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New brew, new logo (05/05)

By IAN ROSS Reclamation projects are nothing new to Bill Sharpe. The packaging whiz behind the creation of Lakeport Brewing Corp. from an abandoned Heineken plant in Hamilton has huge expectations he can put Northern Breweries back on the map.


Reclamation projects are nothing new to Bill Sharpe.

The packaging whiz behind the creation of Lakeport Brewing Corp. from an abandoned Heineken plant in Hamilton has huge expectations he can put Northern Breweries back on the map.

With a clean balance sheet, thanks to more than a million dollars in municipal tax write-offs in Sudbury and Sault Ste. Marie last year, the struggling 100-year-old regional brewer is set to undergo a major capital and image makeover.

Sharpe and an ownership group of silent partners have invested $18 million in new high-speed production and packaging lines at the Sault Ste. Marie and Sudbury plants, with plans to create 240 new positions and introduce a more diversified product line.

“I’ve got great hopes for this to be very successful,” says Sharpe, whose 40-year résumé in the beverage industry includes management stints at Canada Dry, Pacific Western Brewing Company and Carling O’Keefe. “It’s a niche I like in life. The challenge is there.”

The Sault-based company is expected to soon unveil a new logo, new brands, and kick off an aggressive marketing campaign across the North to win back the favour of beer drinkers.

Gone is the classic wolf head logo, replaced by what Sharpe promises will be a “cleaner, more mainstream” design. “The change will be so dramatic that we’ll stand out in the marketplace.”

He is bent on reshaping Northern’s musty old image as your dad’s choice of suds.

Sharpe, who was introduced last December as Northern’s new president, is out to duplicate the magic he worked in creating Hamilton’s Lakeport Brewing where he purchased the shuttered Amstel Brewery from Heineken in 1992 and created 200 jobs.

At Lakeport’s helm, he boosted the brewery’s production to full capacity with a diversified packaging line by launching the successful President’s

Choice and Dave’s Brand of non-alcoholic beer.

He sold his Lakeport shares in 2000, and took over as president and CEO of Ontario’s newest microbrewery, Skeena Brewing Company, working all the while as a consultant for others in the beverage industry.

Northern’s market share had been steadily eroding over the years due to a change in provincial regulations.

Beginning in the 1940s, Northern held the monopoly on all sales of draft beer north of the French River until a legal challenge by a Kirkland Lake outlet permitted national breweries access to the region in the mid-90s.

Sharpe says Northern always put out a good product: it won a handful of international taste-testing gold medals in the ‘80s. But it didn’t have pockets deep enough to market the brand in the now-saturated Northern beer market.

In Sudbury, production came to a standstill except for the occasional run of kegs.

“If you don’t advertise the beer, you lose out pretty quickly,” says Sharpe. “You’ve got to do a lot of promotional work to grow your business.”

He plans to put salespeople back on the road in the five major Northern Ontario cities with a heavy advertising focus on building a consumer base from the Manitoba border to Barrie.

At their Sudbury plant, they are ripping out the 70-year-old equipment that produced a paltry 125 bottles per minute and are installing a high-tech line that can produce 800 bottles or between 1,000 and 1,200 cans per minute for the Ontario market. It should be complete by the first quarter of 2006.

They are also sprucing up the exterior of the Sudbury plant, which will be expanded to include a 30,000-square-foot warehouse.

Beer production is temporarily shifting to the Sault for the balance of this year.

The Sault’s line will ramp up to 400 bottles per minute, and Northern will add someflexibility and versatility by adding some secondary production capacity.

To fill up the two plants’ annual combined capacity of 450,000 hectolitres (about five million cases of 24), the company is pursuing licensing agreements with some undisclosed European brewers and energy drink manufacturers in hopes of convincing them to make their product in the North.

“Northern will control the market and sales, and pay them a royalty per case,” says Sharpe. “We do all the investment.”

About 60 per cent of Northern’s brewing capacity will be used for proprietary brands.

He says the Sault’s border location and proximity to Interstate 75 in Michigan is a good access point for North American distribution.

“It’s a good location to be used for export.”

A decade ago, it was difficult for an upstart brewery to penetrate any market share because of the strong and loyal following of Canada’s two main national brewers.

But Sharpe believes Northern has a place in the crowded and fickle Ontario beer market.

Imports, discount and microbrewers such as Sleeman, Brick and Lakeport have muscled their way into a market previously dominated by Molson and Labatt.

Free trade introduced more brands and offered the consumer more choices. Sharpe says it’s created a culture of beer connoisseurs who are buying six-packs of everything, rather than a two-four of one favourite.

Since Labatt and Molson have a tight-fisted majority ownership in Brewers Retail, the company plans on distributing at LCBO outlets with various promotional and sampling events this summer.