Life on the other side: Hawke's Brewing Co

Life on the other side: Hawke's Brewing Co

Nathan Lennon and David Gibson left their advertising careers to start Hawke’s Brewing Co, and in just a few short years have earned national reach and critical acclaim. Interview with Nathan Lennon by Siobhan Fitzgerald.

SF: You are both from creative advertising backgrounds. Can you tell us how you got from there, to starting your own beer brand?

NL: We were sitting in our office at Droga5 NY on a snowy January day (January 26, in fact) and I shot Dave a question – “Mate, if you could be back home in Australia having a beer with anyone right now, who would it be?” I had my answer pre-loaded (Bob Hawke) before Dave turned to me and said, “Hawkie”. Call it cosmic, call it coincidence, but thinking back on it, that moment probably changed the direction of our lives. 

Nathan Lennon and David Gibson of Hawkes Brewing Company

Nathan Lennon and David Gibson of Hawkes Brewing Company

We started chatting about the Bob Hawke that we remember when we were growing up in the 1980s – his achievements as a leader, his “warts and all” authenticity, how much he loved Australia / Australians, and how he only ever wanted the best for our nation. We also spoke about his recent reappearances in public life, where he could still whip an Aussie crowd up into a frenzy with his old ‘beer party trick’. All the dots started joining and within an hour we’d conceived Hawke’s Brewing Co.

A company built on the values of Australia’s greatest Prime Minister. A company that starts small but has lofty ambitions. And a company that embraced an ethos of “giving back”, in some way, shape or form. 

To us, Hawke’s Brewing Co. was never a joke, gimmick or a flash in the pan concept. We want to build a business with longevity and a brand that becomes iconic. A brand that all Australians can one day be proud of, regardless of whether they drink beer or not. 

SF: What were the first steps you took to bring Hawke’s Brewing Co. to life?
NL: The first and most critical step was walking into David Droga’s office and handing in our resignation. Mind you, this was before Bob had given us any real indication that we had his blessing to start the business. We simply felt that we couldn’t go into this with one foot on either side. If we were serious and if we wanted to be taken seriously, we knew we’d have to throw it all in. David gave us his best wishes, and a year or so later, Bob gave us his blessing.

In fact, when we told him we’d quit our careers to back ourselves on this venture, his response was, “Well, I’d be a bum if I said no.” 

The boys and former PM at the launch of Hawke’s Brewing Co.

The boys and former PM at the launch of Hawke’s Brewing Co.

SF: The creative department is often kept away from the business side of things. Brand creation and communication would presumably have been your strengths starting out, but what knowledge did you lack?

NL: We didn’t know the first thing about brewing beer. We’d never run a business. We didn’t even know what “P&L” stood for. We knew nothing. And after two years in business, we now only know a little more than nothing. But we did know that nothing great is achieved alone. A career in advertising taught us that, at the very least. So from day one, we’ve looked to build a company of kind-hearted, hard-working legends, who share our vision and values, and bring their own set of superpowers to the table. As for any gaps in knowledge or experience, we just work it out together, because we have no choice. You make mistakes, you correct course, you survive, you move on, and most importantly, you learn. 

We often re-ask each other, if you realised how much you didn’t know at the beginning and how challenging it would be to build a business in one of the most competitive industries, would you have still taken the leap?

Our answer is always the same – we’d rather fail than live with regret. We’ve always believed in our vision for Hawke’s Brewing Co., and with Bob’s recent passing, our conviction is stronger than ever. We made Bob a promise that we would build a national beer brand and try to carry on a piece of his legacy. There’s no turning back. 

SF: What has been the most challenging thing about running your own FMCG business?
NL: Managing cashflow in a business that feeds on capital yet isn’t modelled to give you any financial stability / profit until you reach a certain size. 

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SF: Advertising pays pretty well once you get to a certain level. Does it pay well to have your own business?
NL: Don’t go into craft beer thinking you’ll get rich, let alone make decent money for a long time. That’s just the way a business like this is financially structured over its first few years, particularly as we’ve started small and without significant backing. Other business models are built differently. Less capital intensive, lower overheads, and payment terms that mean you get paid for your work immediately instead of waiting months for your customers to square away your invoices. It’s a reality that forces you to remind yourself why you started the company in the first place.

For us, we believe we live in a special country, where anything is possible and that we can build a company and brand that brings out the best kind of Australian in us and the community we build along the way.

We believe in our potential, just like Bob believed in Australia’s potential. This is where our purpose lies, not just in our minds but also in our hearts. If our sole purpose was to go get rich, then we’d have gone into banking. 

SF: Bob Hawke was an iconic Australian, and surely our most iconic beer drinker. What was his first response when you suggested creating a beer brand in his name? 
NL: His first response, on the back of a very short email via a mutual acquaintance, was “thanks but no thanks”. But when we reached out again, and properly unpacked our vision for the company, he was interested enough to invite us to his home in Sydney and pitch to him properly. 

SF: Drinking vast quantities of beer seems to be an Australian right of passage, with Bob Hawke famously setting the world record for fastest yard glass consumption. But the over-consumption of alcohol is a serious health problem in Australia, too. How do you as brewers weigh up your responsibilities to your sales, and your responsibilities to consumers?
NL: We can’t speak for other brewers or beer companies but we take our responsibilities to consumers seriously. We’ve never promoted irresponsible or excessive consumption of alcohol.

