Tell me a little about yourself and what Sawmill Breweries is all about?
My name is Kirsty and I am one of the directors at Sawmill. My partner Mike and I took over Sawmill Brewery in 2010, it was a hobby business for a local couple based up in Leigh. We’d just moved up here from Lyttelton and we took over in November 2010 and moved down to our new site in 2016. Sawmill is an independent NZ brewery; we make excellent beer and we are really interested in how we run our business. That is our big focus – firstly and always great beer and also the bigger picture that sits within is the type of business that we operate.
Have you made many changes to the existing business model since taking it over?
It was really small. We make now in a week what we used to make in a year. So, it was a little business but what it did have was a real spirit of independence. Peter and Decima who had the brewery before us really did what they wanted. Craft beer was just taking off and most of those breweries were based around Wellington and Nelson and there were certain things that everyone was doing. Sawmill was a long way geographically from there and Peter and Decima really had their own vision anyway, so there was a lot of things that Sawmill did differently. Sawmill was already canning beer way back then years and years before other breweries started to can. They were using solar power, they were making a lot of lagers that weren’t really trendy in craft beer circles but actually what people really want to drink and still do – people do still really love a really well-made lager. There was a bit of a spirit of that that we took on. Because we were so focused on learning how to make good beer, particularly Mike, we really just developed our own intuition about what we wanted to do and what our customers wanted and the kind of business we wanted to be and I think that’s why now we are such a fiercely independent brewery. By independent I mean we’re not a multinational - we’re family-owned, we’re NZ owned, and we really value highly thinking for ourselves. That has meant that quite often we’ll do things really differently to other manufacturers or others in our industry and we have a really strong sense of what is important to us.
What were you doing prior to taking over Sawmill and what drove you to take on such a unique project?
I was a lawyer and Mike was a produce trader, he exported wine and seafood and produce. We were living in Lyttelton and moved up here because he had a job opportunity. Then it fell over and we were up here, and we wanted to stay here. This area is full of entrepreneurs and creative people that have basically made their own work and their own jobs because there aren’t that many jobs you can go get. I’d say most of the people we know are self-employed, so there’s a really strong ethos of that here. We also wanted to make something tangible, something you could hold in your hand. We really loved beer and Mike had studied viticulture so that really led us to being involved with Sawmill.
You guys have a B-Corp certification, tell me a little bit about that journey?
We do. I think what’s interesting in the craft beer industry in New Zealand is that there are a lot of brewery brands, but not that many breweries. A lot of breweries have their beers made by someone else, which is fine, and a lot of that beer is really, really good, it doesn’t change the quality of the beer, but what making our own beer and having our own brewery allows us to do is have so much control over the kind of business we operate, especially as a manufacturer and in terms of our environmental impact. It’s something we’ve always thought about and because we are a community brewery, our impact on the community is really noticeable and so right from the beginning we wanted to make sure we were having a positive impact. That led us to B-Corp because while we really wanted to always, always be making the best beer we could, we also wanted to look at the bigger picture at how businesses operate, and that you need to be innovative, creative, and always improving so that you’re the kind of business that is going to serve us well in the future. That led us to discover B-Corp because it is a way to continually improve and measure and monitor what you’re doing across your entire business, it’s not just an environmental certification or something like a green building standard, it covers everything and there is so much room for growth in it and it has a great community of businesses within it too. We are businesses who operate and believe we can be a force for good and it’s a really powerful movement, there’s some huge businesses involved, and some small businesses and I just love it. I love what it’s given us and it’s been great for our team as well – to be able to measure and report on a lot of the things we were always trying to do, but it’s great to see what you’re achieving with that and it’s great to know, for them, that we lead our industry in terms of our environmental responsibility especially.
As a small business have you found it quite challenging to achieve all the requirements?
Yeah it was massive. We don’t have a sustainability team or a sustainability manager or anyone who does this permanently, so it was just me mainly with some support from our team. It took me nearly two years to get the certification just in terms of gathering the information and putting in place policies that we might not have had before. When you’re small, you’re really scrambling a lot of the time, you’re often reactive and you just don’t have the resources to get to this, but I felt like it was a really worthwhile project to just keep slowly working towards. The great thing about B-Corp is you don’t just have to get the certification and then relax, you want to keep going, keep making more changes and more improvements that are meaningful for your business. I would encourage all small businesses to do it themselves, we did it ourselves. I know that there are people that can consult and help, I do think it’s relatively straightforward and it’s just a matter of working slowly through the questions. The B Lab is supportive, I went back and forth with them a lot with things that were tricky, and they were helpful. The thing is that even if it takes you 5 years to get to the certification, the whole time you’re making improvements and you’re thinking about things that we all need to think about if we’re going to operate responsible businesses in the future. I don’t think it’s something we should look at and think we can’t do, because the value is just in working towards it. While it was slow to get there, once we got certified we got a bit of momentum and you start to be able to make a bit more time for it for some reason. Beforehand it was always the last thing I got to every day because everything else felt more urgent.
How have your customers responded to your efforts?
