Banff's Brewsters: A model of family entrepreneurship

GORDON PITTS, EDMONTON
PUBLISHED MARCH 21, 2011 - UPDATED MAY 1, 2018


You came to Banff for a rest and a change, the old saying goes. The CPR provided the rest and the Brewsters took the change.

That's been the story in the Rocky Mountains for much of the past 125 years, since the Brewster family arrived and started supplying services for the new Canadian Pacific Railway and its majestic Banff Springs Hotel.

"Anything that was needed in the community, we provided," said Annette Brewster, 71, matriarch of one of the West's oldest business families, whose cluster of assets includes a downtown Banff lodge, a guest ranch, a golf course and a back-country resort.

But these days, Canada's oldest national park is in flux - the Banff Springs is now a hotel in the Fairmont chain, and the park's target market resides as much in Asia as in the United States.

But the Brewsters are still as much a part of the landscape as the rugged mountains that surround them. They have repeatedly adapted to change and now they are undergoing a generational transition - the latest twist in a business saga that began in 1886, the year after the Last Spike was driven for the new national railway.

With ill health slowing Annette's husband, fourth-generation entrepreneur Bud Brewster, the couple's three children - all daughters - have stepped up to take major roles.

Throughout the family's history, Brewster women have been active in the businesses. They could often hunt and ride as well as the men, they cooked and kept books and catered to tourists, and they were influential in strategicplanning.

But they have rarely been in control, until now. Oldest daughter Janet, 50, operates the Kananaskis Guest Ranch and golf course; Alison, 46, runs the Shadow Lake back-country lodge and has management responsibility for Brewster's Mountain Lodge in Banff. And Cori, 48, having managed the golf course for eight years, has taken a hiatus to focus on her singer-songwriter career, while still keeping her hand in many of the big decisions.

The transition has occurred because Bud Brewster has seen too much wear and tear on his 82-year-old body to keep running the show. "His body has worn out_- he drinks and he smokes, and he works very hard," Annette said late last year, as the family (without Bud's presence) was honoured by the University of Alberta's business family institute.

In an e-mail, Mr. Brewster said the family business is in as good hands as ever. All the businesses are managed with different, and often overlapping, ownership structures. And although these are not huge enterprises, the family is the closest thing to a Rocky Mountain business dynasty - one known for its hard-riding, hard-working ways.

STORY CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

 

Over the years, the family had to be tough because private businesses in Banff National Park operate on what looks like an appalling model -_they don't own the land, they are subject to the whims of government, and banks are reluctant to lend money when assets are built on property leased from Parks Canada.

Yet Mr. Brewster has been a master at cajoling and coaxing bureaucrats and cabinet ministers into allowing his family to gain and keep their franchises. If it meant a trip to Ottawa to twist an arm, he was willing to do it.

"There wasn't anything he wouldn't tackle. He was very much a risk taker, but he saw the opportunities in the national parks and he didn't want to see that slip away," Annette said. "We spent years in negotiations with [Ottawa]about things like closing off fire roads and maintaining horse concessions in the parks."

Daughter Janet added that "he would never take 'No' for an answer." Today, the businesses face big challenges from ever-tougher environmental rules. Alison speculates that if the Brewsters tried to launch their back-country lodge today, it might never happen because of growing environmental constraints.

But the family has been adaptable since the 1840s, when the Brewsters came out of Ireland and farmed near Kingston, Ont. John Brewster _- Bud's great-grandfather - followed the new railway west to Banff, and started a dairy to provide milk to the fledgling town.

Thus began the Brewsters' role as key concessionaires and outfitters to the CPR. They started running fancy horse-drawn carriages to transport guests from the railway station to the Banff Springs hotel. That business evolved into the Brewster Travel bus line, which, while no longer owned by the Brewster family, still transports people around the area.

According to family lore, in the 1890s an aboriginal friend showed the young Brewster boys, including Bud's grandfather, how to survive in the wilds. They decided delivering milk couldn't match the thrill of providing horse pack train tours for CPR customers,_ a business that still exists after 100 years.

As the family holdings began to splinter in the 1960s, Bud Brewster came along to consolidate and expand - often drawing on his experience as a carpenter and building things with his own hands. The Brewster businesses increasingly became self-supporting entities, as the CPR's direct role in the park diminished.

A key transition came in 1990 when the town of Banff was incorporated and formed its own governing body. "Re-zoning of the town allowed me to fulfill my dream of building a hotel on the property I purchased from my grandfather's estate," Bud said by e-mail.

He had no sons, but it didn't seem to bother him, the daughters say. He and Annette got the young women involved in things early. But Annette did not want to end up as a widow with all the enterprises in her hands, so she orchestrated the splitting of assets among the daughters and their families - "and I stayed out of the picture."

It explains why the Brewsters appear in good shape for succession, with the fifth generation in charge and a sixth on the horizon.

There is no talk of selling out and leaving the beloved mountains. "That is the gift we were given _ to be in this place everyone wants to be," Alison says.