hockey or any event that required libations. “I fell in love with what this craft beer was doing in the community around me.”
Sherman was still working in communications for the military in Afghanistan at this time but he started to wonder if he should stay home and leave his job.
“However I felt I was too far in life, with the kids in an expensive school, and giving up a job that paid really well was hard. I should also share that my wife hates beer,” said Sherman. “It was going to be a hard conversation.
So he skipped that conversation and soon after told his wife, “Guess what? We do not make money any more. We make beer.” It was a dark time, he admits. And not what he recommends as part of the path to success. He made that decision before realizing Alberta did not give out brewery licences unless the brewery could produce 500,000 litres of beer in a year. That was totally not feasible for a start-up.
“Ontario had 150 breweries then and Calgary only had two. Yet Western Canada ships barley across the world. So we ship these beautiful grains and buy them back at a premium. What the hell?” said Sherman.
He started collecting data, learning every dollar spent on craft beer brings $1.12 to the local economy. Plus, one out of every 10 jobs in Canada are connected to beer. “We are doing God’s work here,” he laughed. But the straw that broke the camel’s back was when he found out Canadian hockey legend Lanny McDonald had a brewery that was not in Calgary, not in Toronto and not even in Canada! It was in Montana.
That’s when Sherman decided to find an alternate route to producing beer. He decided to import it (which was allowed) but only beer that used local barley. “I began to sing about the farmers and agriculture in our part of Canada. That was my new business plan.”
He talked about farmers on television and the amazing economic development tool beer could be. He said both industries should collaborate. It took a year but in December 2013, the Alberta gaming commission eliminated the minimum brewing requirement and Sherman was ready to rock and roll.
However, the banks were not so keen to bankroll purchase of a building and equipment and Sherman realized he could not even get to the starting line. Again, he needed to think differently. He turned to friends to invest and got the building for a $65,000 deposit and $15,000 rent. It was so tight, his wife called one day, furious because she was at the gas station and there was no money in the account to get the kids to volleyball.
“I had gas in the truck so I got the kids to volleyball,” remembers Sherman. Then his partner said they were half a million dollars short for business expenses. It was beyond desperate and Sherman admits tears were shed.
“But I think sometimes we need to get to that spot. Holy moly, we have to get scared and out of our comfort zone to think of creative, disruptive stuff,” said Sherman. “I had to do something that had not been done before.”
The idea he came up with was to ask 500 people to invest $5,000 each in exchange for free beer for life. “It was crazy and I went to every bar and every restaurant telling them I had a brewery and they would have beer for life. It was a scary pitch. “And yet … I pulled it off.” The first month he sold three “beer-for-life” shares and that was rent. The next month he sold eight, then one, then seven and lived for another month.
Amazingly, the first person/business to buy the “beer for life” membership was Big Rock Brewery, the brewery he had stolen his original kegs from. “They told me they loved what I was doing and that Alberta needed more people singing the praises of agriculture,” remembers Sherman.
And that’s how Tool Shed Brewery was born.
Sherman says when you get desperate, you find a different spot in your brain that allows you to think of different ideas.
It was so effective, he now creates from that spot. “Whatever everyone else is doing, we go the opposite way,” he says. “When other breweries were advertising on billboards and magazines, we advertised on combines. The idea was that people driving by would see the combine harvesting barley and say, ‘holy crap, they grow beer in those fields!’”
Disruptive thinking was required again to survive the pandemic. He admits the pandemic decimated his business as it did others around him. So he partnered with a company that delivered food and groceries, inviting them to use his massive brewery space. “We converted our entire business into a satellite for that business,” said Sherman. “It kept them alive and it kept us alive. I went from 15 employees down to four and was able to bring them all back by putting food boxes together.”
Most solutions come from being collaborative, believes Sherman. “When it involves the community, it has to be genuine and authentic,” he says.
To conclude, Sherman encouraged everyone not to be afraid to think differently. “Be disruptive. When we change our way of thinking and create solutions that are collaborative and community-based, then we can come up with creative solutions in our own industry.” ◊