It’s been quite interesting because we never undertook it as a marketing exercise. We probably haven’t talked about it as much as we could have but when we do people are really interested. A lot of people know about it, particularly younger people, people are really interested, and I think how rigorous the certification process is can give consumers a lot of confidence about it. I know that I feel green-washed all the time and it’s really difficult to dive in behind every company that you support and understand what is going on so I like the transparency of B-Corp and I now really seek out B-Corp certified businesses to support. We should talk about it a bit more for the sake of building the B-Corp community if nothing else. We do talk to businesses a lot, I talk to people every week about B-Corps that are in the process of certifying because I think there are some big business that are certified, like Kathmandu and Synlait, but it’s not much good for a business like yours to ring them and ask what advice they have because they’ll have 50 people working on it full time. I think the more helpful advice is to know that we managed it. We’re a manufacturer so the requirements on us in terms of the environmental standards are really high. I think we should talk about it more just to show people you don’t have to be big and well-resourced to get certified or to value the process.
What are some of your ultimate goals, or longer-term plans?
Well we really want to keep growing. We don’t necessarily put hard out targets around numbers because how we measure it is through the opportunities that come along for our team and how we are operating as a business. We used to have numerical targets, and that’s really good because you can’t do anything if you’re not sustainable and profitable - then you’re not making any impact at all. That’s kind of an interesting thing to get your head around I think when you’re looking at your responsibility, also recognising the importance of success in that. So now our goals are really tied in with the B-Corp goals I guess, about the impact and the opportunities that we can give our team to also grow. We think that the way we do business is the best way to do business. We think that we lead our industry and so of course we want to see Sawmill in every place that is can be and available to everyone it can be available to so they can choose to support businesses that operate like this.
Do you have any exciting shorter-term plans?
Well there’s always exciting beers coming out. At the moment we’re running this really awesome series – the Aotearoa IPA series. It’s the only beer series in NZ to use exclusively NZ hops and malts. Every beer is about showcasing some part of our industry that is great. So, whether we work with a particular business, someone like Harraway’s Oats for example which is a family-owned NZ business based in Dunedin. We use oats in some of our beers, so we’ll collaborate with them, or another brewery. We were closed last year because of the fire here, so for that series we collaborated with a dozen different breweries across NZ for the year and made beers that showed what they were really strong at producing. We made a beautiful Hazy with Parrotdog because they make such good Hazy’s and different beers. Then we’ll showcase different hops, yeah all sorts of things but it’s really just telling a story about the incredibly high calibre of farmers and growers and brewers here in NZ and how we really punch above our weight on a global stage – so that’s what that series is about and that’s really cool. That’s just come out in cans and that’s available across all the Foodstuffs stores – New World, Henry’s, Liquorland.
It’s awesome to see New Zealand brands being celebrated more in recent times!
Yeah definitely, and really championing that independence. You know how important that is.
Were you hit hard by the impacts of COVID?
Well we had a fire here about 6 months prior to that and so I think we’d had this opportunity to really hone our resilience over that time because that was a massive disruption to our business. We lost everything; our office, we couldn’t use our brewery, the restaurant shut, we had to move offices, we had to produce off site for 10 months, so it was incredibly disruptive. When COVID came along, we were already dancing on our toes and it I felt like we handled COVID sweet to be honest. We were already dancing. We’re back up and running now. What you can achieve in your team when you’re all together in your own home is massive.
Would you say that has been one of your biggest challenges?
Yeah, I think it was because for that whole time, when you’d be otherwise focused on things like the growth of your business and improving your business, you’re really just trying to stay operational – so that was a huge challenge.
Do you have any notable successes, or favourite moments in your journey with Sawmill so far?
I’m just immensely proud of the team we have here. We have a pretty small team, but every person in this team is absolutely critical to what we do and they’re a really smart, hardworking bunch of people that I’m really proud to work with, so I think that’s our real success here at Sawmill. I think over time really developing our instinct and intuition for our business it allows you to look at other people and say, that’s awesome, they’re doing great stuff, we’re doing this and we’re doing it this way and that’s what we’re all about. I think that’s where leadership comes from.
Do you draw inspiration from any other NZ businesses?
There are so many other NZ businesses we admire in the way they operate. We love the suppliers that we work with, people like Gladfield Malt. I personally love Fix & Fogg so much! I’m super addicted to all of their products and also love the way they operate their business. There are so many local businesses here I really admire too – I love Daily Organics. I love people who really live by their values, it’s awesome.
Do you have any advice for anyone else wanting to pursue their passions through their business?
I think having really strong values as a business is great and just choose something that you love because it takes so much work and sweat and tears and blood and all of those things, so you want to be doing something that you’re going to be proud of at the end of the day. You want to surround yourself with people that are great to work with. We make awesome beer; people come into the Smoko room and have a beer and it’s awesome – I’m proud of our team and proud of what we do.
And you’ve managed to maintain that passion throughout?
Definitely not consistently. I mean, everybody gets super tired at some points, but the great thing is that we have this really great strong team, so it has its own momentum and it doesn’t need us to be dragging it along the whole time. We’re incredibly well supported by the community here and around NZ really. A lot of people really get behind what Sawmill is doing – I love it.
Favourite place to travel in NZ?
Gisborne! I love going to the East Cape, that’s the best place to go, it’s beautiful! I’m going to Gizzy tomorrow, woohoo!