We even aligned with Bob that he wouldn’t skol his schooner of Hawke’s Lager at the company’s media launch.

We’re committed to building an ethically and morally sound company and brand that encourages the celebration of enjoying the simple pleasures that make living in Australia so special. Some of these occasions might involve enjoying a beer with good mates. Outside of this, we hope consumers take on board their own responsibilities to themselves and others when they’re around alcohol.   

On the sales side, to build a healthy business we have to hit our volume targets, but our strategy for success is built on gaining market share and distribution, not relying on our customers upping their beer intake.

In fact, drinkers in the craft segment, which makes up most of our customer base, are choosing to drink quality over quantity. Drink less but drink better.

We’re happy to continue to supply our products to people who embrace that mindset. 

SF: Giving to Landcare has always been a key part of your brand. Can you tell us about what you’ve been able to achieve with them, and what you’re aspiring to achieve?

NL: Firstly, full credit must go to Bob for offering up 100% of his royalty share to allow the company to contribute to its partnership with Landcare Australia – an environmental NPO that he established in 1989.

Since the partnership was formed just over two years ago, we’ve contributed over $120,000, and by the time our latest fundraising initiative (‘89 Kegs for Bob’) is complete, we’ll hopefully raise a further $60,000-$100,000 for special Landcare projects.

Through various other marketing and PR efforts, we’ve also garnered over $5M of positive earned media for Landcare, which is more than any other corporate sponsor has been able to achieve. Given the small size of our business, we’re proud of what we’ve achieved and the special relationship we are building with the team at Landcare Australia, who are the nicest people you’ll ever meet.  

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Our first milestone target is to raise $1 million for Landcare, but on top of this, we’re hoping the work of Hawke’s Brewing Co. helps spread the Landcare message to new, younger audiences, as we all grapple with an uncertain future for our environment. We need to help bring new energy and action to recorrecting our path, and if we can play a small role in that then we will at least keep one half of our promise to Bob.   

SF: To honour Hawke’s 89 years, you created an initiative to give the proceeds of 89 kegs of Hawke’s beer to Landcare Australia. Can you tell us a bit more about this?

NL: That’s the idea really. Our partnership with Landcare Australia means every Hawke’s beer sold helps support Landcare’s efforts around the protection of the environment. Bob always loved the simplicity in that – that the very least you needed to do was enjoy a cold one and you’d be doing a bit of good for the country. Following Bob’s passing, we wanted to honour the man by elevating the thing he saw as most important in our venture. So we created the ‘89 Kegs for Bob’ initiative to essentially supercharge awareness and fundraising for Landcare. Our aim is to raise $100,000 to protect threatened Aussie species and we’re off to a strong start with some venues already raising close to $1,500 at their events. 

SF: At Gabberish we’re focussed on the wellbeing of creative industry people. How would you compare your mental health and stress levels working in a creative department, with having your own business?

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NL: The biggest difference we’ve noticed is that, when we were in advertising the sources of our stress were more external and felt somewhat out of our hands, i.e. decisions made by other people had implications on our lives. Yet interestingly, while we now have complete autonomy running our own company, we’ve come to realise that we’re still not really in charge. The business is ultimately the boss. And try as we might, we can never “knock off” or raise issues to be someone else’s problem. We’re accountable for everything. So there’s obviously pressure that comes with that.

Advertising actually helped us build a strong work ethic and steely resolve, as well as an understanding that a problem or set-back is sometimes an opportunity to create a solution that takes things to an even better place

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SF: Are there things to do to look after your mental health, other than popping a tinny at the end of a long day? 
NL: We could tell you we stick to the principles of exercise, eating well, not drinking too much, meditation etc. but we’d be lying. The biggest step we’ve probably taken is coming to grips with the idea that to survive (in our minds) we need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

So we try to indulge in all of the moments. Even the ones that are challenging. With good fortune, we as a company will never be as small as we are now, and we appreciate that there’s a charm of being a “start up”.

We’ll never get back the time we worked out of my nanna’s garage, or took the next step and hired out a desk in Cummins & Partners’ Surry Hills office and forged our way into the Sydney market with a growing crew of excitable misfits. We’re thankful we’ve come this far, so we try to keep some perspective and trust in the “why” behind what we’re doing. We also have a tinnie or two at the end of the day. If you can’t occasionally toast the fruits of your own labour then you really have lost perspective. 

SF: Do you drink more or less beer now that you’re out of the advertising industry?
NL: Funnily enough, less. That said, talk to us when we launch our own brewery in Sydney next year. 

SF: Any advice to those wanting to start their own business?
NL: Be clear on the “why”. The pursuit of money won’t be enough to see you through. If you have a purpose that justifies all the moments, joyous or challenging, then have a crack. We were more prepared for Bob Hawke to say “no” than “yes”. But when we walked out of his house on that day in April 2016, not having a clue what we had got ourselves into, we trusted that he saw the “why” in us, so we went for it. We also got f***ed up drunk. But hey, who wouldn’t. 

If you’d like to get Hawke’s into your agency fridge, email orders@hawkesbrewing.com

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Concept Bar: The Dén

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