Brewing up a strong small business
Sonja Mills (left) and Alicia MacDonald (right), co-owners, Port Rexton Brewing.
Entrepreneurs Sonja Mills and Alicia MacDonald could teach a master class on how to be unflappable.
The former spouses and current co-owners of Port Rexton Brewing turned their professional lives upside down seven years ago in pursuit of a passion project that has turned into a wildly successful small business.
Along the way, they quit their careers as a lawyer (Mills) and a registered nurse (MacDonald); moved from their marital home in Halifax, N.S., to Port Rexton, N.L.; converted a former schoolhouse into a brewery and taproom; expanded their brewery operations to a nearby 650 square metres (7,000 sq. ft.) facility; and ended their marriage to one another.
Despite the challenges along the way, the two are as enthusiastic about Port Rexton Brewing as they were when they were dreaming about it back in Halifax. They attribute their professional resilience to this excitement, their respect for one another and the unique roles they occupy in the business. (And their mutual love of craft beer, of course.)
“Could you live in Newfoundland?”
When Mills’ father was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in 2015, they agreed to put the business idea on hold, keep the house in Halifax and move to Newfoundland to help care for him. Yet on Mills’ first trip back, she couldn’t help but notice that the craft beer explosion hadn’t yet touched Newfoundland.
“There were three breweries in the whole province, all located in the metro area of St. John’s, and they mainly focused on English style ales. None of them were doing anything unique like Alicia was and there were no tap rooms where people could hang out and drink pints of beer at a brewery,” says Mills.
“I asked Alicia, ‘What about starting the business in Newfoundland? Could you live in Newfoundland?’ She says, ‘Heck, yes’. That was the beginning.”
They set their sights on converting an old schoolhouse into a brewery in the small community of Port Rexton, where tourism was well established thanks to nearby Trinity and Bonavista.
Funding and approval came in relatively short order—once they educated their lenders and regulatory bodies on an operation that was new to most communities in the province—and officially opened their doors in July 2016.
“It’s been amazing ever since,” says Mills.
From the start, the two worked in parallel—with Mills focused on funding, red tape and business development and MacDonald building and operating the brew house.
“We have a voice in each other’s realm, but, day-to-day, we’re pretty separated while still being connected to the big picture. I know my limitations when it comes to business operations and crunching numbers. And I actually have no desire to learn,” says MacDonald.
“Same. I don’t know what half the valves on the equipment do. Like Alicia, I have no desire to learn that level of detail,” agreed Mills.
By 2019, they recognized that they needed to expand their operations to achieve their full potential as a brewery.
“We tried to improve and increase productivity in our original building by adding more fermenters that allowed us more production capacity. But that meant longer days, hiring more staff and pushing our lines to the limit while working in tight quarters,” says Mills.
“We needed a new facility that was way more conducive to production.”
Using the equity they’d built up in their successful tap room and brewery, they reinvested in a new, larger brewhouse and expensive new equipment such as larger fermenters to increase capacity and a faster, more automated canning line—without having to bring in shareholders. BDC helped finance the canning line.
“We wanted to keep this business between the two of us. That was one of our core things about being business owners: answering to no one but ourselves and trusting our judgment and ability to run our business ethically, responsibly and profitably,” says Mills.
With the new facility up and running, they have tripled production and have the space for even more growth when they’re ready.
Separate, but together
Mills and MacDonald had been partners in life and in business, but after six years of marriage, they made the decision to separate as spouses. At the same time, they wanted to remain partners in business. Once again, they came together to consider how to move forward as an adaptable team.
“We wanted to make sure the business didn’t suffer, and our employees weren’t affected by the separation. It wasn’t always easy and we worked hard to keep a respectful business relationship,” says Mills.
Despite the emotional challenges, MacDonald says they’ve come through the change even stronger as business partners. “It’s even better as time goes on. We have a professional advantage because we were partners, so we know how each other thinks. This only helps our business. We think the same, we feel the same, we have things in common and that keeps reflecting into the business and continues to make us successful.”
The co-founders prove that you can’t keep the entrepreneurial spirit down—no matter what challenges arise.