John Sleeman – Successful Canadian Entrepreneur

In the 1600s, the Slyman family were pirates, running an illegal business venture out of England. The Slyman’s “business” had been successful for decades, so it wasn’t until the middle of the 18th century that they felt compelled to run a legitimate gig and change their name to Sleeman. They opened an English brewery and chain of pubs, and the legend of Sleeman beer was born.  

The Sleeman legacy

Fast forward to 1834. A new generation of Sleemans arrived in Canada from England and settled in the then cozy town of St. Catharine’s. They built a brewery called Stamford Springs and were successful brewers for about 20 years. At the time, the industrial revolution was in full force, and the natural environment was suffering. The area’s lakes and rivers are polluted with industrial waste. Unfortunately, because 90 per cent of beer is made of water, the polluted water was threatening the quality of now the famous Sleeman beer. The Sleeman family finally decided to sink a well in Guelph in 1850, and move the operation. It was a good move – and the brewery and pubs were successful well into the early 20th century. The Sleemans passed the business to their sons, who passed it to their sons, and so on.

Things went smoothly until 1933, a pivotal year in Sleeman history. While one Sleeman brother was in Ottawa doing a (legitimate) business deal, the other Sleemans were arrested and charged for smuggling beer to Al Capone – a deal that at the time was illegitimate, but lucrative and difficult to turn down.  

Nevertheless the Sleemans were told they wouldn’t brew or sell beer for 50 years. They lost their license and that was that. The next generation of Sleemans would not operate a beer business.

An unknown inheritance

John Sleeman was raised in an alcohol-free household, born to parents who had rarely mentioned the Sleeman history of brewing. He says that although he didn’t know about the family’s past, he “wasn’t very traditional” and so maybe wouldn’t have taken on the family business anyway, had he have known about it. “By the time I was 16 I knew one thing for certain: that school was not for me, and a traditional lifestyle was not for me. So I left high school and set out on my own at 17” he says, adding “I thought there must be something better out there.” Young John set off to England, with no inkling of his roots there, and married an English girl at 19. He had every intention of starting his own pub, having thoroughly enjoyed the pub seen in London at the time.  But much to his disappointment, no one in England was going to help a Canadian boy finance an English pub. With his entrepreneurial spirit stirred, he decided to head back to Canada – where there was a market opportunity to open a pub.

John Sleeman started his own business in the mid-‘70s, opening a pub in a shopping mall. His goal: to serve authentic English draft beer in his own bar. With this in mind he approached brewers in England to allow him to sell their beer in Canada – a venture they were on board for, to Sleeman’s surprise.

“Huge, multimillion dollar breweries were saying ‘yes’ to me. That was a huge surprise. Without those yeses I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere. That’s the biggest problem with many entrepreneurs; they give up after the first no. My philosophy is you can be told ‘yes’, or you can be told ‘no’, but the worst that can happen is that you’re denied and you have to knock on the next door. It’s difficult, having the door slammed in your face, but it’s not the end.”

Sleeman didn’t realize at the time that asking to distribute English beer in Canada was illegal without the proper allowances, so he made a deal with the government to do all the work of distribution and return the majority of the money to the province.

However, after doing this for a while, Sleeman questioned whether he wanted to continue in the bar business or go strictly into distribution. He decided to sell the pub.  

A family secret, revealed

“All this time, I was looking at getting into distributing beer, I had no idea of my family’s history – imagine that.” However, one of Sleeman’s great aunts had been holding onto an old recipe book and one day, approached him with a proposal: “She kept this old recipe book and an old bottle of beer, knowing that the 50-year ban on Sleeman-named brewing and selling would be up in 1984. My aunt came to me and said ‘it’s time you knew about the old family beer business’”.

Sleeman’s aunt shared the Sleeman story, and he listened. But at 31, he was not necessarily ready to take on a new business.  

“By the time I was made aware of my family’s extensive history in the brewing business, I was successful, and the imported brewing company I had built had made me a millionaire. So of course, I came up with every excuse in the book not to start the brewery up again. However, my aunt’s age was advancing, and I could tell how important the legacy was to her. I argued that I didn’t have the company name, but was given it back when I asked the powers that be. I went as far as arguing that Canadian Pacific Railways owned the trademark beaver and maple leaf, so I couldn’t possibly have that back. However, they said it was a great idea and gave me the trademark back. Now, I was running out of reasons not to start the brewery up again.”

