Chugging along with corporate culture

Steam Whistle Brewing makes a point to be relaxed and transparent – but also accountable
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 02/22/2016

Located in a historic roundhouse on Toronto’s lakeshore, Steam Whistle Brewing has a unique location. It also prides itself on having a unique culture, according to co-founder Greg Taylor.

“The idea is that we’re all in this together, our office, there’s no hierarchy there.”

Tours of the brewery go right through the offices, where everyone can be seen working, and Taylor and his partner Cam Heaps have desks the same as everyone else, he says.

“That whole idea is we’re accessible, you can communicate with us — we’re not special people, we just got here first. It’s that idea that the employee has lots of ability to empower himself and make it better and we don’t have all the answers,” says Taylor.

“Unfortunately, it’s very typical for a lot of companies that people want to protect their positions and they don’t want to ever show weakness and that’s just ridiculous.”

It’s about being transparent and approachable, but also accountable as leaders, says Taylor.

“The most important part of being a leader is acknowledging faults and saying, ‘That didn’t work well because I made the wrong decision, but let’s move forward and let’s try this. I’m not perfect.’ A bit of humility goes a long way when it comes to leadership.”

While that kind of culture might be easy to set up, it’s not easy to maintain, he says.

“It is a struggle because it requires a lot of one-on-one. I spend most of my time... one-on-one with people in boardroom, in their work environment, talking about issues and opportunities, and sorting things out, and making sure communication flows. It’s really an essential part of establishing a culture where people feel they can make a difference and they matter.”

Not everyone appreciates that kind of approach. One employee who came to work for the 180-employee brewery ended up leaving, but not before expressing concerns about how the brewery could retain people, says Taylor. During meetings, for example, he felt his opinion held the same weight as that of a younger employee new to the brewery.

“I said (to him), ‘I understand where you’re coming from and what you’re suggesting is hierarchy matters and industry experience matters, etcetera, and elders or more experienced folks need to be respected and that’s true, but we’re in an industry which relies on young people. You have to stay relevant with young people in the beer business because if you don’t, our consumer demographic will age and as they age, they drink less and eventually we’ll have no business... I value their ideas greatly, they’re just as important to listen to as the more senior people here.”

Lessons learned

The push for a healthy corporate culture — which has won Steam Whistle several top employer awards — began back when Taylor began working for Heaps’ father, Frank Heaps, founder of Upper Canada Brewing. A house party for staff impressed Taylor.

“I just noticed (Heaps) was doing his best to connect with everybody there and I realized pretty quickly that this guy felt strongly that everybody made a difference and was capable of making important contributions and if you respected them, they would really make a difference for his business.”

But Taylor and Heaps witnessed a change to Upper Canada’s culture when it was purchased by a private company.

“All of a sudden, the bottom line mattered more than anything else and investors mattered and this idea that the investors were really more important than the staff was really for us pretty confusing because we thought, ‘Hold on, if we treat the staff incredibly well, we’ll have a great business and the investors will profit from it, but if you just treat the investors and look at their perspectives only, you can’t possibly have happy staff and you won’t be as competitive and you won’t be as profitable.’”

The two co-founders have maintained that outlook to this day as it can also matter to customers, says Taylor.

“Culture is an important part of a business, particularly in the craft industry — people really seek out small businesses, organizations that craft products and expect them to have a more family-style, warm culture.”

Hiring, firing

A big part of maintaining that culture is found in the hiring process, which can involve up to five interviews, along with improv games and a meet-and-greet session with future co-workers.

“Hiring is an important part of the business, it’s the beginning and it’s the seed that grows your culture,” says Taylor.

“People ask us ‘How can you maintain your culture as you grow?’ Well, it all has to do with hiring and firing. It you’re not hiring the right people, if you have a great culture but you bring people in that are not passionate about what you’re doing and what they’re doing, they will water down what you’ve created, so it’s really essential to figure that out initially.”

Employees must embody the essence of “Good Beer Folk:” meaning unwavering passion, creativity, teamwork and good values. 

“These people are gregarious and warm and able to connect and tell stories — storytelling is a big part of what we do,” says Taylor. 

Having candidates meet informally with their potential group is an important part of the process, he says, so the group gets a feel for the person and whether she would be a good choice.

“Not only are you probably going to make a more informed decision because you have the key people that are working hard for you all day long involved in it, but how do you think it makes them feel when ‘Hey, I have actually a say who my new peer is going to be?’”

But you also need to make sure that if somebody starts to disconnect from the culture and not respect it and not value the way he did originally, “if they start to drift away from the original idea and purpose, we have patience and we work with them closely and explain our concerns, but we will let people go because we don’t want any cancers in the organization,” he says.

Too many organizations have people sitting around that shouldn’t be there, says Taylor, and other employees will notice. 

“We can’t have anybody questioning our leadership in terms of valuing our culture and valuing our work and if somebody’s not contributing and they don’t get it, then they need to leave.”

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