Canadian Banks Fail Sleeman Brewmaster

July 26, 2011 by  Filed under: Loans 

John Sleeman was 31 years old when he learned of his family’s colourful history in the brewery business. He had already amassed a small fortune importing beer from Europe, but the revelation that his forefathers had crafted their own unique brews, inspired him to continue the family tradition. Picking up the torch 52 years later, Sleeman put his house on the line to finance what has now become the third most successful brewery in Canada, the Sleeman Brewing and Malting Company.

Adopted at an early age by middle class parents, Sleeman developed his interest in barley-based beverages while working in England. He returned to Canada in his early twenties and opened a neighbourhood pub, based on the establishments he had frequented and worked for in the U.K. He made the bold decision to concentrate his wares on imported specialty beers, instead of selling the generic products supplied by the two major Canadian breweries, Labatts and Molson. Realizing the potential in imported sales, Sleeman expanded his importing business, supplying local bars and pubs with products like Guiness, Heineken and Double Diamond.

In 1984, after seeing his importing venture takeoff, Sleeman was visited by his aunt, Florian. His aunt arrived with two items and a family story. She presented Sleeman with a clear bottle and a recipe book. She explained the family’s rich past in the brewing industry and encouraged John Sleeman to continue the family’s legacy.

Her story included the reason for the family’s abrupt departure from the brewing business in 1933. This was the year the Canadian Government caught John Sleeman’s ancestors smuggling beer into the United States, during the time of prohibition. The Sleeman family was using farm wagons loaded with vegetables to smuggle the precious liquid across the border. Eager to cash in on the family’s success, the Government of Canada offered to help the company earn an exporting license. In return, the Government expected the Sleemans to pay taxes on their exported product. The Sleemans refused to cooperate and were forced to permanently abandon the brewing business.

John Sleeman could not ignore the coincidence. With the recipes already in hand, Sleeman began the difficult process of rebuilding his family’s brewing empire. But to start his company, he first needed a loan. He applied for a three million dollar loan with traditional lenders and was approved. But after a few hiccups in production, the Canadian bank got scared and demanded their entire loan repaid in full. Reaching out to other banks, Sleeman was unsuccessful in securing a Canadian backer. His credit weakened, Sleeman finally sought financial help south of the border. He was granted a loan from a Detroit bank and was able to pay back the nervous Canadian lenders. With the credit loan, production finally went ahead and the rest is history.

Now, thirty years later, Sleeman is chief executive officer and chairman of Sleeman Breweries Ltd.

But what if John Sleeman had not found a financial partner? Would the Sleeman name remain as a footnote in the history of Canadian brewing? Just a humourous tale of smugglers apprehended? Probably.

Without capital, even the best-laid plans are doomed. Looking for alternative sources of financing is part of any small business venture. Sleeman survived because he was approved for a credit loan from a non-traditional financier. If Sleeman had given up, when the Canadian banks refused to help, we would have never known the sweet bold taste of Sleeman’s Honey Brown. And that would be a Canadian travesty.

Mike Catherall

Mike is a writer for Alpine Credits, a Canadian home equity loan company.

For more information on home equity loans, visit:

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