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A story of enterprise and of beer

John Labatt from London, Ontario, was a humble beer brewer who was to become a popular case study, the story of a man who sought fortune over the border, who thought, at first, that he was succeeding only to find that he had failed. Labatt’s story is not one to be taken lightly. It is a true story that has much to teach today’s entrepreneurs who may be tempted to take on foreign markets, knowing they make a great product only to find that they may not be the greatest at planning.

Most recently, it was Matthew Bellamy to tell the story of this Canadian brewery for the Canadian Historical Review. The Labatt brewery of London, Ontario, just 200 kilometres from the Canada–United States border, was the first Canadian brewery to attempt a strategic expansion into the United States. Bellamy examines the reasons why he did this and analyses both the “push” and “pull” factors that led to his business decisions. But underlying it all, Bellamy, too, finds that it was an entrepreneurial spirit that first drove Labatt to seek fortune abroad, but he failed, according to the study, to calculate just how important structure would be in dealing with the fiercer, broader competition in the US, and in Chicago in particular. According to Bellamy, therefore, while entrepreneurial factors triggered this move abroad, it was the structural factors within the organisation that halted this expansion into a new market.

Bellamy tells the story of a business at the end of the 19th century and, more importantly, gives us an example of keen economic analysis that shows how complex and difficult it can be to plan for and execute operations in a foreign land— something that is becoming a necessity, but which is still a challenge for many organisations. Bellamy has written a real page turner that tells us of sound intuitions and justified mistakes more than a century after the fact, making for a story that reads much like a best-selling adventure novel.

John Labatt Blows In and Out of the Windy City: A Case Study in Entrepreneurship and Business Failure, 1889–1896

Matthew Bellamy

Canadian Historical Review

University of Toronto Press

Volume 95, Number 1 / March 2014