A Guilded Existence: The Career of Ken Beattie, Part I
He might be the most important person in BC craft beer. In Part I of our biography, a kid from Vancouver’s South Side grows up to run some of the biggest sales territories in Canada for Molson and Sleeman. Part II follows next week.
The Executive Director of the BC Craft Brewers Guild has made a career of being in the right place at the right time. He’s the guy who never needed a resume, because every major position he’s been hired for was through networking and reputation. That only happens if you can get along with folks, and Ken learned how to do that early; you could say his ability to connect with people and make them comfortable is hereditary. And now he might just be the most influential person in BC beer.
Kenneth Beattie was born in 1962 to parents of Scottish heritage. He was the youngest of four boys, with a five-year age gap separating him from his three brothers. As the junior in a run of siblings, he was subjected to excellent preparation for a career involving fighting for his territory and rolling with life’s punches.
In Ken’s family, open communication was emphasized. Take, for example, the way dinners worked in the Beattie household: as a matter of course, all family members would make themselves present at the table after their father Oliver got home, and conversation was not just commonplace, it was mandatory. Oliver Beattie would go around the table and ask each boy how his day was, and they were expected to provide a meaningful answer.
The senior Beattie was a ship’s fitter who proudly carried a lunchbox to work every day, so some table talk centered around the union aspect of his workplace. The kids were encouraged to ask questions about the parts they didn’t understand. Their mother Eda was a talkative person with a great sense of humour, and she would interject regularly. The empowerment to speak, to share an opinion, to ask a question without fear of embarrassment and to have people pay attention to you were no doubt foundational factors in young Ken’s development.
Another factor was sports. By the time he was sixteen Ken had begun playing adult rugby, and the connections he made through this led to two jobs that shaped his career. In the early 1980s Beattie took a job at The Keg’s Richmond North location, across the bridge from his childhood stomping grounds in Vancouver’s Marpole neighbourhood. There he found that building relationships with clientele came naturally. Working the tables, he learned that each had its own story. Some were all laughs, and they were happy to talk to you. Some were about romance, and they were focussed on each other. Sometimes it was an argument, and now they wanted you to be the referee. The ability to read people and think on his feet made Beattie a better server. Those abilities would pay off during a lifelong career around people and beer.
By 1986, Ken was 24 and in school at SFU, studying Media & Communications. One of Ken’s contacts from the rugby team had an interesting summer job that year, working at Molson in Events & Merchandising. Ken thought that sounded really good. The next year the friend moved on and space opened up for a new recruit. Ken was able to grab that 1987 summer position and soon found himself alongside Molson’s sales reps doing things like setting up displays and working events, from airshows to slow pitch baseball. They drove around in a van that looked like a two-four pack on wheels.
As an SFU student, Beattie was able to get exposure for Molson in the school via activities like a comedy night he spearheaded. Then, for a while, he was the Moosehead guy at SFU. His biggest responsibility: constantly wear a Moosehead jacket around campus. He even managed to get Moosehead into the SFU pub. All the while he was still working at the Richmond Keg (which had become The Boathouse by that time).
Ken enjoyed his studies and was starting to lean towards a career in sales & marketing, with a goal to go into business at some point. But near the end of 1988, Beattie was offered a golden opportunity: a full-time job with Molson. The dilemma: he was two electives short of completing his diploma. Back then, there was no online school to lean on, so leaving SFU to join the workforce was a serious decision. Beattie made his choice and took the job. Finishing his studies would have to wait for a different chapter in his career.
Until this point, our twenty-six-year-old protagonist had never resided outside a major city. But in most walks of life, you don’t start at the top. If you’re a doctor or policeman, you might find yourself serving a smaller community for many years before you’re assigned a beat in the big city. That goes for sales territories too. That’s why Ken Beattie found himself carving out a career selling cold beer in the ice and snow of a Prince George, BC Winter.
Ken feels that learning the ropes in PG was not a bad way to start: if he messed up and lost an account, there was limited downside. But the upside turned out to be significant. “When I went to Prince George, Molson was nowhere on the map”, he shares. “I don’t usually say this, but I put it on the map.” Ken was young, single and aggressive, and he worked hard. He connected well with the people running the bars, many of which were being run by the sons and daughters of the owners, people close to his age. Some of those people are still there today. He also met a number of lifelong industry contacts, some of whom have moved into craft beer since then. But in those days, that wasn’t even a consideration.
By 1991, after 18 months of impressive performance in the hinterlands, Ken was punted back to Vancouver to take on bigger responsibilities. By this time, he was seasoned and ready for the kind of challenges that awaited him. The sales territories became bigger and bigger, until he had the biggest territories around, including Kitsilano and Downtown Vancouver.
For years, Beattie had the top draft account share as well as some of the very biggest draft accounts in Canada. He had the Cambie Hotel, which was an absolute monster—at times the number one draft account in the country. He had the Roxy when it was unstoppable. Back in the day, the strip bars were packed, and he had lots of those, like the Marble Arch. He had the gay bars too. Molson was his career employer, and Ken was in his glory.
When you work in the beverage alcohol industry, be it at a tiny nanobrewery or a vast hospitality chain, you’re involved in what can be one of the most enjoyable trades around—at least, on the surface. When Ken was out on the street making friends and slapping backs, he was the man; a true stud. But even back then he knew he couldn’t last an entire career at the pace the street required, and retirement as a sales rep wasn’t his best option. So, the plan was to move up the chain and become a sales manager, hopefully the top guy in the province at some point.