The sacrifices of being a Sleeman

Sleeman went to task, designing the Sleeman beer bottle after the original coveted by his Aunt. He secured a partnership with another brewery that was already closely involved with his business. By this time, Sleeman’s wife had given birth to two daughters and he was living comfortably in Mississauga. He had no idea of the sacrifices he would make to carry on the Sleeman business.

“Starting businesses that require you 24-7 can be hard on a family. I wasn’t good at it. I had to put the business first, meaning that went I went over budget to build and run the brewery. I lost my house to finance the project. Then, my marriage ended. You want everything to work out perfectly, but in the end, if you’re just not paying attention to people at home, there are negative consequences. I’m fortunate enough to be remarried, but even recently have had to make choices between career and home. I have four wonderful children – two girls, and two boys with my current wife. But one was being born while I was doing an interview with the CBC in 1996. Sleeman went public and that’s when my wife went into the hospital to give birth.” Sleeman makes no bones about how difficult his choices have been over the years, including the choice to sell the business.

“We’re a private business again, but that was never my intention. I really wanted to stay as an independent public company. The shareholders were happy, as was I. But the folks at the major Canadian conglomerate breweries made it clear they wanted to buy us, and it wasn’t a friendly deal. They would have shut us down and fired all my people. I didn’t start this business so I could let it go. I needed to find a white knight, a partner who would allow us to stay who we are. Luckily Sapporo, who we’d been making beer for under contract for quite some time, approached us and made us an offer. We’re now part of Sapporo international, the company’s first significant investment outside of Japan. And fortunately, they have asked me to stay and run the business. Even better, my sons can come in the family business if they want.”

Sleeman never intended to make some of the decisions he’s made, but says that the Sapporo decision was necessary and a positive one in the long run. “I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t have to. But I’m so thrilled to have a good partner.”

The next venture

Sleeman now operates several breweries across Canada, in British Columbia, Ontario, Halifax and Quebec. The company employs about 1000 employees and is the third largest brewer in Canada. Sales are strong. “Sometimes, we can’t make enough beer and we sell out. And the economy hasn’t negatively affected our sales. People like to drink beer when things are bad. Our sales are going up.”

When asked why he’s always been willing to make the hard choices, Sleeman says that it’s all about who he is: “A lot of male entrepreneurs are identified by their careers. Your career: that’s who you are. My daughter tells me that I’m here 80 hours a week because if I wasn’t, what would I do? The answer is simple. I would create another business.”  

He reflects on the reasons entrepreneurs start new businesses even after a venture has failed: “I guess it might just be a personality type. It’s not something that can be learned. You can learn how to make good business decisions, how to read a balance sheet.” He adds: “This personality, the one of an entrepreneur, allows you to have a vision and learn to take risks. It means that if it all fails you get up the next morning and start over. You have confidence to do what you want to do, and what needs to be done.”

Sleeman doesn’t take all the credit for building back up the family business. “Thankfully the world is made up of lots of different kinds of people. I need people in the brew house who aren’t entrepreneurs, because they need to follow recipes. Not everyone is an entrepreneur. When I started my first business, I was the smartest guy and was going to do everything myself, because I wanted to do it my way. But then I made some mistakes, and hired some of the wrong people. Now I know when something is beyond my abilities. I learned that you’ll make the wrong decision when you’re pressed and don’t have time to think. It’s incredibly important to recognize what you’re good at, and let someone else do the things you’re not good at. Even though I try to do everything, I can’t.”

He adds that there’s no reason not to take an entrepreneurial approach when it comes to work – any work. “You need to have passion to do something. I hear people say ‘oh I hate my job’ and I say ‘well then do something!’ You have to find your passion and make it into an income. If you can do that, then you’ll never feel you’re working.”

When “work” means helping to create a favourite Canadian beer, it’s no wonder John Sleeman spends so much time at the office.