Brewing With Style
With Signal Brewery Founder, Richard Courneyea
Sitting on the banks of Corbyville’s Moira River and housed in the former J.P. Wiser’s distillery, Signal Brewery is a favourite with both locals and thirsty day-trippers. What started as a passion project has quickly become a buzzing brewery and cultural hub with farm-to-table food and a stunning array of craft beers. We sat down with Signal’s founder, Richard Courneyea, to discover why finding your own entrepreneurial style is key to building a memorable brand.
Tell us a little bit about how you ended up doing what you're doing
In 2014, I ran for the Mayor of the City of Belleville, and I wasn’t successful in my campaign. However, I was successful in starting a brewery! That was about three years ago, and the journey was one where I became very reflective and wondered, “What do I want to do when I grow up?” Provided that I was about to retire from the clothing business, which I’d done for 27 years, I made the decision to start Signal. Signal started as just a concept, it was in these abandoned buildings that were some of the most storied, historical whiskey buildings in Canada. So we resurrected them, and put it all back together again, and hired a team to start the real business of what we do here, which is brew craft beer.
You work closely with your son davis at signal. what's it like working with your family?
Davis is 30 years old, and he’s a young, aspiring entrepreneur with lots of energy. He really represents the future of the brand. I like to try and empower him to take initiative on different projects, and currently he’s undertaking sales in the Toronto market.
what makes signal different from other craft breweries?
The primary difference of Signal over other craft breweries is our water. We use the same water that made Wiser’s whisky have an 80% market share in the Canadian marketplace with their product. We put a huge emphasis on the quality of our water, and we have a very large investment in water infrastructure. We take the water, which comes from a special aquifer through limestone, and we take it to neutral and then we reintroduce the minerals based on country of origin. So, if we’re making a Czech pilsner, we use a Czech water profile. We have a team of very intelligent people that are helping us curate our water and our craft beer development.
What are your secrets to building a good team when starting a new business?
I think it’s knowing as an entrepreneur what your strengths and weaknesses are. I know what my strengths are, and I know what my weaknesses are. I’ve surrounded myself with excellence in all of my weakest categories so we can make the business thrive, and be able to capitalize on opportunities that I wouldn’t be able to do on my own.
has there been any point during this process where you felt like you had no idea what you're doing?
Pretty much every day! But it’s the old concept of ‘fake it ‘til you make it.’ I live by that. I have to say, I’d rather ask for forgiveness than ask for permission. Because there’s a sea of bureaucracy out there, and if you’re moving fast, the bureaucrats and the process usually limit you. But as an entrepreneur, you have to able to navigate through those things. What a lot of people see as problems, converting them into opportunities is essential.
how have you injected your personal style into the brewery?
It’s attention to detail. Just like when you’re in the fashion business, you pay attention to the very fine aspects of the products you build. It’s the same here, adding little nuances to that canvas that we’re painting here at Signal. Other people don’t always see it, but sometimes it takes someone just coming in and positioning it in a certain way and all of a sudden you say, ”Wow! That looks really good!”. I’m an artist, and Signal is my canvas.
You originally started out in the style industry. What lessons did you bring from the style industry to the brewing industry?
I think being creative and having an artistic background is so important because you see things that other people can’t. It’s like a canvas, and you’re painting a picture of what it could be. Oftentimes the opportunity is there when other people don’t see it, and that’s where the difference between success and failure is.
"Oftentimes the opportunity is there when other people don't see it, and that's where the difference between success and failure is."
What are the three biggest lessons learned during your first year of business?
1. We had a business plan, and you like to think that everything’s going to flow accordingly. But oftentimes you have to freestyle, and so one of the obstacles is just having the confidence to make decisions. You have to make decisions in realtime that are going to impact you on a daily basis.
2. To get everything in place, to be able to know where you’re going, you have to make sure you’ve done all your research properly. We did that on a daily basis. This is a huge licensing animal: there’s By The Glass licensing, Retail licensing, Catering licensing, Excise licensing, there’s Municipal licensing, there’s Building Code licensing, everything. It’s overwhelming, and you just need to have the confidence that you have a goal. It’s like a football game. The offense is coming at you, and you have to be defensive in your approach to get through the offense. We’ve been able to do that.
3. Making sure your goals are realistic. Knowing what your capabilities are, what the finished product is going to be, and making sure you have the resources and team to execute your strategy.
what do you love most about your product and your business?
One of the first things we did was go to a festival and pour our beer for the very first time. The people came up, they asked for our product, we put it in the glass, and we didn’t know what they were going to think. It was very forward-facing. But then they drank it and said it tasted so good! So that’s pretty gratifying. I’m a community builder, so I like the idea that we can aggregate people. Arts is the soul of your community, and a lot of communities don’t have sufficient connection to the arts and become disassembled. We have a space here at Signal that’s purely for the arts, a space there to aggregate people. When people come in to Signal and they feel welcome and they feel like it’s a place they like to be, that’s very gratifying.
if you had a time machine and could go back and do something differently, what would it be?
I’d probably start a craft brewery 20 years ago. It’s such an on-point industry right now. To come into it at my age – I’m 55 now – if I had done it when I was 35, it would have been so much better. It’s a very large financial commitment to have a brewery. We’re not just renting the space. One of the biggest things is property development for us. It took two-and-a-half years to get the brewery positioned correctly, and coming into it earlier would have been better. It’s great for Davis, he’s 30 now. It’ll be good for him moving forward. So hopefully we build a brand that provides a legacy for him.
What was your one goal that you set out to do?
Initially, we owned the property and thought we would go into condos and condo out the whole property. That changed. I woke up one day and said to my wife, “I think we’re going into the alcohol business.” I think she thought I was having a midlife crisis. But we’ve stayed true to the vision and we’ve been able to see it go from a construction project right into a real, living craft brewery that’s getting some notice and recognition now. So, that’s pretty awesome.
what's great about being an ontario craft brewer?
It’s a very collaborative and inclusive type of industry. We have an organization called Bay of Quinte Craft, and I’m the current chair, and we work on aggregating a craft community for our region. Now is the time when people that are willing to transition from macrobreweries – the Molsons, Labatts – and consider smaller, artisanal types of breweries that enjoy flavour and the exploration of really interesting, amazing ingredients. It’s really a great time. It’s a young person’s game and I’m young at heart. Initially I thought this was all about millennials, and we do have a lot of millennials here, but realistically we have a really wide demographic. We even had a woman in here that I’ve known for a lot of years celebrating her 100th birthday. That was pretty crazy!
What's next for signal brewery?
We have distribution goals. The LCBO will ultimately be a path which will be a core driver for us. We’re also looking for strategic partners to build our brand across the province. So far it’s going really well. We’d like to find partners at bars and licensees that have similar values to us, that are entrepreneurial and love and appreciate great products.
Our focus at Signal is farm-to-table, so we support as many local farms and growers in our area as possible. We put them on our food menu and use them in our beer as well. There’s a wonderful floor-malting company just down the road from us, about five minutes, called Barn Owl. We use their malt in our beer which makes our beer hyperlocal.
Paying attention to quality versus quantity is really important to me. That’s always been my philosophy of fashion, too. I think people would rather have one good thing than two modest things. I think that’s where our focus is changing. In a sea of mass distribution, people would rather pay a little bit more but have something special. I think that’s what Signal is all about, too. People want a brand that has great brand positioning, and has contents that will make you want to have more than one.