Beattie believed that in order to do that, he’d need to know something about marketing. So right at the peak of his powers he asked to leave all the fun behind and move into another department at Molson. At the time, local brass was focused on launching the Molson Rocks concert program, so they asked him to work on that. Then Ken moved into marketing and his title became Assistant Brand Manager for Coors Light.
It was a disaster. Working at a desk wasn’t what Ken was cut out for. He lasted three months, then quit the job.
STARTING OVER, PART I
The year was 1997. Almost a decade earlier, Ken had dropped out of college for full-time employment, and now he had left that behind too. In need of work, he accepted a position from friends who owned The Met Hotel in New Westminster. As General Manager he was responsible for the day-to-day operations of a 30-room boutique hotel and 150-seat pub. The job promised some sweat equity, but the hours were tough.
Around this time Ken met his future wife Marla. He knew that the hotel business wasn’t conducive to a married life, and he needed to make a move. Naturally, he went back to enquire at Molson. At the time, they were creating a position called National Chain Account, which seemed like a nice one to land: looking after key Western-based hospitality accounts like Sandman Hotel and Earl’s. But before that went anywhere, a friend’s chance conversation led to something else.
Near where Ken used to live was a watering hole known as the Penny Lane Pub. One day Steve Knight, at the time Sleeman Breweries’ Director of Sales & Marketing for Western Canada, was in the pub telling the owner Brian Hunter that he needed to hire someone. Sleeman was planning to add a new District Sales Manager position under Knight to run their Okanagan Spring division sales team. Hunter was a friend of Ken’s. Knowing the situation, he shared that Beattie might be looking for a change. Knight knew who Ken was and called up right away to say, “I know you’re looking at Molson, but I think you should come have a beer with me.”
After a couple of beers at that meeting, Steve told Ken he had the job. The only formality: he’d have to meet Sleeman’s Western Canada President Rick Knudsen for a final approval. Unbeknownst to Beattie, at this second step he was subjected to something called the Chicken Wing Test.
Ken explains, “He orders chicken wings and you both order some beers. Then after a few beers he sees how you react.” It was a gut-check interview method Knudsen employed to find out how someone behaved under the influence. If a new candidate couldn’t handle the alcohol, they couldn’t handle the job.
After a few beers, Ken started to ask an earnest question: “If I’m the likely candidate…” Knudsen retorted, “You kidding me? You’re f**king hired. Here are three things I need you to do.”
Ken Beattie re-entered beer sales on January 2nd, 2000—comfortably a day after Y2K. He was a more well-rounded sales manager for having worked on the hospitality side of things, as a customer of the breweries for three years at The Met Hotel. Sleeman-owned Okanagan Spring was doing well, and Ken’s sales team quickly expanded from around 10 to 25 people.
Sleeman’s Honey Brown Lager was huge at the time, and Ken reasoned they could be helping sell that as well, but the suggestion went nowhere. Despite the Sleeman ownership, Beattie’s team was given only Okanagan Spring business cards. His job was to expand the sales of a product he used to consider a pest.
Ken, the microbreweries are like weeds in the garden. If they start to bug us, we’ll pull them out.
Back when Ken was at Molson, he dominated his Kitsilano territory. His aim was always to have 100% of all taps in the area. But at some point, he started to hear about a little brewery called Okanagan Spring. In those early days, OK Spring co-founder Buko von Krosigk once loaded up his van with as many kegs as he could and drove from its Vernon base down to Vancouver. His mission: sell those kegs, because making payroll depended on it.
Once their consumers had a taste of his micro-brewed beer called “Pale Ale”, a pub would put in a tap. Ken noticed: there’s one at Bimini’s. Now it’s Darby’s. Now it’s The Pit Pub. His thought was, “Hey, they’re not allowed to do that, are they?”
His Molson boss wasn’t concerned. He retorted, “Ken! They [the microbreweries] are like weeds in the garden. If they start to bug us, we’ll pull them out. Don’t worry about it.” Little did he know Ken would one day be working for those weeds and helping plant more.
Ken showed more interest in the actual product planning than most on the sales team. At Sleeman, his group had a lot of input into the creation of OK Spring’s 1516 Lager, Porter and Black Lager. Ken still feels to this day that Okanagan Spring’s dark beers are outstanding.
After a time, Ken moved up to BC provincial manager. A fellow named Jim Lister, now with Phillips Brewing & Malting, ran the Alberta territory. Jim eventually made Western Canada division leader, then left the company.
As Beattie says, “When Jim left, the position was left vacant. Nobody was hired for it.” The reason why became evident when the position was moved back East. In 2012, the three most senior people in Western Canada were let go in one cut, including Beattie.
During his twelve years there, Ken had attained the type of position with Sleeman that he had originally envisioned rising to with Molson. But after 25 years in the industry, and at the age of 50 with two kids, he was back to square one again.
COMING NEXT: PART II
The kid from Marpole grew up to run some of the biggest sales territories in Canada for Molson and Sleeman. His career path was set for life. Then, after a quarter century, he was out of the industry. But he’d soon be back with a new purpose: leading the charge for the BC craft breweries taking a big bite out of Big Beer.
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