All in the Family
How six generations of Brewsters have shared the mountains with the world
Apr 1, 2011
by Annalise Klingbeil
Only about 30 per cent of family-run businesses make it to the second generation, and just 10 per cent survive to see the third generation take over operations. The chances of having a fifth generation continuing to run the business are slim – that is, unless you’re a Brewster. The Brewsters have been in business since 1892, when Bill and Jim Brewster, aged 12 and 10, were asked by the manager of the Banff Springs Hotel to take guests on a pack trip. The brothers toured visitors on pack horses, taking them to local fishing spots and showing off spectacular mountain views in Banff National Park, which in 1885 had become the nation’s first national park. In 1900, the Brewster brothers established their own outfitting company, W. & J. Brewster, Experienced Guides and Packers. More than 100 years later, the Brewster family is still at it. What started as one pack trip has expanded to half a dozen family-operated businesses run by Bill’s great-grandchildren, including a mountain lodge in downtown Banff, a guest ranch in Kananaskis, and stables, sleigh rides and a dance barn in Lake Louise.
Brewster businesses offer guests the authentic cowboy experience that Bill, Jim and their descendants all grew up living. “We were riding in the front of the saddle with our parents before we could walk,” says Janet Brewster-Stanton, 50, a fifth-generation Brewster and the owner and general manager of the Kananaskis Guest Ranch. It was Janet’s parents, Bud and Annette, who moved the business forward during the latter half of the 20th century. “When my parents started out, they moved around from business to business and got things up and running … but it’s taken their lifetime to do it,” says Janet. Today, the company generates upwards of $7 million in revenue each year and employs up to 100 people during the busier summer months.
In recent years, health issues have caused 82-year-old Bud to slow down physically, but he remains an important part of the company. “He’s still always thinking and always asking ‘What’s going on here?’ and ‘What’s going on there?’ ” says Janet. Annette, now 71, has also scaled back her involvement and today plays the role of consultant, while her daughters have taken over the bulk of the business operations. Janet and husband Kevin Stanton operate the Kananaskis and Lake Louise businesses, while Alison and husband Bryan Niehaus run the Banff and area businesses. Middle sister Cori recently left the family business to work full time on her music career.
Keeping a business running for more than 10 decades is hard enough, but doing it within the confines of a national park has been even more difficult. “There is just a lot of red tape, every time you want to make a move,” says Janet. There is no such thing as a land title in a national park. That means that all businesses have a lease and many leases have non-renewal clauses, so every time a lease ends, terms must be negotiated. “It’s not an easy place to do business,” says Janet. The challenges of expanding within a national park caused Bud Brewster more than once to pack his bags and fly to Ottawa to address the minister responsible for Parks Canada. “One of the reasons we still have the operations is because my father just refused to have obstacles in his way. He refused to back down,” says Janet.
Among the challenges they’ve had to negotiate are the rules concerning the horses that play a key role in the pack trips at the core of the Brewsters’ business. In the early years, when Bill and Jim ran the company, horses were allowed just about anywhere. Today, the regulations are strict. “It takes incredible determination to continue to operate and that’s gotten nothing but tougher,” says Janet. She jokes that the Brewsters could write a book about the obstacles they’ve faced operating in a national park but is quick to point out that all back-country operators encounter similar challenges. Banff National Park superintendent Kevin Van Tighem says that while a lot of people in the tourism industry would love to have the problems that businesses in Banff have, it’s a double-edged sword. Convincing visitors to come to the park is easy, but there are “constraints and expectations” when operating a business within the park. “It’s difficult in the sense that we do have a firm limit on how much development can happen because we’re protecting the park,” says Van Tighem.
There is an upside to the stringent regulations associated with doing business in a national park. First and foremost is the fact that it tends to restrict competition, because other companies don’t have the time, resources or resolve to work within national park rules. While Janet identifies hotels in Banff, horseback riding companies and back-country lodges as competition, the fact that the Brewsters operate so many entities means their risk is spread across the different businesses. Meanwhile, staying agile and focusing on the company with the most opportunity has helped keep the Brewster businesses ahead of the pack. “Whatever had to change, whatever we had to do to stay out there and be competitive, we did,” says Janet. Recent advances include the construction of the Brewster’s Mountain Lodge in the 1990s and the completion of an 18-hole golf course, a longtime dream of Bud’s, in 2008.
NATURAL SPLENDOUR: Brewster Lake Louise Stables offers guests trail rides amidst breathtaking surroundings
Most important, perhaps, is the positive relationship the Brewster family has forged with those charged with preserving and protecting the park. In fact, as Van Tighem says, they’ve become an inescapable part of the experience. “They enable a quintessential Rocky Mountain experience and, in fact, they almost define it. Their family story is so much a part of what you experience when you come to the Rockies.”
Besides a willingness to expand and an ability to navigate bureaucratic challenges, the longevity of the Brewster businesses can be attributed to the family’s passion for the great outdoors. “They were never really in it for the dollars,” Janet says of her ancestors. “They enjoyed what they did, and they liked where they were, and they were hard workers.” Annette says her husband, Bud, comes by his work ethic naturally. “His mother was an extremely hard worker, as was his grandmother, and I think he just inherited this strong work ethic.” But while the Brewster work ethic has allowed the family’s businesses to grow, it has come with a cost. Janet says her forebears were the type who would only get together for a funeral; family dinners and celebrations were uncommon, as work had to be done. In the early generations, many Brewsters did not marry because they were too busy working, while the few that did marry, including Bud’s father, Claude, had to learn how to juggle family with work. “Their way of life had an impact on their families,” says Janet. “There’s no question.”
Family and business go hand in hand for the Brewsters, but at times it can be a tricky combination. “It’s hard to make business decisions that are separate from the family. In our case, you can’t separate them and that’s sometimes not good,” says Janet. There have been some disagreements among the fifth-generation Brewsters, from disputes over who is not working hard enough to differing visions for the direction of the company and the challenge of finding the right Brewster for each business. “There are almost more entities than there are of us,” says Janet.
Like so many other family businesses, succession planning is a major source of anxiety. Will members of the next generation continue to build the company their ancestors worked so hard to create, or will they choose to beat their own path? For Annette Brewster, it’s an old challenge that’s being made new again with the arrival of a sixth generation of adult Brewsters.
When it came to her own children, she says she firmly believed that they should get an education “separate and apart from what the family was doing.” Each daughter did just that before returning to the family business: Janet has a degree in political science from the University of Calgary, Cori completed a physical education degree at the University of Alberta and Alison earned a degree in fashion design and merchandising from Ryerson University.
Janet has also tried to encourage her two daughters to pursue their own careers. But sixth-generation Bailee Brewster-Stanton, 19, has helped out with the family business for as long as she can remember and wants to continue. “We’ll always be a part of it, obviously, but my mom has made sure that we get a chance to do what we want to do,” she says. Right now, that includes pursuing studies at the University of Alberta and making a name for herself in the world of competitive barrel racing alongside older sister Lacey, 22. Bailee, who loves horses and recently applied for veterinary school, says she’ll always be a part of the business “somehow or another.” Janet and Annette both say it’s too early to tell if any of the sixth generation of Brewsters – four girls and one boy ranging in age from 12 to 22 – will eventually run the Brewster businesses. “Like all family businesses, we’re not going to say that we have the succession plan totally ironed out, probably because we’re very much operators of our businesses,” says Janet. “Sometimes, we don’t stop working long enough to figure out where we’re going to go.” Whether or not another generation will run the business that Bill and Jim Brewster built more than a century ago is a question that will be answered in due time. “We’ve just got to try to position the business to be able to carry on,” says Janet. “It’s going to be interesting.”